The Gunnison Sage Grouse has recently been recognized as a separate species ( Centrocercus minimus) based on a variety of physical and behavioral differences. This has created an increased demand to view the birds. They live only in a patchy distribution of sagebrush habitats in SW Colorado and SE Utah. By far, the largest remaining population lives in the upper part of the Gunnison River Basin near Gunnison, Colorado. As with many grouse, the best chance to see the birds is when they are displaying on their leks or strutting grounds. These are specific places that they can be found at specific times. But it is important to remember that the mating behavior at these leks is a critically important time in the lives of these scarce birds. If visitor activity disturbs the birds then they are more likely to abandon the lek and less likely to reproduce for the year. This can contribute to the decline of the population.
The Gunnison Sage Grouse has been declining in its range so a Working Group has been formed made up of partners such as the BLM, State Division of Wildlife, the Audubon Society, Gunnison County, grouse researchers, ranchers and other interested parties who are working together to manage these birds and their habitat. We are continually discussing the best way to balance the needs of the birds with human activities in their habitat. The following are our recommendations for those who want to view this species without threatening their survival.
Viewing them on the lek - We have located one lek that is best suited for public viewing. It is located on private land east of Gunnison. To get there, follow Hwy 50 east from the main stoplight in Gunnison for about 18 miles to the turnoff on your left for Waunita Hot Springs (County Rd. 887). Follow that road for a half mile to a Watchable Wildlife sign (Binoculars) on the right hand side. This map will help you locate the site. The trip will take about a half hour depending on road conditions. Park along side the road behind the plywood wall and view the lek from that point. We ask that you stay in your car while you are observing the birds to avoid chasing them from the lek. Do not climb the fence to get closer to the lek or you will be trespassing.
The lek is located east of the road between 200 and 400 yards so a spotting scope with a window mount comes in handy but binoculars will work fine also. It is best to get there an hour before sunrise and wait quietly for the birds to come into focus. They will typically strut for the first hour or two of the day and activity is usually over by 8:00am. We ask that you stay at the lek until there is no longer any activity to avoid scaring the birds away with the noise of your vehicle. There is no bathroom on site so you should go before you leave town and take it easy on the coffee.
We understand you would like to get closer for a better look but at this time it is not possible without risking impacts to the birds. They are very wary while on the lek and are easily startled. We are already seeing some decline in the numbers of birds attending this lek as a result of the noise and disturbance caused by birders even from this distance. The strutting season runs from early April to early May with the middle of April being the most active time. Pets should be left at home. Please don't make any noise or shine any lights while viewing the birds. Bring your long johns and hot chocolate because the mornings can be cold that time of year (-5 to +15 degrees F).
Viewing them at other times of the year - It is not recommended to look for the birds during the nesting season (May and June). Sage Grouse have a high rate of nest abandonment if disturbed so scaring a hen off her nest can have bad consequences for the eggs or young. Wait until the summer months of July, August or September when the hens are guiding their young through their brood rearing phase. They are most often found in sagebrush areas where the sage is high (2 ft or more) with grasses and forbs growing beneath it. Drainages or springs with a bit more grass are usually popular hangouts.
For further information on the Sage Grouse and up to date info on activity at the Waunita lek check out this website link .