Sharp-Tailed Grouse, the Namekagon Barrens’ Iconic Species
By Jerome McAllister
While the bur oak or native prairie grasses may be the barrens iconic species to many, I will stick with the sharp-tailed grouse. It’s my choice because the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area would not exist save the 60-plus year effort by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Sharp-tailed Grouse Society to save the species from extirpation in Wisconsin.
The Northwest Sands stretch in an arc from Grantsburg to Ashland and hold roughly a half-thousand sharp-tailed grouse. There are virtually no others in the state. It is estimated that the Namekagon Barrens is home to 220 of these 500, although the number varies greatly annually. We are fortunate that the Namekagon Barrens has the largest population of sharp-tailed grouse in Wisconsin year after year. However, both the Wisconsin barrens habitat and the grouse population are less than a percent of their pre-European settlement size, victims of a massive habitat change from barrens prairie to scrub forest.
Sharptails survive the winter in the dense grass and nearby snow drifts surrounding frozen spring-fed ponds and along Clemens Creek in the North Unit of the wildlife area. Their winter food sources are rose hips, desiccated berries, insect carcasses and remnant greens such as native dandelions. Grouse need gravel in their craws year-round to drive digestion. Plowed gravel roadways are a winter source.
With late summer juvenile flight, bird dogs with their trainers appear on the barrens. Early fall brings field trailers from all over the United States for two weekends and, in very high population year, a score of lucky hunters each with an opportunity to hunt sharptails on the barrens. A few of the 20 are luckier yet, killing and eating a single Wisconsin sharp-tailed grouse apiece. I have trained my English setters on NBWA for at least a dozen years. The training has served us well for hunting the abundant prairie grouse populations in South Dakota and Montana.
Sharptails spend much of their lives in family units of four to seven birds. They tend toward the scrub oak thickets and avoid open areas and pine stands in an effort to thwart overhead predators. A covey is difficult for a bird dog to hold in-place long enough for its hunter to have a shot. Instead they salute the approaching human by taking flight and clucking away out of gun range, a magnificent event to behold. If the dog points a covey from afar, then the covey slinks away on the ground silently.
Come March and into May, reproduction drives the prairie grouse from their dense lowland lairs to three leks on the property. These are situated north of the St Croix Trail and towards the center of the 5500-acre North Unit. The males dance and fight on the ground to impress spectating females. It is likely that the females from each lek choose only a single male for all of their breedings. Narrow gene pools are a result and are another reason for the near extirpation. Nesting and brood success are highly dependent on the weather in May and June. Rain, hail, or cold can lead to a small number of juveniles flying in August.
Sharp-tailed grouse on the barrens are a difficult quarry for predators of all stripes. The species deserves a place on the Wisconsin landscape, as do all the barrens prairie inhabitants. The latter idea was conceived by Wisconsin’s Aldo Leopold, the father of American conservation.