Sue Bellagamba, TNC’s Canyonlands Regional Director, explains the urgency behind this land purchase. “When the habitat range is this small, and the population numbers are this low, we know each action we take can truly mean the difference between survival or extinction.”
Saving the land itself, however, is only one piece of the puzzle as conservationists scramble to improve the odds for the grouse. TNC, aided by a suite of partners invested in Gunnison sage-grouse recovery, is taking steps to use the newly protected property as a laboratory for increasing the bird population and improving the genetic diversity of the species.
“I was thrilled that we made the purchase,” said Bellagamba. “But I’m actually more excited about what happens next as we launch our restoration phase—we have a chance not just to protect what is already there, but to improve the existing habitat and bolster the local population.”
In partnership with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR), TNC will restore 130 acres of dry farmland to sagebrush, a change that will provide the birds more room to move between wintering, nesting and brood-rearing habitats. With the help of our partners and volunteers (like those in the photo above), TNC has already added more than 15,000 sagebrush plants to the property.
Research has shown that human impacts, and the fragmentation of the land, have had a paralyzing effect on the birds, restricting their natural movements and ability to reproduce.
“These birds need different types of habitat for each part of their life cycle—from mating to breeding to chick rearing,” explains Bellagamba. “In San Juan County, drought and fragmentation have really reduced the diversity of habitat available to the birds.”
With this in mind, TNC has also refurbished an earthen dam to catch and collect spring run-off, creating a new area of wet meadow, which provides food and cover for the grouse as they raise their chicks.
Bellagamba and her partners say the restoration work not only benefits the Utah population, but it may also prepare them to roll out a welcome mat for new grouse. TNC and UDWR hope to join forces with the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife to translocate 20 to 30 birds from southwestern Colorado to the newly protected home in Utah.
The move, focused largely on female birds, would increase population numbers and also boost genetic diversity—an increasingly big concern for the species as its struggles to reproduce, adapt and survive. Should the translocation occur, Bellagamba stresses that it would be carefully vetted with the public and especially local landowners. “TNC is committed to, and has a long track record of, conservation strategies and solutions that benefit both wildlife and people.”
For the Gunnsion sage-grouse, it seems, those benefits can’t come soon enough. “We have a very small window of opportunity left to prevent disaster,” explains Bellagamba. “By making this purchase, we are hoping to gain ground and buy time, and ultimately, to make a lasting impact for the future of this species.”