September deadline looms for deciding endangered status of greater sage grouse

Tom Ross
A group of greater sage grouse traverse a grassy field in Moffat County. The threatened adult birds depend on sagebrush for food.
Courtesy photo

— An audience of more than 50 people at Library Hall Tuesday night learned there’s much more to the massive conservation effort to restore populations of greater sage grouse than just one species of bird.

The inspiring documentary film “The Sagebrush Sea,” combined with a panel of experts with ties to Northwest Colorado, made the point: Although the vast expanses of high desert covered in sagebrush in the Intermountain West don’t offer the eye candy of a wildflower meadow, they are equally complex and as precariously balanced as any ecosystem in the Rocky Mountains.

“The sage grouse are an iconic western species, and it’s an incredible ecosystem,” Colorado Parks and Wildlife District Wildlife Manager Jim Haskins said. “It’s incredibly important to protect the bird. Sagebrush isn’t just sage brush, it’s all the stuff that grows beneath sagebrush — it’s (comparable to) the plants and animals that live beneath an aspen forest.”

The Craig Daily Press published an in-depth article by reporter Lauren Blair about the future of sage grouse in June. And the Steamboat Today published an article about both Columbian sharp-tailed grouse and sage grouse in April 2013.

Haskins was joined on Tuesday’s panel by Steamboat native Matt Holloran, chief scientist for the research non-profit Wildlife Management Research Support and co-principal and senior ecologist for Wyoming Wildlife Consultants, LLC. West Slope Advocacy Director for Conservation Colorado Luke Schafer was the third member of the panel.

Sage grouse are large birds that mate, nest and raise their young on the ground on an historic range that spans millions of acres from Northwest Colorado to 10 other western states. And 2015 could prove to be an historic year in the saga of the birds — U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists have until Sept. 30 to decide whether to place the bird on the endangered species list.

“The Sagebrush Sea,” which aired on public television and reached more than one million households last spring, highlights the austere beauty of “The Big Empty,” sagebrush steps of the west, which are not so empty after all. The film is a little light on science, however its remarkable cinematography establishes an emotional connection among viewers with the landscape the grouse inhabit and their role as a keystone species among diverse species including raptors, pronghorn, rodents, song birds and reptiles.

One member of the audience Tuesday night asked the panelists if — in contrast to merely struggling to prevent habitat loss — there are proactive ways to boost the population of the grouse.

Holloran said restoring the grazing tolerant native grasses that represent the understory in the sagebrush ecosystem and provide high-end cover for the grouse is an important, but complicated, goal.

“Its a bunchgrass/sagebrush succession,” he said. “That’s a concept we’re really trying to get across and one of the proactive aspects of managing for grouse. It’s a difficult concept to explain and a difficult condition to bring back.”

He confirmed sage grouse numbers have risen in the past two years but said it’s part of an ongoing cycle which has seen steadily lower peaks and lower lows.

Schafer expressed his satisfaction with the current sage grouse strategy being pursued by the Bureau of Land Management.

“I am so impressed with the recognition, particularly by the BLM, that this is a place that has been overlooked for far too long, because it’s windshield country. People drive through it to get to somewhere else,” he said. “But there is a 12-act drama in that country that really matters.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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