Wanted: Male sage grouse to strut their stuff
February 6, 2018
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Early this spring, under cover of darkness, a team of biologists and technicians from Colorado Parks and Wildlife will slip up on a nondescript patch of sagebrush in North Park and attempt to abduct the first of as many as 30 female and 10 male sage grouse from their breeding leks.
The biologists’ intention will be to relocate the threatened birds on breeding grounds south of Steamboat Springs in South Routt and North Eagle counties.
"We trap them in the middle of the night when they are sleeping and transport them in a box the same night," to effect a "soft release," Parks and Wildlife area biologist Libbie Miller told the Routt County Board of Commissioners on Feb. 6.
Miller told the commissioners there are three primary sage grouse zones in Northwest Colorado including the North Park population near Walden, the West Routt population and the combined SouthRoutt/North Eagle County area, where most of the breeding grounds are on private land.
She explained that biologists working for her agency have monitored the relative health of the Routt/Eagle grouse population for more than 20 years, relying heavily on counts of male birds. In the sage grouse world, females are naturally more abundant than males, so it is the strutting males with their dramatic plumage that are in highest demand on the mating leks, Miller explained.
It's all too common, Miller said, for females to tend a nest of eggs that were never fertilized.
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And while sage grouse populations naturally tend to fluctuate, the population of Routt/Eagle birds have spent too much time below the median line on the graph over the past 20 years as compared to the North Park and West Routt populations.
Miller said history has taught biologists that when male grouse gradually decline over years, a localized population of birds can go into an irreversible, downward spiral.
So, this spring's kidnapping mission is the first of three to take place over successive years to see if the Routt/Eagle grouse population can make a comeback with help from their neighbors.
The grouse have long been the focus of a concerted effort among conservationists, agriculturalists, energy producers and rural governments that share the goal of not allowing the birds to be added to the federal endangered species list. It's widely understood in the Intermountain West that listing the birds would make life harder on everyone.
However, in October 2017, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced it had begun the process of reconsidering and potentially revising a 2015 plan to protect the greater sage grouse, with a decision due in 2020.
Miller alluded to that shift in federal policy on Tuesday but told county commissioners her agency intends to pursue the recovery of the bird populations anyway.
"There's no writing on the wall (about) what we can expect in 2020, but regardless, the issues of the sage grouse won't go away," she said. "Because sage grouse occupy critical habitat, our state has taken a stance that we are going to do whatever we can to preserve populations."