The Gunnison sage-grouse, a smaller cousin of the greater sage-grouse, is a unique, regal-looking bird found in southwestern Colorado. In 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed it as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act. This past fall, the federal government released its recovery plan for the species, and Tuesday is the final day for public comment.
Recent reporting from Aspen Journalism digs into the Gunnison sage-grouse’s unique history — and its uncertain future.
The Gunnison sage-grouse has been listed as a “threatened” species since 2014 — how has the population fared since that listing?
Researchers say the numbers of Gunnison sage-grouse continue to decline. They use a rather complicated system to count these populations called the “high male count” and average those counts over three years. For the past several years, that high male count has declined steadily, and 2019 posted the lowest numbers since researchers began using this methodology in 1996.
About 85 percent of the total population of Gunnison sage-grouse live in the Gunnison basin, and the “threatened” listing in 2014 was largely based on declining satellite populations in eastern Utah and southwestern Colorado. In some of those locations, researchers counted between zero and seven males at each lek, which is where the grouse gather for their elaborate mating rituals.
Are these birds disappearing from areas where they once thrived?
Yes. Heather Sackett, who reported this story, talked to researchers who believe that the Gunnison sage-grouse used to roam a far larger area that included Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties. They say it disappeared from Pitkin County in the 1960s and from Eagle and Garfield Counties in the 1990s.
What’s in this new recovery plan?
It lays out target-population numbers for the bird and identifies conservation projects and actions for the next 50 years, which will cost an estimated $560 million.
The “threatened” listing in 2014 was controversial and faced lawsuits from the state of Colorado, Gunnison County and the Gunnison County Stockgrowers Association. Some groups, including the Gunnison Sage-Grouse Strategic Committee, say both the original listing and this draft recovery plan focus too much on the satellite populations, while, they say, there is a lot of work happening locally to help the species.
Biologists who study this bird and some environmental groups say the population targets are too low to ensure recovery of the species — plus, with only an estimated 2,500 or so birds remaining total, they say things are looking pretty grim for the Gunnison sage-grouse.
What kinds of conservation projects do researchers and environmentalists say could work?
They focus on preserving the sage-grouse’s habitat, known as the “sagebrush sea,” this huge expanse of silvery-green sagebrush. Western Colorado’s sagebrush sea is naturally fragmented by canyons and mountains, but it has also been chopped up by roads, trails and residential developments, and it’s affected by cattle grazing.
One researcher Heather talked to pointed to cattle grazing as the key factor standing in the way of Gunnison sage-grouse recovery.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with Aspen Public Radio and The Aspen Times on coverage of the environment.