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Wisconsin Sharp-Tailed Grouse Society

How one grassroots organization is making a big impact on the charismatic prairie bird in northern Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Sharp-Tailed Grouse Society

The Wisconsin Sharp-Tailed Grouse Society is on a mission not only protect the sharp-tailed grouse, but also the unique pine-oak barren ecosystem it calls home. (Photo By: Christine Kessler)

Perhaps for a few bird hunters, filling a vest and obtaining a limit may be the predominant motivating factor for going afield, but for the majority of us, there’s something much more. Putting aside proper dog work, spectacular upland scenery, and the occasional legendary crossing double, at the core of our narrative as bird hunters are the birds themselves. Lavishly and intricately detailed from beak to tail with charismatic behaviors and elaborate mating rituals on top of an unbreakable will to survive, the upland birds of North America will overcome the mind of a bird hunter and capture their heart completely.

It’s often in these wild experiences immersed in the uplands that many bird hunters become inspired to take up the conservation torch. If you’ve been lucky enough to experience the life-changing display of lekking sharp-tail grouse in front of a majestic sunrise on the open prairie, then this call to conservation introduction leaves you with little to your imagination. Sadly, in Wisconsin, and in several other places, populations of sharptails along their outer ranges have shrunk in response to a variety of factors causing hunters and other conservation-minded individuals to fight for their survival.

Let’s take a deep dive into how one particular non-profit organization in northern Wisconsin is tackling sharp-tailed grouse conservation.

male sharp-tailed grouse lekking display
The sharp-tailed grouse has become a keystone species of the pine barren landscape of northern Wisconsin. (Photo By: Christine Kessler)

From the Ground Up

Although sharp-tailed grouse were at one time found in sizable numbers across the state of Wisconsin, limiting factors such as habitat degradation and fragmentation, forest succession and encroachment, fire suppression, and several others have reduced sharpie numbers and decreased their distribution.

Like most conservation organizations that develop out of an imminent need to protect the long-term survivability of a particular species, the Wisconsin Sharp-Tailed Grouse Society (WSGS) traces its origins back to late 1980s. It was at this time when a researcher recognized that over time, sharp-tailed grouse populations were experiencing a decline along with a reduction of their distribution across Wisconsin. This individual also noted that the “Northwest Sands” region of northwestern Wisconsin, a location that has been historically dominated by the pine barren landscape, would be the ideal habitat to protect the species and could become a sharptail stronghold. Aside from the desire to protect the sharptail for its intrinsic value, there was a hunting season on them at the time, and with combined support from hunters, birders, wildlife biologists, and many others, the WSGS was organized in 1990 and began to build its membership and conduct its mission.

At the foundation of the 501(c)(3) non-profit, WSGS is a group of passionate, unpaid volunteers (who currently have or formerly have held positions as biologists and researchers, foresters, legislatures, and other conservation-centered professions) and pride themselves on their work to protect this keystone species of the pine barrens.

Ken Jonas, president of WSGS, says the mission of the group is focused on protecting not only the sharp-tailed grouse, but the entire ecosystem that it calls home. “We want to publicize the sharp-tailed grouse’s plight and educate the public and resource professionals,” explains Jonas. “We also want to encourage management of habitat, promote both hunting and non-hunting recreational use, and influence state and local decisions that will benefit the sharp-tailed grouse and barrens habitat, along with the other wildlife species that live there.”

Jonas adds how policy influence is another major way WSGS can have a lasting impact on sharptail conservation in the state of Wisconsin. He emphasizes that several WSGS board members are on the committee that is contributing to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) as they re-write their 10-year sharp-tailed grouse management plan.

“Once that plan is drafted, we’ll promote it among our members and encourage the public to comment,” says Jonas.  “From there, we hope that our voices will influence how the state will manage sharptails in the future, including the adoption of the Rolling Barrens concept.”

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To carry out their mission, Vice President Mike Amman describes many of the ways WSGS is involved in different areas including public awareness and advocacy to show citizens how much work it takes to keep these rare barren landscapes as open areas.

"We become involved in maintaining these ecosystems through prescribed burning, mechanical treatments, and other forest management activities,” says Amman. “We’re also able to jump in on state, county, and other municipal projects where there is a gap in funding. Ongoing research projects, trap-and-transfers, and bird surveys are other ways we get involved to carry out our mission.”

gps tracking map of sharp-tailed grouse
Map depicting GPS tracking of sharptails on a property in northern Wisconsin. (Photo courtesy of Natural Resources Research Institute)

Let It Roll

The rare and unique pine-oak barren ecosystem of northwestern Wisconsin is best described as a mix of grass, woody shrubs, and scattered trees with droughty, sandy soils.

“Historically, these areas had a high fire interval where natural fires occurred often and kept these areas open,” Amman explains. “With our efforts, we’re trying to replicate these prime conditions with fire and mechanical treatments to maintain the barren landscape.”

large prescribed burn fire drone photo
The pine-oak barren ecosystem of northern Wisconsin is one that has evolved to thrive upon the influence of wildfires; now habitat management in this unique landscape is supported through prescribed burning programs. (Photo By: Mike Amman, WSGS)

Amman (also a Bayfield County forester), explained how the “Rolling Barrens” program, in partnership with the WDNR, is proving to gain vital habitat while allowing county forest programs to make money though timber harvests in several northwestern Wisconsin counties. He describes the Rolling Barrens concept as having a permanent core barren area with large-scale adjacent properties that serve to compliment the core.

“These Rolling Barrens provide the county an opportunity to grow trees but also provide a window of time and opportunity for optimal habitat for sharp-tailed grouse and other barren species,” says Amman. “We can hold birds on these properties and still have a working forestland.”

With this smaller subset population of sharptail that are isolated and largely cut off from other populations in the Midwest, this working solution could prove critical in the long run to offer important habitat, connect islands of habitat, and create habitat corridors for birds to disperse into new areas and expand their genetic diversity to sustain their population in northern Wisconsin.

pine-oak barren landscape ecosystem
The Wisconsin Sharp-Tailed Grouse Society is involved in many different ways to keep the pine-oak barren landscape open for sharptails and other wildlife to benefit from. (Photo By: Rich Wong)

Taking Flight

WSGS is working alongside a dynamic group of conservation partners to preserve sharp-tailed grouse and protect their pine barren habitat. In the forest business alone, they are working with county forest managers, the United States Forest Service, Arbor Day Foundation, American Forests, and even private timber companies to create and manage a working forest landscape. Additional partners include “Friends of” groups, county wildlife groups, universities, local municipalities, private industry, and other non-profit conservation organizations like the Minnesota Sharp-Tailed Grouse Society and the North American Grouse Partnership.

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With a wide range of conservation partners working together, Trevor Bellrichard, digital media manager for WSGS, is spearheading the organization’s outreach and is proud of the promising future ahead.

“In terms of partnerships, the more organizations we can get to understand this story and the idea that we’re doing things that support the things they’re interested in too, the better,” says Bellrichard. “Combined forces is the way forward and we work with all of these groups because we share the same goals and objectives where everybody wins through combined efforts.”

Along with a strong roster of partners, Bellrichard affirms that membership with WSGS matters, and the diversity of their growing membership base.

“There are a lot of people from a wide range of demographics that are becoming interested in what we’re doing, and it’s not just hunters,” explains Bellrichard. “There’s a changing current in our membership with many people understanding this is part of something larger, and while they may not be the one running a chainsaw, they know their involvement matters.”

Whether you’d like to become a member or are interested in supporting WSGS, know that your contributions are going straight back into the landscape with an organization that is operating on a very direct input-output, boots-on-the-ground model.

“Right now, we’re at a critical point as an organization and these next few years will really help to set the course for where we’re going as we grow our membership and more people are getting involved,” Bellrichard says. “While many of our members may be out of state, they still care a lot about sharptails and they want to see sharptails in more places because they appreciate them as a charismatic species of the landscape.”

For more information on WSGS, please be sure to visit the Wisconsin Sharp-Tailed Grouse Society website and find them on Facebook and Instagram.

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