The Gunnison sage-grouse (Centrocercus minimus) is a newly named species native to the Gunnison Basin and surrounding areas, recognized by the American Ornithological Union in 2000. It was formerly known as the Northern sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), which is spread throughout the western United States. The Gunnison sage-grouse is about 2/3 the size of the Northern sage-grouse, has a different coloration and a distinct mating ritual. Since the 1970's, researchers have been aware of the differences between the two birds. DNA testing and other studies by researchers from the University of Denver, Western State College and the Colorado Division of Wildlife have contributed to the new species status of the Gunnison sage-grouse.
Habitat loss and habitat degradation are probably the biggest threats to the population of Gunnison sage-grouse. Land conversion, development, roads and intensive grazing have isolated the birds from one another. Isolated populations of birds decreases genetic diversity, increases the negative effects of inbreeding and may make the birds less able to adapt to their rapidly changing environment.
What is being done?
The National Park Service is dedicated to the conservation of the Gunnison sage-grouse by focusing special attention on the birds. For example, several visitor use areas near sage-grouse leks, or mating grounds, are closed during mating seasons. In addition, Biological Science Technicians are conducting studies, including trapping the birds on their breeding grounds and fitting them with small radio transmitters. Marked birds are tracked over a period of time to identify preferred habitat types. Geographical Information System (GIS) technology is used with the radio-telemetry data and vegetation inventories to identify existing or potential habitat, sage-grouse movements, seasonal habitat requirements, reproductive success and causes of mortality. Ultimately, researchers hope to connect existing isolated populations of the sage-grouse. Linking remaining populations of birds together will help increase genetic variation and hopefully, the number of birds as well.
What can you do?