There was a time when sharp-tailed grouse were a common sight throughout the Bitterroot Valley.
But those days are long gone.
There hasn’t been a hunting season for the chicken-size game bird in all of western Montana since 1948. The once-common native species virtually disappeared from places like the Bitterroot and Mission valleys by the first half of the 1900s.
“They kind of winked out and no one really knows why,” said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Chris Hammond. “There are a lot of theories that include changes to their habitat, disease or maybe inbreeding when the populations dropped.”
Hammond and others are working on a plan that would bring the native species back to some of its original haunts in western Montana, including the northern Bitterroot on the east edge of the valley.
Over the last decade, state biologists and other partners — including a Montana State University graduate class — completed the groundwork necessary to begin a reintroduction of sharp-tailed grouse that included evaluating the best potential habitat for the birds and developing a restoration plan.
The plan identified three potential areas where grouse captured from eastern Montana would be released over a five-year period. Each of the areas appeared to have habitat that would provide good nesting and brood rearing areas, as well as providing enough cover and food for the birds to survive the winter.
The nearly 20,000 acres identified as a potential reintroduction site in the northern Bitterroot is dominated by private land, including 10,000 acres on the MPG Ranch east of Florence that is managed for wildlife conservation.
Beyond the Bitterroot, the other potential areas include a nearly 46,000-acre restoration site in the upper Blackfoot Valley near Ovando and Helmville, and more than 50,000 acres in the Flint Creek Valley along the Clark Fork River Watershed near Drummond.
The Blackfoot area is considered the best of the three. It’s also the last known place in western Montana to support a population of sharp-tailed grouse. There have been three “reliable but unverified observations” of the birds since 2000.
The proposal calls for annually capturing between 50 to 150 sharp-tailed grouse for the reintroduction effort from the large populations of the birds found east of the Continental Divide. With hunter harvest averaging between 28,000 and 50,000 birds on that side of the mountains, Hammond said the reintroduction effort isn’t expected to impact the population already prized by bird hunters.
If the plan is approved, Hammond said biologists are considering releasing a number of males the first fall in hopes that they’ll both survive the winter and establish the leks they use for mating in the spring. That spring, biologists would try to capture females that are within about a week of creating a nest and laying eggs in hope for a quick boost to the population.
Hammond expects there would be a ratio of two females for every male released at the sites.
If things go as planned, Hammond expects the environmental analysis decision notice could be signed by the end of March or early April. A research proposal would then be developed by a FWP team, with hopes it would be completed by the end of summer. Hammond expects the reintroduction wouldn’t get started before the fall of 2020.
The state is accepting comments on it environmental assessment of four alternative strategies through March 17.
So far, there has been a lot of public support for the proposal.
“I haven’t received a negative comment yet,” Hammond said. “There have been some people with concerns about habitat and predators, but people seem to be in support of the reintroduction.”
The proposal’s draft environmental assessment is available for review on FWP’s website at http://fwp.mt.gov/news/publicNotices.
Public comments can be submitted to either of the following addresses below and must be received by 5 p.m. on March 17: Chris Hammond or firstname.lastname@example.org, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, 490 N. Meridian Road, Kalispell, MT 59901.
“We’ve had a lot of collaborators and partners get involved right from the beginning, including the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the MPG Ranch … . We have had some retired biologists come back and help. Landowners have allowed us access. It seems like that at this point, everyone is very, very much in favor of getting this done.”
There’s still some outreach that needs to be accomplished before the project moves forward, including more talks with surrounding landowners to ensure that researchers will be able to track the radio-collared birds.
While there is potential that hunters may someday see their dogs point a sharp-tailed grouse in western Montana, Hammond suspects it will be quite a few years before they can actually hunt one.
“That all depends on the survival of the birds and how well they take to their new habitat,” he said. “Obviously, those opportunities will be limited for a while.”