The Energy Blend: Moffat, Routt, Rio Blanco counties’ reclaimed mining land ideal for Columbian sharp-tailed grouse | CraigDailyPress.com

The Energy Blend: Moffat, Routt, Rio Blanco counties’ reclaimed mining land ideal for Columbian sharp-tailed grouse

Wildlife agencies hope to replicate birds’ breeding grounds in other areas of the state

Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, pictured, have thrived on reclaimed mine land in Moffat, Routt and Rio Blanco counties, leading for wildlife agencies to relocate some of the birds to increase their numbers in other parts of the state.

Northwest Colorado's reclaimed land ideal for Columbian sharp-tailed grouse

By Andy Bockelman

The balance between nature and the energy industry is one that must maintain a careful equilibrium in order for both to move forward and thrive.

And, for at least one area of the country, bird is the word.

Recent efforts by multiple agencies to relocate the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse have proven successful as Colorado Parks & Wildlife began moving the species from eastern Moffat County, western Routt County and portions of Rio Blanco County to nearby areas, including Eagle County's Wolcott and Grand County's Middle Park.

The reason for this assisted migration — which began in fall 2014 — was due to the species' success in rebuilding its population on reclaimed mining lands of Northwest Colorado and organizers hope to recreate the success of upping the numbers in similar landscapes.

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A 2015 report by Western Agencies Sage and Columbian Sharp-Tailed Grouse Technical CommitteeA 2015 report by Western Agencies Sage and Columbian Sharp-Tailed Grouse Technical Committee, focusing on conserving the avian species in the Western United States and Canada, noted that while reclaimed mine land accounted for 1 percent of sharp-tailed grouse in Northwest Colorado, 18 percent of active leks — breeding areas — observed in a 2001 study were on this type of terrain. A further 2002 study showed “higher nesting success and survival” of the bird in comparison to other types of land., focusing on conserving the avian species in the Western United States and Canada, noted that while reclaimed mine land accounted for 1 percent of sharp-tailed grouse in Northwest Colorado, 18 percent of active leks — breeding areas — observed in a 2001 study were on this type of terrain. A further 2002 study showed "higher nesting success and survival" of the bird in comparison to other types of land.

A 2015 report by Western Agencies Sage and Columbian Sharp-Tailed Grouse Technical Committee, focusing on conserving the avian species in the Western United States and Canada, noted that while reclaimed mine land accounted for 1 percent of sharp-tailed grouse in Northwest Colorado, 18 percent of active leks — breeding areas — observed in a 2001 study were on this type of terrain. A further 2002 study showed "higher nesting success and survival" of the bird in comparison to other types of land.

Additional reports from 2004, 2007 and 2009 also support this data in the committee's report.

Reclaimed mining lands from Trapper Mine and Colowyo have served as consistent sites for the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse to not only survive but thrive.

Forrest Luke, environmental manager for Trapper, has been involved with the sharp-tailed grouse project for the better part of two decades.

"The purpose of this study is to compare mine land reclamation reserve programs, such as at Trapper, as a model for what they'd like to see these other lands become in terms of community diversity," he said. "I think we've pretty consistently demonstrated that reclaimed lands can be, in many ways, more productive than the lands were before, and that's especially true for sharp-tailed grouse."

Seeing the success of the grouse on the reclaimed mining land, agencies including Colorado Parks & WildlifeColorado Parks & Wildlife made the move to relocate the grouse to the new spots in the state to study their abilities to continue to adapt. made the move to relocate the grouse to the new spots in the state to study their abilities to continue to adapt.

Colorado Parks & Wildlife made the move to relocate the grouse to the new spots in the state to study their abilities to continue to adapt.

"They were moved to areas where we know where historically we used to have those birds but don't currently, but the habitat is still in good shape," said Brian Holmes, a terrestrial biologist for CPW.

Holmes said the success of the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse on reclaimed mine land has even led to a surplus and hunting season on the bird in recent years. Relocation began with the males of the species in fall 2014 followed by the females the following spring in order to keep the birds that saw their ranks bolstered in reclamation areas do the same in other sections of Colorado.

Holmes said the method used by area mines is welcoming to many species of animals.

"It's a short-term use of the land, and when the reclamation comes back, the critters respond well," he said. "Elk in particular like those areas, and they have a lot of security there because they're pretty near the operation, and it's not accessible to the public and it's kind of a little refuge area for them in certain circumstances. That relatively small footprint of an active mine with blasting and draglines doesn't host a ton of wildlife, but these companies tend to do quite well with reclamation."

As far as the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, Holmes said about 13 breeding sites can be found on Trapper's property with several hundred birds. The hope is that the relocated animals can keep going strong in new sites, adding that about 150 total birds will be transplanted to the Wolcott site in all.

Maintaining an exact quota of grouse in the new sites is hard to estimate, Holmes said, which is why CPW is focused on reaching an achievable goal.

"We don't have an ultimate population goal, but what we'd like to see is population persistence or growth, that's a success for us," he said. "Obviously, these numbers are going to change through time depending on weather conditions and natural processes. Basically, we want them to establish breeding sites and then have them persist or increase."

While a large number of the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse have made their home around Trapper, Holmes said a number of birds that were relocated were moved from Colowyo in anticipation of their Collom expansion, which will temporarily displace some grouse habitat lands.

"It's one of the first instances where we kind of went in and did that in advance, and Colowyo's been a tremendous partner with us on that," he said. "The timing there just dovetailed together well to give us a logical place to take birds from. Colowyo, Trapper, Peabody, all the big mines have all been great about helping us with research."

Contact Andy Bockelman at 970-875-1793 or Contact Andy Bockelman at 970-875-1793 or abockelman@CraigDailyPress.com.Contact Andy Bockelman at 970-875-1793 or abockelman@CraigDailyPress.com.