MOQUAH, Wis. (AP) -- As the sky slowly lightened with the rising sun Sunday morning, spring peepers called from the marsh and birds chirped, twittered, whistled, cackled and hooted.
It was those last two calls that Jim and Shirley Evrard were listening for -- two of the calls made by sharp-tailed grouse.
The Evrards, from Grantsburg, were part of a group of about 25 people scattered around the Moquah Barrens performing a census of sharp-tails. Jim is the president of the Wisconsin Sharp-tailed Grouse Society, which held its 10th annual meeting over the weekend in Ashland.
The group was founded to promote habitat management for sharp-tails, a bird whose numbers have been in decline for the past 150 years.
The main reason for that decline is loss of habitat. Unlike its forest-dwelling cousin, the ruffed grouse, sharp tails prefer open habitat like the Moquah Barrens. And that type of habitat has almost disappeared from the state.
Biologists estimate that Wisconsin was once home to about 12 million acres of prairie and savanna. Only about one to two percent of that remains.
Logging, settlement, tree planting and fire suppression all contributed to diminishing the ecosystem.
Northland College biology professor Gus Smith said the barrens habitat encompasses more than what most people usually think of -- open scrubby land with lots of blueberries. The habitat is more diverse, with open areas, small clumps of pine and oaks to closed canopy forest. The main characteristics are sandy, dry soils, that make the habitat prone to burning. In fact, the species of plants and animals in the barrens are not only adapted to fire, ''but more than that, some are dependent on fire,'' Smith said.
Evrard calls the sharp-tailed grouse ''the flagship species for barrens habitat,'' Evrard said. ''In nature, they are a species dependent on disturbance. And we humans like to manage for steady state.''
That is changing somewhat. Over the last few decades, scientists have come to realize that many habitats need frequent disturbance, like fires for example, to survive.
That's why the U.S. Forest Service periodically burns the Moquah Barrens, to mimic the early successional stages that used to occur through natural fires, before the era of Smokey the Bear.
The USFS is considering expanding the barrens management area, something the Wisconsin Sharp-tailed Grouse Society cheers. The present barrens encompasses about 8,000 acres. That could jump to 10,000 if expanded. Smith said there are another 2,000 to 3,000 acres in what is known as ''surrogate'' barrens.
Instead of being managed by burning, which prevents most trees from growing, surrogate barrens are managed by clear-cutting some areas on a short rotation. This allows the USFS to recoup some money through timber sales while providing some barrens-like habitat.
Another proposal might bring sharp-tails back to the Ashland area.
The Department of Natural Resources is considering reintroducing the birds. It's an idea championed by Ashland resident Myron Anderson, who said he remembers seeing lots of sharp-tails around Ashland years ago. The last birds were seen in the area in the 1980s to early 1990s.
DNR biologist Todd Naas said many farms in the area are going fallow, providing potential habitat for the birds.
If pursued, the project will necessarily be a partnership with landowners. Unlike the federally owned Moquah Barrens, the area near Ashland is mostly private.
Wildlife managers don't really know how many sharp-tailed grouse live in the state. Like ruffed grouse, their populations often follow an eight- to 11-year cycle of highs and lows.
There could be as few as 1,000 birds in the state.
For the past two years, Smith has taken some of his students out to the barrens to census birds. So far, last year's numbers are higher than this year's, but that could be due to a later spring, Smith said.
His class goes to known leks -- places where males gather to dance and attract mates -- and it could still be early for peak numbers at the dancing grounds.
Although the WSGS focuses on the one species, Evrard said sharp-tails exemplify the barrens environment, and helping them will help many other rare or declining species.
Many other birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, amphibians and plants thrive only in a barrens environment.
For example, other species that prefer barrens habitat include LeConte's sparrow and a dwarf blueberry, which feeds the rare northern blue butterfly.
Even while scoping for sharp-tails Sunday morning, Evrard kept his eyes and ears open for other animals.
Upon hearing an insect-like buzzing, Evrard whispered, ''clay-colored sparrow,'' one of many grassland or open habitat bird species whose populations are dwindling. Evrard also picked out the calls of a rufous-sided towhee and a brown thrasher.
''Our motto is, 'Save the barrens, save the bogs,''' Evrard said. ''So when we push for sharp-tailed habitat, it's for a whole group of species.''
(Distributed by The Associated Press)
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