The month of April is when the Greater Sage Grouse does an elaborate dance to find a mate. The chicken-like bird lives in northwest Colorado and other western states and it’s population is shrinking. The largest conservation effort ever is underway to improve the bird’s habitat and prevent a federal “endangered” listing. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen visited the largest breeding grounds in the state, where the birds gather each year for their courtship dance.
It’s pitch black outside of Craig, Colorado. The sun’s not yet up to guide us, so a small group of journalists and scientists quietly follow the faint glow of a flashlight.
A small hike takes us to the edge of a breeding area for the greater sage grouse. We can’t see the birds but we can hear their blooping and popping mating sounds.
Brian Rutledge has binoculars around his neck. He’s the director of Audubon Society in Wyoming. He says the dance of the sage grouse is based around the full moon in April.
"You can see, watching out here, how those white feathers bounce the moonlight and so they (the hens) get a full display in what would otherwise be the invisible darkness of early morning."
More than 160 birds are strutting and feeding on this flat stretch of cultivated land. As the sun rises, the female hens become visible. To get their attention, the males fan their feathers and inflate and deflate twin bright yellow throat sacs. It’s risky business, says Rutledge, because the birds are exposed to predators.
"It’s the same reason an African Lion has a mane. It’s to advertise himself at distance. That’s why these guys have the fanned feathers - ‘Look at me, look at me! I’m the guy you want to reproduce with.’”
The hens choose just one or two males to reproduce with. Ninety percent of the males fly off disappointed.
This breeding area, or lek, is surrounded by big, healthy sagebrush. That’s why the birds have been coming here for more than 90 years.
"(It’s) the big empty. It’s wild country," says rancher Wes McStay. He’s been working the land here for five decades. It’s home to the largest concentration of greater sage grouse in the state.
"They are beautiful. The more you learn about them, you just have to admire them - their toughness and how they survived hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of years out here."
Over the years McStay has watched the bird’s population shrink. To protect them, he’s limiting grazing on certain sections of land to let grasses recover. And, he’s watering dry areas so his cattle can graze farther from the bird’s breeding grounds.
He wants to avoid a listing of the bird as endangered. Here’s why:
"The unknown and what you do know or what you’ve heard about other species that get listed. It’s the restrictions that would be on you. The bureaucracy - dealing with the federal government and agencies. I think it would tie everybody’s hands."
He’s not alone. The massive conservation effort underway is one way to keep the grouse off the endangered species list and avoid federal regulations. In 2008, the state of Colorado drew up its own conservation plan but didn’t update it after new findings came out in 2010. The BLM manages nearly half of the state’s grouse habitat and is implementing several conservation measures. Even Garfield County has a conservation plan for the bird. Across the bird's habitat, an effort led by the Sage Grouse Initiative is working with ranchers to conserve land.
The decision on whether the Greater Sage Grouse gets listed is scheduled for late September.
This story is the result of an environmental fellowship held by the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources.