Going, Going, Gone

Will the first new American bird discovered in a hundred years be the next to go extinct?

The springtime boogie makes the bird appear to nearly double in size, and its bizarre and hilarious display can put a smile on the face of even the most seasoned birder.

But the dance is becoming less and less common. The National Audubon Society ranks the Gunnison sage grouse as the fourth most endangered bird in the country, and the most endangered one in the mountain West. Estimates of the total population for Gunnison sage grouse range from 2,000 to 6,000, with roughly 75 percent of the remaining birds living in the Gunnison Basin. By comparison, there are 6,410 piping plovers left, followed by 8,000 black-capped vireos, according to the Audubon Society's Priority Continental Species list. (The most endangered bird in the country is the California condor, with 301 left in the world, 154 of those in the wild.)

Part of the reason for the grouse's small numbers is that it practices site fidelity to a lek — or breeding ground — meaning that with very few exceptions, the birds dancing on a particular patch of land, like the ones outside the trailer, are there because that is where they were born. Like clockwork, a group of grouse will return to the same lek every spring to reproduce. If the lek is no longer hospitable, the birds will continue to dance, but no breeding will take place, and in a matter of a few years, the group will die out. There is no adaptation. Many are the tales of a poor, doomed bunch of grouse dancing atop a frozen lake or a concrete shed that used to be their lek.

Preservationist Pat Magee at the Waunita Watchable Wildlife Site near Gunnison.
Preservationist Pat Magee at the Waunita Watchable Wildlife Site near Gunnison.

Of the 9,000-plus different bird species in the world, only 5 percent utilize a lek-mating system. And among the Gunnison sage grouse, only 10 to 15 percent of the males breed per season. Such inefficient figures aren't particularly conducive to species promulgation under the most ideal conditions, and the current situation facing the Gunnison sage grouse is far from model as new roads, housing developments, power lines, grazing and recreation continue to threaten its habitat. (In San Miguel County, where there are an estimated 324 birds and five leks, threats also include oil and gas drilling.)

That's why Magee had prepped everyone the night before on grouse-watching protocol: no slamming doors that might disturb the fragile ritual, no loud voices, no leaving the trailer to go to the bathroom, and for God's sake, no car alarms.

To emphasize just how dire a situation the Gunnison sage grouse faces, Magee also offered the cautionary tale of the heath hen. Similar in appearance to the greater prairie chicken of the plains states, heath hens were a grouse family member that lived in coastal New England. During colonial times, the birds were extremely common and often hunted for food, so much so that by the 1870s, there were none left on the mainland and only a few hundred remaining on the island of Martha's Vineyard. Thus began one of this country's first attempts to save a bird from extinction. A heath hen reserve was set up on the island, and hunting the birds was banned. By the mid-1910s, the Martha's Vineyard population had bounced back to around 2,000 heath hens. But then a large fire damaged their breeding ground during nesting season, several harsh winters went by, and an excess number of males devastated the remaining hens. By 1927, there were only about a dozen left, and by 1932 the species had officially gone extinct, the last hen, Booming Ben, finally succumbing to old age.

In his recounting of the fate of the heath hen, Magee brought up the word "stochasticity," or randomness, to explain the final, unavoidable factors that decimated the bird. Even when the numbers appeared to be on the upswing, the species seemingly faring better, factors that no one could have predicted finished it off completely.

Today, in the grouse viewing blind, Magee counts 33 females and 25 males — the highest number this season — but he's quick to point out that this is no reason for optimism. Season-to-season lek counts don't accurately reflect historical trends, and the grouse population is right around what the heath hen numbers were in the 1920s. Plus, this past winter in the Gunnison Basin was one of the most severe in recent history, with the highest snowpack since 1984, and no one is certain of the effect it had on the birds.

After about an hour, two rough-legged hawks perch on a low fence post and scare off three-fourths of the birds. A little later, a coyote threatens in the distance but never surfaces, and so the few remaining male grouse continue to dance and strut while the females keep window-shopping. And then suddenly, as if summoned by a signal, the last few grouse flit off into the air and disappear over the blind.

A student at the University of California at San Diego in 1986, Young knew she wanted to be a biologist; she just didn't know what kind. Some professors at the school were doing field work in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and, intrigued by the experience as much as the course credits, Young talked her way into going along as one of two field assistants, conducting research on a bird called the greater sage grouse.

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