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Grouse going strong on grassland in Fort Pierre

Fort Pierre National Grassland Wildlife Biologist Ruben Mares spent the morning of April 21 looking for lekking greater prairie chickens and sharp tail grouse. Part of his job is monitoring grouse populations on the grassland. (Photo courtesy of the Capital Journal)

By Nick Lowrey

Capital Journal

FORT PIERRE (AP) — The sun was just peeking over the eastern horizon as Fort Pierre National Grassland wildlife biologist Ruben Mares stepped out of the truck and raised a pair of binoculars to his face.

The air was chilly. There was no wind. The eerie, though familiar, pulsating sound of male greater prairie chickens looking for love echoed across the plains. It was an encouraging sign.

Mares was making an early morning tour of prairie chicken and sharptail grouse mating grounds, also known as “leks.” It was one of six routes he travels three times every spring to count the birds and estimate their population.

“One of the many blessings that accrue from living in the Great Plains is the grouse mating dance,” said Dan Swingen, ranger with the Fort Pierre National Grassland District. “It is endlessly entertaining.”

For Mares the morning was less about watching the birds, collectively known as prairie grouse, and more about finding out how many there were. The Fort Pierre National Grassland is managed specifically for them. Everything from range management to wildlife management comes down to what will help grouse be successful.

“Somebody out there just figured this would be a really good species to focus on,” Mares said.

Prairie grouse have become a management “indicator species” for the grassland. That means they are a native species and they need what every other native animal needs in order to be successful. Essentially, when grouse

Monocultures simply don’t produce the same variety of food that grouse and other wildlife have to have in order to survive. So as part of managing the grassland, cows are allowed to graze.

Mares and Fuoss work closely together to decide which pastures need more grazing than others and which pastures should be rested for a year.

“It really depends on what your goal is,” Fuoss said.

Grouse seem to do best in grass that has a visual obstruction rating of about four. That means, Mares said, vision is completely blocked by grass at about 4 inches off the ground.

At any given time three of every four of the grassland’s pastures are being grazed. The fourth pasture is being do well, so does everything else, Mares said.

That works because grouse need the several different heights of grass that a healthy grassland has.

“They need some of that really short stuff to do their dancing,” Swingen said. “They need some of the medium stuff for the chicks to live in and they need the tall thick stuff for the females to nest in.”

Other native species also rely on the different stages of grass. Prairie dogs, for instance, prefer low grass, while some insects prefer the longer grass.

Counting the birds helps grassland managers know how successful the forest service’s management efforts have been.

“We know that if we have a lot of grouse, we’re doing a good allowed to spend a year or two growing undisturbed before cattle are brought back in, Mares said.

“If we rest them too long, their health starts to drop off,” Mares said. “You need something out there grazing.”

So far, managing job,” Swingen said.

A healthy grassland is a grazed grassland, said Kelly Fuoss, range specialist with the Fort Pierre National Grassland.

“The Great Plains evolved under fi re and the grassland for prairie grouse has been fairly successful. Last year, when bad weather and habitat loss combined to drop South Dakota’s pheasant population about 64 percent, the grassland’s prairie chicken population only dropped about 35 percent.

That was thanks to an abundance of good habitat, Mares said. Though prairie grouse also have number of advantages over pheasants, Swingen said.

“These birds are just tough,” Swingen said. “They just have the ability to adapt under grazing,” Fuoss said. “If you take grazing from it and you take fi re from it, you get an increase in invasive types of plants.”

One of the most well-known invasive plants in the grassland is the smooth brome grass. It prefers undisturbed pastures and when smooth brome isn’t burned off or grazed, it out-competes native grasses. That can, and often does, lead to entire pastures being dominated by one species — what biologists call a monoculture. more readily.”

This year is shaping up to be much better than the last few, Mares said. A milder spring with a bit more moisture than last year should promote more grass growth early in the year, which will help grouse quite a bit so long as the weather doesn’t get too wild.

“It should be a really good nesting year this year,” Mares said. “The conditions have been really good.”

That’s good news for anyone who likes grouse, Swingen said, because grouse can produce a lot of young.

“They can come out of those bottlenecks quickly,” Swingen said.

For all the success of grouse on the grasslands, elsewhere their story is fairly bleak, Swingen said.

“Grouse have been extirpated from a lot of their range,” Swingen said.

Neither prairie chickens nor sharp tail grouse do well in areas with a lot of row crops. Land that is more than one third row crops just doesn’t support grouse very well because there just isn’t enough grass, Swingen said.

“They are very patch dependent,” Swingen said.

That means the slow advance of row crops into the west could threaten the state’s grouse population.

“The more we fragment South Dakota, the fewer grouse and prairie chickens we’ll have,” Swingen said.

For now though, central South Dakota is home to a thriving prairie grouse population. And that’s just fine for Swingen, who recently moved to the area.

“It’s such a treat moving here because it’s one of the few places grouse and greater prairie chickens are doing well,” he said.