Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust: Viewing Sage Grouse on Conserved Ranch Inspires Staff

April 20, 2015

By Jayne Thompson, Development and Communications Assistant, CCALT

(Note: Read our Featured Friend profile of SGI partner CCALT).

(Photo: Rachel Sralla, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, interprets sage grouse courtship to Jayne Thompson, CCALT)

For the past 20 years, Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust (CCALT) has worked with ranchers in the state of Colorado to conserve working agricultural landscapes. The Sage Grouse Initiative and Colorado Parks and Wildlife are two of several key partners teaming up for success. As a result of ranchers stepping up and partners, we have protected over 45,000 acres of greater sage-grouse habitat.

As an organization, we promised ourselves that at some point we would need to actually see the birds we were protecting. We recently completed an easement on a ranch in Grand County that is known for its historic sage grouse lek. The project represented a large milestone for CCALT, so it seemed like the perfect time to celebrate by visiting the ranch and observing the famous spring courtship—the sage grouse strut.

View of prime sag grouse habitat in Colorado that harbors an active sage grouse lek: the site of CCALT's staff expedition to at last see grouse in action. (CCALT photo)

View of prime sag grouse habitat in Colorado that harbors an active sage grouse lek: the site of CCALT’s staff expedition to at last see grouse in action. (CCALT photo)

What started out as a large group outing slowly dwindled down to two participants. Chris West, our Executive Director and I were the only two people in the office willing to wake up before the sun.

It was an exceptionally early morning, and we were headed west on I-70 by 3:30 am. Two hours later, we pulled off on a dirt road to meet Rachel Sralla from Colorado Parks and Wildlife. A headlamp would have been a good idea, but we began our hike regardless and made it to the top of the bluff under the cover of darkness. Rachel eventually stopped to notify us we were getting close. At this point, our adrenaline kicked in, as we anticipated finally getting to see the birds.

We sat down in the sage, and waited. The sun began to light the valley, and the early dawn turned into a crystal clear Colorado morning. The air was crisp and cold and I was grateful for my oversized camo jacket. After scanning the

horizon, Rachel spotted a single male strutting about 200 yards away from us. We had barely focused our binoculars on him before a herd of antelope sprinted by and flushed him off the lek. Disappointed, we moved down the other side of the bluff and scoped from there. Our patience paid off, and soon Rachel nudged us to signal that 150 yards out four male sage grouse were strutting. This time, they weren’t scared off, and we had plenty of time to observe them in their historic ritual.

On our hike out, we enjoyed a spectacular sunrise that made getting up so early worth it. After seeing this historic tradition, I have a broader understanding of how unique this species is to the west, and how ranching plays a key role in their survival. On this ranch, the lek is located in a pasture grazed by cattle in the fall, allowing the sage grouse to coexist with the ranching operation and the land. It’s stewardship like this that is critical to the future of this species.

Yust Ranch SG - view from top of bluff

View from the top of the bluff of prime sage grouse habitat, thanks to the stewardship of the ranch owner and the many partners who worked to permanently protect this intact landscape via a conservation easement. (CCALT photo)

male sage grouse - photo by Tatiana Gettelman

Sage grouse male displays at sunrise. Seeing grouse on a lek inspires partners to do even more for this wondrous bird and the 350 other species sharing the range. Working ranches play an integral role in keeping the habitat intact. (Tatiana Gettelman photo).

Rachel Sralla, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, guided Chris West (here), CCLAT, and Jayne Thompson to a lek viewing spot on a working ranch with conservation easements that protects sage grouse habitat (CCALT photo)

Rachel Sralla, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, guided Chris West, CCLAT, and Jayne Thompson to a lek viewing spot on a working ranch with conservation easements that protects sage grouse habitat (CCALT photo)

 

 

 

The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.