#StandWithGunny, Photo credit: Bob Gress, www.BirdsinFocus.com
Never, in recent memory, has the political climate been more perilous for a poor, rare bird, on the Endangered Species list. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced two bills to weaken protections for endangered species that would give local politicians, the oil industry, and industrial farms the ability to delay protections. The House Natural Resources Committee is considering repealing and replacing the Endangered Species Act altogether. Other politicians seek to “modernize” the Act allowing landowners and mining companies to circumvent standards and protections in favor of unfettered drilling, mining, and land development.
Politicians like Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT) believe the Endangered Species Act “has never been used for the rehabilitation of species. It’s been used to control the land.”
With President Trump at the helm of the White House; Montana Representative Ryan Zinke, a man who voted to remove protections for the related Greater sage-grouse, the likely lead of the Department of Interior; and a Republican controlled Congress, it’s hard being a Gunnison sage-grouse today.
The plight of the Gunnison sage-grouse
The Gunnison sage-grouse (which we affectionately nicknamed Gunny) is a little known species found in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. Historically, the bird roamed in all Four Corner states. But today, it is one of the rarest birds in the United States, inhabiting just 10% of its historical range, with a population of fewer than 5,000 birds.
Gunny are known by those familiar with them, for their unusual and extravagant mating dance. They gather in small groups on dancing grounds in the sagebrush sea, called leks, every morning in March through May. The males of the species perform quite the strutting display; running a little ways, braking abruptly, flapping their feathers, and thrusting out yellow air sacs from the white breast feathers around their necks, while making the most unique popping noises. The birds come to the same leks that their ancestors danced on, in the hopes that one of the seemingly disinterested females will respond and mate with them.
But today, some of those leks glow with the lights of oil and gas drilling rigs. Predators perch on power lines and infrastructure and swoop down for an easy meal. And the racket from drilling and truck traffic shatters the quiet at the leks. Some of the Gunny males have stopped dancing. Even if they manage to mate, their chances of successfully raising their young a low. The habitat they need for nesting, feeding their young, and surviving winter has been bulldozed to make way for roads, power lines, and mines. The little habitat left is in bad shape because of overgrazing and drought.
“Last Chance to Dance” Film
Inspired by the plight of Gunny, Back of Beyond Media created a short quirky film that’s been shown at the Wild & Scenic Film Festival world tour stop in Denver and has been selected for the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival scheduled for October in New York. The film begins with a narration about the history of the bird’s loss of habitat due to unmitigated development.
Throughout the next segment of the film, it gets a bit more experimental. Erica Prather, the author and director, performs a dance as the Gunnison sage-grouse with her friends, a big-horned sheep, a fox, and a BLM employee.
“I wanted to make something powerful, poignant, and playful. Conservation doesn’t have to be serious all the time even though we deal with serious issues. I hope this inspires folks to engage with the public lands in their own backyard!” Erica Prather said of the film.
The film acts as a call toward action. It directs viewers to sign a petition asking the BLM to protect the Gunnison sage-grouse’s habitat.
What you can do to protect Gunny
Much is at stake in the current political climate for all wildlife and the habitats they need to survive. But you can join us and take action to help soften the blow. 40% of current Gunnison sage-grouse habitat is on public lands managed by the BLM. The BLM manages this land for multiple uses, including oil and gas development. The drilling, roads, traffic, lights, sound, and pollution caused by oil and gas development and mining fragments habitat, destroys mating and nesting grounds, and disrupts the fragile balance of the sagebrush ecosystems.
Over the next several months, the BLM will be updating its land-use plans to include improved safeguards for Gunnison sage-grouse. Through this process, we have the opportunity to protect key habitat that is crucial to the survival of the species.
Rocky Mountain Wild has actions you can take to ask the BLM to protect the most critical habitat for Gunny including a petition to Joe Meyer, District Manger of the Southwest District Office of the BLM. If the actions are successful, more than 93,834 acres of habitat for six small and incredibly vulnerable populations of Gunny in southwest Colorado will be protected. Protecting these sub-populations will help preserve the genetic diversity of the species, and safeguard against catastrophic events that could wipe out the whole species.
And that is most certainly something that Gunny can dance about.