Gunnison Sage-Grouse

Centrocercus minimus

(c) US Bureau of Land Management
  • TETRAONIDAE
  • Galliformes
  • Gallo de Gunnison
  • Tétras du Gunnison
Introduction

Like a small, dark turkey, the male Gunnison Sage-Grouse fans a raised tail and puffs out a white chest to advertise its fitness. Unlike the turkey, the sage grouse also has a pair of yellow air sacs that add a dramatic popping noise to the display.

Until 2000, the Gunnison Sage-Grouse was considered part of a single species, the Sage Grouse. Recent genetic work and behavioral studies prompted ornithologists to split it into the Greater Sage-Grouse and the Gunnison Sage-Grouse, which has a severely restricted range and a tiny population.

Bird Sounds
Lang Elliot
Appearance Description

A fairly large, ground-dwelling grouse, the Gunnison Sage-Grouse looks like a large, dark chicken. Males weigh almost twice as much as females (4.6 versus 2.4 pounds), with a longer body (22 vs. 18 inches) and wings (30 vs. 26 inches). Their plumages are also distinct. Males have a black throat, chin and belly that contrast with a white chest. In breeding plumage, males are spectacular with long wispy black plumes behind the head, large yellow patches of bare skin on the breast, yellow fleshy combs above the eye, and tail feathers intricately barred with white black and brown. The female's plumage is cryptic (made for concealment): mostly slate gray overall with complex brown, white and black markings. 

Compared to the Greater Sage-Grouse, the Gunnison Sage-Grouse is smaller, with a grayer tail and bushier head plumes.

Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution

The Gunnison Sage-Grouse's current range is estimated at 10% of its historical size, and all of these territories are small patches, isolated from each other. It once ranged from southeastern Utah and southwestern Colorado southward into northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico. The Gunnison Sage-Grouse is now confined to 7 islands of sagebrush in Colorado and 1 in Utah. The Gunnison basin hosts the largest population, approximately 75%. No other location sustains more than 8% of the total population.

Habitat

In high montane valleys, the open landscape of the sagebrush provides year-round habitat for this grouse. Display sites (leks) are on flat openings within the brush, and hens nest in its tall, dense stands. Leks may be used for hundreds of years. Gunnison Sage-Grouse associate with a variety of sagebrush, including Big, Fringed, Low, Silver, and Three-tipped Sagebrush. Nest sites may also be located in Antelope Bitterbush and Rabbit Bush. In late summer and early fall, when the sagebrush dries, this grouse will move into moister habitats with grasses and weeds that support insects: meadows, river and stream bottoms with willows, and even agricultural fields.

Feeding

Throughout the year, adult Gunnison Sage-Grouse consume the leaves and succulent stems of various species of sagebrush. The birds forage mostly at either end of the day and always on the ground, sometimes chasing insects. Prior to nesting, hens also eat many forbs: alfalfa, dandelion, clover, prairie pepperweed, prickly lettuce, vetch, and yellow salsify, among many others. Young grouse depend on insects like ants, beetles, and grasshoppers.

Reproduction

On an elevated lek, each male Gunnison Sage-Grouse defends a territory, with dominant males generally setting up territories in the center of the group. During courtship displays, the male inflates special throat pouches, exposing bright yellow patches of skin. Pointed tail feathers are held erect and fanned, and wispy plumes on the back of the neck and yellow combs above each eye are also raised. At the beginning of each strutting display, males take a few steps forward, and begin an elaborate series of sounds. These include hoots and coos, swishing sounds made by the wings, and loud "pops" amplified by the throat pouches. Typically, females choose a mate from a group of dominant males. Beneath a sagebrush plant, the hen creates a nest depression in soft soil and lines it with leaves, grass and her own down. For about 25 days, the female incubates 7-9 greenish eggs spotted with shades of brown. Usually within hours, the downy hatchlings leave the nest and follow the hen. She broods them, leads them to food sources, keeps them together, and watches for danger. The young feed themselves and grow very rapidly. The brood disperses in 10-12 weeks.

Migration

The Gunnison Sage-Grouse does not make a traditional migration. Depending on weather and food availability, some populations remain within a couple miles of the breeding range. Often in flocks or family groups, other populations may move up to 19 miles in fall and spring. Movements are usually slow and wandering.

  • 2,000-5,000
  • 2,000-5,000
Population Status Trends

Once spread over a vast area, that population has been described by one lead ornithologist as "several orders of magnitude higher" than it is today. Between 1953 and 1999, population estimates have decreased by 66%, and since the 1980's several isolated populations have been extirpated. In response to dry conditions, between 2001 and 2004, the number of males counted on traditional breeding grounds (leks) fell from 712 to 498 in the Gunnison Basin alone. At the same time, all other leks saw dramatic decreases. With higher rainfall, some larger populations recovered losses in 2005 and 2006, but small populations have not.

Conservation Issues

In 2007, no government agency listed the Gunnison-Sage Grouse as more than a Conservation Concern, a status without legal clout. BirdLife International considers it endangered, and Audubon lists it as one of the top ten endangered species in North America. However, in April 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list the grouse as Endangered and removed it from the candidate list entirely.
With so few of this grouse remaining and real threats to its fragmented habitat, this species needs immediate conservation attention. An estimated 500-1,500 birds are required to maintain a population. A gene pool that shrinks below this level can lead to greater susceptibility to disease and complications from inbreeding. Currently, only the Gunnison Basin population appears to have the potential to sustain itself. Overgrazing of brush lands, suburban sprawl, new roads, power lines, and wind turbines continue to degrade and destroy the sagebrush. From the late 1950's to the early 1990's, an estimated 20% of southwestern Colorado's sagebrush was lost and another 37% was significantly degraded.

State and local programs for predator control, re-seeding sagebrush, and limiting human access have already been implemented in some areas. Educational outreach includes a viewable lek, school programs, and brochures. Conservation groups have worked to protect this grouse with Local Working Group Plans, but less than half of the grouse's range is controlled.

Colorado's Gunnison Sage-Grouse Rangewide Conservation Plan (RCP), in coordination with the 8 other federal and state agencies, details the need for federal leadership and support for the conservation effort. Most important are federal incentives for private landowners, the management of grazing and energy extraction on federal lands, the authority to stop habitat loss, translocation and breeding programs, and habitat re-construction to link the disjointed populations.

What You Can Do

Between April 1 and May 10, look for the Gunnison Sedge-Grouse at the Waunita Lek in Colorado, 19 miles east of Gunnison off Highway 50. You must be in position 1 hour before sunrise. To plan your trip, see the Sisk-a-dee website dedicated to the Gunnison Sage-Grouse.

If you own or use sage brush lands in this species' range, consider contacting a Local Working Group to learn about specific programs and strategies for its conservation.

Listing of the Gunnison Sage-Grouse under the Endangered Species Act is vital to its conservation. Share your concerns with your state and federal representatives about this species' status. Audubon continues to work to ensure that this legislation is being used to protect our publicly-owned wildlife resources. Learn about the latest news about the Endangered Species Act and how you can help. 

Find out about actions you can take including Audubon programs and activities.

More Information

Learn more about this species and other birds through these resources

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Natural History References

Gunnison Sage-grouse Rangewide Steering Committee. 2005. Gunnison sage-grouse rangewide conservation plan. Colorado Division of Wildlife, Denver, Colorado, USA. Accessed 4 July 2007.

Schroeder, M. A., J. R. Young, and C. E. Braun. 1999. Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus). In The Birds of North America, No. 425 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Conservation Status References

BirdLife International (2007) Species factsheet: Centrocercus minimus. Accessed 10 July 2007.

Gunnison Sage-grouse Rangewide Steering Committee. 2005. Gunnison sage-grouse rangewide conservation plan. Colorado Division of Wildlife, Denver, Colorado, USA. Accessed 4 July 2007.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of the Interior. Federal Register. Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Final Listing Determination for the Gunnison Sage-Grouse as Threatened or Endangered; Final Rule. April 18, 2006.

Young, Jessica R. Gunnison Grouse (formally known as the Gunnison Sage-grouse) (Centrocercus minimus). Western State Colorado College. 1995-2007 (Updated October 2006). Accessed 10 July 2007.