Division of Wildlife to launch conservation plan for grouse | PostIndependent.com

Division of Wildlife to launch conservation plan for grouse

Special to the Post Independent/U.S. Fish and WildOfficials say that populations of sage grouse have declined gradually, with numbers down 50 percent over the past 40-50 years.

While the greater sage grouse hasn’t exactly gone the way of the dodo, wildlife biologists with the Colorado Division of Wildlife are concerned about its declining numbers. DOW will prepare a conservation plan for greater sage grouse in the Roan, West Parachute and Piceance creek drainages this year with the help of the public. It will not cover the area of the Roan Plateau under consideration by the Bureau of Land Management in its draft Environmental Impact Statement.The plan is part of a statewide conservation effort by DOW to arrest disappearance of the birds’ prime habitat – sage grasslands – that offer both forage and trysting grounds for the birds’ elaborate mating game.According to DOW wildlife biologist John Toolen, whose territory extends from Grand Junction to Rifle, sage grouse populations have declined gradually, with numbers down 50 percent over the last 40 to 50 years.”Across the range in the West, there is a tendency for grouse to recede from lower to higher elevations, to wetter country over 7,500 feet,” he said.

What drives the numbers down is the steady decrease in sagebrush uplands and the gradual overtaking by piñon and juniper forest.There appears to be no single cause for this decline. “That’s the $64,000 question. It’s hard to point to one thing,” Toolen said. Significant changes in vegetation have occurred over the past 100 years.”Drought has been a factor in the last five to 10 years,” he said, so has overgrazing of livestock. Human development has also had an impact, especially fire suppression that appears to favor piñon and juniper growth over that of sagebrush. Increased natural-gas activity in the area has also had an impact on the birds, Toolen said. Last year, two gas-development companies, EnCana and Williams, which were interested in forming working groups to form a conservation plan, approached the DOW. Both contributed money to fund a helicopter survey of sage grouse in the study areas this spring.

Sage grouse were under consideration for listing on the threatened and endangered species list last year. In January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a finding that listing was not warranted, Toolen said.”A major thrust in the past has been to keep them from being listed. It makes life harder for DOW and the birds,” said Joe Gumber, a DOW wildlife officer stationed in DeBeque. Conservation plans across the state helped keep their numbers up and kept them off the list.DOW will hold a series of public meetings in May to invite volunteers to participate in creating the conservation plan. Since about 70 percent of the study area is on private land, Toolen said it will be crucial to have landowners involved in framing the conservation plan.”We want to make (the plan) landowner-friendly,” he said.Conservation plans in other areas of the state have recommended a variety of methods to help bring back sagebrush habitat, including knocking down older sagebrush to encourage growth of younger plants.

Industry could also be asked to refrain from drilling or other activity during the spring mating season, Toolen said.”They would stay off (those areas) in the spring and could go back in the fall,” he said.Contact Donna Gray: 945-8515, ext. 510dgray@postindependent.com

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