Going, Going, Gone

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.

"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.

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Adam Cayton-Holland