The Gunnison sage-grouse

The Gunnison sage-grouse, found off Route 38, south of Gunnison.

The Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s recent count of Gunnison sage-grouse populations has left conservationists in fear of species loss.

In Montrose County, the Crawford population had only seven male birds, while none were counted at the Cerro Summit group, Clait Braun, Ph.D., said. Rangewide, biologists counted only 429 males.

“The situation is quite dire. … This is markedly down,” said Braun, CPW’s former avian research program manager, who helped write the species description for the bird, which was in 2014 listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Braun on Tuesday partnered with the Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians to release a statement sounding the alarm.

“By area, the Gunnison Basin had 363 of those (male) birds. … Dove Creek had zero. Mesa County had 17. Poncha Pass had five males and San Miguel County had 33. Monticello (Utah) is four,” Braun said.

The count of males indicates there are about 1,800 Gunnison sage-grouse, total, with hens included.

That is insufficient to sustain the species.

“You have to have 5,000 different individuals to have a viable population. We have 429 males. That would translate to about 1,800 total birds, male and female. That’s rangewide, all populations combined,” Braun said. “They haven’t had 5,000 for a number of years. The longterm trend is downward.”

The decline shows the lowest number since record-keeping in the 1990s, the statement Braun and the conservation groups said.

Sage-grouse numbers fluctuate in time with low population periods occurring about every 10 years, followed by periods of increasing trends, CPW said in a statement issued in response to the groups.

Lek (mating areas) counts numbers have been on the decline over the past few years, with the lowest counts this year, CPW said. Because of the anticipated changes in population trends, the agency uses a three-year running average of lek counts to “dampen the high degree of yearly variability.”

That variability makes single-year counts misleading, CPW said. The agency won’t know the extent of the lower lek count numbers mean until the next count, come spring.

“Colorado Parks and Wildlife is concerned about this year’s low count of Gunnison sage-grouse and will continue to evaluate the data and our on-the-ground efforts to manage the species and to enhance and protect habitat through treatments and conservation easements,” the agency said.

CPW cited an exceptionally dry winter of 2017 that degraded habitat, followed by deep snows in late 2018 and earlier this year it says kept biologists from accessing some of the traditional lek sites, which also affected the count. The agency does not know the full effects this had on reproduction and chick survival.

“Although we’ve experienced challenging weather extremes, we have had anecdotal observations of large numbers of sage-grouse chicks in 2019, which would be expected given very productive range conditions observed throughout the brood-rearing season,” CPW’s statement says.

Braun indicated he’s not convinced, although there was a “nice snow year,” which means more forage and usually translates to better reproduction. During most late-snow years, a “blip upward” can be expected in the population the following year, and he’s hopeful of a count of at least 500 in 2020, he said — but the decline this year is sharp.

“Where do we go through here is my question. It’s not time to hide anything. It’s time to say we have a real problem,” Braun said.

Gunnison sage-grouse survival is tied closely to sagebrush habitat, which provides cover and attracts what the birds eat. The plants are necessary for forage and even in the Gunnison Basin, where numbers are highest, the grouse are not faring particularly well due to ongoing habitat fragmentation.

“It comes down to how much habitat are you going to provide for these birds? It’s very clear the population is going to disappear. What needs to be done is a recovery plan,” Braun said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife last year settled a lawsuit brought by Braun, WildEarth, the Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project and Advocates of the West over the 2014 ESA listing, which they contended was not sufficient to protect the Gunnison sage-grouse and its increasingly fragmented habitat. Part of the settlement requires USFWS to create a recovery plan with measurable criteria.

The federal agency is producing drafts of the recovery plan right now; Braun, who was able to review the drafts, said the first go was “poor,” although the second was an improvement. He’s awaiting the next draft, which could be released as soon as today.

“Hopefully, the public will get a chance to see the recovery plan. That’s what’s going to drive the whole thing,” Braun said.

A good plan the public supports will offer the birds a lifeline; a bad one the public doesn’t support will need to go back to the drawing board, he said.

The final document will be published to the Federal Register and available to all at that point, said Jennifer Strickland, a public affairs agent with USFWS in Denver.

A public comment period will follow for 60 days and community stakeholders are welcome to reach out, she said.

Braun and the conservation groups say the current counts raise questions about the adequacy of federal and state efforts to protect the species.

“With populations plunging across Colorado, the entire Gunnison sage-grouse species is sliding toward extinction,” said Ryan Shannon, an attorney at 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.”

Greta Anderson, deputy director of Western Watersheds Project, said public lands managers are not doing enough to limit excessive grazing use in sage-grouse habitat.

The Gunnison sage-grouse have always been hemmed in by mountains and valleys, giving them strip-like habitat, with the largest habitat block occurring in the Gunnison Basin, Braun said.

That habitat and smaller habitats are being chopped up as the state’s population grows — split by such development as mining and ski areas.

“Birds don’t live well in houses. They live well in sagebrush,” he said.

“We need to manage habitat and grazing. There is no reason grazing cannot continue … proper grazing will not drive the sage-grouse to extinction, but proper grazing is not easy to define.”

Braun said ranchers should not remove more than 25 percent of herbaceous plant growth each year, but, he added, the National Resources Conservation Service allows up to 40 and 50 percent.

“I recognize people graze cows and that’s important, but I contend that you can do both,” Braun said, referring to conservation efforts.

The bird is a more petite relative of the greater sage-grouse. “It’s unique to Colorado and also southeast Utah. It’s not like the big birds (greater sage-grouse). These birds are miniatures. But, they’re a handsome bird,” he said.

“It’s one-of-a-kind. It only exists in this small area. We need to save all the unique species as possible. The ranchers don’t have free rein on public lands. They can be managed for livestock and also for sage-grouse and I favor sage-grouse.”

Local-level efforts have been made to help boost and protect the bird, through such methods as working, and, in Montrose County, a seasonal closure of C77 Road near Crawford to protect mating leks.

Montrose County also once had a habitat map with regulations for certain kinds of development on property within the boundaries of the map; its provisions were repealed earlier this year because commissioners deemed them redundant.

The road closure is helpful, Braun said. “But Montrose County also has a lot of subdivisions going in. A lot of housing is creeping into the sagebrush — because Colorado is a wonderful place to live.”

He said he’s hopeful newer leadership at CPW will help highlight the plight of the Gunnison sage-grouse.

“It’s been a massive loss of habitat and reduction in range of the Gunnison sage-grouse,” Braun said, highlighting various types of development.

“You can’t put your finger on one thing. There’s a lot of different things involved in it. But it’s a massive reduction.”

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

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