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Preserved ranch will protect grouse leks

BLM purchases Miller ranch

Gunnison sage grouse habitat got a big boost last week in Gunnison County when the U.S. Department of Wildlife (DOW) purchased the 1,600-acre Miller ranch in the Ohio Creek Valley north of Gunnison to protect the threatened species.




Gunnison County commissioner Paula Swenson says the purchase could be the most significant development the county has seen to protect the rare bird.
“Habitat loss is the biggest threat to the grouse, and this purchase will permanently protect prime nesting areas,” she says.
According to Swenson, undisturbed breeding areas, or “leks,” are the most important component of grouse survival, so the DOW purchase of the Miller ranch is particularly vital.
“It’s very exciting,” says Swenson, of the now-protected habitat.
The Gunnison sage grouse is one of North America’s 10 most endangered birds, according to the Audubon Society. Efforts to protect the Gunnison sage grouse date back to the mid-1990s when scientists noted declining population and began worrying about the bird’s long-term survival.
In 1995, a group of area stakeholders, including governmental agencies, preservation groups and private interests, came together to form the Gunnison Sage Grouse working group—of which Swenson is the Gunnison County Board of Commissioner’s representative.
The working group’s effort, partly in response to the possibility of the species being listed as endangered and thus triggering more federal oversight, has been highly effective, according to Swenson.
Annual Gunnison County DOW lek counts dating from 2001 have increased, from a low of 498 in 2004 to a high of 1,061 in 2006.
While that number shrank to 941 in 2007, Swenson says the decline could reflect early warm weather and the timing of the count.
“Spring came early last year,” she says. “We may have missed some of the lekking season.”
While grouse recovery has shown progress in Gunnison County, counts in adjoining counties over the same period show flat or declining populations. Environmental groups in conjunction with San Miguel County have sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in order to force the agency to reexamine whether or not the species should be listed. The plaintiffs cited evidence that a senior Bush Administration official discounted evidence provided by federal biologists that indicated that the bird’s population was declining precipitously.
Dr. Pat Magee, Western State College’s Thornton Chair in Biology and a member of the sage grouse working group, says he isn’t sure whether it would help the grouse if the species were designated as endangered by the federal government.
“Biologically, it certainly warrants the listing,” says Magee, citing the fowl’s decline.
However, he says, the added protections mandated by such a designation may be resented by affected property owners.
“The listing might benefit the sage grouse by bringing in resources, but on the other hand, it could create a lot of bad feelings,” he says.
Still, he says, he supports the endangered species act as a whole.
“It’s important for the survival of threatened species,” he says.
Swenson declined to comment on the pending litigation—instead wishing to concentrate on the job of the working group.
“Regardless of what’s happening on the federal level, our focus is to save the sage grouse,” she says.
Like Swenson, Dr. Magee is excited about the prospect of the Miller ranch being managed with the Gunnison sage grouse in mind. He says the Ohio Creek Valley and Chance Creek Gulch are the largest Gunnison breeding areas for the endangered grouse.
Moreover, according to Magee, there is a least one active lek on the Miller ranch. Each lek—which is like a stage among the sagebrush where the male bird can preen for prospective mates—supports as many as 50 birds, says Magee.
“If you lose a lek, you lose all the birds associated with it,” he says.
Magee says because the combination of biological and geological features needed for a lek is very specific, he is particularly grateful that the Millers decided to sell their ranch to an entity that wished to preserve it as open space and wildlife habitat.
Magee also said other features on the ranch such as the riparian areas and the necessary flora help support the grouse.
According to J Wenum, area wildlife manager for the DOW in Gunnison, the explanation for the rich wildlife habitat on the property has to do with the way the Millers have operated their ranch.
“The reason there is such important wildlife habitat on this ranch is because of the management of the property by the Millers over the last 100 years,” Wenum said in a DOW press release. “They’ve not only done things for wildlife—they are contributing to open space and ranching heritage in the Gunnison area.”
The Miller ranch, located 10 miles north of Gunnison, has been a working cattle operation since 1902 and has supported five generations of Miller ranchers.
Although Carl Miller says his family almost sold the ranch to a developer to be subdivided, he says his family instead decided to pursue a sales option that allowed the property to remain open space.
“We just couldn’t leave the property to be developed,” he says. “We’re very pleased (the DOW) ended up with it.”

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