Concern about the status, declining populations and the long-term survival of the Gunnison sage grouse started to surface in the early 90's. In 1995, the current initiative was started when the Gunnison Resource Area, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), invited all interested groups and individuals to meet and discuss the current status and potential future of the Gunnison sage grouse. More than 65 people with widely diverse perspectives attended the meeting.
Within a month, participants representing the Black Canyon Audubon Society, BLM, Colorado Division of Wildlife, Gunnison County Planning Commission, Gunnison County Stockgrowers, Gunnison County Weed Commission, High Country Citizens' Alliance, Natural Resources Conservation Service, US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and several individuals from the general public formed a core group (15-25 individuals) that began working on strategies intended to increase sage grouse populations in the Gunnison Basin.
The goal of the Gunnison Sage Grouse Working Group was to create a conservation plan that would establish a process and put into place a framework that would guide management efforts aimed at improving sage grouse populations and reverse long-term declines of the Gunnison sage grouse. The group has identified 42 factors that may have contributed to the sage grouse decline and developed over 200 conservation actions that may halt or reverse the decline.
The Conservation Plan consists of two parts. The first part, the Conservation Assessment, describes sage grouse distribution and factors that influence or affect sage grouse. The second part, the Conservation Strategy, outlines the goal and objectives, conservation actions, an implementation plan and monitoring requirements.
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Sage Grouse Distribution and Status
Sage grouse in the Gunnison Basin, Colorado, differ in physical characteristics, behavior and genetically from sage grouse in other populations throughout the species range. These findings have led to the description of a new species of sage grouse (Centrocercus minimus). The proposed new species occurs only in southwest Colorado and southwest Utah, and historically is presumed to have occurred in Arizona, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. The breeding population size is small (less than 4,000 total individuals) with the largest population (2,000-3,000 individuals) occurring primarily in Gunnison and Saguache counties, Colorado. All other populations (6) have less than 300 breeding individuals.
Factors Contributing to the Decline of Sage Grouse
The Gunnison Sage Grouse Working Group identified a list of 42 factors, grouped in three major categories, that have contributed in some way to the long-term decline of sage grouse.
- Habitat Quality : Degradation of habitat has resulted from land treatments and other uses that have changed grass, forb, and sagebrush cover, reduced organic material in the soil, and increased the loss/movement of soil resulting in changes in water table levels and basic soil productivity.
- Habitat Loss/Fragmentation : Habitat has been lost through the conversion of land from sagebrush steppe to roads, reservoirs, hay and other crops, town and ranch development, energy development, powerlines, land treatments, etc., making areas unsuitable for sage grouse use. Habitat fragmentation has resulted from roads, powerlines, reservoirs, land treatment and land conversions.
- Physical Disturbance : Physical disturbance has been caused by hunting, predators, bird watchers, off-highway vehicle use, and harassment by scientific studies. Physical disturbance can result in sage grouse death or stress particularly if it occurs during biologically critical periods (i.e. nesting, mating, brood-rearing, wintering).
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To manage the Gunnison Basin watershed in a manner that restores Gunnison sage grouse distribution and numbers as determined by the carrying capacity of the habitat:
- The minimum spring population would be at least 25 known active lek areas each with an average of 26 males. Active lek areas would be well distributed throughout the Gunnison Basin with a total spring breeding population of 2,600 sage grouse.
- The optimum spring population would be 30 known active lek areas each with an average of 30 males. Active lek areas would be well distributed throughout the Gunnison Basin with a total spring breeding population of 3,600 or more sage grouse.
The intent of this Conservation Plan is to achieve the optimum spring population goal in 15 years. Achievement of this goal will be applied site specifically and adjusted as appropriate to account for variations in site potential.
Specific conservation objectives were developed by the Gunnison Sage Grouse Working Group to address three general areas of concern; habitat quality, habitat loss/fragmentation and physical disturbance. Desired future conditions were described for important sage grouse habitat types which include: lek sites, nesting/early brood-rearing habitat, brood-rearing habitat, and winter habitat.
- Description/Desired Future Condition: These are areas used by sage grouse during the mating season where males display to attract receptive females. These sites are characterized by low vegetation with sparse shrubs often surrounded by big sagebrush dominated plant communities.
- The desired future condition of the low, open vegetation of the display ground is similar to present conditions (unless it is determined that such open areas need to be expanded or modified to enhance the value of these areas for sage grouse). The big sagebrush areas within 400 yards from the edge of the display areas have the following vegetative description. Big sagebrush canopy cover is a minimum of 20% with an average height of at least 12 inches; grass canopy cover is at least 25%. Grass leaf height (not including blue grama) averages 6 inches (previous years' residue or new growth) between March 20 and May 15.
- Fragmentation/Permanent Loss of Habitat Objective : Existing ground disturbances that fragment this habitat would be modified or reduced. New ground disturbances resulting in fragmentation or permanent loss of lek habitat or adjacent habitat would be discouraged and would not occur without adequate mitigation which meets the goal of this plan.
- Physical Disturbance Objective : Physical disturbance from human activities or by predators to sage grouse while on leks from March 20 to May 15 or within sage grouse viewing or hearing distances would be minimal and not exceed a point where the breeding group of sage grouse at any lek are unable to contribute to new individuals to the population required to meet the goal of this plan.
- Habitat Quality Objective : The vegetative description defined in the desired future condition would be evident on at least 50% in each area within 5 years.
- Nesting/Early Brood-rearing Habitat
- Description/Desired Future Condition : This habitat is characterized by big sagebrush- dominated plant communities. Nesting can begin in mid April and continue into July (some hens renest if the first nest is lost). The area in proximity to the nest is used by hens with broods up to several weeks after hatching.
- The desired future condition of nesting/early brood-rearing habitat is big sagebrush- dominated plant communities below 9200' elevation. Within two miles of leks in big sagebrush-dominated plant communities, desired future conditions are: big sagebrush, 20% canopy cover, minimum, with an average height of 16 inches, (canopy cover of big sagebrush can be up to 40% if the minimum canopy cover for grasses and forbs is met); grass 30% canopy cover, minimum; forbs (not including phlox) 10% canopy cover, minimum. Grass leaf height (not including blue grama) on 50% of these areas (previous years residue or current green growth) averages 6 inches during the period of April 15 to July 1.
- Fragmentation/Permanent Loss of Habitat Objective : Fragmentation and/or permanent loss of nesting/early brood- rearing habitat within two miles of a lek that meets or exceeds the desired future condition or has the capability to meet the desired future condition would be discouraged and would not occur without adequate mitigation which meets the goal of this plan.
- Physical Disturbance Objective : Physical disturbance by human activities or by predators to sage grouse in nesting/early brood-rearing areas between April 15 and July 1 would not exceed the level where nest survival or brood survival is below that necessary to increase to, or maintain the population at the level which meets the goal of this plan.
- Habitat Quality Objective : The desired future condition would be reached on 75% of each nesting/brood- rearing area (the area within a 2 mile radius of a lek) within 5 years.
- Brood-rearing Habitat
- Description/Desired Future Condition : This habitat is riparian plant communities associated with intermittent and perennial streams, springs, seeps and meadows that are within upland vegetation communities or along the edge of agricultural hay meadows (meadow areas within 35-50 feet, occasionally up to 165 feet from the edge of adjacent sagebrush communities). These areas are used by hens with broods from early June through the summer and into fall.
- The desired future condition for brood-rearing habitat is: riparian areas within two miles of leks are in mid seral ecological status or higher (as determined by existing NRCS vegetative classification or by the cooperative vegetation classification sponsored by the Habitat Partnership Program, U.S.D.A. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management that is underway for the Gunnison Basin).
- The stubble height of herbaceous vegetation is a minimum of 4 inches between June 15 and July 31 on 75% of the areas within 3 years. At all other times, the height of herbaceous vegetation is in a condition that sustains these productive areas to meet the needs of the landowners.
- Fragmentation/Permanent Loss of Habitat Objective : Existing surface disturbances that fragment or result in the permanent loss of this habitat would be modified, reduced or mitigated. New surface disturbing activities resulting in permanent loss and/or fragmentation of brood-rearing habitat within two miles of a lek would be discouraged and would not occur without adequate mitigation which meets the goal of this plan.
- Physical Disturbance Objective : Physical disturbance by human activities or by predators to sage grouse in brooding habitat between June 15 and July 31 would not exceed the level where hen or brood survival is below that necessary to increase to, and maintain the population at the level to meet the goal of this plan.
- Habitat Quality Objective : This desired habitat condition would be reached on 60% of the areas within 5 years.
- Winter Habitat
- Description/Desired Future Condition : The areas available to sage grouse during the winter are largely determined by snow depth. Important areas during winters of deep snow are drainages because of tall, vigorous big sagebrush growth that is consistently available even during severe winters, southerly or westerly aspects (136 degrees-315 degrees) on slopes greater than 5 degrees. Other areas used during the winter are mesa and ridge tops (5 degrees or less slope) and flat, low sites (5 degrees or less slope).
- The desired future condition for winter habitat is: big sagebrush on slopes with southerly or westerly aspects has a canopy cover of 15% minimum and an average height of 12 inches; big sagebrush in drainages has a canopy cover of 30% minimum with an average height of 20 inches. Low, flat terrain used by sage grouse during the winter has a big sagebrush canopy cover of 25% minimum with an average height of 16 inches. Scattered throughout the winter habitat are small areas that are important feeding areas where big sagebrush has greater canopy cover and height. In these areas on south and west aspects, big sagebrush has a canopy cover of 30-40% with an average height of 16"; big sagebrush in drainages and on low, flat terrain has a canopy cover of 30-40%.
- Fragmentation/Permanent loss of Habitat Objective : Fragmentation and/or permanent loss of critical winter habitat would not occur. Permanent loss of other identified winter habitat that meets or exceeds the desired future condition or has the capability to meet the desired future condition would be discouraged and would not occur without adequate mitigation which meets the goal of this plan. Existing areas of disturbed surface that fragments this habitat would be modified, reduced or mitigated.
- Physical Disturbance Objective : Physical disturbance by human activities to sage grouse on the critical winter habitat would not occur. Physical disturbance to sage grouse on critical winter habitat, other than by human activities, will be minimized. On other identified winter habitat physical disturbance to sage grouse will be minimized and not exceed the level necessary to increase to, or maintain the population at the level to meet the goal of this plan.
- Habitat Quality : The desired habitat condition would be met on 75% of the identified winter habitat within 5 years.
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The Gunnison Sage Grouse Working Group identified several conservation actions. The actions are consistent with the goal and objectives of the Gunnison Sage Grouse Conservation Plan and address issues that affect sage grouse and/or their habitat. The following summarizes the types of actions that will occur to meet specific habitat objectives.
- Information, Education and Coordination : A more coordinated approach to inform the public about the importance of sage grouse habitat and methods to improve their habitat is needed. Collectively, information and education activities are considered to be highly effective in improving sage grouse conditions in the Basin as it is believed that increasing the understanding of sage grouse needs will lead to a cooperative and coordinated effort to improve conditions. Best Management Practices will be developed to cover a variety of topics such as riparian area restoration, water development in riparian areas, road location and maintenance and livestock grazing.
- Research and Monitoring : Efforts to increase what is known about Gunnison sage grouse need to continue. Research to identify impacts to sage grouse and methods of habitat improvement are needed. Research topics could include: how predators affect sage grouse populations; the manipulation of vegetation communities by herbicides, fire, or mechanical methods; the effects of hunting on sage grouse, and how to better manage other land uses in sage grouse habitat such as livestock grazing, big game herd management, and recreation. Existing monitoring of sage grouse and their habitat needs to be continued and in some cases intensified.
- Mapping and Inventory : Sage grouse information will need to be developed and shared by all resource management agencies and made available to the public. All sage grouse habitat and related information will be identified and mapped, at a high level of accuracy, on a Geographic Information System. This should increase the understanding of sage grouse, their habitat needs and identify future improvement projects and activities. In some cases, inventory of important sage grouse habitat needs to occur before mapping.
- Permanent Loss of Habitat : Those habitats most important to sage grouse such as critical winter habitat need protection. The public will be informed about the potential of habitat loss through land uses that include development and the destruction of vegetation. Future land use proposals also need to be evaluated. Information about conservation incentives and easements to help protect habitat from permanent loss will be made available to the public.
- Habitat Quality : Restoration or improvement of the habitat quality would be accomplished in a variety of ways. Habitat could be improved by vegetation treatments; by improved management of livestock and big game; and through construction of structural improvements such as water sources, erosion control or stream channel and riparian restoration structures. The modification of existing structural impacts such as roads and powerlines that degrade or fragment habitat will be implemented.
- Physical Disturbance : Disturbance that negatively impacts sage grouse will be identified and managed. This includes predator management, predator habitat management, recreation use in sage grouse habitat, construction or surface disturbing activities, or other uses that could conflict with sage grouse during critical biological periods.
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Plan implementation will be priority-based starting with those actions the Gunnison Sage Grouse Working Group believes to be most effective at accomplishing objectives. Because over 200 conservation actions are proposed, completing all aspects of the Gunnison Sage Grouse Conservation Plan will occur over the next 15 years in five phases.
The Gunnison Sage Grouse Working Group recognizes the need to be opportunistic and carry out specific conservation actions as situations present themselves. For example, a particular conservation action might be implemented sooner than scheduled, if funding became available, or a group or individual came forward to help with completing a task.
Some actions have already begun or are ongoing. Other actions would need to be done continually throughout the plan. These are normally a matter of policy or require small changes in the way resources are managed and land use activities take place. Sometimes a land use has to be proposed or initiated by a third party before the conservation action can be applied. Examples would be a request for utility line right-of-way, a proposal to stage a recreation event, or a proposal for a housing development.
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Monitoring and Evaluation
Monitoring data will be gathered and used to evaluate progress in meeting the goal and objectives of the plan. Monitoring will be coordinated to insure that data collected will provide the needed information to assess the on-the-ground management actions and to measure progress in resolving resource problems and conflicts. This coordination will include appropriate consultation and cooperation with rangeland users, general public, landowners, academia, private organizations, and local, State, and Federal agencies.
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For more information about the Gunnison Sage Grouse Conservation Plan, or to obtain a copy of the entire plan, contact: Sandy Borthwick at the Gunnison Field Office, 650 South 11th Street, Guunison, CO 81230, or phone 970-642-4940.