Hope For The Gunnison Sage Grouse

“Please Take Care Of Our Gunnison Sage Grouse, by Browne Troop 10512, Gunnison, Colorado”

Impressions From The Gunnison Sage Grouse Summit, April, 2011

I just attended the Gunnison Sage-grouse Summit in Gunnison, CO; three days of presentations on all things related to saving the namesake grouse from extinction. And while the academic papers were impressive and the scope of the conservation effort mind-boggling, I kept looking at this mural made by the local Brownie Troop, a symbol of a community united for their endangered species. It also stands for hope, education, outreach, teaching kids the value of this place they call home and the fragility of an animal that may be the toughest bird out there – fragile because they need freedom to roam. I listened to the presenters talk about how our efforts will be measured 20 or 30 years from now, and thought about those Brownies just coming of age, finding their own voice. It’s part of what keeps me coming back to Gunnison, a sense of community that is real; ranchers, top Western biologists, agencies, conservationists, sportsmen, even the Brownie Troop rowing the same direction.

Jessica Divens and Brooke Palmer of the Colorado Division of Wildlife Collar a Female Gunnison Saghe-grouse.

Dr. Rick Knight challenged our values and Dr. Tom Remington cautioned us not to waste energy thinking about how things used to be; but to focus instead on what needs to be done to save the species. Ute Tribal Leader Roland McCook, in full Native American regalia gave us so much to think about by sharing a Ute perspective of the landscape and its wild inhabitants. Roland closed his talk with a sage grouse dance, a centuries old tradition passed on by an elder that knows the value of these things.

Male Gunnison Sage-grouse ready to be collared and relocated.

One presentation after another revealed the status of the bird and the coordinated effort to study behavior while improving habitat, closing roads, creating conservation easements, getting a captive breeding program up and running, trapping and relocating to troubled satellite leks, keeping recreationists on established trails, and much more. The small sub-populations outside of Gunnison Basin are in big trouble, some are down to just a few birds and their odds of survival seem almost insurmountable. I have hope for the 3,000 plus grouse in Gunnison Basin, but worry for the Dove Creek, Miramonte, Poncha Springs, and Crawford populations. I went out with Brooke Palmer and Jessica Divens of the Colorado Division of Wildlife to trap birds in the middle of the night, birds to be relocated to those leks on the verge of blinking out. I tried to wrap my ahead around Dr. William Hornaday’s dire warning about vanishing sage grouse in 1913 while watching this pair of veteran trappers working with synchronicity and compassion as Gunnison slept. We caught four grouse that night, and loaded them in a custom box bound for the Dove Creek lek in southeast Utah. I looked in their red-brown eyes with the enormous pupil and wonder what it’s like to be netted, collared, banded, and shipped to a new place with just a few grouse. The hope is they’ll mate and reproduce, and maybe 18 or 20% of the young will survive. It’s gonna be a long haul if you do the math. But I haven’t seen anything like this Gunnison community effort that extends to Montrose, Ridgway, Norwood, Telluride and Monticello; and I have no doubt that these folks – the Brownie troop included, are in it for the long haul.

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