Group works to save sage grouse

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— When Lewis and Clark journeyed west across North America, they encountered a chicken-like bird that was black, white and brown and ruled sagebrush areas. The explorers named it the "cock of the plains."

The greater sage grouse is still found in sagebrush across the country, but its numbers are dwindling in some places, including South Routt County.

The birds used to be hunted in the Yampa and Toponas area, but now there are fewer than 100 males, not enough to make hunting legal, said Susan Werner, area manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

"They are a species that's at risk," Werner said. "The risk is that the population will drop too low, and they'll end up becoming either a threatened species or an endangered species. Right now they're not, but we want to keep it that way."

To come up with a plan to support the species, residents, wildlife officials and others have been meeting since March. The group's next meeting is tonight in Yampa.

The plan that the group ultimately designs would be strictly voluntary and would offer guidance for developing and managing land in a way that supports the birds.

For instance, if the county decided to build a new road, the plan would suggest that the road avoid critical breeding or wintering ranges for the birds, Werner said.

Populations of the greater sage grouse have varied over the years, said John Toolen, a DOW habitat biologist who coordinates the group.

In 1958, there were only about 100 male birds in the Yampa and Toponas area, which is about the same number as there are now. But in the 1960s, that number hit about 240, and in the 1980s, it dipped as low as 50, he said.

The instability of the birds' population could be due to several factors, such as a loss of the sagebrush habitat, Werner said.

Other reasons for the population fluctuations include construction of power lines, which provide perching sites for birds of prey that kill the greater sage grouse, as well as disease.

"They're not doing very well," Werner said. "Who knows why? There are just a lot of things we don't know."

The birds are an important part of the area's ecosystem and also provide an attraction for bird watchers across the nation, Werner said.

One of the most popular times to watch the birds is in the spring, when the males put on an elaborate dancing show to attract females to mate.

"The spring dancing is really spectacular," Werner said. "The male puffs ups his chest and booms ... and dances with other males in this kind of 'I'm better looking than you' way."

The meeting for Greater Sage Grouse Conservation Plan for South Routt and North Eagle counties is at 6:30 p.m. today at the Ladies Aid Hall, 83 E. First St., Yampa.

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