By Don Ruzicka

If the grouse could smile, and maybe they can, I think that they would be grateful that 2019 was designated as the Year of the Grouse. This initiative brought back memories of when I was a kid growing up on the family farm in the 1950s.

My grandparents settled on a farm near Killam in 1910. They relied on upland game birds from the lush prairie habitat as a source of protein. My parents, when they began farming in 1941, continued to hunt sharp-tailed grouse. My dad began taking me along on his fall hunts around the farm when I was six years old. I soon learned that the number of birds for a family meal was three sharp-taileds. My mom felt that if we wanted to continue to enjoy these icons of the prairie, we should take only what was needed.

I have fond memories of these times, which lasted until I finished high school and left the farm for greener pastures. Even in the joy-filled days of sitting around the table and dining on sharp-taileds, the hunt was about more than bringing home supper; the smell of the prairie, the bush and brush, and the sounds of the birds bursting into flight, letting me know that I was too close for comfort, are still entrenched in my memory. Even if I came home empty handed, there was no such thing as an unsuccessful hunt, as my senses had been reawakened by the prairie.

Fast forward to our arrival back on my grandparent’s farm, within a mile of the farm where I grew up, that we purchased in 1983. I soon walked through the 250 acres of native prairie recalling my childhood hunts. The sense of smell, sights and sounds were still the same. The sharp-tailed numbers had diminished somewhat, but not enough to be concerned about.

There was a sharp-tailed breeding ground, referred to as a lek, on native prairie in a corner of one of our quarter sections. When spring arrived the following year, we could hear the sounds of the mating males. Even in those days, it was becoming fairly rare to find a lek in our area.

The grouse are very meticulous in choosing where they breed. I refer to this as the “Goldilocks Effect.” The prairie vegetation has to be secluded, not too tall and not too short. A diverse mix of snowberry, sage, wolf willow, yarrow, poplar trees, native prairie flowers, with a creek or a wetland close by, is just right.

This was all well and good, but we had a farm to farm, and the thought of hunting would have to wait until we had more time. More land should equal more profit from being able to grow more grain, or pasture more livestock. In 1987, I cleared those 17 acres where the lek had been doing its part to keep the sharp-tailed numbers sustainable; we never saw another sharp-tailed on the farm again.

Conversion of native prairie for crop cultivation and pasture has increased at warp speed since then. When native prairie is plowed under, the sharp-taileds, native flowers, native pollinators, and other species of birds and insects also disappear. The Year of the Grouse designation has become a catalyst that brings awareness to the plight of our fellow grassland inhabitants. As a prairie people, we are in danger of losing part of a connection that defines who we are.

The good news is, this story does not have to have a tragic ending. In 1989, as a result of overgrazing our native prairie, meadowlarks also disappeared from our farm. Over the years, we began to address our pasture management, leaving more litter for the meadowlarks to nest, and, finally, in May of 2000, they returned.