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Vanishing act

Staff Reports

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.But there’s more at stake than the health of the sage grouse: development and real estate prospects in the valley could be severely limited if the sage grouse attains endangered species status. Much like the spotted owl of the Northwest or the lynx right here at home, the sage grouse could become an unwitting player in the very complex political battle that pits developers against conservationists.In northern Eagle County and southern Routt County, a coalition of ranchers, citizens, Colorado Division of Wildlife, Forest Service and BLM officials have been considering the sage grouse issue for about the last five years.By late August, these organizations expect to have a finalized Draft Conservation Plan. The plan guides efforts at improving sage-grouse populations and habitat in the Eagle/Southern Routt County area. Issues addressed in the draft plan include: power lines and utilities; habitat change; disease; pesticides; land use changes; residential development; reservoir and water issues; recreation; grazing by wild and domestic animals; and predation. The plan also outlines future strategies to keep affected parties and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) informed about the greater sage grouse populations in the area.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 District Wildlife Manager Craig Wescoatt of the CDOW.Several elements in the political structure are hoping that the grouse doesn’t require endangered status and are working to help the bird stay out of that category. Among those elements is Colorado Senator Wayne Allard (R).”The senator supports the conservation efforts to keep the grouse off the endangered species list,” said Allard spokeswoman Angela de Rocha.Birds that strutGreater 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 the lek, 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” (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. CDOW habitat biologist John Toolen estimates there are currently 30-40 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. Population estimates are based on lek counts. Toolen says 11 male grouse were counted in leks on Eagle County last year. That figure extrapolates out to the estimated 30-40 local sage grouse population.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 CDOW, 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 such as Eagle County, south of I-70 habitats also fall 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 planWescoatt 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 lek 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 BLM 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.”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.Like many ranchers, the Schlegels are 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 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.”It’s a multi-effort. All the groups are doing what they can to preserve the bird, which has been really nice,” says Wescoatt.He says Eagle County is becoming very borderline for sage grouse.”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 adds. He notes that he visited a lek recently, and has seen sage grouse strutting an encouraging sign.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.” VT By Kathy HeicherColorado has 33 threatened and endangered plant and animal species.Key:E EndangeredT ThreatenedXN Experimental Population, Non-EssentialAnimals 20StatusListingTBear, grizzly lower 48 States, except where listed as an experimental population (Ursus arctos horribilis)EButterfly, Uncompahgre fritillary (Boloria acrocnema)EChub, bonytail (Gila elegans)EChub, humpback (Gila cypha)ECrane, whooping (except where XN) (Grus americana)XNCrane, whooping [XN] (Grus americana)TEagle, bald (lower 48 States) (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)EFerret, black-footed (except where XN) (Mustela nigripes)XNFerret, black-footed [XN] (Mustela nigripes)EFlycatcher, southwestern willow (Empidonax traillii extimus)TLynx, Canada (lower 48 States) (Lynx canadensis)TMouse, Preble’s meadow jumping (Zapus hudsonius preblei)TOwl, Mexican spotted (Strix occidentalis lucida)EPikeminnow, Colorado (except Salt and Verde R. drainages, AZ) (Ptychocheilus lucius)TPlover, piping (except Great Lakes watershed) (Charadrius melodus)TSkipper, Pawnee montane (Hesperia leonardus montana)ESucker, razorback (Xyrauchen texanus)ETern, least (interior pop.) (Sterna antillarum)TTrout, greenback cutthroat (Oncorhynchus clarki stomias)EWolf, gray (lower 48 States, except MN and where XN; Mexico) (Canis lupus)Plants 13StatusListingEMilk-vetch, Mancos (Astragalus humillimus)EMilk-vetch, Osterhout (Astragalus osterhoutii)EWild-buckwheat, clay-loving (Eriogonum pelinophilum)TMustard, Penland alpine fen (Eutrema penlandii)TButterfly plant, Colorado (Gaura neomexicana coloradensis)TBladderpod, Dudley Bluffs (Lesquerella congesta)ECactus, Knowlton (Pediocactus knowltonii)EBeardtongue, Penland (Penstemon penlandii)EPhacelia, North Park (Phacelia formosula)TTwinpod, Dudley Bluffs (Physaria obcordata)TCactus, Unita Basin hookless (Sclerocactus glaucus)TCactus, Mesa Verde (Sclerocactus mesae-verdae)TLadies’-tresses, Ute (Spiranthes diluvialis)


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