Colorado agencies move water to help a rare bird adapt to climate change


There's a hiking and biking trail near Gunnison, Colo. called "Sea of Sage." The name conjures an accurate picture of how the area's ecosystem looks to most people. But healthy sagebrush habitat is really more diverse than that – even the Gunnison sage grouse, a rare relative of the greater sage grouse, can’t survive on its namesake alone. Before they spend their first winters munching on sage, the young birds need to fatten up on insects and herbaceous plants that grow in wet meadows.

But climate change means that those meadows are at risk of drying up. Average temperatures in the upper Gunnison Basin are projected to increase by as much as 5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050, and as snow melts earlier each spring, some of those all-important meadows will probably dry out and be overtaken by sage – making Gunnison sage grouse among the region’s animals most vulnerable to climate change.

Male Gunnison sage grouse in a mating display.

It’d be easy for a problem as large as this climate-created shift in the meadows' ecosystem, to lead to climate paralysis, but in the Gunnison Basin, land managers are taking action to adapt. But how did a group of people decide that they know enough, and have the tools, to cope with the complex climate-related problems sage grouse face?

Here are a few observations. First, the Gunnison Basin already had a group working together on sage grouse conservation – their region has the largest population among the 5,000 or so birds in southwestern Colorado and just over the border in southeastern Utah. That may have helped form a solid foundation for teamwork, and local buy-in. Second, the Nature Conservancy provided strong leadership and motivation. Also, climate change policy at the federal level helped provide initial funding and agency support for a well thought-out planning process. On top of that, the project has a component of volunteer participation, and involves hands-on work, which gives people the opportunity to feel like they can get a grip on a problem that often seems massive, yet intangible.

The first priority of the Gunnison Climate Working Group, as they call themselves, is to restore and reinforce the ecosystem’s natural ability to hold water, which should help those wet meadows persist so that the Gunnison sage grouse can handle a hotter, drier future. To that end, the Nature Conservancy is leading the array of federal, state, and local land and wildlife agencies, along with private land owners, and volunteers, in restoring eroded channels that whisk spring snow melt and summer deluges away from wet meadows. Over the last two years, the working group has used knowledge about the locations of Grade A grouse habitat, along with future climate scenarios, to strategically place a couple hundred stream restoration structures on two private properties, Bureau of Land Management land, and Forest Service land in the Gunnison Basin.

Earlier this month, I visited one of the work sites on Forest Service land just north of Gunnison, on the flanks of Flat Top mountain, where the group was hand-building around 20 rock structures and one big log structure, aimed at slowing down water that could otherwise run off the mountain. The newly built gentle dams and rock bowls help capture sediment to gradually build up incised channels, and raise the water table so it’s too wet for sagebrush, but just right for the thirsty wetland plants on which young sage grouse depend.

Ecologists measuring plants in the meadow expect to see more wetland species over time. In the background, Bill Zeedyk directs the Nature Conservancy crew on treating an eroded headcut with an aspen structure.

New Mexico-based stream restoration guru Bill Zeedyk conceived of the techniques, which meld a deep understanding of the physics of water with a respect for natural systems. They have been used to restore riparian areas in arid places around the West, but they haven’t been applied widely in Colorado, and this is the first time people have turned to them explicitly as climate resiliency tools. With the rock formations in place, “this goes from being the driest place around to being wettest place around,” the septuagenarian water whisperer explained to a work crew of local volunteers, Nature Conservancy firefighters, and agency folks gathered for the workday.

Gunnison sage grouse are up for an endangered species listing decision by next March, and the Forest Service meadow and surrounding area is in the bird’s potential critical habitat, which is around 1.7 million total acres in twelve counties. Matt Vasquez, a wildlife biologist with the Forest Service explains that the area we're standing in is an important area for sage grouse – there are 11 leks (relatively bare areas where the male birds strut their stuff in showy mating displays) within two miles.

Standing in the meadow, watching Zeedyk direct the Nature Conservancy workers as they convert the ragged, eroded edge of a deep-cut channel into a water-slowing cascade of aspen logs, I ask Vasquez about some of the things that made the project possible. In his opinion, it wouldn’t have happened without leadership from the Nature Conservancy. Even though the Forest Service has a directive to do climate adaptation work, as do the Department of Interior agencies, they don’t have the funding or staff to do something on this scale alone.

Part of an incised channel treated with rock and log structures to keep water from running off of the meadow.

“I’ve realized that it’s difficult to accomplish good things for wildlife and habitat unless you are forming these kinds of partnerships,” said Vasquez. “That’s the biggest thing that’s really inspired me about it.”

Indeed, there are a remarkable number of people and groups involved in the project. That might not sound very exciting to the casual observer, but it’s an important consequence of land managers recognizing that no part of a landscape is immune to climate change. It’s also no accident that the initial funding that helped kick off the Gunnison project with a study on climate vulnerability in the basin, as well as climate impacts on people, came from a Department of Interior program to get public-land agencies working together on a large scale. Those Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, are meant to help agencies to tackle big problems, like climate change, across jurisdictions and property boundaries.

For individuals, participating in adaptation work can bring an atmospheric problem back down to the landscape level. “I think people really want to do something about the environment, and they do feel helpless,” said Imtiaz Rangwala, a climatologist with the Western Water Assessment, who participates in the Gunnison Climate Working Group. He usually deals with climate change from behind a computer, but recently helped the group build rock structures, something that he says brings his work full-circle.

Colorado Natural Heritage Program ecologist Renée Rondeau, holds up Arctic rush, a wetland plant that the project should benefit.

With thunderstorms gathering out at the field site, I put down my notebook to move some rocks, and found that I share Rangwala’s satisfaction with building highly functional land art under Zeedyk’s guidance. Each spring when I watch snow run off the mountains, it looks like there’s too much coming at once, and I want the morning air to feel colder. This year a disturbing amount of melt-accelerating dust settled on the snow in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. All of these things make me uneasy, but it’s therapeutic to haul rocks into an eroded stream channel, and fit them together to slow runoff.

Maybe I’m just kidding myself, since I left Gunnison that day in my snowpack-eroding pickup truck. But I also know that even if we all fix our hypocrisies, and the causes of climate change today, we’re still going to have to live with the hangover of its symptoms.

In a 2008 High Country News profile, Zeedyk talks about how you can change the course of a river by hand, something that seems like an antidote to powerlessness: “So I’ve been trying to develop techniques that empower individuals to try rather than say, ‘It’s not worth it to try.’ ” In the face of an all-encompassing problem like climate change, the value of trying seems even more relevant, even if we’re moving water one rock at a time.

Sarah Jane Keller is the editorial fellow at High Country News. Gunnison sage grouse photo courtesy of Fish and Wildlife Service. Other photos by the author.

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