Sagebrush saves birds

Piñon Mesa key to Gunnison grouse recovery

Patrick “PK” Kieran of the Bureau of Land Management cuts down a small tree to provide good habitat for Gunnison sage grouse in the Beiser area on Piñon Mesa. About 150 of the grouse live on the mesa, the largest of the satellite populations of the bird. The main population of about 4,000 birds is in the Gunnison Basin.

There’s an inside joke to the notion of conserving Gunnison sage grouse on Piñon Mesa southwest of Grand Junction. It’s a bit like saying that one wants to boost the population of canaries by placing perches for them on cat scratching posts.

Predators that fancy the taste of grouse can simply take up a vantage point high on a piñon or juniper overlooking nearby sage and wait for dinner to strut by.

Piñon Mesa, however, is one of the places on which a broad array of federal and state agencies is hoping to establish the conditions that Bureau of Land Management officials say could allow the bird to be removed from the threatened-species list.

To do that means, among other things, pushing the piñon-juniper forest off the flats to allow the return of sagebrush with no vantage points for predators.

Piñon Mesa’s 150 or so Gunnison sage grouse is the largest of the satellite populations of the bird. The main population of about 4,000 birds is in the Gunnison Basin.

“Increasing habitat quantity and quality, especially in the satellite populations, will be an essential component for conservation and recovery” of the Gunnison sage grouse, said Gina Glenne, supervisory fish and wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Grand Junction.

Doing that has involved significant effort using heavy equipment such as the “masticator,” so named for its ability to chew up piñon and juniper, leaving the opportunity for sagebrush to make its slow way back.

One example of the work that has been done over the years is along 5.7 Road on Piñon Mesa, where visitors can see a field of 100 or so acres that has been treated to roll back piñon-juniper forest.

Strip mowing left the area in green-and-tan stripes easily visible to passers-by on DS Road.

Under close inspection, “You can see that the sagebrush isn’t touched at all” as the masticator has torn into taller plants, said Heidi Plank, a wildlife biologist with the BLM.

Keeping the PJ, as the piñon-juniper forest is called, from moving back in requires regular attention from chainsaws, such as the one wielded by Patrick “PK” Kieran, a wildland fire-operations specialist with the BLM, in the Little Dolores area.

Slicing down single trees before the forest builds back up around them isn’t just good for the surrounding sage, it’s also a good way to deal with wildfire before it bursts into blazes, Kieran said.

Fire has played a role in the fate of sagebrush and its denizens, among them the grouse, said Kathy Griffin, statewide grouse conservation coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Fire suppression has kept natural processes from peeling back the PJ, but the blazes are destructive as well to the sage habitat.

“Sagebrush doesn’t respond well to fire,” Glenne said.

“It’s more complicated than just sagebrush,” Griffin said, adding that land managers need to keep more than the bird in mind.

“We don’t want to put a bunch of other species in harm’s way,” Griffin said.

The key to de-listing the Gunnison sage grouse, Glenne said, lies largely in the kinds of cooperation among federal, state (including Utah) and local authorities that is taking shape on Piñon Mesa.

The states and counties are putting together an “action investment plan” with willing landowners to address habitat concerns, while the BLM is working on changes to as many as 11 BLM resource-management plans in Colorado and Utah. The BLM manages just over 40 percent of Gunnison sage grouse habitat.

The public-comment period on draft amendments to the resource-management plans are due Jan. 9.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is beginning an assessment of the Gunnison sage grouse that will include its biology and current condition, identify all conservation efforts to date, and assess the bird’s ability into the future under differing scenarios.

Cooperative actions such as those being undertaken on Piñon Mesa “are the key for getting us to the place where we can remove Gunnison sage-grouse from the protections of the Endangered Species Act,” Glenn said.


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