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BLM to conduct plan for Gunnison sage grouse protection

A Gunnison sage grouse with tail feathers fanned near Gunnison. (Courtesy of Colorado Parks & Wildlife)
Threatened rare bird is located in Southwest Colorado but declining

The Bureau of Land Management is preparing an environmental impact statement to consider a plan amendment that would help protect the threatened Gunnison sage grouse.

The rare bird exists in eight scattered population areas in Southwest Colorado and southeast Utah, and its population has been declining.

It was listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 2014. Fewer than 5,000 birds remain.

Gunnison sage grouse males are famous for their distinct mating dance that takes place in sagebrush clearings called leks during the spring.

The population in the Gunnison area is the strongest and holds the majority of the birds.

None have been seen in many years in the Dolores County population around Dove Creek, BLM wildlife biologist Nate West said. However, there are known leks in the area.

Gunnison sage grouse wait for snow to recede in the spring so they can nest in sagebrush areas. (Courtesy of Colorado Parks & Wildlife)
Gunnison sage grouse primarily reside in the Gunnison Basin along with seven satellite areas. (Courtesy of Bureau of Land Management)

The EIS planning effort will incorporate habitat enhancement strategies for all eight populations as identified in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife 2020 Final Recovery Plan.

Nine BLM resource management plans in Colorado and two in Utah will be evaluated as part of the EIS and plan amendment proposals.

Based on environmental analysis and public input, the BLM will formulate management actions on multiple use activities to limit impacts to the bird.

It will involve evaluating BLM land plans “that intersect Gunnison sage grouse habitat to address management actions on oil and gas development, mining, recreation, livestock grazing, realty actions, fire management and restoration actions,” according to BLM documents. “The BLM will carefully consider how we meet the habitat needs for the Gunnison sage-grouse in balance with other multiple use activities.”

Habitat improvements to benefit the sage grouse include reducing encroachment of pinon juniper forests on sage brush plains, vegetation projects, wet meadow restoration, and reducing habitat fragmentation and disturbance.

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“The main purpose is to maintain and enhance habitat so we can help recover the Gunnison sage grouse,” BLM Sage Grouse Coordinator Leah Waldner said in a phone interview. “There is really a need to address the range-wide downward population trend and reverse that trend over time.”

In 2020, the BLM Tres Rios Field office removed 8,000 acres of pinon-juniper forest in the Dry Creek Basin area to improve habitat for sage grouse, West said.

Nonnative tamarisk removal was also part of the project. Z-dikes, a type of erosion control structure, were installed to slow down water for wetlands relied on by the bird.

Another tactic is to replace traditional fences with designs that discourage birds of prey from perching as they hunt sage grouse.

West said miles of improved fencing was stalled to prevent predators from perching and hunting the grouse. In the past, he documented 40 ravens perched on older cedar-post fences in sage grouse habitat.

Prolonged drought has also hurt sage grouse habitat. Having good summer and fall monsoons are especially important for the forbs and grasses relied on by grouse. Strong monsoon seasons correlate to improved chick survival, West said.

The BLM previously released a Gunnison Sage-Grouse Draft Amendment and Environmental Impact Statement in August 2016 but paused, and eventually canceled, the planning effort following an announcement that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service intended to complete a recovery plan for the species.

The FWS released the Final Recovery Plan for the species October 2020, which prompted the BLM to reengage in the plan amendment and EIS process to implement the habitat improvement measures.

A draft resource management plan amendment is expected to be completed by late spring, followed by a 90-day public comment period.

The final EIS and plan amendment will be released in early 2024 for a 30-day protest period, followed by a Record of Decision in June 2024.

Documents on the 2022 Gunnison sage grouse Resource Management Plan Amendment are available on the BLM ePlanning site.

In addition, there is a new interactive map available that allows users to explore the planning area and zoom in on individual populations of the bird.