Giggling and baying like hound dogs, my younger brother Dan and I pretended to be hunting dogs that our parents had sent into the big sage on the hunt for greater sage grouse. I still recall the heart-pounding thrill when the grouse would rise in a flurry of noisy wings and our parents’ shotguns would fire. Mom was particularly lethal with her double barrel taking two to three birds on the wing. We would gather the birds returning to our folks knowing we’d have grouse stew and hoping for peach cobbler.
What I didn’t know then is that we were participating in an age-old tradition of hunting a bird that has existed upon this landscape for so long that their bones can be found within the fossil record.
People have been subsisting on grouse for as long as people have roamed this land. One of the West’s most iconic species, the sage grouse is known for its stately courtship dance. Their numbers were once so prolific that explorers described flocks that would “darken the skies.” However, throughout the past half-century, the bird’s population has plummeted. Today, it is a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Returning from graduate school in Australia where the sage grouse had been part of my studies in animal behavior, I was horrified to learn that instead of sage grouse days in Craig, a time when families could harvest the bird by the wagon load, we are facing the very real prospect of not only losing the hunt, but the bird itself. The decline is from a number of factors: habitat loss and fragmentation caused by development such as oil and gas, agricultural conversion of land, exurban housing as well as poor grazing practices, invasive species introduction, predation and wildfires.
Four years ago, Conservation Colorado — in partnership with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, The Wilderness Society, Rocky Mountain Wild and the Friends of Northwest Colorado — launched its Sagebrush Safaris. These organized tours' purpose was twofold; increase public awareness of the sage grouse and highlight proactive conservation measures undertaken by local ranching families and our public land manager partners.
I have the honor and challenge of leading this project to offer grouse viewing tours to the public a few weeks each spring.
This year tours completely sold out with more than 200 participants traveling to watch Moffat County’s sage grouse dance their age-old springtime mating ritual, spending money along the way. According to Moffat County Tourism Association Director Melody Villard, “The economic impact of those visitors can be seen in our local lodging and dining establishments. Often, the extra boost (wildlife) tourism provides to those establishments is what keeps them hanging on for another great season.”
Colorado’s vast sagebrush seas support much more than sage grouse, in terms of both wildlife and the related tourism economy. For instance, in Northwest Colorado, where more than two-thirds of Colorado’s greater sage grouse live, the birds share the same habitat with the largest elk and mule deer herds in the nation. Every year, tens of thousands of hunters travel to Northwest Colorado to chase big game and spend even more dollars applying for hunting tags in trophy units that offer the hunt of a lifetime.
Hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation are critical to Colorado’s economy, bringing in more than $13 billion in consumer spending and supporting some 125,000 jobs statewide, according to Outdoor Industry Association’s 2013 annual report for Colorado. For places like Moffat County, the stronghold for grouse populations, it means more than $30 million each year and more than 300 jobs from just hunting, fishing and wildlife watching, according to the BBC Research and Consulting report on the Economic Impacts of Hunting, Fishing and Wildlife Watching in Colorado.
“Wildlife tourism is an industry that can last forever since it depends on a resource that renews itself every year,” said Rene Littlehawk-Calicura, of Calicura’s Outfitting in Craig, who provided her services free for the nonprofit operated tours.
Rather than hunting dogs, some folks in these parts still pretend to be ostriches with heads stuck in the proverbial sand denying responsibility for sage grouse decline. They dig their heels in to prevent any meaningful work to recover this still viable species. However, I am excited that an increasing number of our area ranchers, land use managers, state and federal agencies, business folks, sportsmen and women, everyday moms and dads and even local politicians are gathering together to try to proactively help grouse and prevent listing for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
As an animal behavioral scientist by training and a conservationist by profession, I actually enjoy reading the highly technical grouse science reports published these past four years. That science is clear. Many factors contributed to population decline, but here in Northwest Colorado, the greatest threat to the future of greater sage grouse is habitat fragmentation caused by human disturbance, and that is something we humans can control.
Working together, area ranchers are pioneering ways of managing their lands to enhance sage grouse habitat, setting large areas aside for conservation and sharing their knowledge with state and federal agencies. Those agencies now are poised to make decisions about public land management that could tip the scales for grouse.
At least two large-scale power transmission lines are set to be built across Moffat County, and right now, the route preferred by our county natural resource department goes right through the best of our remaining sage grouse habitat. Grouse avoid tall structures that not only further fragment the landscape but also provide perches for predators.
A recent University of Washington study conclusively showed that new transmission lines increased raven populations and decreased sage grouse populations. Furthermore, grouse resist being relocated as they have strong instincts for returning to mate at very specific locations, called leks. It makes grouse rather easy for wildlife watching as we know where to go to see them each spring, but it makes them even more vulnerable to poorly located development.
Only a few days remain until the close of public comment period on the proposed Gateway South transmission line. This line would be a utility-owned line that potentially could send power from a variety of energy sources (e.g. coal, natural gas, nuclear, wind, etc.) across Northwest Colorado to energy markets in the West. At Conservation Colorado, we have worked with other stakeholders to help chart less environmentally damaging routes in existing rights of way that could be utilized by the developer. Read more about these proposals and submit your comment by visiting the Take Action page of Conservation Colorado’s website at www.conservationco.org.
It is my hope that Northwest Coloradans have the same opportunity to experience the sage grouse as my family did years ago. By working together, using the best science and making informed decisions, the sage grouse and all of our other diverse wildlife can thrive alongside the human residents of Northwest Colorado and continue to enjoy our outdoor treasures and natural heritage.