By 6 a.m. most mornings from mid-March through mid-May, Nate Seward is sitting on cold ground – or snow, or mud ‒ peering through a spotting scope watching Gunnison sage-grouse perform their annual dance. But he’s not just bird-watching for fun. He’s counting the birds at areas known as “leks”, where males gather to establish their dominance and where females gather to choose a mate. The daily work by Seward is an essential component in the long-term conservation effort by Colorado Parks and Wildlife to sustain this iconic species of the American West.
Seward, a conservation biologist, has been part of a 30-year effort by CPW to keep track of these birds in the Gunnison Basin and in other areas of southwestern Colorado.
“Yes, this is pretty low tech,” Seward said recently, as he sat on a remote ridge as the light slowly gathered in the eastern sky. “But this is the cheapest, easiest and most effective way to monitor the sage grouse population.”
Besides Seward, dozens of other people from CPW, the BLM, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service make regular visits to known lek locations at this time of year.
The Gunnison Basin is a stronghold for the bird. Sagebrush covers hundreds of thousands of acres of public and private land providing grouse plenty of places to roam. CPW estimates about 4,300 birds inhabit the basin, and for the last decade, the population has remained stable. Seward explained there are 82 known lek sites in the basin that are monitored each year.
To make population estimates, observers go to lek sites about an hour before sunrise and are usually positioned about one-quarter mile to a half-mile away. Then they count the males who are easy to spot as they strut and inflate their chest sacks in displays of virility. Females are counted also but are more difficult to spot because of their brown- and gray-mottled plumage. Each morning the observer makes counts every five to ten minutes, depending on how active the birds are. The observers work to determine the “high male count” for the day.
Usually, by about 30 minutes after the sun comes up fully, the birds disperse and hide in sagebrush cover. Counters stay in place until they are confident they can leave without disturbing the birds.
Ideally, Seward explained, each lek is visited four times during the season. But that can be difficult because of weather and road conditions. This year, because of the dry weather, all the leks are accessible and will be observed. The number of birds on a lek varies widely – some hold a dozen, some have more than 20, and one lek in the basin has more than 100 birds.
After the mating season is over, Seward compiles the numbers and uses a population estimate formula” to determine the overall number of birds.
“By counting the birds we can get a rough estimate of the overall population size. But the lek counts are best for looking at population trends over time,” he said.
While most of the land in the Gunnison Basin is public, private landowners have been very cooperative in helping to maintain sage-grouse habitat, Seward explained. Many allow CPW to observe leks on their properties, many have helped with habitat improvement projects and many have permanently protected habitat through conservation easements to accommodate and conserve the birds.
“We work very hard keeping up our relationships with landowners. Their lands are essential for maintaining the population,” Seward said.
Additionally, Gunnison County is one of the few counties in the nation that employs a “wildlife coordinator” who reviews development plans so that impacts to grouse habitat are avoided or minimized. The county, BLM and U.S. Forest Service also implement seasonal road closures from March 15 through May 15 to reduce disturbances to breeding sage grouse
About 30 days after mating, the hens usually lay six to 10 eggs; and the incubation period is about 28 days. The eggs usually hatch by early June.
What happens in the first 18 hours after chicks hatch is critical to their survival. They need to find insects which provide them the protein they need to stimulate growth. And to find insects they need to find moist ground.
A crucial part of CPW’s work on Gunnison-sage grouse is improving or restoring wet meadows. Those areas provide the succulent plants that support insect populations and provide a variety of other food sources for the birds throughout the year. During the last five years, Seward has worked with The Nature Conservancy, BLM, U.S. Forest Service and ranch owners to improve small patches of wet-meadow habitat. Throughout the basin there are thousands of small springs and creeks which, over the years, have become “incised” due to various types of human activities such as road building, mining, historic livestock grazing, recreational use and others. Consequently, the water stays in a narrow channel and doesn’t spread out over the meadow which acts as a nature sponge for storing water.
To help the water reach a wider area, Seward and the partners are cooperating on building “one rock dams” and other simple rock structures to restore an area’s hydrology. Basically, rocks are laid out in areas with incised channels, usually no more than about 30 feet wide, and they serve to slow down the water and spread it out. In the last five years, 1,200 of these small structures have been built throughout the basin. Much of the construction is done by volunteers and youth conservation groups.
“The dams are simple to build but they provide a huge benefit,” Seward said.
The sage grouse chicks that find the wet areas stand a good chance of surviving the first few weeks of life. After that they’re able to fly and select suitable habitat. The hens might move their young a mile or two, or fly 20 to 30 miles, depending on habitat conditions in any given year.
Another important benefit of the wet meadows: They provide good forage for big game, other mammals, birds and livestock.
CPW is also working to bolster small populations of the Gunnison-sage grouse at Pinon Mesa near Grand Junction, in the Crawford area, in the northern San Luis Valley, in the Dry Creek Basin/San Miguel area west of Telluride, in the Dove Creek area and in the Cimarron area southeast of Montrose.
The Gunnison-sage grouse has been listed as “threatened” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. CPW continues to promote community conservation in an attempt to negate the need for federal protection.
No matter, at this time of year, Seward and others are out on the range well before most people are awake.
“This is the season when it’s daunting to be a wildlife biologist working on Gunnison-sage grouse. But they’re very cool birds worthy of our efforts.”
Written by Joe Lewandowski. Lewandowski is a public information officer for the Colorado Parks and Wildlife southwest region.