Efforts to Protect Gunnison Sage-Grouse Continue Across Counties

Sep 4, 2013

Credit U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

On Tuesday at a regular meeting, Delta County Commissioners commented on a pending wildlife ruling by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission that would affect the imperiled Gunnison sage-grouse, asking that the commission use current habitat maps to define setbacks and not require a blanket four-mile distance. KVNF's Marty Durlin has more on the threats to the iconic bird.

The Gunnison sage-grouse is known for an elaborate mating display along with a ritual  dance, or strut. And of course there’s the mating call, which sounds something like a sluggish dran.

Delta County Administrator Robbie LeValley is familiar with the long battle to save the Gunnison sage-grouse, a species that lives in western Colorado and a sliver of Utah. As the Regional Range and Livestock Specialist for Colorado State University for 23 years, LeValley was closely involved in the 20-year effort by local governments to protect the bird.

“The potential listing of the Gunnison sage-grouse as either a threatened or endangered species has been on the county’s radar since 1995,” LeValley says. “It’s been an ongoing effort to improve what we have at the local level, to show that management at the local level can and has very successfully taken care of the Gunnison sage-grouse and the habitat related to the bird.”

To protect the sage-grouse habitat, Gunnison County has moved roads and buildings, and rerouted proposed roads. Montrose and Delta County have worked with the BLM to seasonally close roads. Many issues in the listing proposal have already been addressed, says Le Valley.

“There’s a significant number of acres that are already conserved, and being managed for the bird,” she says. “That’s through conservation easements, through conservation agreements with assurances, through certificates of inclusion and through federal and state land ownership.”

But despite these efforts, the US Fish and Wildlife Service in late 2012 proposed to list the Gunnison sage-grouse as endangered, saying the population has declined not near Gunnison - where more than 4000 birds live - but in all of the smaller satellite areas.  LeValley acknowledges greater success near Gunnison but says other areas have also shown a positive difference.

“The population in the Gunnison Basin, and that’s the core area where 87 percent of the bird population is, has increased” she says. “In the Crawford population, the overall count has stayed steady, in the Piñon Mesa outside of Grand Junction, it stayed steady. Some of the satellite populations in the Paradox region, there has been a decline.”

As the principle threats to the sage-grouse, Fish and Wildlife cites habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation due primarily to development, along with the construction of infrastructure such as roads and power lines.

Livestock can trample sage-grouse nests and nesting habitat. But LeValley says there are less obvious factors.

“There’s so much that’s not known about this bird,” she says. “You know we had tremendous numbers when we had sagebrush lands in earlier seral stage. So some of the research now is looking at, is this a bird that’s more closely aligned with that early state of sage.”

“To make a broad brush statement or litigation and say that would solve everything, is not clearly understanding the complexity and is just using a hammer when we need tweezers,” she says.

LeValley predicts that pressure to list the Gunnison sage-grouse will continue. The National Audubon Society has identified the bird as one of the 10 most endangered in the country.

If granted, the listing would designate 1.7 million acres of critical habitat in Colorado and Utah. 

Gunnison sage-grouse population range map
Credit US Fish & Wildlife Service