Homesteading and logging in the late 1800s turned forests in central and northern Minnesota into brushlands. This massive disturbance inadvertently created vast new areas of habitat for the region's native sharp-tailed grouse. As forests grew back, sharptail populations dwindled. But thanks to three decades of intentional actions by one organization, these brushland inhabitants are still hanging on.
Since 1986 the Minnesota Sharp-Tailed Grouse Society has secured more than $9 million to protect, restore, and enhance over 22,000 acres of brushland habitat for these game birds. The funds also support research and pay for equipment, viewing blinds, and promotional materials, according to Roche Lally, who co-founded the society with Bill Berg. Money lobbied for and raised by the society and its 250 members is used by the DNR to conduct prescribed burns and mowing to prevent forest encroachment.
Historically, natural disturbances such as fire and windstorms maintained brushlands. Prior to European settlement, sharp-tailed grouse resided in brushlands across most of the state.
"Just like the prairie, brushlands need disturbances," says Jodie Provost, DNR brushland and forest habitat specialist. "With suppression of wildfire, the habitat we have left would not get disturbed nearly as frequently without the efforts of the sharp-tailed grouse society and the partners they engage."
Meadowlarks, bobolinks, yellow rails, woodcock, deer, and many other native species benefit from brushland management. But the energetic dancing and sparring of male sharp-tailed grouse during spring mating season makes them the most visible ambassadors for brushlands, says Provost.
"Finding the money for prescribed burns, to mow the brush, to hire someone to remove a row of trees, is part of the problem," says Provost. "The other part of the problem is that people think about managing forests and they think about managing prairies and grasslands, but they rarely think about that in-between habitat that we call brushlands." For example, timber sales offset the cost of managing young forests to benefit species like ruffed grouse. But timber harvesters find little value in the scrubby alder, willow, and sparse patches of aspen on brushlands.
In recent years, sharptail leks—open communal breeding areas—have become inactive in Pine, Kanabec, and Carlton counties, according to Provost. Sharptail populations in northwestern Minnesota, where the species has typically fared better, will also likely decline due to recent extensive losses of Conservation Reserve Program land, she adds.
"One thing we're really hoping to do is to keep what habitat remains in east-central Minnesota and connect it to northwestern Wisconsin where sharptail habitat remains," says Provost, noting collaboration with the Wisconsin Sharp-tailed Grouse Society and the Wisconsin DNR. Other Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society partnerships include the DNR, Pheasants Forever, and Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society.
In years to come, Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society members hope to continue contributing money and time to projects, such as winter brush cuts where volunteers descend on a brushland to cut woody vegetation by hand.
"The people involved are wonderful," Provost says. "The founders have done many years of great conservation work and are looking to the future to sustain the organization."
The greatest value of the society may be its role in raising awareness of these unique native grouse and their brushland habitat. Learn more about membership and projects.
Michael A. Kallok, online editor