As the sharp-tailed grouse walks the line of being added to the endangered species list, an effort by private landowners and ranchers is helping the struggling grouse population.
The Colombian sharp-tailed grouse was once one of the most abundant upland game birds in North America. Since it was first noted by Lewis and Clark during their exploration of the Columbian River Basin, its population has declined dramatically.
Northwest Colorado is one of the last strongholds of the birds, due in part to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the reclamation of mined lands.
The Biodiversity Legal Foundation filed a petition in 1995 that prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to review the status of the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse throughout the United States.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is collecting information from all western states within historical grouse range. The agency will then determine whether to list the bird as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
In a letter in December to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) described the conservation effort and the positive effect it has had on the sharp-tailed population.
"In some areas of the nation the threatened or endangered status of the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse may be warranted," said Rick Hoffman, a DOW researcher. "In northwestern Colorado, though, the birds are doing so well there are now opportunities to reintroduce the species into formerly occupied habitat elsewhere in the state. We have conducted extensive surveys in the last three years that show the population is pretty healthy."
The recovery of the grouse population in Northwest Colorado can be traced to conservation efforts by the mining industry and private landowners.
Researching the sharp-tailed grouse population is done by identifying leks. A lek is an area about 100 feet in diameter, usually on top of a knoll or ridge, where grouse gather each spring to breed. Each lek has an average of 14 grouse.
Before 1997 there were 77 known sharp-tailed grouse leks in Moffat and Routt counties. The number has grown significantly. Recent surveys have identified 81 new leks in Moffat, Routt and Rio Blanco counties.
The Northwest Colorado Sharp-tailed Grouse Work Group is at the forefront of coordinating a strategy for managing the recovery of the grouse in the region.
The group is composed of representatives from the mining industry, agricultural community, conservation and sportsmen organizations, county government, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service and the DOW.
"Everyone involved with the development of this plan wants to see sharp-tails thrive," said Jim Haskins, Hayden District wildlife manager. "We also understand the implications of having the species listed as threatened or endangered. We would like the chance to solve the problem locally and we have a track record to indicate we can work cooperatively for the good of the species."
The mining industry has played a big part in the population growth of the grouse, according to Hoffman. Mined reclamation land remains relatively undisturbed, helping the breeding, nesting and brood rearing of the grouse.
"We are pleased to be a part of the grouse management study," said Forest Luke, environmental manager at Trapper Mine south of Craig. "Our reclamation and mining plans are aimed at returning reclaimed mine lands to diverse plant communities that benefit many species of wildlife. The grouse study should help us identify specific habitat management measures that we can undertake to further benefit sharp-tails."
The reclamation that Luke describes is due to the Mined Land Reclamation Act of 1978. Under the act companies are required to convert mined land to its former natural state or other productive habitat. Through the grading and replanting of reclaimed land the act has created habitat beneficial to the sharp-tailed grouse
Private landowners have contributed to the regrowth of the grouse population by keeping areas with little or no outside activity within CRP lands. According to Hoffman, while the CRP is beneficial to the grouse, using mine reclamation lands had better survival and reproductive success than the CRP land. This difference in success rates is most likely due to the amount of plant species on each type of land, he said.
"Most CRP fields contain only one or two species of grasses and one or two legumes such as alfalfa or milkvetch," said Hoffman. "But mine reclamation seed mixtures contain more than 20 different species of grasses and shrubs."
According to Hoffman, 92 percent of grouse leks found in Colorado are on private land, making landowners critical to the long-term survival of the species.