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A male Gunnison Sage Grouse put on a display early in the morning Mill Creek Ranch in Gunnison, CO.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released a draft recovery plan for the Gunnison sage-grouse that places importance on maintaining a satellite population in Mesa County.

The agency is seeking comments through the end of the year on the plan, which is intended to help provide guidance on how to help enable the recovery of the bird so it no longer needs federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The Gunnison sage-grouse is found only in several western Colorado counties and in southeastern Utah. Its main population is in the Gunnison Basin. One satellite population is on Piñon Mesa in Mesa County.

The plan's release comes amid concern among Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists and conservation groups about a low number of male birds counted this year during an annual survey at breeding "lek" sites during the spring mating season.

Those counts have been declining in the past few years. The CPW focuses on three-year running averages due to high year-to-year variability. This year's count was affected in part by an inability of biologists to reach some lek sites due to deep snow, and CPW still is assessing what effects that snow may have had on grouse numbers.

The draft recovery plan says the bird needs at least five resilient populations to be able to withstand catastrophe and adapt to environmental change. As a result, the Gunnison Basin, Piñon Mesa, San Miguel Basin, Crawford and Monticello, Utah, populations all are assigned population recovery targets in the draft plan. It also identifies a need for improved habitat conditions in two other populations.

"Carefully managed and strategic augmentation of the San Miguel Basin, Piñon Mesa, Crawford, and Monticello populations by translocations of birds from the Gunnison Basin population will be an essential tool towards achieving the demographic recovery criteria in those populations," the plan says.

CPW currently estimates the bird's total population at something over 3,000. A target male lek count set by the Fish and Wildlife Service for the bird's recovery in the Gunnison Basin corresponds to an estimated total Gunnison sage-grouse population of about 3,670 there.

Conservation groups said in a news release Thursday that that's lower than the estimated 3,978 that were in the Gunnison Basin in 2014, when the bird was designated as threatened.

"The minimum viable population size should be 5,000 based on the scientific literature, but even the Gunnison Basin population has a lower target," Clait Braun, the former avian research program manager for what was at the time the Colorado Division of Wildlife, said in the release from conservation groups.

The groups, including the Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians and American Bird Conservancy, called the 21-page draft plan brief and vague, and one that fails to assure the bird's recovery.

Ann Timberman, supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Grand Junction office, said in a news release, "Our ongoing collaboration with counties, states, stockgrowers, and other interested members of the communities supporting these birds have helped us to complete the draft plan. We will continue working with these partners to further improve the recovery plan and develop recovery implementation strategies for each population."

The draft plan may be found by clicking here. Comments may be emailed to GUSGrecoveryplan@fws.gov or mailed or delivered in person to the Colorado Ecological Services Field Office, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 445 West Gunnison Ave., No. 240, Grand Junction, CO 81501-5711.

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