Little Grouse on the Prairie

Alaska’s upland bird hunters enjoy an unlikely Ice Age leftover

By Ken Marsh

The setting seemed more Great Plains than Alaska: Rusting farm machinery backlit by a fiery sunset, barley fields rippling in long golden swaths, the horizon a living canvas of geese and sandhill cranes whirling in noisy flocks. Yet to the south a mountain range marched and the September breeze fresh off the Arctic Circle blew brittle and permafrost-cold. Those subarctic clues left no doubt. The loam beneath my feet was a long, long way from North Dakota, Kansas or, really, anyplace else.

 Awash in a mix of sunlight and long evening shadows, Sundance trotted out front, nose to the ground. An extended day of hunting had taxed the little Brittany, though even now he remained alert for one final covey. I brought up the rear, shotgun over one shoulder, thighs worn out from miles of walking.

The day had been good one. I’d found solitude and broad spaces to hunt, luxuries never far from we who live and wing-shoot in Alaska. More to the point, though, I’d come seeking a prairie connection. And beyond the geese and cranes and sunsets over grain fields, I had found it in the wings of an unlikely grassland bird.

***

Not so long ago, just beyond the fringes of written history, Interior Alaska was a vast prairie linked to the steppes, or grasslands, of Eurasia. That connection was lost about 11,000 years ago when the ice of the last glacial age, the Pleistocene, dissolved in a global warming trend that raised sea levels 300 feet or more.

 Scientists who sift peats to collect and study pollens and silts accumulated over the eons tell us that, prior to the warming trend, Interior Alaska was – even more than today – a land of extremes, a dry country of freezing winters and torrid summers. Meanwhile, evidence gathered in eastern Siberia and Alaska confirm the prehistoric existence of the Bering Land Bridge, a connection that once linked Eurasia and North America, providing ready passage for grassland animals and plants. In common to both continents are discoveries of bones, tusks and, on rare occasions, the carcasses of Ice Age creatures deep-frozen in remarkable – even edible – condition.

Today the Interior is a massive basin drained by arterial rivers such as the Yukon, Tanana, and Nenana. The basin is cradled to the south by the Alaska Range and to the north by the Brooks, considered the northernmost extension of the Rocky Mountains.

Travel into the high country on either side where alpine hills roll beneath the crags, and it is possible to feel you’ve stepped back in time and that strange things might suddenly be possible. Ice Age winds still moan over these places and, in your mind, they can resurrect the woolly mammoths, Pleistocene horses, and steppe bison that once roamed here.

Even as a warming climate marked the Pleistocene’s end, the land began to evolve. Shrubs and boreal forests gradually appeared and, over time, animals of the vanishing grasslands that could not adapt died out. Today, remnant survivors persist. Moose, Dall sheep, and American bison (thought to be direct descendants of the steppe bison that, like many grassland species, moved south to populate the steppes of what is now the Lower 48) are examples of Pleistocene leftovers. 

And so I had come in search of an evolutionary holdout, a creature far humbler than a bison, though no less intriguing. I was hunting a vestige bird, a prairie grouse whose origins can be traced to Alaska’s bygone steppes. Commonly found today in the fields and dry gullies of the American West, the bird I pursued was the sharp-tailed grouse.

***

In camp, I watched Sundance sleep, his legs twitching in fitful spasms while out in the fields, not far beyond the campfire glow, gangs of coyotes yipped. If bird dogs can dream, and I believe they can, the little Brittany was almost certainly reliving the day and envisioning fields and burns and the sharptails that cackled and sailed away like fleeting prayers on polka-dotted wings.

 We found them early in the day along an old road traversing a large burn. Knee-high wild rose and berry shrubs flanked the road, providing likely cover and food for erstwhile grassland grouse. But the first concrete clue came when, in the yellow dust atop the rounded, cloven hoof prints of a bison herd, I found a set of three-toed, chicken-like tracks.

Beyond the rose and berry shrubs, the burn was wide and open, overgrown with grasses and sparsely punctuated by charred spruce trees. The country was too exposed for forest grouse – both ruffed and spruce grouse share the region. So there was no mistaking what made those tracks. And Sundance was already on it.

Nose low, the dog slipped into the shrubs, focused on a scent, moving in fast, ever-tightening circles. I checked my shotgun, a blonde-stocked SKB 20-gauge. The air seemed suddenly electric. I brought my gun to port arms, ready; that dog doesn’t lie.

Abruptly, Sundance stopped and turned 90 degrees toward the thick stuff. A lone sharptail launched from the cover on thumping wings. It was a straight-away shot and I never heard the report; just felt my heart beat once, then saw the puff of brown and white feathers.

Sundance fetched the bird and before the smell of burned powder cleared, I was examining those distinctive polka-dotted wings and that wispy, pointed tail. The yellow combs arched over liquid-brown eyes. The proof was unequivocal: We had found the prairie grouse. Right there in the heart of subarctic Alaska.

***

Sharptails live, even thrive, in places like the Yellowstone country of western Montana where I’ve hunted them on several occasions. Set in the shadows of the Absaroka Range, the autumn air frosty and spiced with sage, the cheat-grass hills form a high-prairie region that probably looks a lot like Alaska’s Ice Age steppes.

Interestingly, paleontologists sifting interior Alaska soil deposits for Ice Age fossils have documented the presence of grassland birds that are likely ancestors of, if not direct precursors, of today’s sharptail grouse and willow ptarmigan. In a fascinating chapter of Interior Alaska: A Journey Through Time, scientists R. Dale and Mary Lee Guthrie write: “Occasionally, pebbles of polished white quartz turn up in the wash screens. For a long time they remained a mystery.” It took some time before experts solved the puzzle. “The pebbles,” write the Guthries, “turned out to be gizzard stones of Pleistocene grouse and ptarmigan.”

In Alaska today, sharp-tailed grouse are found in the Yukon River Valley from the Canada border to Holy Cross. Scattered populations appear in the upper regions of the Koyukuk, Kuskokwim and Copper river valleys.

Although the broad steppes where they once flourished have largely grown into forests, the birds survive in marginal habitats. They prefer open spaces such as old burns, spruce bogs, manmade clearings and fields; places not too different than their prehistoric grasslands. Look for them near clearings bordered by cover offering cranberries, blueberries and rose hips. They feed on these berries and, early in the fall, range into the fields, burns, and meadows to stuff themselves on insects such as grasshoppers. Sharptails can also be found in semi-open areas of stunted spruce and tundra where bugs and berries are prevalent.

Like the prairie chickens, sage grouse, and sharptails of the Great Plains, Alaska sharptails gather in certain areas each spring for breeding. These places, called leks, are in open areas where males attract mates by dancing, fluttering their wings and inflating yellow-green sacks on their chests that resemble yolks fried sunny-side up.

I was hunting the Delta region east of Fairbanks, the site of a 1978 state-sponsored agricultural project in which nearly 60,000 acres of boreal timber were cleared for the production of barley. For various reasons, many of the farmers went broke and their fields lie fallow. Walking along the abandoned windrows, your dog out front, shotgun over one shoulder, you can almost feel the heartbreak in the empty, weathered barns and collapsing fences. How many back-straining days, blistered hands and tearful, sleepless nights does all of this represent? How many marriages withered, broken by the stress of trying to make a living cultivating the hard, subarctic country?

 Not all of the barley operations have gone the way of the mammoth. Some have held on while others have been revived. Along the way, bison and coyotes – all prairie denizens – have generally prospered. Though it hasn’t always been that way.

I learned in an interview with state wildlife biologist Ken Taylor several years ago that Alaska’s native wood bison, direct descendants of Ice Age populations, died out as recently as 425 years ago. Taylor’s calculations were based on roughly 50 radiocarbon samples taken from the Interior. “I suspect if we had a larger sample size we would have samples that are even more recent than that,” Taylor said.

Even more intriguing are the stories still passed on among local Athabascans. “We do have some indications from some of the villages that there is an oral history of people hunting bison,” Taylor said. “We’ve talked to some of the elders (and) they remember their distant relatives having done it and passed the stories down. And most oral histories are probably less than 400 years old.”

Wood bison have since been reintroduced to Interior Alaska, where the species seems destined for a comeback.

Separate from the wood bison, another roughly 800 plains bison living in the Interior – some 400 in the Delta region alone – were introduced from Montana in 1928. Like the sharptailed grouse, natural habitat is limited to open river plains, burns and meadows of grasses, vetch and sedges. But the Delta barley project expanded habitat for the bison, still prairie creatures at heart. And at the same time, the micro-grassland biome cleared by the hard work of hopeful settlers benefited sharptails in ways that delight upland sportsmen.

***

After that first sharptail, Sundance and I walked for perhaps three miles along the road through the burn. The overcast September day was warm, almost muggy, and the walking was easy, the surroundings pleasantly quiet. At one point, the little dog had put up a pair of birds that I’d missed cleanly with both barrels. I managed to take one of them on a follow-up flush back in the burn where fallen timber created a difficult obstacle course that forced the dog to crawl, snuffling, and me to high-step awkwardly.

By early afternoon, we had returned to my pickup to rest and plan the rest of the day. There were plenty of old fields around to hunt, places edged with berries and cover needed to sustain large numbers of birds. Then again, the nearby Tanana Hills west of Delta promised good hunting for ruffed and spruce grouse, different creatures that provided their own shooting challenges.

But the sharptails of the burn weren’t through with us yet.

I was sitting on the tailgate finishing a sandwich with Sundance curled up nearby, resting his yellow Brittany eyes, when I looked up and saw them. Not 30 feet away, over ground we had already hunted, a covey of a dozen or more sharptails appeared tentatively poking their heads out of the grass and shrubs beside the road.

In a flash I pulled my gun out of its case and because I’d slipped into my shooting vest, Sundance was up, ready in an instant. Within a half-dozen steps, the birds were up and for a moment the air was filled with drumming wings and grouse cackles. Seconds later, as birds sailed over the burn in all directions, Sundance was retrieving the two I had dropped.

 And so the day went. We found as many sharptails as we cared to chase and finally, even with birds cackling around us, we turned around, our appetites sated.

By the fire that night, Sundance stopped twitching and the coyotes in the fields quit yipping. The sky cleared, the stars silver and burning as they did 15,000 years ago when Interior Alaska was a place of great, furry elephants. From their high places, those stars have seen a lot of changes down here. But as I crawled into my sleeping bag, it was good to know that a few things, particularly little things that cackle and fly on polka-dotted wings, remain very much the same.

###

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