MINONG, Wis. -- Spring was late in arriving in northwestern Wisconsin.
Snow fell on the second to last day of April, coating the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area with a fresh layer of white. May whistled in on a stiff northwest wind, with low gray clouds, drizzle and temperatures just above freezing.
It lacked most of the hallmarks of the season of renewal.
But not all. Shortly after dawn, a band of local residents turned out and set an example for anyone in need of hope.
With a rustle of wings and soft cooing, a dozen chicken-sized birds flew into a clearing on the barrens. Within seconds, several of the birds spread their wings and thrust white butts in the air. Purple throat sacs bulged, yellow eyebrows stiffened.
The gloomy morning was punctuated with clucks and machine-gun-like bursts of "Gr-gr-gr-gr-gr." The birds faced off in pairs, stomped their feet and pirouetted in the gathering light. With uncanny precision, the activity started and stopped every few seconds.
The dance of the sharp-tailed grouse was on.
"No matter how many times you've seen it, it's overwhelming," said Nancy Christel, a Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist. "What an expression of being alive."
In a spring ritual performed in Wisconsin since before European settlement, male sharptails compete for mates on sites known as leks or dancing grounds.
I joined Christel on May 1 in a blind near a lek at Namekagon Barrens.
Christel equates it to the bar scene -- men posturing and fighting, females more coy and seemingly uninterested. And another thing: The males greatly outnumbered the females.
Over the next hour, 21 males and five females visited the lek. Most of the time at least 20 birds were within 50 yards of the blind, offering great views of the mesmerizing dance ritual. It's a performance that's increasingly rare in Wisconsin and across the nation.
The sharp-tailed grouse is native to Wisconsin and historically occupied a large portion of the state. Long-term population declines of sharptails and related prairie grouse species, including the prairie chicken, have occurred across North America since the early 1900s. Sharp-tailed grouse management began in northern Wisconsin during the late 1940s in response to concerns of habitat loss.
Sharptails require large, open spaces and specific habitat for courtship, nesting, brood-rearing and wintering. Today, suitable habitat exists only in relatively small, isolated patches.
The majority of sharp-tailed grouse in Wisconsin are now found in the early successional pine barrens and savannas in the northwestern portion of the state. The largest managed areas for sharpies in Wisconsin include Namekagon Barrens, Crex Meadows Wildlife Area and Douglas County Wildlife Area.
Namekagon Barrens was recently enlarged with a purchase of about 1,400 acres thanks to a partnership of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, The Conservation Fund, Walmart and its "Acres for America" program and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
To assess the sharptail population in Wisconsin, the DNR counts male birds on dancing grounds on nine managed properties. The number of dancing males decreased from 139 in 2012 to 116 in 2013, a 17 percent drop, according to a DNR report. The number of grouse on managed properties is well below historic levels and 24 percent lower than the average number of dancing males found on these areas between 2008 and 2012 (153). Populations have declined since 1998.
About 60 male sharpies were known to exist on non-managed properties in Wisconsin in 2013. The population is declining on each of these properties, too, according to the DNR.
The Natural Resources Board in 2011 approved an updated Wisconsin Sharp-tailed Grouse Management Plan. It focuses on maintaining adequate habitat to "ensure a self-supporting population of sharp-tailed grouse with sufficient numbers and genetic diversity to ensure the species will not become extirpated from the state."
That goal is going to take great commitment. The recent addition to Namekagon Barrens is like "Christmas," Christel said. But more will be needed to ensure the sharpies' future in Wisconsin, including introducing more genetic diversity.
The 26 birds we viewed likely represented the largest flock left in the state.
About 8:30 the birds began to drift off the lek, melting into the surrounding terrain to feed and rest.
Wisconsin owes it to this native species, and all the others that require similar habitat, to keep the dance alive.
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