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Sage grouse subcommittee suggests new protocols for lek viewing

Bird numbers declining at Waunita viewing site

By Adam Broderick

A subcommittee in charge of analyzing research into the Gunnison sage grouse at the Waunita Watchable Wildlife Site, located 20 miles east of Gunnison, met with the Board of County Commissioners earlier this week. The subcommittee has noticed a decline in bird counts at the site over recent years due to a combination of suspected reasons, including human interaction at the site.

The Waunita Watchable Wildlife subcommittee had seven specific recommendations for the board, all meant to help protect the bird and its habitat while preserving public as well as private land rights in the area.

The subcommittee’s data comes from work conducted at the Waunita lek site since spring this year. A “lek site” is a sage grouse mating site, and this particular area off Highway 50, near Waunita Hot Springs, is easily accessible to bird watchers. Over the last few years, bird attendance at the site has declined and the subcommittee is concerned.

By the time the subcommittee met with commissioners, they had spent roughly six months reviewing data from the Waunita site and considering both short- and long-term impacts, including: public viewing of the birds in a controlled setting, continuation of educational efforts provided at the site, and the roll the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has in conservation and management of the grouse.

According to the report submitted to commissioners, the roll the USFWS has in conservation and management of the grouse “was of considerable concern to the Subcommittee as the USFWS now has regulatory authority over the Gunnison sage grouse but does not have a formal member on the Strategic Committee nor has participated in a meaningful discussion on the continued operation of this Watchable Wildlife Site.”

The county is currently involved in a multi-faceted lawsuit against the USFWS over its listing of the sage grouse as “threatened” and its decision to “improperly designate critical habitat for the bird,” both decisions that local authorities say undermined and essentially negate all the hard work done and money spent locally to protect the bird.

A decision in that case is expected by the end of September.

Jim Cochran represented the subcommittee at the September 8 board meeting. He said the birds have moved farther and farther from the viewing site, and in turn so have viewers seeking a better view of the bird’s unique mating rituals.

“The lekking activity has moved north and it didn’t take people very long to realize they don’t need to go to the viewing site anymore—now they can just park on the roadside,” Cochran told the board. He added that the road is a busy one, with Waunita Hot Springs and residences in the area, so closing the road is not an option. “But controlling parking and directing people to the viewing area, we can do that.”

Pat Magee, member of the sage grouse strategic committee, which heads the subcommittee, said the people coming to the site are mostly birders, and are connected to Colorado birding sites. “We’ve already contacted them about what’s appropriate and what’s not,” he said. “If we could say the road is closed to parking, that would give them a little more incentive to not go up there.”

In order to best protect the bird, its habitat, and the rights of local parties currently involved or at risk of being negatively affected by any regulations set forth by distant government agencies, the subcommittee made seven recommendations:

1. Reduce site operations from seven to five days a week in 2016.

2. Monitor human lek viewing response during the two closed days.

3. Close Gunnison County Road 887 to parking for a minimum period of March 1 to May 15 for a distance to be determined.

4. Provide additional signage at the site noting that lek viewing outside of the established Watchable Wildlife Site and associated protocols is harmful to the grouse.

5. Establish no minimum grouse male attendance threshold for this lek complex at this time.

6. The Strategic Committee to review the Waunita Watchable Wildlife Site Final Report annually and take any action (in the form of recommendations to the appropriate entity) deemed necessary.

7. Establish a fee collection station for collection of voluntary fees for use of the site and viewing of the grouse.

Commissioners adopted the recommendations but had questions about signage because new signs require approval of the board. Public Works director Marlene Crosby seconded the notion that the road could not be closed, to which Commissioner Paula Swenson asked, “So it would just be closed to parking?”

“Yes. The issue is where people park,” Crosby said.

“The idea of closing the [viewing] site is to see if there is a discernable difference in grouse activity when the site is closed. And in human activity, how people are viewing them,” added Cochran.

“Marlene, could you and Pat go out there and decide where the signs could go so we can get going on this?” Swenson asked. Crosby said they could do that.

“If you could work on that and come back to us, even if we don’t have the signs themselves done, as long as we have the posts in the ground before the ground freezes. The sooner the better,” Swenson said.

The subcommittee will revisit the board with details about signage language, proposed locations, and approximate installation date and a goal to have signs in place and more birdwatchers educated on the rules in spring 2016.

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