Columbian sharp-tailed grouse  Tympanuchus phasianellus columbianus
ESA status: petitioned for listing

Photo Columbian sharp-tailed grouse

Columbian sharp-tailed grouse are the smallest and rarest of six subspecies of sharp-tailed grouse in North America. First described by Lewis and Clark in 1805, Columbian sharp-tailed grouse were once considered the most abundant grouse in the Intermountain West. The historic range of Columbian sharp-tailed grouse included parts of what became nine western states and one Canadian province. However, Columbian sharp-tailed grouse distribution has been drastically reduced. The subspecies now exists in less than ten percent of its historic range.

Similar to other western grouse, sharp-tailed grouse engage in a fascinating mating ritual. Each spring, and occasionally in autumn, male grouse congregate on “leks”—ancestral strutting grounds to which the birds return year after year. The males arrive 30-60 minutes before sunrise and may remain on the lek for 2-3 hours. The males’ courtship display consists of animated dancing and “freezing” phases. They strut, push their tails upward, inflate their air sacs, and rush forward or circle while stamping their feet, clicking their central tail feathers, and emitting hooting, cackling and gobbling sounds. Dancing bouts last 30-50 seconds. Males will often dance in synchrony, appearing to start and stop on signal.

Columbian sharp-tailed grouse use a variety of habitats, including sagebrush steppe, meadows, mountain shrubs, brushy grasslands, and riparian areas. Unfortunately, a litany of land uses has reduced the species to just three population centers in central British Columbia, southeastern Idaho/northern Utah, and northwestern Colorado/south-central Wyoming. Although millions of Columbian sharp-tailed grouse probably lived in the West in the past, only 18,000 – 25,000 breeding individuals remain in the United States today.

WildEarth Guardians petitioned to protect the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse under the Endangered Species Act in 2004. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rejected Guardians’ petition in 2006. WildEarth Guardians has since filed litigation to remand the negative listing decision and protect this charismatic western icon.

photo credit: Photos.com