• Curecanti National Recreation Area


    National Recreation Area Colorado

The Plight of the Gunnison Sage Grouse

National Park Service Mission
...to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Curecanti National Recreation Area Outreach Education is committed to:Creating an awareness and fostering an appreciation for the mission of the National Park Service and the natural, cultural, and historic resources of Curecanti National Recreation Area and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

Curriculum enhancing activities designed to complement national and state content standards across a variety of disciplines.

Title: The Plight of the Gunnison Sage Grouse

Grade Level: Fifth Grade

Time Length: 60 minutes

Subject Area: Science and Mathematics

Teacher: Two NPS Education Specialists

Colorado Content Standards: Science: (3.1) Students know and understand the characteristics of living things, the diversity of life, and how things interact with each other and their environment

Science: (5) Students know and understand interrelationships among science, technology, and human activity and how they can affect the world.

Mathematics: (4) Students use geometric concepts, properties, and relationships in problem-solving situations and communicate the reasoning used in solving these problems.

Civics: (4.4) Students know how citizens can participate in civic life.

Theme: The Gunnison Sage Grouse may potentially be listed as an endangered species, due to habitat loss in the Gunnison Basin. Local citizens have a chance to save this species.

NPS focus: Public Law 39-535 (Organic Act). Public Law 95-250 (Redwood National Park Expansion Act). Vail Agenda Education Committee Report (Strategic Goal #2; Action Plan 16) and (Strategic Goal #3; Action Plan 52, 62). Curecanti and Black Canyon Themes: Natural Resources/Wildlife.

Environmental Concepts: Everything must fit how and where it lives (adaptations).

There is no free lunch (community).

Everything is connected (interrelationships).

Environmental Learning Hierarchy: Analogies, ecological principles, problem solving process, decision- making procedures.

Materials: The GSG sound tape; tape player; Mounted GSG, eggs, scat samples, feathers; long rope to mark boundary; laptop computer with projector and PowerPoint presentation installed; extension cord; radio telemetry equipment (wooden bar, metal bars, radio collars, transmitter in black bag, antennae)

Knowledge level: Students will be able to list three reasons or ways that the GSG habitat is being threatened. Students will be able to explain what the National Park Service scientists are doing to help the GSG.
Comprehension level: Students will be able to explain how the decreasing amount of habitat directly affects the individual GSG and their overall population. Students will be aware of the relationship between GSG and their environment. Students will be able to explain why the survival of the GSG is relevant to our own lives.

Walk into the room with the mounted GSG covered with a sheet so the children can’t see what is in the box. Have children be quiet and listen to the Gunnison Sage Grouse audiotape of the mating call. Play the tape for about one minute and then discuss what the sound on the tape was. “Who knows what that sound was? That sound was made by the animal that is underneath this blanket. (Uncover it and ask if anyone can ID it. It’s a GSG). Who can tell me if this is a male or a female bird? How do you know? The males of many species of animals are the ones who have to work really hard to attract the females that they want to mate with. To do that, they sometimes have fancy calls and brightly colored feathers. The females typically want to blend in with their environment. So this is a male Gunnison Sage Grouse. Does anyone know why he would make that sound? They make that sound to attract the females to the mating ground or Lek. Has anyone ever seen a GSG or any sage grouse before today?” Let’s look at some pictures of this rare bird and see what else we can learn.

III. Teaching Procedure/Methodology


Imagine that it’s the year 2000 and all of you are investigative scientists. You’re in a conference, and the main speaker is showing you pictures of a bird, called the Greater or Northern Sage Grouse. As he flips through the pictures, you notice some differences among the pictures, and you decide that these are really two different birds. Is it possible that these are two different species of birds? What are some of the differences you see? Correct, the male GSG is smaller and has different feathers than the Greater Sage Grouse, although the females of the two species look fairly similar. Also, the mating calls and behaviors are different. So now that you’ve hypothesized that these are two different species, how can you, as a scientist, prove it to everyone else who doubts you?

You could test the bird’s DNA. Who knows what DNA is? DNA is deoxyribonucleic acid. It’s found in the nucleus of a cell, and it helps pass along genetic information from parents to their young. DNA is in your blood, and it’s what makes you look similar to your parents or your brothers and sisters. When scientists tested the birds’ DNA, that’s when they became certain that the two were separate species.

When it became a new species in 2000, researchers and scientists noticed that the GSG population was declining quickly, to the point that some people were concerned. The number of GSG was just about 2,000 birds which made people want to list it as an endangered species. Who knows what an endangered species is? It’s an animal whose population is so low that it’s in immediate danger of becoming extinct. What is extinct? It means that every single animal of that kind has died, and it will never exist again.

Can anyone think of a reason that the population might have decreased? Some causes of habitat loss for Sage-Grouse in the Gunnison Basin include: more roads are being built, Blue Mesa reservoir flooded a lot of GSG habitat, housing developments, and powerlines. Cattle and sheep grazing, drought and increased elk and deer populations cause habitats to be less healthy.

Let’s talk a little more about habitat loss. Who can remind me what a habitat is? It has four components-food, water, shelter, and space. Food, water, shelter, space, a habitat is a wonderful place!! Do humans have a habitat? Yes, we do. We all need food, water, shelter and space to survive. Could we survive without food? No. Water? No, not for more than 3 days. Shelter? Maybe for a little while. Space? No. If you didn’t have a home, do you think it would be easy to survive? Well, imagine if the area where you lived was changed so dramatically that you could no longer find food, water, and shelter. That’s what happens to many species of animals, and habitat loss causes the animals and plants to do one of three things: die, adapt, or move to a new area. In the case of the GSG, they’re very particular about where they will live and breed, so it wasn’t easy to find another place to live. They couldn’t adapt to their new surroundings very fast, so many of them simply died.

Who can guess where a Gunnison Sage Grouse likes to live? They like to live among the sagebrush, like their name indicates, because during the winter time, they only eat sagebrush leaves. Just like we eat more ice cream during the summer and drink more hot chocolate during the winter, the GSG changes the food it eats as the seasons change. They require a variety of habitats including sagebrush and healthy riparian ecosystems. A riparian ecosystem is the area and all of the plants and animals along a river.

One really interesting thing to see is the mating dance of the male GSG’s. We’ll see some pictures here, but you may have had the chance before our visit to see a video of the mating dance. The females choose their mates based on the sounds and dances of each male.

At Curecanti NRA, Ranger Brooke and some other biologists study the Gunnison Sage Grouse. They’re trying to figure out exactly what kind of habitat the GSG needs to survive. Ranger Brooke uses special equipment to find out where the GSG are located. Some of the grouse are gently and carefully trapped and a small radio collar is put around their necks. Brooke then uses a directional antennae, called a “yagi” to pinpoint their locations. Eventually, the National Park Service rangers and other scientists will be able to create a model of the “ideal GSG habitat.” A lot of people care about the GSG, so they’ve joined groups to help the bird. They’ve even come up with a plan to protect the birds and their habitat. The National Park Service and other groups of people can work together to restore the GSG habitats.

end slideshow

Demonstration of radiotelemetry equipment: (either inside or outside)

Now we’ll have a chance to see how some of Ranger Brooke’s equipment works, and what it looks like. Brooke traps some of the GSG’s and puts a band on their leg, like this one (show example), and she hooks a small transmitter around their necks (show example). Some of you have probably seen the big radio collars they put on bighorn sheep or deer. The radio collars on the sage grouse are much, much smaller and lighter, so they don’t make it harder for the bird to fly away from predators, when they feel afraid. The transmitter is about the size of this AAA battery (show example). Then, later in the year, Brooke uses radio telemetry equipment to find out exactly where each of those birds are living. (Do a small demo of the equipment). She puts a big antenna called an “omni” on top of her truck, and drives along roads through the sagebrush. When her transmitter starts beeping, she gets out of her car and uses a directional antenna, called a “yagi,” like this one, to determine exactly which direction the sage grouse is located. This box will beep louder if you point the antenna directly at the bird that has the collar on. (If we borrow functional equipment, give the collar to one student to place somewhere in the room while the Ranger tries to track the collar). But you might be wondering why she tracks the birds. What good does that do? She and the other biologists are trying to find out exactly what kind of habitat the GSG needs to survive, and then they will work to try to protect that type of critical habitat.

Ask some review questions to determine how much the students have learned from the presentation. “Who remembers how the scientists determined that the Gunnison Sage Grouse was a different species than the Greater Northern Sage Grouse?” (answer: DNA tests). “What type of habitat do the GSG need? (answer: sage brush habitat and riparian habitat). Now that we know something about the Gunnison Sage Grouse and their declining population, let’s do an activity to simulate what happens to these birds when their habitat shrinks.

I need everyone to close your eyes and open your ears. Close your eyes and imagine that you and all of your classmates are no longer human. Instead, you have been transformed into Gunnison Sage Grouse. Reach up with your hands and touch your hair. Your hair is actually a plume of feathers that waves up and down to attract a mate. Put your arms back down by your sides, and shake them out. Your arms are actually stumpy wings that help you fly short distances. When you sense that a predator is nearby, your first instinct is to freeze and blend in with your surroundings. If the animal gets too close, you’ll loudly jump up and take flight, most likely scaring your predator away. Everyone here is a Gunnison Sage Grouse, and this is your habitat. You’re surrounded by sage brush, which is your primary food and shelter. You eat the leaves of the sage brush, and your camouflage feathers help you to blend in with the natural vegetation and dirt around you.

You may open your eyes, but remember that all of you are now Gunnison Sage Grouse. The desks in this room represent individual sage brush bushes. You need a certain amount of space to survive, so please stand up and step to the side of your desk. Now spread your arms out. This is your space. What do you think would happen if a GSG wandered into the space or territory of another GSG? They might fight to defend their territory. Since we’re just pretending, though, we won’t fight. If another GSG gets too close to you, lower your arms or fold them in toward your body to represent your lack of space. Remember that each desk represents a sagebrush bush, which you need for shelter and food. Typically, each bird or couple of birds might share one sagebrush bush. So right now, this ecosystem seems pretty healthy. There is plenty of sagebrush and space for all of these birds in this population. The boundary of this habitat is marked by this rope.

But on this edge of the habitat, there’s a housing development being constructed. That means that some of this sagebrush and open space needs to be removed, to make room for the houses. (Move the boundary to exclude some of the desks). What will the GSG do to survive? They’ll need to move to find shelter, food, and space. (Have the students move so that they’re within the boundary). Now the population looks a little more cramped, but it looks like all the grouse are still okay. But look over here. This area is being grazed by 100 head of cattle. The cows are heavy animals, and they trample the natural vegetation and sometimes even the sage grouse nests. GSG’s have a difficult time surviving in a heavily grazed area, so they need to move to find a better habitat. (Move the rope boundary again, to exclude more desks. Have the students move so that they’re within the boundary). Gunnison Sage Grouse also need a riparian area as part of their habitat. But on this side of their habitat, where the river flows through, a homeowner has decided to cut down the native vegetation and plant a lawn instead, which she mows every week. The sage grouse can’t find food and shelter here anymore, so they either need to move or adapt to the new situation if they are going to survive. (Move the rope marking the habitat so that it’s smaller, and fewer desks are within it.) How’s our population of GSG doing now? Does everyone still have enough space to spread their wings? How about food supply-does everyone have a sagebrush that they can hide underneath when a predator comes too close? If each bird isn’t getting enough food, water, shelter and space, is the population still healthy? What will start to happen? One by one the birds will either die, or they’ll have to move away. What do you think happened in this case? Thank you for helping us simulate habitat loss. You may all be seated now, and can transform yourselves back into humans.

Has anyone ever been to Blue Mesa Reservoir? Blue Mesa is the largest body of water in the state of Colorado, and it’s located within a unit of the National Park Service called Curecanti National Recreation Area. It’s a man-made lake, formed when the Blue Mesa dam was built on the Gunnison River. So before 1965, this lake didn’t exist; instead, what you’d see is just the narrow Gunnison River, and a lot of sagebrush. So when the dam was built, all the land alongside the river was flooded, which killed a lot of the sagebrush. What do you think happened to the sage grouse that lived there? Many birds lost their homes.

(If there’s extra time, divide the students into 2 teams and ask trivia questions about the material we’ve covered, or divide the class into 4 teams and ask them to brainstorm ways that they would protect the GSG if they were members of the town council).


So why does it matter if this one species of bird survives or not? It’s just one species, and there are so many other species of birds in the world, after all. (allow a few students to answer) The reason that it matters ultimately is that all species of life on our planet, including humans, are interconnected. Have you heard of the web of life? Basically, the web of life shows that we, along with all the plants and animals, rely on the same resources, the same land, water, air and sunlight, for our survival. If one species goes extinct, it might not seem like a big deal, but it has huge impacts on all the other species that may prey on that plant or animal. Let’s say the aspen tree disappears from our planet. All the animals that eat the leaves or bark of the aspen tree will die, and beavers may be among them. If the beavers die, that means that they won’t build dams and create reservoirs. That means that many species of fish and ducks that rely on the beavers’ reservoirs will have to look for another place to live. And it goes on and on. If the web of life is broken, it affects much more than that single species. Ultimately, it will affect us directly. So let’s learn all we can about wild animals and habitats, so that when the time comes, we can work together to save animals, save plants, and keep our own planet Earth clean and healthy!

Not appropriate.

But there’s good news about the Gunnison Sage Grouse, at least. When the people in the Gunnison Basin found out about the plight of this unique bird, they joined together to fight for its survival. They formed a group called the Gunnison Sage Grouse Working Group and the High Country Citizens’ Alliance, and they worked with ranchers and landowners to make sure that the GSG will have enough habitat for their mating rituals and for basic survival. When scientists first discovered this new species, the population was only 2000 birds. In 2004, the population was 2,320, and now, there are more than 4,000 GSG. This just goes to show that even in a small community like Gunnison, CO, if the people decide to join together and work hard on an important issue like this one, that that small group of people can accomplish anything that they set their minds to. And YOU can, too, by learning more about your rights and responsibilities as a local citizen and getting involved in local issues. You can make a difference.

Answer questions and encourage the students to visit their National Parks.

Indicate what you judge to have been the strengths of the lesson, what changes you made during the lesson and what changes you would make if you were to teach the unit again.

Colorado Division of Wildlife: Gunnison Sage Grouse
USGS: Gunnison Sage Grouse
High Country Citizens’ Alliance: Gunnison Sage Grouse
Western State College: Gunnison Sage Grouse
National Wildlife Federation: Gunnison Sage Grouse

See above sites.

From the National Wildlife Federation’s website listed above.

Interesting Facts:

  • Sagebrush grows slowly. Dense stands of sagebrush -- which take 25 or perhaps even 100 years to recover from fires -- can be the most important to sage-grouse.
  • Though more than 170 species of birds and mammals live in sage-steppe grasslands, sage-grouse are one of the only bird species that extensively eat sagebrush.

Voice: When flushed, a coarse "wut" or "kak, kak, kak" call. Males also coo and make popping vocalizations by expelling air through esophageal pouches during courtship.

Diet: Sagebrush almost exclusively during winter, and forbs (small flowering plants) in other seasons, while chicks eat insects and forbs. Unlike many other birds, sage-grouse are not adapted to digest seeds, and do not eat wheat, corn or other agricultural grains. They will, however, eat alfalfa, dandelion and other introduced forbs.

Habitat Type: Sage-grouse are found on prairies and mountain foothills, primarily in areas dominated by sagebrush, forbs and grasses, in habitats known as "sage-steppe." The best sage-grouse habitats are in mature sagebrush stands, often 30-100 years old, with a dense under story of native perennial grasses and flowering plants. These arid lands are characterized by a blanket of sagebrush and scant rainfall and snow. These birds require various types of sagebrush, ranging from tall, well developed sage for shelter and food during deep winter snows, to dense sage thickets with lush native grasses beneath for nesting. Sage-grouse chicks need healthy, wet meadows and creek areas rich in insects, forbs and other plants.

Range: Gunnison sage-grouse are found in Colorado and Utah, while the greater sage-grouse are found in parts of 11 western states and two Canadian provinces: California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Breeding: Each spring the males gather on a traditional display ground, called a lek, to court the females. They have ornate and competitive springtime mating rituals. Up to 100 males may be seen performing on a single lek, a true spectacle of nature. After mating, females nest and raise up to a dozen chicks without further help from the male. Sage-grouse reproduce slowly for an upland bird, often not breeding until they are two years old, and seldom nest again the same year if they lose eggs or chicks to predators or bad weather. Eggs are olive-green, lightly spotted with brown, in a well-concealed grass-lined depression. Sage-grouse have the greatest nesting success in sagebrush stands with 15-25 percent canopy densities, and seven or more inches of grass and forb under story.

Winter Lifestyle: In the fall and winter the leathery leaves of sagebrush are one of its only foods, and during the rest of the year sagebrush provides it with shelter from extreme weather and predators.

Migration: Sage-grouse are strong flyers and are often migratory, flying or walking long distances between summer and winter habitats. They travel across prairies and even over mountain ranges. Along the way, they require sage-steppe grasslands.

Did You Know?


A wide range of mammals can be found within Curecanti, including mule deer, mountain lion, black bear, coyote, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, elk and even an occasional moose.