Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Enthusiast hopes 'fire bird' can rise from the ashes

Loss of habitat puts sharp-tailed grouse at risk

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For some, conservation is all about grand plans to save the earth while others have developed a passion for certain species. Boris Bachynski of Winnipeg is an example of the latter. And when it comes to his beloved sharp-tailed grouse he is positively messianic.

"Sharp-tailed grouse fascinate me," said Bachynski. "It is through them, and their difficulties in certain parts of Manitoba, that I have developed a deep concern for landscape conservation."

Bachynski developed his love for the sharp-tail by hunting them. This sounds paradoxical but very quickly we hunters tend to become advocates for our prey as per the title of philosopher Paul Shepherd's book, The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game.

"My dad introduced me to upland bird hunting," explained Bachynski, "And I was fortunate to hunt these magnificent birds through the 'glory years' of the 1960s and '70s. Unfortunately it's been downhill for sharp-tails ever since."

I was a fairly young hunter in the 1970s but I can see, as if it were yesterday, the waves of sharp-tails that would flush from just about any bit of cover in the northern Interlake. Those days are long past and good sharp-tail hunts there are few and far between.

Sharp-tails are a mystery wrapped in an enigma. They seem to have disappeared from good habitat areas in the Interlake and west of Lake Manitoba, often referred to as "Westlake," but are thriving in the wheat fields of southwestern Manitoba.

Some attribute the southern Manitoba abundance to zero-tillage agriculture which dramatically reduces soil disturbance. Yet there is seemingly endless habitat in the Interlake and Westlake but few birds.

"Fire suppression has really done a number on sharp-tails," explained Bachynski. "In the old days fire would maintain the grassland habitats by eliminating encroachment by woody vegetation but many grasslands in the Interlake and Westlake are being covered in scrub vegetation which is not good sharp-tail habitat."

There is a clear relationship between sharp-tails and fire. And according to a Minnesota reference that Bachynski unearthed, aboriginal people referred to the sharp-tail as the "fire grouse" due to the species' habit of appearing like magic after a prairie fire. Sharp-tails also quickly appear in new forestry clear-cuts.

Manitoba has its own sharp-tail advocacy group known as Sharp-tails Plus. This dedicated group of upland bird hunters, to which Bachynski belongs, has conducted a number of projects across Manitoba designed to "bring the bird back."

These include an interpretive display at Oak Hammock Interpretive Centre, conducting prescribed burns in the Interlake, and mechanical brush removal in the Plumas area. These are small projects but the positive results show that certain management techniques do work.

Large-scale agriculture has also been a factor in the decline of the sharp-tails as more and more land was brought into grain production. The plight of the sharp-tail again reinforces the need for Canada and Manitoba to develop a program of incentives to assist producers in the conservation of wildlife and their habitats.

But in spite of these odds, Bachynski and other sharp-tail enthusiasts continue to forge on. I support this effort given my own deep attachment to the bird.

Bachynski is convinced that through a combination of good science-based management efforts and proper public policies, we can restore this magnificent game bird to its rightful place on the Manitoba lansdscape.

Bachynski is interested in hearing from anyone who would like to help. Call him at 204-895-1705 for more information.

 

sopuckrd@xplornet.com

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 3, 2010 D9

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