Going, Going, Gone

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

"My very first morning, I got my truck stuck in the snow," she says. "I had a brand-new parka, new boots, hat on my head for the snow for the first time in my life.... We watched the pink sunrise over the white mountains, and I crawled up on my belly over a ridge and looked out at these crazy birds doing this mating dance, and it was unbelievable. I had never seen anything like that in my life; it hooked me completely."

Young continued to work with the professors, developing a passion for field biology while dabbling in behavioral oncology in her studies of sexual selection in sage grouse. She also did sound analysis, studying more than 2,000 male vocalizations in a lab.

Then one day, she recalls, a professor tossed her a tape recorded in Gunnison, Colorado, by Clait Braun, the Colorado Division of Wildlife's avian research leader, who thought the grouse there sounded different from others. Young studied the tape and found the sounds coming out of the bird in Gunnison so disparate that she initially didn't even think it was a grouse. Within a week, she had talked her professor out of field equipment and was on her way to Colorado to meet with Braun. The two wasted no time heading to North Park, where she taped the vocalizations of the males and compared them to recordings she had done of grouse high in the Sierra Nevadas.

Biologist Jessica Young helped list the Gunnison sage grouse as a separate species.
Biologist Jessica Young helped list the Gunnison sage grouse as a separate species.

Shortly thereafter, in 1988, Young published her first paper on the subject, which stated that the grouse in and around Gunnison were remarkably different in both their vocalizations and the rate at which they performed them. Young began to suspect that she might be on to a sub-species of grouse, if not a new species entirely.

Later, she pursued a Ph.D. at Purdue University, but she couldn't stop thinking about the birds in Colorado. So she convinced the school to allow her to do her work here. "I had seen them and glimpsed that they were different and that they were physically smaller," she says. "I wanted to see how their mating system might have caused the difference. So I did my Ph.D. self-funded on sexual selection and physical and behavioral differences in the Gunnison sage grouse."

She was hired on at Western State College as a visiting scholar in 1995 and continued her research. But in 1992, while Young was still working toward her Ph.D., a mammoth uranium-tailings removal project was announced in the Gunnison Basin, and she found herself forced into the unfamiliar role of advocate, as opposed to biologist. An underground uranium plume from the inactive mine appeared to be heading toward a local water source, and officials needed to stop it. Part of the project called for a six-foot-high raised road, twenty feet across, on which trucks would carry the millions of tons of tailings to a giant pit that was deemed geologically stable.

But that pit was in the heart of the sagebrush, an area known as Chance Gulch which was a known breeding ground for the birds Young had been studying. By then, the local DOW officers knew that Young's grouse was something different, but no one had requested its designation as a new species, so the Gunnison sage grouse continued to be lumped in with the greater sage grouse, the species that Young had initially studied in the Sierra Nevadas — and that exists in far larger numbers throughout the West.

"This was a real important part of my life as a biologist," Young says. "I started mentioning that the area was where one-fifth of all the remaining males breed every year, and that was a really unpopular position around here. If the bird had been recognized as a species and people understood that at that point, there were probably less then 5,000 of them in the world and over 75 percent of the population was on that land, that project probably couldn't have gotten approved without an Environmental Impact Study."

But the bird wasn't listed as a separate species then, and so the project was defined biologically as having no impact, she says. After it was approved, the grouse population at Chance Gulch decreased by 60 percent within a year.

The experience made Young realize how important it was to give the grouse its own label, and she became determined to have it listed as a separate species.

But after her stance on the uranium-tailing removal project, Young found the job harder than before. Suddenly the road she'd been using for four years to reach her research area was closed off, forcing her to hike or ski in to study the grouse. Resources were bottled up as well, as people were less willing to lend out trucks and equipment.

Undaunted, she continued her research and teamed up with Jerry Hupp, then a biology graduate student at Colorado Sate University, as well as University of Denver conservation geneticists Tom Quinn and Sara Oyler-McCance, to prove that the Gunnison sage grouse were different behaviorally, physically and genetically from the greater sage grouse. In 2000, they published an article defining the bird in the scientific journal the Wilson Bulletin, and that same year their findings were confirmed by the American Ornithological Union. The Gunnison sage grouse was a new species.

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