Conservationists have long been known for their staunch defense of cuddly and charismatic megafauna, and in recent years for their spirited battles on behalf of lowly, unseen creatures and enigmatic microflora. Now they’re going to bat for a species that doesn’t fit neatly into either of those camps and might best be described as, well, funny-looking.

Geeky, yet endearing.

Photo: Louis Swift

The Gunnison sage grouse is a bird about the size of a roasting chicken, whose brown and white plumage blends in with the sagebrush scrublands where it lives in Colorado and Utah. Despite its generally low profile, it makes quite a scene with its theatrical mating displays. In the spring, before daybreak and sometimes by moonlight, on breeding grounds known as leks where the birds return year after year, the male sage grouse fan their tails peacock-fashion, puff out their chests, which swell like heaving white bellows, and fill the bright yellow air sacs on their throats, emitting acoustically impressive popping and poinking sounds as they strut amidst the low sage. Hoping to attract the apparently aloof and elusive hens, the males face off with each other like dancers engaged in a ceremonial karate match.

Captain William Clark of the Corps of Discovery penned the first American account of the sage grouse in the early 19th century, but from a culinary rather than ecological point of view. He declared it “only tolerable in point of flavor.” Sage grouse are classified as a game bird and are still hunted in nine states, but their decline has been so rapid that hunters who remember taking them by the dozens in the good old days are now restricted to a bag limit of a single bird and a season of only a few days.

Dust in the Wind?

On Jan. 26, a coalition of conservation groups petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the Gunnison sage grouse, the less numerous of two grouse species in the American West, asking that it be listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. “I’m watching extinction happening right in front of my eyes,” said Clait Braun, recognized expert on the Gunnison and former manager of the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s Avian Research Program. “This is not a natural decline,” said Braun. “It’s man-induced.”

Mark Salvo of American Lands Alliance, one of the groups filing the petition, agrees. “The Gunnison sage grouse are an indicator and keystone species for an ecosystem that is in obvious decline,” he said. “The existing populations are so small we had to point out they weren’t dust spots on the map we sent to the Service.”

All aflutter.

Photo: Louis Swift

Sage grouse need every part of the Great Basin sagebrush steppe and grasslands in which they live. Wet meadows in riparian areas provide forbs, plants that are crucial to species nutrition. Tall grass provides protective cover for nests. Sagebrush provides both food and shelter. Although not migratory birds, sage grouse may use as much as 800 square miles to find what they need for healthy survival. It’s only recently that scientists and land managers have recognized this, and some fear it may be too late for certain populations.

The Gunnison sage grouse was once found in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and probably Kansas. Today only small, fragmented populations remain in Colorado and Utah. A petition was filed in May 1999 to list the similarly isolated Washington state population of the northern sage grouse, the Gunnison’s more wide-ranging and slightly larger cousin.

In a peculiar twist of ornithological fate, the Gunnison may be simultaneously recognized as an endangered species and recognized as a species at all. Confusing as this may seem, genetic research has only recently determined that the Gunnison is distinct from the northern sage grouse, and the American Ornithological Union is expected to declare the Gunnison a new species this coming year.

Together, both species of sage grouse were once so numerous throughout the sagebrush country of the West that they were compared to the passenger pigeon whose flocks darkened the skies. Since 1980, sage grouse populations have declined dramatically — estimates range from 45 to 82 percent. “We’re not seeing an increase or even a stabilization in population,” says Rob Edwards of Sinapu, a Colorado-based conservation group that also signed the USFWS petition. The remaining populations continue to shrink as human activity encroaches upon, degrades, and fragments their habitat.

Suffering Sagebrush

Dwindling sage grouse numbers indicate that the whole sagebrush steppe, one of the West’s most abused ecosystems, is in trouble. “This landscape was severely degraded 100 years ago,” says Randy Webb, senior ecologist at Net Work Associates, the consulting firm that drafted the petition. Agriculture, livestock grazing, road building, human settlement, and fire suppression have altered the natural patterns of vegetation throughout the birds’ range.

Taking a stroll on the lek.

Photo: Chris Vetter

Managing the landscape to protect sage grouse will mean changing practices across the West, and necessitate the cooperation of federal, state, and local government as well as private landowners. The first management guidelines for sage grouse were written in 1977, and draft revisions were made last year to take into consideration for the first time all of their habitat needs. An ESA listing could push wildlife managers much further and ultimately curtail grazing, mining, hunting, and development.

Citizen conservation working groups have been formed in Colorado’s Gunnison Basin to protect the Gunnison sage grouse, and conservation plans are in the works in other sage grouse habitat areas, but it’s too early to see real results. Some of these groups that have been working on habitat conservation plans in the Gunnison Basin, including the High Country Citizens Alliance, would prefer not to see the sage grouse on the endangered species list, says Sue Navy of HCCA’s education subcommittee. They feel federal listing would polarize communities and get in the way of effective, cooperative action by locals.

But other conservationists worry that voluntary efforts lack the power to bring about serious change and argue that a federal listing is needed to give binding legal protections to the bird. “We politick over a species, we debate funding, and in the end we lose it,” says Salvo somewhat bitterly. He hopes the outcome will be different this time.

Public awareness about the plight of the grouse is rising. In an editorial last year, the Idaho Statesman called the bird “a symbol of the great high deserts of the West, much the way the salmon symbolize the West’s mighty rivers.”

Will ours be the last generation able to sneak out to a lek on a cold spring morning and watch courting sage grouse perform, or will we be able to act quickly and decisively enough to begin to reverse the cumulative effects of a century or more of landscape degradation?