Gunnison, Colo. (CN) --- As the sun baked a late-spring day, habitat biologist Paul Jones pointed to the remains of a homestead patented in the 1920s along Chance Gulch in western Colorado’s Gunnison Basin. Surrounded by rough sagebrush and clouds of dry, orange dust, it looks like the last place on Earth a farmer should move his family and try to plant potatoes.
But cottonwood trees still tower over the dilapidated home, the remains of a garden and an old lilac bush. Each of these plants, like humans, are attracted to places with water.
“This was once a wet meadow that was altered because of the roads,” Jones said.
After settling near water, Jones said, homesteaders traveled the land in buckboard wagons with iron-bound wheels, turning the easiest routes through dry creek beds and wet meadows into de facto roads. Heavy wagon wheels created ruts and killed vegetation, over time punching drains into the wet meadows frequented by young sage grouse.
Weighing between two and five pounds, Gunnison sage grouse are usually dark brown with a fan of distinctive barred tail feathers. Their reputation as the peacock of the prairie comes from the male’s spring mating display. On territories known as leks, male sage grouse inflate yellow air sacs in the middle of their chest and make an attractive melody of popping sounds.
While the Gunnison sage grouse once lived among the four corners of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado, it now only occupies 10% of its historical range, with the largest population in the Gunnison Basin. Based on annual lek counts of males during mating season, Colorado Parks and Wildlife estimated a population of 3,547 this year, up about 1,000 birds from last year’s count.
Fluctuations, however, appear among the bird’s population somewhat cyclically, with a high of 5,500 birds in 2015 and an estimated low of 2,100 in 2019.
The Gunnison sage grouse was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2014, but Jones is among a small group that has been protecting the bird since the 1990s.
“I’m an optimist and I’m not going to give up until the last sage grouse is gone,” said Jones, who is contracted with the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. “The species doesn’t need us. They need the habitat.”
Adult sage grouse feed on tough sagebrush leaves through the winter, but spring-born chicks need the protein-rich insects that thrive in wetlands.
Making up less than 2% of the land, these wet meadows lie nestled into the bottom of valleys amid a semi-arid expanse otherwise dominated by sagebrush.
Many regional biologists believe the wet meadows can and should be restored to improve the quality of habitat for young Gunnison sage grouse and other native species. And restoring the land’s ability to retain water doesn’t even require new or expensive technology.
In partnership with private landowners and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management --- which owns the majority of sage grouse habitat --- Colorado Parks and Wildlife is restoring the land by building simple rock dams, or Zeedyk structures, that slow water flow and allow the wet-meadow sponge to refill.
A simple rock-lined Zuni bowl --- named for the Pueblo tribe that pioneered the technique --- can transform steep eroding head cuts into a pool where water collects and then slowly seeps out into the dehydrated valley bottom.
Naturally averse to water, encroaching sagebrush dies out as the ground re-saturates. Underneath the skeletons of dried sagebrush, irises, sedges, cottonwood and succulent dandelions flourish.
“The chicks hatch in June and forage for insects while the hens feast on succulent plants, like dandelions that are full of white sap --- they’re like ice cream cones for grouse,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife conservation biologist Nathan Seward who helped drive the first restoration projects in 2012. “These mesic resources are critical to the life history of the Gunnison sage grouse.”
Walking along Chance Gulch and Cabin Creek, Seward pointed to other places where he envisions transforming dry channels into wetland nurseries for the sage grouse. Roads remain a major disruption in the flow of water, but can be relocated to the tops of valleys or covered with chunks of granite to allow water to flow underneath.
A study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service calculated low-tech restoration projects increased greenness, or vegetative productivity, by 25%, and help keep the ground wetter longer into the season. Retaining soil moisture helps wet meadows build resilience against drought and climate change.
While the wet-meadow restoration project also led to a clear increase in native beetles and wetland grasses, researchers are still unsure when --- or if --- they will observe a direct increase in Gunnison sage grouse population counts.
Gunnison sage grouse populations normally fluctuate with documented declines during drought years and rebounds during wet years, among other factors. Conservationists hope the restoration of the wet meadows during years with abundant rain and snowfall will help the grouse build the resiliency needed to survive prolonged drought, climate change and the continued expansion of people, powerlines, cattle and roads.
“People often think there’s nothing out here so it’s where we should put the landfills and the roads, but there are all these gems: plants, invertebrates and birds that are unique to this system,” said Patrick McGee, assistant professor of wildlife and conservation biology at Western Colorado University. “There’s hope here.”
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