Colorado’s Gunnison sage-grouse, a species for whose protection I have been advocating since discovering it in 1977, is going extinct — and Colorado is doing nothing about it.
The charismatic grouse, famous for its courtship dance, is now found only in Colorado and a sliver of Utah. The bird is disappearing along with its sagebrush habitat.
Devastatingly, 2019 marks the lowest population numbers reported as the high count for all populations was only 429 males. This is a decrease of nearly half from when counts started in 1996.
I have been working to protect the grouse for more than three decades, ever since originally noting it was a unique group of sage-grouse in 1977. It was later accepted as a distinct species in 2000.
Unfortunately, what I have witnessed during that time is a species in continuous decline.
Many of the grouse’s historic populations have been lost to residential construction, oil and gas development, grazing, and climate change.
The remaining small populations outside the Gunnison Basin need immediate help. For some of these populations — like those at Cerro Summit, Crawford, Dove Creek, and Poncha Pass — it might be too late. Several limp along year after year because birds are relocated from the population in the Gunnison Basin.
The primary population in the Gunnison Basin lost about 43 percent of its birds between 2018 and 2019 for unknown reasons. We’ve seen population fluctuations before, but the magnitude of this decrease is of serious concern.
In November 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finally listed Gunnison sage-grouse as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and protected some of its essential habitat after dragging its feet for 14 years. The agency is developing a recovery plan as a result of a settlement with conservation groups.
But unless Colorado officials, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the public step up and take dramatic action now, it might be too little, too late.
So what can be done? More than anything, we need to protect and restore the grouse’s habitat. This won’t be easy, and it will take time and effort. Here are a few ideas for what we can do today to help ensure our children can view this iconic bird tomorrow.
First, the Fish and Wildlife Service should recognize that these birds are in a critical situation, and they should be given the full safeguards of the Endangered Species Act. Wildlife listed as “endangered” under the act receive more powerful legal protections than those listed as “threatened.” Those include prohibitions against killing, harassing or destroying their habitat.
Colorado should show it is truly dedicated to protecting the grouse by finally updating the state’s Gunnison Sage-Grouse Conservation Plan to address the species’ needs.
Colorado should also allocate funds to permanently set aside essential habitat for the grouse, including land which historically supported the birds but no longer does. The state could provide incentives for private land owners to pause agricultural production or grazing on some lands, allowing them to become native sagebrush habitat again.
The state can reduce the number of open roads that crisscross the grouse’s remaining habitat, and bury existing powerlines to reduce unintended mortalities.
Colorado should also work to eliminate fencing on state and private lands that grouse crash into in low morning light while flying to mating grounds. Where fencing cannot be removed, it should be marked to decrease collisions.
This is asking a lot, but it’s not too much to save an iconic part of Colorado’s natural heritage. Gov. Jared Polis and Colorado Parks and Wildlife Director Dan Prenzlow have the opportunity to leave a lasting conservation legacy that will hopefully be enjoyed by Coloradans well into the future.
Clait E. Braun is a retired avian research program leader for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, now Colorado Parks and Wildlife.