The life and rituals of Northwest Colorado’s native grouse
April 14, 2013
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect a change in the date for a Columbian sharp-tailed grouse tour. The tour now is April 24.
To catch a grouse in its mating dance, you have to wake long before the break of dawn and travel to a lek, likely finishing the journey on foot.
The birds are sensitive to human incursions into their dancing arena, so you have to tread lightly or be in a bird blind during the rite. When the sun rises — perhaps behind a veil of snow and clouds as might happen on a spring morning in Northwest Colorado — the males begin to dance.
The word lek, which describes the arena where males fight for mates, comes from the Swedish term for "play place," according to Cameron Aldridge, an assistant professor at Colorado State University who studies grouse. Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, which are the most common type of grouse in Routt County, gather in an area about 100 feet in diameter. Bunches form where dominant males win and defend territory and lesser males are shooed away.
With heads inclined forward and tails up, the males spread their wings, stamp around in circles and chase others before suddenly stopping and sitting down. The quick stomping of sharp-tails dancing forms a drumming noise. In snow, it leaves behind churned tracks spinning in loops and figure eights. Columbian sharp-tailed grouse weigh about 1 1/2 pounds and have white spots on brown wings.
The males have orange combs over their eyes and purple air sacs they can inflate on their necks. The bird was once found in 20 counties across the state but now is located in just three: Routt, Moffat and Rio Blanco. Overall, it has lost 90 percent of its original habitat.
There are seven leks on Wolf Mountain north of Hayden, according to Mike Figgs, an independent contractor field biologist who has been completing baseline studies on the ranch. There's a lek almost every mile along one ridge, he said, adding that the area is basically at capacity for sharp-tailed grouse.
The birds return to the same spots year after year, making mating areas integral to the perpetuation of the species. When preserving leks conflicts with human activity — such as development, construction or energy exploration — tension can occur.
The state's history with Columbian sharp-tailed grouse and greater sage grouse, which also live in Northwest Colorado, has been a mix of depletion and protection dating back to the first days of statehood.
In the book "Birds of Colorado," published by the Denver Museum of Natural History in 1965, Alfred M. Bailey and Robert J. Niedrach wrote the following about the greater sage grouse:
"The story of this grouse since the coming of white settlers to the sage-covered plains is similar to that of many other of our upland game birds and waterfowl. Prior to the arrival of immigrants, Sage Grouse occurred in unbelievable numbers, for although the native people were dependent upon game for food, they killed with arrows and their toll upon the flocks was practically nil. Through the centuries, the grouse became dependent upon, and, for the most of the year, were closely confined to sage and associated plant habitats. Then came the white man with his plow, his cattle — and gun, and so many grouse were slaughtered that laws for their protection were passed by the first State Legislature in 1877."
Greater sage grouse are especially sensitive to changes in their habitat, and although Columbian sharp-tails are more resilient, protecting the areas where leks occur is paramount to the continued health of the birds. "About 90 percent of the known birds and leks we know of occur on private property," Jeff Yost, a terrestrial wildlife biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said about Columbian sharp-tailed grouse in Northwest Colorado. "Most of where they are right now in Colorado is on former wheat fields or mine reclamation," Parks and Wildlife research scientist Anthony Apa said about sharp-tails. About one-third of the bird's total population is in Colorado, according to Apa.
Records of leks and birds have risen drastically since the 1990s because of increased effort in studying the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, Yost said, not necessarily from any real increase in population. The Columbian sharp-tails' ability to adapt to different types of habitat has helped it thrive on mine reclamation projects, such as the Grassy Creek Twenty-Mile Land Trust south of Hayden, and Conservation Reserve Program lands where owners are paid to return area to grass cover and not farm it.
"In the mid-'80s, there was great concerns about habitat loss," Apa said. "The (Conservation Reserve Program) program was its salvation."
"You can go out there and plant another habitat for sharp-tails, and they will use it," Yost said.
The Columbian sharp-tailed grouse has been petitioned twice to be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and was denied both times.
"There's some concern about oil and gas development, but we don't know what the effects are," Apa said.
"Right now, we don't know much about how much disturbance the sharp-tails will tolerate," Yost said. "We put restrictions and stipulations on activities within certain distances of the lek site and timing restrictions."
Apa is conducting a pilot study to test research techniques designed to gauge how much disturbance the birds can take.
Wolf Mountain is a microcosm of the current environment for grouse. Five conservation easements have been established, protecting more than 16,000 acres or about 85 percent of the area, and the ranch also hosts energy exploration that recently paused to accommodate leks and won't restart until Aug. 1.
Quicksilver Resources, which operates oil wells on Wolf Mountain, has contributed the funds that allow Figgs to complete baseline studies. This is the second year of studying the grouse on the ranch.
"We feel very comfortable with the relationship we've been able to develop with that particular operator," ranch manager Brent Romick said about Quicksilver's work at Wolf Mountain, noting that the company has complied with the majority of the suggested best practices related to the grouse.
Romick said the ranch has to protect the investments made by Parks and Wildlife and others who've contributed funds to easements in addition to protecting the conservation ideals of the ranch's owner, Bob Waltrip.
Sometimes that means operators have only a few months to work between restarting in the fall and halting for weather in the winter, according to Romick and Figgs.
Although the effects of energy exploration disruption still are being studied, the loss of Conservation Reserve Program land is a known threat to sharp-tails. Areas in the program must reapply every 10 to 15 years. If there's not enough money in the program or an owner decides to pull out, the land could be returned to crop production or grazed.
Tearing up the bunchgrass or brome typically used for the program is an arduous task, Yost said, but landowners will try to get some use out of the land. "With federal budgets being cut, these programs have taken a hit. The total number of acres have taken a hit," Yost said. "We can look at Northwest Colorado and say things are looking good. If all the (Conservation Reserve Program) goes away or goes back into wheat or gets grazed down, it could really reduce the number of birds."
"That's a real key piece of the whole thing," Yost said. "If you've got a landowner who's interested in keeping habitat and preserving habitat, that's a huge thing."
Greater sage grouse
Although the larger grouse is less common in Routt County, historically, greater sage grouse have shared some habitat with sharp-tails. In "Birds of Colorado," Bailey and Niedrach wrote about sharp-tails breeding near sage grouse:
"Often they range the same country occupied by the sage-grouse; on May 18, 1937 we found a strutting area eight miles north of Steamboat Springs, on an open knoll in sage within a half mile of the courtship grounds of the larger grouse. Eighteen males assembled before the break of day, and several females came to the area, the actions of the birds being similar to those of the prairie race P.p. jamesi."
Both birds are known to lek on Wolf Mountain. Although sharp-tails are plentiful on the ranch, the greater sage grouse has not been spotted lekking this year, according to Romick.
Sage grouse populations tend to fluctuate on a seven- to nine-year cycle, said CSU's Aldridge, whose research focuses on greater sage grouse and Gunnison sage grouse. He said there is not a definite answer for why those fluctuations occur.
With greater sage grouse, there tends to be a lot more overlap between their habitat and oil and gas activities, Aldridge wrote in an email, noting that populations have been shown to decline in areas with energy development. "We don't have a perfect handle on what these mechanisms are," he wrote. "Developments can fragment and degrade habitat, resulting in avoidance by grouse, or reduced survival or reproduction from direct mortality or changes in predators."
The geological formations that are responsible for prime sagebrush habitat for the grouse also are responsible for the energy resources below the surface, he said.
Sage grouse, more so than sharp-tails, are facing long-term declines.
"There's been a tremendous amount of work done trying to make sure the species doesn't need to be listed," Aldridge said about long-term, sustainable range management practices that have been generally compatible with high quality sage grouse habitat.
"They're a pretty magnificent species," he said. "Anybody who hasn't seen these birds should go out and take a look." Greater sage grouse lek earlier than sharp-tails in Northwest Colorado, according to Figgs. Conservation Colorado ran viewing tours for sage grouse in Moffat County and in North Park near Walden during the first two weeks of April.
An opportunity to view Columbian sharp-tailed grouse lekking is April 24 when District Wildlife Manager Danielle Domson will be leading a tour south of Hayden. The cost is $25 per person, and those interested can call 970-871-9151 to sign up.
The mating rituals of sage grouse and sharp-tails are similar but different, Aldridge said. While sharp-tails dance, sage grouse strut, inflating their large, white chests.
"They're both very unique species with mating behavior and fidelity to the site," Apa said.
"They compete for territories and defend those, making their ritualistic displays and noises," Aldridge said, "in hopes of asking a lady out to the dance."