Prominent filoplumes and limited home ranges define this rare game bird with less than 5000 left in the country.
Most easterners travel west in search of bugling elk, sneaky mule deer, and wandering herds of pronghorn. But these charismatic species aren’t the only wildlife that hunters regularly seek in the sagebrush. Any uplander would admit that they’ve daydreamed about flushing up western grouse, especially sage grouse.
Greater sage-grouse often come to mind when planning upland hunts in at the base of the Rocky Mountains. Their generally stable populations allow them to be hunted, even if bag limits are smaller than other upland bird species living elsewhere. Greater and lesser prairie-chickens are two other species familiar to the average bird hunter. Although greater prairie-chickens are an incredible species to pursue in places like Kansas, unfortunately, lesser prairie-chickens can no longer be hunted. This is due to their increasing conservation needs. In fact, the southern population segment of the lesser prairie-chicken was recently listed as federally endangered. However, there’s one sage grouse species with the greatest conservation needs of all: the Gunnison sage-grouse.
The Gunnison sage-grouse (GUSG) is a critically imperiled sage grouse species most folks aren’t familiar with. Historically, it was lumped in with greater sage-grouse until the 1990s, when biologists began questioning whether or not it should be its own species. It was designated as a new species in the year 2000 by Dr. Jessica Young and her colleagues. Differences in filoplume length, strut rates and vocalizations during lekking season, and genetics were enough to differentiate it from other sage grouse, making it the first new avian species to be described in the United States since the 1800s.
Unfortunately, the GUSG has lost over 90 percent of its habitat and is one of the most at-risk bird species in the United States. Less than 5,000 birds exist today, and that number could be as low as 1,800 individuals. Historically, at least thousands of them existed throughout the southwestern U.S. In Dr. Young’s report from 2000, the authors quoted an article from the Lake City Times from September 13, 1894, that read, “Billy Green, a genial fireman on the 64, bagged 863 grouse while out hunting on Sapinero last Sunday.” The research report contrasts this quote with their data from 2014, which recorded just 963 male GUSG globally.
Gunnison Sage-grouse Identification and Life History
The Gunnison sage-grouse looks quite similar to the greater sage grouse; this shouldn’t come as a surprise since wildlife experts themselves didn’t officially tell these species apart until two decades ago. At about two-thirds the size of the greater sage-grouse, Gunnison’s species features long, barred white-and-dark-brown tail feathers that come to a sharp, black point. The males have large white neck ruffs with bright yellow air sacs. They have a matching yellow comb above both eyes and long, decorative filoplume feathers that cascade off the back of their head. Females look generally similar but are less ornate than males. The females don’t have air sacs, neck ruffs, elongated filoplumes, or bright yellow eye combs. Their tail feathers are also shorter than the male’s. However, they both have almost-black belly feathers that begin just below their breast. Both males and females are highly camouflaged when it comes to living in the sagebrush.
Their repetitive calls sound like raspy chicken clucks. Like other upland bird species, the females also make brood contact and assembly calls to their chicks while they raise their young. Both males and females will make a hissing sound at predators.
During the breeding season, grouse assemble at their historic lekking grounds. Leks are typically located on grassy swales, ridgetops, dry lakebeds, and even recently burned areas. Males perform elaborate courtship displays where they arrange themselves into a characteristic “starburst” shape. Their tails fan out, their wing tips drop down, and they flip their filoplumes out in front of their beaks. While doing so, the males fill their vocal sacs with air and drag them through their wings, producing a shushing sound. They also make several sequential coo and popping sounds that impersonate a bubbling creek. The timing of the sounds and dance moves are essential to getting picked by a female prior to mating.
Recent research from the U.S. Geological Survey suggests that ravens are disturbing lekking grouse, flushing them off of their lek sites. Ravens are known to experience population growth in areas where human development is increasing, like the Gunnison basin. Increased disturbances to breeding GUSG can hinder their reproductive success.
Gunnison Sage-grouse Habitat
Only seven populations of Gunnison sage-grouse exist today within southwestern Colorado and eastern Utah. Like their name implies, the GUSG is an obligate of high-elevation sagebrush-steppe ecosystems. It requires large expanses of intact sagebrush to survive. This plant is critical to the grouse’s year-round diet and habitat requirements.
Sagebrush species that are important to GUSG survival include big, black, and low sagebrush. Native forbs, grasses, and other vegetation, including Gambel oak, serviceberry, snowberry, antelope bitterbrush, and rabbitbrush are also part of the grouse’s preferred habitat. When female sage grouse raise broods, their young rely on protein-rich food sources like insects to grow. Native wildflowers and other forbs that attract pollinators are incredibly important for growing chicks. Pinyon-juniper encroachment is common in areas where the sage grouse is found, however, the species still frequents areas where this tall, woody vegetation has displaced sage.
Sadly, these plants necessary to the grouse’s survival are being outcompeted by non-native, invasive species like cheatgrass. Sagebrush ecosystems themselves are incredibly vulnerable to human development, too. Grazing has negatively impacted riparian areas over time, and restoring these water-holding areas has been a priority for Gunnison’s wildlife managers for years. In fact, the installation of one rock dams and other structures that replicate nature have effectively restored several wet meadows throughout the valley and beyond.
Gunnison Sage-grouse Conservation Efforts
Stakeholders banded together to conserve the species after the grouse was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2014. No one wanted to see the grouse earn the title of federally endangered. With private lands making up 43 percent of GUSG habitat and the Bureau of Land Management owning approximately 42 percent, federal, state, and private landowners have been working to conserve the species on their lands.
In 2019, the Fish and Wildlife Service released a draft recovery plan for the grouse. The plan was finalized in 2020 after a public comment period. The overall goal of the recovery plan is to establish four resilient populations of Gunnison Sage-grouse. The USFWS will consider these populations to be resilient when “they are sufficiently large to endure stochastic environmental change.”
Wildlife managers plan to meet this goal by using twelve different “recovery actions.” These actionable measures include increasing habitat quality and quantity via weed removal and prevention, conserving existing suitable habitats, translocating and captive rearing GUSG, and more. The entire list of actions can be reviewed in the USFWS recovery plan. If all goes well, managers expect to delist the grouse in 30 years.
Although most folks have never heard of this elegant game bird, it deserves more attention from conservationists. Its dwindling habitat quality and tiny population will make ensuring its conservation success quite tricky, however, I am hopeful. Countless folks care deeply about the restoration of the Gunnison Sage-grouse and are dedicated to protecting the species for years to come.
Gabby Zaldumbide is the managing editor of Project Upland. She lives on Colorado's western slope where she teaches hunting, angling, and shooting skills. Gabby has an undergraduate degree in wildlife ecology, a master's in public land management, and an honorary PhD in loving her pets.