Northwest Colorado: last sustainable stand for iconic birds
Pronghorn and greater sage grouse interact north of Craig. Photo courtesy Sasha Nelson/Colorado Environmental Coalition.
Steamboat Springs, Co - Early spring’s sun has yet to rise over the vast open range north of Craig. The intoxicating smell of sage is heady, even with a giant wool scarf wound around my head and a puffy down jacket peeking over the tip of my nose. Using pre-dawn stealth, my compadres and I slink toward a white trailer on the edge of the snowy sagebrush. No one dares disturb any of the grouse we know are burrowed in nearby. Laden with cameras, blankets and binoculars, we’re sneaking in at the height of mating season, prepared to spend the next few hours spying on their master bedroom.
This is a lek – the dancing ground where male sage grouse demonstrate, with substantial pomp, their ability to procreate. Ninety percent of all the birds’ breeding occurs within a 5.3 mile radius around each lek. The ritual proves mesmerizing.
At first light, odd plinking sounds rise out of the grass. It sounds like African water drums popping and thumping on indiscriminate beats. A scattered group of 25 sage grouse, a mix of flashy males and dowdy females, comes into focus. Prancing ensues. Feisty combat erupts.
“It’s like bars everywhere,” veteran sage grouse conservationist and Wyoming Audubon Society Director Brian Rutledge told a crowd gathered at the Bud Werner Memorial Library last spring. “Everyone shows up to dance but only one male does the breeding.”
At the turn of the last century, the sage grouse population was estimated at 19 to 30 million birds. In such abundance, these plump, ground-dwelling birds with long, spiky feathers fed the eastern migration of Native Americans and the western migration of Europeans. Grouse can be up to 30 inches long, two feet tall, and weigh up to seven pounds. Turkeys are the only larger birds in North America.
Grouse were once an icon of the West, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the population has decreased between 69 and 99 percent from historic levels across 13 states. The birds have dwindled into a smaller and smaller range (and a reduced gene pool), leaving Northwest Colorado as ground zero for the survival of this 40 million year-old species. The world’s largest and most sustainable population of greater sage grouse now extends from Northwest Colorado through southwest Wyoming, Rutledge says. Unfortunately, “change is not their forte,” he says.
In 2010, seven years after a petition was filed, the USFWS concluded that the greater sage grouse warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act. But it remains “precluded” on a candidate species list, as species with more immediate and severe threats of extinction take priority.
While other sagebrush-dwelling species like pronghorn and mule deer have declined as well, grouse have emerged as an indicator species for the West’s fractured sagebrush habitat. The birds are wholly dependent upon the sagebrush for food, shelter and mating rituals. “They stand up in the spring and say, ‘count me.’ They give us great science,” Rutledge says. Scientists have nearly three decades of lek counts.
Once upon a time, the pervading mentality was “good sagebrush is dead sagebrush.” But with the threat of grouse hitting the endangered species list, there is suddenly a lot more interest in how to restore sagebrush. It’s a big task, since sagebrush has been divided by everything from farms and ranches to oil and gas wells, coal mines, off road vehicle trails and subdivisions, for over a century. Also, no one really knows how to reclaim it yet. Damaged sagebrush ecosystems can take 25 to 100 years to recover. And sage rehabilitation is not like wetlands – alternate mitigation sites are not allowed.
Grouse were built without gizzards to live solely off the sage. Old stands of big, mature sage offer their best chance of survival. Conservation efforts to keep greater sage grouse off the endangered species list have been multi-disciplinary – but have involved some intense head-butting. The birds’ drumming and thumping is about vibration, not sound. In other words, an oil or gas compressor can kill a lek. This is why new oil and gas permits generally restrict development between March and July.
“Human activity is anathema to these birds,” Rutledge says. “And sage grouse taste terrible. Unfortunately we’re not going to get a gourmet sage grouse program going to draw extra attention to them.”
Want to see the greater sage grouse dance? Colorado Environmental Coalition and Colorado Parks and Wildlife offer opportunities to watch the greater sage grouse courtship at an undisclosed lek in late March and early April. Trips leave from Craig around 4:30 a.m., driving roughly an hour north of town, and return mid to late morning after the birds have finished. Viewings take place within the confines of a trailer. Specific dates and sign-up information at www.ourcolorado.org.