by Leigh Robertson, San Miguel Basin Gunnison Sage-Grouse Working Group Coordinator

Conservation groups in Colorado are working to protect the rare and beautiful Gunnison Sage-grouse, a chicken-like bird known for its remarkable mating rituals. With fewer than 5,000 “Gunnies” remaining, the species is a candidate for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act, and every effort made to understand this unique bird is critical.

NEW Gunnison Sage Grouse Small
Photo: Dave Showalter

The Gunnison Sage-grouse wasn’t recognized as a species until the year 2000. Prior to that, it was believed that the greater Sage-grouse was the only type of Sage-grouse in the west. Through careful observation, however, researchers determined that some birds were about one-third smaller, had more white on their tails, and made different mating calls. DNA studies then confirmed that the Gunnison Sage-grouse is a distinct species, separate from the greater Sage-grouse.

Gunnies once ranged throughout the sagebrush steppe in the four corners states – Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. Today, they are found only in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. In part, the birds’ decline is related to their strong loyalty to their courtship grounds, which are called leks. The grouse return to the same lek every spring; if in the meantime the lek is destroyed by development, such as a new reservoir, there’s a good chance that the subpopulation will fail.

Leks are the stage for the bird’s amazing courtship display. Before dawn, the grouse gather in open, grassy areas. As the light rises, the males puff out their white chests, inflate two yellow air sacs and make a watery-sounding popping noise. They also show off their long neck feathers, called filoplumes, to impress the female grouse. In addition, the males fight for prime locations by slapping their opponents with their wing feathers. 

NEW mating Gunnison Sage Grouse
Photo: Helen Richardson

Endeavoring to protect leks and improve grouse habitat, the San Miguel Basin Gunnison Sage-grouse Working Group’s mission is “to work together and coordinate efforts to ensure a thriving population of Gunnison Sage-grouse in a healthy, conserved sagebrush ecosystem…” Working with biologists from Colorado Parks & Wildlife, the San Miguel Basin group is in the process of starting up a new project to determine how weather and climate affect both the birds and their habitat.

At a location south of Naturita, Colorado, the team will be installing a HOBO RX3000 remote monitoring weather station from Massachusetts-based Onset. Onset’s research-grade data loggers and weather stations are known for providing the most reliable, accurate data under some of the world’s toughest environmental conditions. And with the HOBO RX3000, the Gunnie research team will have web-based access to that data via cellular communications.

The weather station will likely be situated within the Dry Creek Basin State Wildlife Area, which is located in occupied grouse habitat. The device will measure parameters including temperature, precipitation, wind, and barometric pressure. The meteorological data will be used to look at correlations and possible effects of climate change on grouse population numbers, the success of habitat improvement projects to help determine the best time of year for seeding with native grasses and wildflowers, and changes in riparian and wet meadow habitat.

Preparing to deploy the weather station within the next month or so, the Gunnison Sage-grouse Working Group is looking forward to enhancing its understanding of the effects of weather and climate on this marvelous bird, with a goal towards conserving and improving what has become its diminishing habitat.


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