Objects of affection
Amorous greater sage-grouse put on a show amid debate over endangered species listing
CRAIG —At 6:05 a.m. Thursday when Luke Schafer and Ann Wagner opened the windows of a trailer outside Craig, the first thing visible to those waiting with anticipation from inside looked like the faint glow of stars.
They were not celestial objects but stars in what has grown into a pitched political battle gripping Colorado and many other western states.
These were greater sage-grouse — more than 100 of them — gathered in the species’ largest lek, or mating grounds, in Colorado. Those in the trailer were participants in an annual guided greater sage-grouse tour offered by entities including Conservation Colorado and Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The lek sits amid the dryland-farming stubble of private acreage where the owner works to protect grouse, but whose identity organizers keep to themselves to protect the lek, which grouse return to year after year.
This year’s two weeks of tours at the site, which wrapped up today, came as debate is raging over the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s pending decision on whether to list the birds for protection under the Endangered Species Act, and over the Bureau of Land Management’s efforts to adopt habitat protections aimed at fending off such a listing.
As the dawn’s light quickly overtook the darkness in that early hour Thursday, the dim stars revealed themselves to be the inflated white air sacs of males pumping themselves up like bodybuilders and vying for the attention of females. The males likewise spread out their dark, spiked tail feathers, dotted with white marks so as to resemble an eye-catching spray of fireworks.
But the grouse could be heard even before they were seen, as they used their bellow-like sacs even while it was still pitch-dark to make gurgling and glugging sounds like those of a creek babbling or a water jug being emptied.
The sounds and imagery were directed at so few females that at some points the visible number could be counted on one hand. With the competition so stiff, the males strutting their stuff on their lek dance floor sometimes charged and chased off each other while seeking to hold their ground.
This dating scene brought to mind the joke about what women say about the heavily male, ski-bum populations of mountain resort towns: “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.”
But for female greater sage-grouse, apparently, oddly bizarre is what they’re after, as they settle on the most attention-getting suitor.
As Schafer, West Slope advocacy director for Conservation Colorado, points out, one male ends up mating with as many as 80 percent of the hens at a lek. Which, for that grouse at least, perhaps makes up for the fact that the act itself lasts only a few seconds — such a short time that no one on Thursday’s tour mentioned actually seeing consummation occur.
CRASHING THE PARTY
That the other male wannabes crowding a lek during this springtime ritual might strike out sexually may be depressing enough for them, but there’s also this: They could become a raptor’s breakfast too. Talk about a rough start to the day.
Schafer — joined by volunteer Wagner for Thursday morning’s tour — noted before the watching started that there’s always the threat of an eagle crashing the party.
“And the eagles hit at dawn, usually,” he said.
The threat presented itself like clockwork Thursday.
“Oh, there’s trouble,” said David Moulton, a federal government retiree and Steamboat Springs resident who describes himself and his wife Tresa as “bird nerds.”
Moulton — a birder appropriately attired in a bird-down coat to ward off the morning cold — was peering through one of the high-powered viewing scopes he and his wife had brought.
“There’s a golden eagle out there. He’s perched on a fence post,” he said before kindly offering a reporter a look.
Just moments later, the grouse all ducked down in unison, then just as quickly took wing as one to seek shelter in nearby sagebrush cover.
They had been flushed out by the eagle, no longer on his perch but instead soaring overhead.
But it wasn’t long before many of the grouse had returned and were back at it. And meanwhile, the rolling hills began to wake up as deer, elk and pronghorn made appearances. Tour participants watched one pronghorn find its way through or over a fence before passing between grouse that seemed not to care, no doubt used to seeing this fellow sagebrush resident.
A hesitant young pronghorn then tried to navigate the fence as well, approaching it and backing off repeatedly, seemingly ready to give up before overcoming the challenge in its desire not to be left alone.
Meadowlarks and other birds made themselves known to us by sight and sound, their identities confirmed by the experts in our group. And like voyeurs we continued to concentrate on the goings-on among the grouse, an activity that invites the occasional off-color joke, although perhaps moderated by the fact that we were a mixed-gender gathering.
“Those are the Dolly Partons of grouse,” Moulton said in admiration of the abundantly sized grouse air sacs.
“… But it’s the boys that are stacked,” he added.
The females, by comparison, are hardly notable in appearance, being smaller and drab-brown.
At 8:05, exactly two hours after our viewing began, the grouse crouched and flushed again. This time, a circling hawk had done the job.
‘BUCKET LIST’ MATERIAL
Our tour group’s day, which began with a 4:15 a.m. coffee-and-donuts gathering in a Craig parking lot before the drive to the lek, was winding down and it was time to make the short walk back to the vehicles and reflect on what everyone had seen.
“That was quite an experience. Another one off the bucket list,” said Mary Richardson, a Cañon City resident who came on the tour with her sister, Ann Zielinski.
Fruita resident Dave Price, who once worked for the National Park Service, was struck by the low ratio of female to male grouse, speculating that many already had gone off to lay their eggs.
He said such a tour “certainly helps to educate people.”
“It’s great that this rancher out here is allowing people to look and that he’s sensitive to the species,” Price said.
Even some area Colorado Parks and Wildlife employees saw fit to pay a visit and learn more about a species their agency is involved with trying to protect and help offer opportunities to see.
“I didn’t realize that this is the largest lek in Colorado,” said Julie Arington, manager of Steamboat Lake State Park.
“… I’ve only seen (greater sage-grouse) dance on TV before. To see them in real life is pretty cool,” she said.
Kirk Mahaffie, an administrative assistant at the park, likewise found the mating ritual fascinating, adding, “I think it is important to get out and get the chance to see it.”
A LANDSCAPE COMING ALIVE
The tour-goers’ wildlife experience continued on the drive back to Craig thanks to appearances by herd after herd of elk.
Schafer said the tours are a chance to educate the public about not just greater sage-grouse, but sagebrush habitat in general and its importance to a wide range of animals.
“This time of year the landscape is coming alive,” he said.
Conservation-oriented people like Mary Sandmann of Lafayette were among those on Thursday’s outing. She has helped the Nature Conservancy on habitat improvement projects for the Gunnison sage-grouse, which is mostly found in Gunnison County and the Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to list as an endangered species.
“I just like to see spectacular birds like (the greater sage-grouse) and see them before their habitat is gone,” she said.
Schafer said tour organizers have found out that even a lot of locals haven’t had the chance to see greater sage-grouse. Tour organizers offer a half-price rate — $25 instead of $50 — for residents of Moffat, Rio Blanco and Routt counties.
“I think it builds awareness,” said Debbie Earls, who joined fellow Craig resident Marilyn Fineran on Thursday’s outing.