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BLM plans habitat improvement for Gunnison sage grouse

Piñon and juniper trees would be removed to improve sagebrush conditions

A plan to improve habitat for the threatened Gunnison sage grouse in San Miguel County has been proposed by the Tres Rios Field office of the Bureau of Land Management.

The agency is seeking public input on a proposal that calls for land restoration and removal of piñon and juniper trees in Dry Creek Basin to allow for more sagebrush habitat relied on by the ground-dwelling bird.

About 7,500 total acres northeast of Dove Creek would be treated over the life of the project, with about 500 acres treated annually. If approved, work would begin this year, and last for 10 to 15 years.

“Habitat monitoring by the BLM has identified several areas within Dry Creek Basin that need habitat restoration to meet the needs of the Gunnison sage grouse,” states a March 24 BLM scoping announcement about the project.

The Gunnison sage grouse was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2014. It survives in pockets of Southwest Colorado and southeast Utah.

BLM’s land use plan calls for improving habitat conditions for the grouse in order to support sustainable populations.

According to the BLM manual, the agency has an objective to “conserve and recover ESA-listed species and the ecosystems on which they depend so that ESA protections are no longer needed for these species.”

Gunnison grouse prefer mature sagebrush habitat, which provides for cover, food, and nesting areas. Clearings deep within the sagebrush habitat known as leks are where males perform elaborate mating dance rituals in the spring.

But in some places like Dry Canyon, historical sagebrush habitat has been overtaken by the spreading of piñon-juniper forests, which are targeted for removal to increase available habitat.

Fewer than 5,000 of the birds remain, with most of the population located in the Gunnison Basin and the potential for smaller populations in San Miguel Basin, Dove Creek, and Monticello, Utah.

In December, the Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watershed Project filed a lawsuit against the BLM, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Forest Service, and National Park Service, claiming the agencies have failed to protect the Gunnison sage grouse from harmful livestock grazing in the Gunnison Basin.

Without more protection there, the species will continue to decline toward eventual extinction, said Talasi Brooks, an attorney for Western Watersheds Project.

A strong Gunnison Basin population is key for supplementing satellite populations that are also struggling, Brooks said in a December interview with The Journal.

“Gunnison Basin is the main source population to prevent other populations from blinking out,” she said.

The BLM Tres Rios Office is seeking public comment on the proposal to restore Gunnison sage grouse habitat in Dry Creek Basin. An environmental assessment is being prepared. Comments are due by April 23.

Detail project documents and comment forms are available at eplanning.blm.gov


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