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Hybrids cloud future of North Dakota prairie chickens

Seven of the eight prairie grouse observed at one mating grounds site this spring were hybrids, with traits of both prairie chickens and more dominant sharp-tailed grouse.

Photo 1 pure prairie chicken.jpg
A purebred prairie chicken. (Photo/ Jesse Kolar, North Dakota Game and Fish Department)
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Prairie chicken populations in Grand Forks County of northeastern North Dakota appear to be undergoing a high level of hybridization as the birds interbreed with sharp-tailed grouse, a more dominant species.

What that means for the future of prairie chickens in North Dakota remains to be seen, but it probably isn’t favorable, said Jesse Kolar, upland game management supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Dickinson.

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“We had always known there were hybrids and assumed that they were fairly rare,” he said.

Jesse Kolar, upland game management supervisor, North Dakota Game and Fish Department
Jesse Kolar, upland game management supervisor, North Dakota Game and Fish Department
Contributed / North Dakota Game and Fish Department

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From a management standpoint, there’s really nothing the department can do to reverse the trend, Kolar said, because there’s only a limited amount of the kind of tallgrass prairie habitat that the chickens favor available.

Sharptails, by comparison, can do better in the shrubby habitat that’s prevalent in many of the Grand Forks County survey areas.

“At this point, we’re strictly monitoring the population – we haven’t been doing any direct management,” Kolar said. “What it’s showing us is that these prairie chickens don’t have ideal enough habitat to compete with the sharp-tailed grouse, so just a little bit of (habitat) fragmentation, cattail encroachment, Russian olive and some other shrubby encroachment is tipping the scales toward sharp-tailed grouse.”

Photo 3 Hybrid prairie grouse.jpg
A hybrid prairie grouse, showing both the pinnae feathers of a male prairie chicken and the purple air sacs and pointed tale of a male sharp-tailed grouse. (Photo/ Jesse Kolar, North Dakota Game and Fish Department)

The North Game and Fish Department and several partners, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Prairie Chicken Society, launched efforts to re-establish prairie chickens in Grand Forks County in the 1990s, translocating 357 birds between 1992 and 1998 from Minnesota, South Dakota and Nebraska. The birds flourished to the point where Game and Fish even offered a limited hunting season from 2004 through 2009, but the department discontinued the season in 2010 when the population no longer was viable enough to support hunting.

Historically, it’s not known if prairie chickens were present in North Dakota before European settlement, but populations increased from 1880 to 1930 before their numbers declined, according to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

Student survey crew

Led by Susan Ellis-Felege, an associate professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management at the University of North Dakota, a small crew of UND students has been counting prairie chickens in Grand Forks County each of the past three springs under a four-year agreement with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

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Susan Ellis-Felege
Susan Ellis-Felege, an associate professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management in the UND Biology Department, and Ean Malchow, a senior Fish and Wildlife Biology major, compare notes in April 2019, while conducting a prairie chicken survey west of Grand Forks. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

As part of the spring survey, the UND crew identifies known booming grounds, or leks, and visits the sites early in the morning to count the birds they see on the mating grounds. This year’s count included some 60 leks, Ellis-Felege said, either known prairie chicken booming grounds or sharptail dancing grounds, both north and south of U.S. Highway 2.

“We’re particularly aiming for the males,” she said. “We try to figure out how many male prairie chickens there might be because that’s the best indicator since females come and go.”

This year’s survey was more extensive because the crew also was counting sharptails and not just known prairie chicken leks, she said.

Photo 2 pure sharptail.jpg
A purebred sharp-tailed grouse. (Photo/ Jesse Kolar, North Dakota Game and Fish Department)

While the student crew has watched the leks from a distance most years, this past spring a number of viewing blinds were set up on the mating grounds to get a closer look at the birds. Kolar made the trip from western North Dakota and saw firsthand the level of hybridization that’s occurring.

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Seven of the eight birds he observed at one site were hybrids, Kolar said.

“We would have assumed there might be one or two hybrids in every group of prairie chickens, but to see seven or eight of those, that was pretty surprising,” he said. “It might still be a rare occurrence, but at least on that lek, there were a high number of male hybrids.

“It’s unlikely, but it’s possible that it could have been just one successful brood of a hybrid and maybe that’s all we’re seeing.”

Crews this spring counted 30 male prairie grouse and 39 total, including females and birds of unknown gender, Ellis-Felege said; at least 10 of the males appeared to be hybrids. Setting up blinds for a closer look gave a better picture of what’s happening, she said.

The hybrids look and sound different, she said, not quite knowing whether to boom like prairie chickens or dance like sharptails. The classic pinnae feathers on the sides of a male prairie chicken’s neck generally are less pronounced on the hybrid birds, and the tails aren’t as square as they are on a pure prairie chicken.

“There’s lots of confusion, and then when you watch them, they don't know whether the boom or dance or what to do so they stomp around a lot,” she said.

Based on what he saw in the blinds, Kolar said sharptails also tended to be more aggressive and outcompete the prairie chickens on leks where both species were present. He watched one male prairie chicken get chased off the lek by sharptails and hybrids every time it tried to boom.

“If we have mixed grounds, and the sharptail or hybrids are more dominant, it’s almost a guarantee that we’re going to see more and more hybridization,” Kolar said.

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Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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