Jessica Young can remember the exact moment when politics infiltrated what was until then her exclusively biological viewpoint regarding the Gunnison sage grouse.
"I was out to breakfast with a lot of different guys from the Division of Wildlife," says Young, then a visiting scholar at Western State College of Colorado in Gunnison. "This was probably around 1991...there weren't a lot of female biologists like me working on game species, so my presence was pretty odd. One of the DOW managers, who later went on to move up pretty high politically, asked me if I thought the bird was going to be a different race or a sub-species. And with the sort of bright-eyed enthusiasm that only a young scientist can have, I said, 'I've been looking at species definitions, and I'm pretty sure it's a distinct species.' The table just got deadly silent, and he looked at me and said, 'No it's not.' He said I didn't ever want to open that can of worms."
Young, who is now an associate professor of biology at the college, was taken aback at the time, but she laughs at her naiveté that day.
Gunnison sage grouse
"For me, it was a straightforward answer," she says. "It's either a biological species or it's not. I didn't understand the social and political implications that might happen if a newly named species was proven and it could be shown that somewhere between 80 to 90 percent of them had disappeared, as well as 90 percent of their historical habitat — which it had — that that might be a pretty big issue. Turns out it was."
And still is.
In 2000, Young was part of a team of experts who proved that the Gunnison sage grouse, found almost exclusively in Colorado, was a unique species, separate from the greater sage grouse, which is similar and also lives in Colorado.
The landmark finding rocked the ornithological world, marking the first discovery of a new avian species in the United States in over a hundred years. But with that discovery came the immediate realization that the new species was already highly endangered, with some estimates putting the remaining population as low as 5,000 birds. Suddenly that little bird on the sagebrush that many had mistakenly thought so plentiful became a cause. The cryptic words uttered at breakfast that morning had proven true.
The can of worms had been opened.
The darkness is all-encompassing. It's not quite 5 a.m., and the only sound inside a thin, wooden trailer is the quiet breathing and sniffling of thirteen birdwatchers and the soft chirping of a meadowlark flitting by. Outside, the temperature at the Waunita Watchable Wildlife Site east of Gunnison hovers around twenty degrees.
Then, strange popping noises sound in the distance, like a coffeemaker slowly percolating to life. The bubbling is eerie and slow, as if underwater. The breathing of the birdwatchers picks up, and they rise from their seats inside the viewing blind.
About twenty minutes earlier, Pat Magee had led the group here in a five-car procession along U.S. Highway 50. Mule deer, dead and alive, flanked the shoulders of the road, their eyes illuminated by headlight beams in the freezing-cold pre-dawn. Otherwise, it had been total, disorienting blackness. But Magee, calm and soft-spoken on this April morning, seemed perfectly suited for the stillness. A wildlife biologist at Western State College, he also heads Sisk-a-dee (Shoshone for sage grouse), an organization dedicated to the preservation of the Gunnison sage grouse.
Following his lead, the cars had turned left onto a dirt road and continued half a mile before slowing to a halt. Doors had been opened gingerly, then pushed ever-so-delicately shut — just as Magee had asked the birders to do the evening before during a presentation on the bird in question. They'd silently adjusted their spotting scopes, lined their gloves with hand warmers and pulled faux-fur-lined camo hoods over their bespectacled heads. Magee then unlocked the door to the viewing blind, and the birders had shuffled in to wait.
And now, the show is about to begin. Magee opens two viewing panels as the sun makes its presence known behind Tomichi Dome in the distance, and the birders peer at the strange, darting shapes on the ground some 150 yards away on a small, flat expanse of sagebrush. More sunlight brings greater clarity, and the birds become visible inside scopes and binoculars. Within half an hour, the entire blind is gasping and gushing over one of the most unusual mating spectacles in nature.
Heavily built, but low to the ground and with feathers all the way to their toes, the Gunnison sage grouse is related as closely to a chicken as it is to any other game bird. Every spring at sunrise, the male of the species spreads his spiked, black tail, tosses the feathers (known as filoplumes) atop his head and inflates two egg-sized air sacs in his chest to create a rapid-fire popping sound, like someone repeatedly flicking the inside of their cheek with their index finger. This action is accompanied by proud strutting and a convulsive, flinching gesture that's often referred to as a dance.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
The finding was monumental, and thousands of birders flocked to Gunnison to see the new species — one that, upon discovery, was already critically threatened.
It seemed only natural, then, that Young and others would push to have the grouse listed under the Endangered Species Act as a way to protect its remaining habitat.
But that wasn't the case.
Instead, she continued to lead a grouse working group known as the Gunnison Basin Gunnison Sage Grouse Working Group — originally formed in 1995 — that comprised city, county and federal agencies as well as environmental groups, local ranchers and area residents dedicated to the conservation of the Gunnison sage grouse. The organization had worked for two years on something called the Gunnison Sage Grouse Conservation Plan, which was approved in 1998.
Their efforts may have helped keep the bird off the list when it was reviewed in 2006 — though that decision could be reconsidered following a lawsuit filed in 2006 by several environmental groups against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"At one point I really believed the bird met all of the biological criteria in terms of risk for it to be listed as an endangered species," she says. "That was after a three-year drought, and I thought imminent extinction was possible without extra conservation."
But then the drought broke, the local working group started working harder, and the Board of County Commissioners in Gunnison established the Gunnison County Strategic Sage Grouse Committee, a group of individuals who all have authority within their divisions — including a county sage-grouse coordinator and representatives from the DOW and the Bureau of Land Management. Working in tandem with the GCSSGC, which has a little more political clout, Young feels the birds really do have a chance.
"Now I'm not so certain whether [endangered species protection] would be beneficial," Young says, adding that she is encouraged that so many people from so many perspectives and motivations are working together.
"A huge part of this has just been getting the public to increasingly understand the issues," Young says, "which I think we have done. No one really knows what would happen if the bird is listed as endangered, the level of federal involvement in the issue or how it would be approached. I think the Endangered Species Act is probably one of the strongest pieces of legislation for bio-diversity in the world. But it has become pretty controversial and politicized, and the question here is, is it the best tool for recovery? And I honestly don't know the answer for that."
The Gunnison Basin stretches over 8,000 square miles of western Colorado, extending from the Continental Divide all the way to the confluence of the Gunnison and Colorado rivers near Grand Junction. The largest cities in the basin are Montrose (population 14,153), Delta (population 7,827) and Gunnison (population 5,271). It's a mountainous region, where cattle ranching and mining are the two largest industries. But tourism is big as well, and since the early '90s, more and more people have been moving in to the beautiful area or buying second homes there, where land values aren't as high as Aspen or Telluride. With that increased development has come an increased desire — often from surprising sources — to protect the native ecosystem and its wildlife.
Rancher Gary Haufler can remember walking out his back door years ago and nearly falling over Gunnison sage grouse, they were so plentiful. Though he questions just how endangered the bird actually is — and what exactly is causing it harm — Haufler is emblematic of many ranchers in the area, who are now helping lead the effort to save the bird. The reason: They don't want the federal government telling them what to do.
"I don't think listing the bird is going to help the bird," says Haufler, who raises cattle on a ranch near the grouse leks. "I think that we can do more for preserving the bird and assuring its survival with local efforts than we can if the federal government steps in and takes over and ties our hands. The feds have their rules, and either you live by them or you don't. I think that's severely limiting."
In other words, if the bird is listed as endangered, developers and ranchers like Haufler would have to go through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before they could do anything on their land. To assuage these fears, Fish and Wildlife has been working with the Colorado Division of Wildlife to arrange Candidate Conservation Agreement Assurances. These agreements allow DOW officials onto a rancher's property to survey and determine what areas need to be protected and what areas can be built on.
"With the CCAAs, non-federal landowners are making a commitment of twenty years, and in turn they get assurances that if the bird is listed in the future, they will not have any additional management requirements," explains Al Pfister, western Colorado supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ecological Services Office.
But Gunnison County Sage Grouse Conservation Coordinator Jim Cochran, a rancher himself, says that although the Colorado Division of Wildlife has analyzed nearly forty properties, not one CCAA has successfully been seen through to a certificate of inclusion in the program. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for its part, reports that it has only seen data on two of those properties and is still working on some issues with the DOW to expedite the process.
"If you read the rationale that the Fish and Wildlife Service gives for the CCAA program overall, it's that if lands were to be enrolled under that permit, it would preclude the need for listing the species," Cochran explains. "The species is off the list for candidate conservation. But people around here are well aware that the bird can very easily end up for reconsideration. The rational landowner in the Gunnison Basin knows that the bird is not off the radar screen; it's just currently glowing a little dimmer."
Cochran adds that the official position of Gunnison County, for whom he works, is to preclude the need for listing the Gunnison sage grouse as endangered.
"My opinion as a professional wildlife biologist is that locally led programs are more effective than a top-down program from D.C.," he says, citing the success of similar efforts in the re-establishment of the once-imperiled greater prairie chicken on Colorado's eastern plains as a huntable species ("Playing Chicken," November 2, 2000). "We can address local issues, deal with local landowners, deal with local agencies in a way that benefits the species and ensures that the community won't see the adverse effects of the Endangered Species Act. The act itself was admirable; the effects on communities has been pretty draconian."
Richard Bratton, a Gunnison-based attorney and the man behind Gunnison Rising, a proposed 1,800-acre residential and commercial development that would be the biggest project in the history of Gunnison, agrees. "No one really knows what would happen if the bird is listed," Bratton says. "It certainly would be one more level of bureaucracy not located here, and I think that's the ranchers' fear, no question."
Bratton is quick to point out that he's the guy whom "hard-core environmental groups" would label as the evil developer, carelessly expanding for the almighty dollar, natural consequences be damned. But he offers his track record as testimony to the opposite. A Gunnison resident since 1958 — he attended Western for four years before leaving town and then returning — Bratton has been involved with numerous environmental campaigns in the area, including an effort to establish a population of greater Canada geese lacking in the basin, serving on the advisory board for the Community Foundation of the Gunnison Valley — a group dedicated to enriching the area's resources — and chairing the Upper Colorado River Commission.
In his office, he keeps photographs of his home town of Salida, a slide show of unsightly sprawl down Main Street, McDonald's bleeding into Conoco into Checker Auto Parts into seedy hotels before culminating in a mammoth Wal-Mart. Bratton shakes his head in disappointment at what has become of the town where he grew up, pointing out the dangers of what happens when a developer is simply in it for the money.
"This project isn't something we just did on the back of a napkin," Bratton says about Gunnison Rising. "When they say the project is too big, I say it satisfies numerous needs for the community and that it's a way to plan responsibly for the future. Is it too big to have 458 acres of open land and wildlife habitat, too big for seven miles of open trail? People need to not be so knee-jerk in their reactions. Is it controversial around town? Oh, hell, yes. But I'm not doing this to get rich. I'm doing this because I think it's the responsible thing to do. We could have sold this property many times over, for houses, filling stations, motels, restaurants, but I wouldn't do it until I put together the package to do it right. When the dust settles and it's all done, my guess is we'll have a better habitat for sage grouse than exists today."
Bratton doesn't think the grouse should be listed as an endangered species until biologists figure out exactly what is causing the numbers to decrease. "They say maybe this is causing it, maybe that is causing it; my rancher friends tell me it's plain and simple predation," he says. "That's not good enough. Why not allow the county — which has been very responsible when it comes to the sage grouse — continue to do a fine job?"
The Colorado Division of Wildlife is also opposed to listing the grouse, says agency spokesman Joe Lewandowski. "We are certainly concerned about the status of the bird, so we've put a lot of resources into this effort. We know that the home range of the bird is far below what it was fifty years ago, one hundred years ago. We also know that...Colorado is much different than it was then. There's a lot more development, a lot more roads and people," he says. "It's a pretty complicated issue, and the biggest thing that we feel good about is that the Gunnison community has really stepped it up. All of the federal agencies are involved; there's a lot of people at the table working toward the same goal, and that's a great thing. I also think that a lot of people have learned from earlier environmental battles that a lot of money gets wasted in the courtroom."
But a courtroom is probably where the Gunnison sage grouse will end up.
"There needs to be more than just the working group and the strategic committee working to save the Gunnison sage grouse," says Sue Navy, a boardmember of the High Country Citizens Alliance, a Gunnison Valley conservation organization.
"What is lacking and what we feel the Endangered Species Act could provide is a lot more effort and energy behind the protection of the species," she says. "Right now, there isn't enough funding to do the things that are needed to protect habitat, whether it's purchasing conservation easements or land treatments. The county does not have that kind of money, so all the current regulations are a step in the right direction, but they can't go far enough without funding."
Joshua Pollock, conservation director for the Center for Native Ecosystems in Denver, also feels the Gunnison sage grouse is an eleventh-hour species.
"Our core mission is to protect endangered species and their habitat in the Southern Rockies," he says. "And one of our bottom-line, fundamental commitments is don't let anything go extinct if we can avoid it. The Gunnison sage grouse is one of the species in this region that is closer than anything else. It's an emergency-room situation. There are only a few thousand left; if we stand a chance of saving the Gunnison sage grouse from blinking out forever, it has got to be now."
Pollock's organization has joined a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, challenging the agency's April 18, 2006, determination that listing the Gunnison sage grouse as endangered or threatened wasn't warranted. The decision came down six years after two environmental groups, the Sagebrush Sea Campaign and the Institute for Wildlife Protection, asked the federal government to list the grouse.
Though the June 2006 lawsuit takes aim at several higher-ups in the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Interior, the real cause of the dispute stems from the actions of Julia MacDonald, a Bush administration appointee who resigned as deputy assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks in the U.S. Department of Interior in May 2007. An internal review revealed that MacDonald had given government documents to industry lobbyists as well as overruled department biologists' findings that would have protected rare and endangered species. Dale Hall, director of Fish and Wildlife, called it "a blemish on the scientific integrity of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Interior."
In the wake of MacDonald's behavior, Interior agreed to review eight decisions that she had made on wildlife and land-use issues. But many felt that every decision ever made by the maligned appointee should be revisited, including any ruminations on the fate of the Gunnison sage grouse.
"Julia MacDonald reached out and severely scrutinized the recommendation of field staff and Fish and Wildlife Service biologists that the species is actually endangered and sought to reverse that finding based on non-biological criteria," explains Amy Atwood of the Center for Biological Diversity, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs pushing to revisit the Gunnison sage grouse.
Atwood goes on to suggest that the local Colorado office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was so convinced of the need to list the grouse that they had prepared a press release to push for it — just before MacDonald intervened.
"And then the bird went from endangered to threatened, the critical habitat designation dropped off the radar, and then she became more and more interested, and eventually there was a reversal," explains Atwood.
A Fish and Wildlife spokesperson declined to comment on the case.
Atwood notes that the case is still pending before the Washington, D.C., District Court, with both sides caught up in motions for summary judgment to get all the facts in order before determining whether or not they are legal. But those pushing for listing fear there's not enough time for bureaucratic hand-wringing, that by the time everything finally gets worked out in court, there may not be any of the birds left to protect.
At the Waunita Watchable Wildlife Site, the birders pack up their belongings and prepare to drive home — some to Durango, others to Colorado Springs, a few to Denver. But Magee veers off the main highway so he can check a few other sage grouse spots first. On a dirt road, he winds his Jeep through rugged, sand-colored bluffs. All around are ranches and homes, cattle and horses, deposited squarely in the middle of sage grouse habitat. The female sage grouse needs a nesting area of a two-mile radius from the breeding ground, and if there are any leks around here, the nesting areas would most certainly be affected by the presence of humans, their children biking through the brush, their cats and dogs turning up eggs. It's a fact of life in western Colorado, an inevitable overlapping of species.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Sisk-a-dee is more of an on-the-scene type of group, more at home on a lek than at a town hall meeting, and though Magee does hope the bird is eventually listed, it's not a cause that sends him clamoring for a soapbox. No one is really sure how things will change if the bird is protected, he says, noting that some think not much will change at all, that those involved with the working group and the strategic committee will merely become foot soldiers for a new general, but with additional funds. Either way, Magee will still lead groups of birders out in the pre-dawn hours to look at the birds every spring, and he'll still train college students to help the birds. As long as there are birds to help.
But given its delicate nature, inefficient mating system and the fact that a mere car alarm sounding off at a viewing site can affect an entire breeding season — never mind the pressures from development, overgrazing and oil and gas drilling — does the Gunnison sage grouse stand a chance? Isn't it doomed to suffer the fate of the heath hen?
Does Magee really think the bird can be saved? He wastes no time in answering.
"I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't."