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The day the dancing stopped at Little Prairie Preserve

Essay by Ben Long

Wildlife – July 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

IT HAPPENED on the Dancing Prairie Preserve, one square mile of shortgrass prairie in northwestern Montana’s Tobacco Valley. The preserve is a quiet patch of grassland just south of the border with Canada. It looks like a deserted golf course, with its shaggy carpet of bunchgrass and scattered Ponderosa pine. The Galton Range rises priestly black on the horizon, delaying the spring sunrise.

The Dancing Prairie Preserve is a special place, although not as special as it once was. The acreage is owned by The Nature Conservancy, which carefully manages it to maintain biological diversity. Yet that protection could not protect all the preserve’s inhabitants.

One spring morning a few years ago, my wife, Karen, and I joined local biologist Louis Young, when the sun was still well behind the mountains. We bowed through the barbed wire fence and followed the faint trace of an elk trail. We wanted to see a dance that has occurred here every spring for thousands of years.

At a careful distance, we bellied down on the crest of a grassy mound. Little prairie wildflowers bloomed all around. Young trained a spotting scope on a secret spot in the prairie, and yes, with the dawn, we saw the grouse dance.

The males performed a colorful, comical little dance, fluttering and bustling to woo females. They twittered around like wind-up toys, cooing and burbling, then leapt into the air in what is called a flutter hop.

They were Columbia sharptail grouse, the subspecies of grouse found west of the Continental Divide. They gathered at what is called a lek, or ritual spring dancing ground. The word “lek” is derived from the Swedish word for play, but mating is serious business. Prairie grouse species depend on these dancing grounds to mate successfully. If their collective memory of a lek dies, the population is likely doomed.

That day as we watched, only eight grouse danced. Young has seen the birds perform for years, and every year, he said, there were fewer grouse. But this time was the worst: Not a single female came to watch the males.

For reasons more political than biological, the Columbia subspecies of sharptail grouse are not protected under the Endangered Species Act. If Young had not been there to watch, it’s safe to assume, the Dancing Prairie grouse would probably have disappeared without anyone noticing.

Most of us talk of extinction as a dramatic cataclysm. Yet despite the meteor that wiped out dinosaurs or the flood that floated Noah’s Ark, extinction occurs gradually. One population winks out, then another.

Big creatures, like grizzly bears, go first. Smaller ones follow, and no one knows. Paleontologists warn us that we are in the midst of an extinction crisis, every bit as devastating as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. There’s no killer asteroid this time, only human beings chopping up habitat into smaller and smaller scraps.

Measures had been taken to protect the Columbia sharptail grouse, but perhaps too much was expected. The preserve is just one island of native prairie surrounded by highways, subdivisions, cultivated farmland, and pastures. Managers fought an endless battle against weeds. Now, isolated from all other populations, these birds were — to use the biologists’ euphemism — winking out.

Young and Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists scrambled to save the grouse. They captured grouse recruits in Canada, imported them in cardboard boxes and released them on the Dancing Prairie Preserve.

At the same time, however, the Dancing Prairie Preserve acquired a new neighbor, a developer who subdivided the parcel next door. It’s possible that dogs or cats roaming from the new homes found every bird. But it’s unfair to blame that one development — the grouse were pushed aside by 100 years of history.

We, as a people, elected not to make room for this little bird. The birds didn’t take, and imports only delayed the inevitable. This spring, when Louis Young took up his annual position to watch the dance, not even one grouse showed up. The dancing birds of the Dancing Prairie were no more.

Next spring, I may visit the Dancing Prairie Preserve again. But in place of the perts and gurgles of dancing grouse, I will hear only the prairie wind and the silence of extinction.

Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is a writer in Kalispell, Montana.