For the birds |

For the birds

Kathy Heicher
Special to the Daily/Bill Heicher A male sage grouse struts near a female grouse in northern Eagle County. The birds, considered to be on the verge of extinction in the area, could lose habitat if a proposed reservoir is built north of Wolcott. The reservoir, however, could help save three species of endangered fish.

Greater sage grouse, the large, ground-dwelling birds that some locals call “sage chickens,” are on the verge of extinction in Eagle and southern Routt counties.

Experts aren’t sure why local grouse numbers have dwindled from a population of several thousand a few decades ago to an alarmingly small number now. What wildlife experts do know is that steps must be taken to preserve and improve the habitat for these upland game birds if they are to remain a stable part of the northern Eagle County ecosystem.

In Washington, D.C. the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is at this moment contemplating whether the greater sage grouse should be listed as a threatened and endangered species. That review should be complete within the next 12 months.

In northern Eagle County and southern Routt County, a coalition of ranchers, citizens, Colorado Division of Wildlife, Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management officials have been considering that issue for about the last five years. By June, they expect to complete a local conservation program that spells out specific measures for protecting sage grouse habitat.

If the strategies prove effective, the local conservation plan could help to rally the county’s faltering sage grouse numbers into a healthy population. If federal officials decide to list sage grouse as an endangered species, local conservation groups will be ahead of the game.

“If sage grouse happen to become a listed species, we would have a recovery plan in place. That’s what the Fish and Wildlife Service likes to see,” says Colorado Division of Wildlife district manager Craig Wescoatt.

Birds that strut

Greater sage grouse are good-sized birds, with long, pointed tail feathers. They are bigger than domestic chickens, but smaller than geese.

This is the time of year when the normally drab male birds put on colorful displays with a courting ritual called “strutting.” The courting rituals take place only when the birds can find a suitable “lek,” the technical name for the opening in the mature sage brush country they find necessary for survival.

Courting males fan their tails, then inflate and deflate bright, mustard-colored air sacks on their chests emitting loud, “bloop-bloop” sounds to attract female birds. Without a breeding ground, the bird’s don’t strut, the mating doesn’t occur, and the grouse populations dwindle.

Sage grouse once populated 23 western Colorado counties but are now found in only 15 counties. Only five of those counties have sage grouse populations considered “persistent” and consisting of more than 500 breeding birds.

At one time, there was a large enough population of sage grouse in the Eagle area and north of Wolcott to warrant a hunting season. That picture has changed dramatically.

Sage grouse haven’t been found around Eagle since 1995. What sage grouse can be found in the country north of Wolcott are considered a remnant population. Bird numbers have dwindled to the point that there has been no sage grouse hunting season locally for the past five or six years.

Division of Wildlife habitat biologist John Toolen estimates there are currently 30 to 40 greater sage grouse in Eagle County. The combined population of the Eagle County-south Routt County flock is probably about 300 birds, says Toolen.

“There aren’t a lot of birds left in Eagle County,” he says.

Development pressure

The key to a healthy sage grouse population is large, contiguous sagebrush-dominated habitat and grassy undergrowth necessary for successful nesting, survival for early broods, and surviving winter conditions.

Tom Remington, avian research leader for the Division of Wildlife, says the sage grouse population in Eagle County is marginal, although they can still be found in the northern reaches of the county, with the grouse population extending into Routt County.

“We’ve lost them south of I-70,” he says, noting that in virtually every case where sage grouse numbers are down, there has been some type of habitat conversion from sage brush to something else.

In ranching areas, the habitat is often lost to livestock grazing or land treatments that clear sagebrush for various purposes. In areas south of I-70 habitats have also fallen victim to subdivisions and growth. Even in large-acre subdivisions, structure building and road construction fragments critical habitat.

Wildlife biologists have also found that power lines hurt sage grouse populations, because the poles provide perching places for eagles and hawks, which prey on sage grouse.

“Populations have certainly declined in Eagle County because of development,” says Remington.

The Eagle-Routt county group first started working on a conservation plan five years ago. That effort went dormant for some time, but since last fall, the coalition has been meeting monthly to draw up a conservation plan.

Conservation plan

Wescoatt said the soon-to-be completed conservation plan being drawn up by the local coalition spells out some specific steps that public and private land owners can take to protect the habitat.

Local power companies have agreed to bury power lines near sage grouse breeding areas. Land managers have agreed to adopt some “best management practices” such as leaving some sage brush untouched, and leaving wet meadows for nesting and brooding. The Bureau of Land Management is working on keeping motor bike riders out of critical sage grouse habitat.

Jill Schlegel, whose family has operated a cattle ranch in northern Eagle county for several generations, is one of the ranchers participating in the Eagle-Routt County working group. She says the parameters the group is working out are “pretty reasonable.”

Although in the 1970s sage grouse were a somewhat common site in northern Eagle County, not many are seen these days. The population in Routt county is bigger, she says.

The conservation measures the partnership has agreed on for ranchers involves monitoring the number of cows in specific areas during the grouse nesting and breeding season. Schlegel said she and her family are also considering putting in some ponds to disperse game animals and cattle, and to provide water for the sage grouse chicks.

“When a rancher manages correctly for cattle, we will be maintaining the forbs, grasses and cover for the needs of the grouse, too,” she says.

A cog in the wheel

Like many ranchers, the Schlegels are also keeping an eye on the official status of the species.

“I suppose things will change if they do become endangered. There will be more regulation on us. That won’t be good,” says Schlegel.

Still, she’s says, she’s pleased with the efforts of the partnership group and the work they did to reach various stake-holders, such as electric companies and recreationists, for input into the plan.

The plan will also call for ranchers to limit pinion and juniper stands, in order to limit raptors from preying on sage grouse.

“All the groups are doing what they can to preserve the bird, which has been really nice,” says Wescoatt. “We have recovered the past 10 years to some extent. A 500-grouse population for northern Eagle County and southern Routt County combined is the goal- that’s what we consider a sustainable population.”

Wescoatt has visited a breeding area within the past week, and has seen sage grouse strutting-an encouraging sign, he says.

Toolen has an answer to the question of why people should be concerned about the status of the greater sage grouse in Eagle County.

“It is one of the things that once was here. I don’t think it is necessarily our place to say it shouldn’t be here any more,” he says, “It’s one of the cogs in the wheels of the ecosystem.”

Support Local Journalism