Sharp-tailed grouse in east-central Minnesota show significant decline

Management actions planned, including closing east-central hunting zone season.




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In the spring, sharp-tailed grouse form mating grounds, or leks, where they congregate to compete for territories and perform mating displays for visiting females. This crowded scene leads to fighting among the males as they attempt to outcompete one another and win the affections of the onlooking females. (Rick Bohn/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Minnesota’s sharp-tailed grouse population has declined significantly in the east-central portion of the state, according to spring population counts conducted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and cooperators who help count the birds.

Based on the new population information, the DNR plans to close the hunting season in the east-central zone for 2021 and future years. The DNR also is continuing to work with the Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society (MSGS) to explore habitat management options.

“Sharp-tailed grouse require areas of approximately 1 to 3 square miles of grassland and brushland, so managing their habitats often requires cooperation between multiple land owners,” said Charlotte Roy, DNR grouse project leader. “We’ve known for some time that the large, open areas of grassland and brushland that sharp-tailed grouse need are changing and becoming less suitable for these birds.”

Sharp-tailed grouse habitat changes are driven by brushlands becoming forest, conversion to other land uses, and less fire and other large-scale disturbances on the landscape that historically created and maintained the large open areas of grassland and brushland.

The Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society, Pheasants Forever and others have collaborated with the DNR on targeted habitat management for sharp-tailed grouse in the east-central range and remain committed to enhancing openland habitats.

David Pauly, MSGS president and habitat projects coordinator, said the east-central zone season closure would be difficult, but imperative.

“The east-central range sharp-tailed grouse populations currently exist in association with limited and disjunct habitats where harvest of even a few birds could seriously impact sustainability and genetic diversity within these isolated populations,” Pauly said.

Pauly added that the MSGS is committed to continued collaborations and funding for habitat work. Past collaboration with Pheasants Forever included securing Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Fund grants totaling $9.2 million over the last decade for habitat enhancement and protection in the east-central range.

The MSGS also used about $715,000 in Conservation Partners Legacy grants over the last five years for habitat improvement and protection, and advocated for other targeted management work to enhance habitat.

“We will continue to do all in our power to expedite the return of a sustainable and thriving east-central population, to maintain the sharp-tail legacy and hunting heritage,” Pauly said.

DNR survey results

To count sharp-tailed grouse, observers look for males displaying on traditional mating areas, which are called leks or dancing grounds. No survey was conducted in 2020, so data from 2021 were compared to those from 2019.

Comparisons of the same leks counted in both years indicate that counts per lek were similar to 2019 in the northwest survey region and statewide. However, sharp-tailed grouse declined 32% in the east-central region, with the number of leks dropping from 30 in 2019 to 18 in 2021, and an average of 7.3 grouse per lek in 2021. In the northwest region, sharp-tailed grouse counts averaged 11.3 grouse per lek at 131 leks that were counted. This year’s statewide average of 10.8 sharp-tailed grouse per lek was similar to the long-term average since 1980, but changes in the east-central region, in the absence of changes in survey effort, indicate that the population has dropped significantly in that portion of the range.  

As recently as 2010, 70 leks were counted in the east-central region. The decline from 30 to 18 leks in just two years, and the contraction of the area with active leks, indicate a significant decline in the population.

More information about sharp-tailed grouse hunting and season information is available on the DNR grouse hunting page.