(Editor’s note: This article was first published by High Country News. It’s part of the Back 40 series, where reporters look at national trends and their impacts close to home.)
Gunnison Sage-grouse have much in common with Goldilocks — they like it not too hot, not too cold. Unfortunately for the strutting bird, climactic extremes are increasingly common in the West, and the impact has become all too obvious in the Gunnison Valley, where the vast majority of the species live.
In the Gunnison Valley, as in the Southwest at large, the winter of 2017-18 was one of the most serious droughts ever recorded. Dry winters, by themselves, are not automatically bad for sage grouse. The problems begin when drought persists into the spring, as it did in 2018. The sagebrush was low and dry. Without water, forbs on the rangeland failed to flower. That meant fewer insects, which young grouse eat exclusively. Chick survival rates were low.
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