It begins with a faint sound, a chuckling burble, like a mountain stream running under a foot of new snow. Except there is no snow or stream in this wide grassy space surrounded by sagebrush. As the predawn light begins to climb in the eastern sky, an occasional flash of white blinks thorough the darkness. The sound spreads, and as the light comes up, the display of the male Gunnison sage-grouse becomes visible. A dozen dark chicken sized birds inflate and deflate air sacks in their chests, faster than the eye can see, while stroking the stiff white breast feathers covering their chests with their wing tips. At the same time, they weave, bob, and duck their heads, flipping their filoplumes, a hipster like ponytail over their heads. More mature birds, chase their younger rivals off of the dancing ground or lek, while the smaller more cryptically colored females move surreptitiously through the gyrating males, in one of the most highly selective breeding cycles in North America, where 10 percent of the males do 90 percent of the breeding. After breeding on the same leks their mothers did, the females return to the deep sage, often within yards of the area where they were hatched to lay their eggs. Laying up to a dozen eggs, the chicks hatch simultaneously, emerging from the egg with yolk reserve to survive for 18 hours, the hen must move the chicks from the dense sagebrush she nested in to a moist area, with abundant insect life. For the first 21 days of their lives, Gunnison sage-grouse chicks rely on insects for their food, and after three weeks begin to forage on a mixed diet of insects and flowering plants. These mesic sites are rare in the arid sagebrush system, comprising less than 1% of the landscape, and many have been impacted by roads and other man-made impacts.
Since the early 1900’s, the available habitat for the Gunnison sage-grouse has shrunk by an estimated 90 percent. In 2014, the bird was listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Currently, 85 percent of breeding of the entire Gunnison sage-grouse population takes place in the Gunnison River Basin. In 2009, the Nature Conservancy convened a group of representatives from public and private organizations to form the Gunnison Climate Working Group with the goal of “working to build the resilience of species and ecosystems so that they continue to provide benefits to the people of the Gunnison Basin.” More specifically, the group collaborated to gain understanding of the potential threats posed by climate change to the Gunnison sage grouse and other species; identify strategies to reduce adverse impacts from climate change and other threats; and, to promote coordinated implementation of these strategies. Initially, the Working Group included representatives from: Bureau of Land Management, Colorado Natural Heritage Program, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Gunnison County, Gunnison County Stockgrowers Association, National Park Service, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Forest Service, Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, Western State College and Western Water Assessment, University of Colorado, Boulder. Oversight and leadership were provided by The Nature Conservancy. In December 2011, the Gunnison Basin Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment was published, which led to further development of specific rehabilitation and riparian projects to address declining habitat.
Since 2012, the group evolved and now includes more than 35 organizations and private landowners. In 2017, the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD) took over the leadership and oversight of the private/public working group. Tom Grant was hired in 2017 as the “Project Coordinator.” Paul Jones succeeded Tom in this role in 2019.
Since 2012, 1,946 structures have been built under the project, restoring 180 acres of riparian wetland habitat and 1,260 acres of grouse habitat along almost 27 stream miles in the Gunnison Basin and satellite populations (San Miguel Basin, Pinon Mesa and Crawford).
Project Coordinator Paul Jones notes that these “structures” are mostly hand built using stones, earth and other vegetation. Some structures are also built with heavy equipment. The structures are not designed to “store” water, but to slow it down, spread it out and rewet the “sponge” of which wetlands are comprised.
Paul points out that these structures are beneficial in multiple ways. “Not only have these hand-built structures allowed us to restore over 1200 acres of sage grouse habitat, but they have also improved forage availability on both public and private land for stock growers,” said Paul.
Paul notes that the success of the project has been very rewarding as he has witnessed a 200 percent increase in wetland vegetation in the project areas the partnership has worked in. “The project has been successful in securing well over $1 million in grants, which is critical for funding the project, yet also results in a significant amount of administrative time and expense to meet all of the grant requirements,” Paul said. “In addition with population growth and continuing climate decline, it is a race against time to protect and repair as many acres of the wetland as quickly as we can.”
“We would love to see more private landowners getting involved in the project and find more local champions to promote our goals,” said Paul. “The proactive conservation measures undertaken by this group and many local volunteers have already benefited the Gunnison sage-grouse. Our goal is to recover wetlands to the point that this amazing species no longer needs federal protection.”
The UGRWCD believes it is this type of collaborative project that can effectively prepare nature and people for an uncertain future and this is why it supports the “Wet Meadows Project.” If you would like to become more involved or want more information about the project, please visit the wet meadow restoration website at www.UGmeadowrestoration.com or contact the District at (970)641-6065.