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Gunnison sage grouse struggle in Southwest Colorado

Threatened species missing from Dove Creek population

Gunnison sage grouse are hanging on in Southwest Colorado, but their numbers are dropping, and the population in Dove Creek might have disappeared.

The plucky, ground-dwelling bird famous for its elaborate spring courting dance was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 2015.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife calculates grouse population in part by three-year running averages of the number of strutting males found during surveys.

Population drops

CPW estimates there are 429 strutting males rangewide, compared with 1,129 strutting males in 2015. No strutting males have been found in the Dove Creek population in four years.

Based on a three-year population average, CPW estimates total 2019 population at 2,700 birds, down from 4,000 birds in 2015.

According to an analysis by Western Watershed, there could be as few as 1,800 birds left.

“With populations plunging across Colorado, the entire Gunnison sage grouse species is sliding toward extinction,” said Ryan Shannon, of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Another bad year for the main Gunnison basin population could spell disaster, so state officials need to leap into action to help these amazing birds.”

Habitat

The majority of Gunnison sage grouse live in the Gunnison Basin. Others are scattered in eight satellite populations including include Dolores and San Miguel counties and southeast Utah near Monticello.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife has released a draft recovery plan for Gunnison sage grouse and is seeking public comment.

Environmental groups say the plan won’t save the bird, which is found only in Southwest Colorado and southeast Utah.

Grouse advocates say the decline shows current efforts by land managers have failed to protect the bird’s sagebrush habitat from oil and gas development, roads, noise, power lines and grazing.

Larger buffers separating critical habitat from development are needed, said Clait Braun, retired avian research manager for CPW.

“It is not enough what we are doing; we need to do more,” Braun said.

He recommended restricting times of cattle and energy operations, reducing grazing in some areas, temporarily closing roads during spring mating and nesting times, reducing fencing that kills low-flying grouse and burying power lines to prevent roosts for birds of prey.

About 42% of current grouse habitat is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and 43% by private landowners.

“Recovery depends on voluntary cooperation and willing participation of private landowners,” the recovery plan states.

Recovery plan

BLM and CPW officials are concerned about low survey counts and say efforts to support the bird face continued challenges.

Issues include habitat loss, fragmentation, drought, genetic variability and development pressure, said Kathy Griffin, species coordinator for CPW.

The recovery plan focuses on sustaining the stronger Gunnison Basin population. The Dove Creek population has been nonexistent for a few years, based on surveys, Griffin said.

“Under the recovery plan, the focus for Dove Creek will be preserving sagebrush habitat in the hopes the bird will return,” she said.

Leks – cleared areas in the sagebrush where males strut, pop air sacks, display feathers and fight other males to win over females – have not been found in the Dove Creek area.

Transplanting an option

Transplanting some birds to the area could be an option, but officials say they’d want some birds to remain in the area so they can help show the new arrivals the territory, nesting grounds and water sources. The recovery plan does not establish demographic targets for the Dove Creek population.

However, the Piñon Mesa population, south of Grand Junction, and San Miguel Basin population, near Norwood and Naturita, “have existing habitat that could support more than the current number of birds; therefore, augmentation should begin there,” according to the draft recovery plan.

Heavy low-elevation snowpack last winter and spring limited access for surveys, and might be part of the reason for the lower count overall.

A researcher holds a Gunnison sage grouse chick.

But because the moisture created large crops of forbs and grasses for the grouse to eat, wildlife managers hope for a higher chick count this spring.

Rebound possible

“Grouse populations fluctuate a lot. We may see a rebound on the next survey,” Griffin said.

She said private land with sage grouse habitat put into Conservation Reserve Programs and conservation easements also is helpful.

In one case, a proposed housing development in grouse habitat was avoided when the land was put into a conservation easement. Another grouse habitat treatment is to reduce piñon-juniper encroachment on sagebrush.

“They need what is called a sea of sage,” Griffin said. “What you see in satellite areas are more fragmented habitat and more oak brush.” The birds rely on sagebrush for food in the winter, and for nesting.

Captive rearing

Raising captive sage grouse is very expensive, Griffin said. Fostering programs that hatch eggs from wild grouse, then return the chicks to the nest, also has worked.

The recovery plan calls for removing the grouse from the federal list of threatened species once there are 3,669 birds in the Gunnison population for seven of nine years.

Critics want the target to be 5,000 birds spread out among different areas to support genetic diversity.

Gunnison sage grouse primarily reside in the Gunnison Basin and eight satellite areas.

By not conserving satellite populations, and placing “all the eggs in the Gunnison Basin basket” puts the species at a higher risk of extinction from some unforeseen catastrophic event in that area, Braun said.

Gunnison sage grouse tourism to witness the early spring lek dance is growing. It involves hunkering down in remote sagebrush at 4 a.m., then waiting for first light when the displays occur some distance away.

“It is spectacular watching the interaction, the dancing and fights. In some leks, there will be 10 males,” Griffin said. “It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

jmimiaga@the-journal.com

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