Earth Notes: Gunnison Sage-Grouse

Mar 6, 2019

When people think of sage-grouse, they may think of them as birds of far northern valleys swathed in grey-green sagebrush. But there’s a distinct—and lesser-known—species that lives south of the Colorado River in Utah and Colorado. It’s the Gunnison sage-grouse, a smaller cousin of the greater sage-grouse.

A male Gunnison sage grouse
Credit BLM

Gunnison sage-grouse once ranged through southwest Colorado, southeast Utah, northeast Arizona, and northwest New Mexico—almost everywhere with big expanses of sagebrush—which the birds require for cover and for food in fall and winter.

But now its range has shrunk by 90 percent—from roads, reservoirs, recreation, overgrazing, and other factors. Rough estimates in recent years show 4,000 to 5,000 of them in all, occupying seven isolated, unconnected areas—most in the Gunnison Basin around the Colorado town of the same name, with a few scattered populations in other parts of western Colorado, and a very small group outside Monticello, Utah.

Like all sage-grouse, these birds are famous for their flashy breeding behavior. Usually around early April, at dawn, the males put on quite a show flirting with females—strutting, wagging their banded tails, and making popping sounds as they puff up neck pouches with air. The behavior is called lekking, and the clearings where the males gather are called leks. After mating, nesting begins and lasts into midsummer.

This rare local species is now federally listed as threatened. Volunteers with conservation groups are working with state wildlife agencies, building rock erosion control structures in wet meadows, critical places for sage-grouse chicks.

It turns out the best prescription for a healthy sage-grouse population is a healthy sagebrush ecosystem.