Written by Audrey Wheeler

You’ve probably seen the headlines.

It’s no secret that water is scarce and highly controversial in Colorado and across the western United States. Because this issue has such a broad scope and is so complicated, it is notoriously difficult to reach compromise. We face increasing demands, shrinking supply, threats to our agricultural economy, and concerns over pumping more from our river to quench the urban thirst.

No wonder it earned the motto: “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.”

But in Colorado, we’re committed to tackling these challenges. After an extensive — and collaborative — process, the state released the first-ever Colorado Water Plan last November. The Plan strives to change the way we manage and value water here in Colorado. Water is an invaluable resource that defines who we are as Coloradans and the place we call home, and it needs to be recognized as such in our policies. The Plan embeds water values that must be reflected into policy, like a productive economy and a strong environment. It also makes conservation a priority by setting a statewide conservation goal.

So how will we meet this new conservation goal? It’ll take technology combined with changes in behavior. But one easy way to conserve water is still illegal in Colorado: Rain Barrels!

Rain barrels are common-sense tool for sparking behavioral change in terms of water use. They were considered inconsistent with our prior appropriation system of water rights that tightly controls our water. But legalizing rain barrels is overwhelmingly supported: it’s had bipartisan support in the legislature and has become popular with the public, as evidenced in an online poll recently run by the Denver Post (below).

State Representatives Jessie Danielson and Daneya Esgar have been working tirelessly to lift the ban on rain barrels and let people use this conservation tool in their backyards. Their bill, House Bill 16–1005 for “Residential Precipitation Collection”, recently passed the House in an incredible 61–3 vote.

This kind of bipartisan support is somewhat of a unicorn for Colorado — especially when talking about water. So how did they do it?

It wasn’t a walk in the park. Before the House voted on the bill, Reps. Danielson and Esgar put in herculean efforts to keep the door open for stakeholders to make their voices heard throughout the process. They reached out to numerous groups including farmers, ditch companies, water providers, local municipalities, conservation groups, and other stakeholders. They presented at Colorado Water Congress’ State Affairs meeting (where water resources policy and legislation are vetted and discussed), and they did public outreach to make sure they got it right. Committed to hearing concerns from their opposition, the legislators agreed to amend the bill to address concerns that urban rain barrel use would impact downstream users downstream uses (though a study by CSU found rain barrels have no measurable impact).

Meanwhile, outside the Capitol there has been a groundswell of support and interest in this bill. Nearly every major newspaper in the state has issued an editorial in support of the bill. This is in addition to the countless articles, letters to the editor, emails and calls to legislators in support.

The Denver Post’s Joey Bunch with a rain barrel. Watch his video here.

And it’s working.

In fact, several representatives who previously voted against the bill actually got up and voiced their newfound support when it was up for vote on the House floor.

“This is a responsible way to look at rain barrels and also respects our prior appropriation system.” — Rep. John Becker (R)

“I voted against it last year but given the hard work and thoughtfulness that’s gone into this I can now be a yes vote.” — Rep. Paul Lundeen (R)

As Rep. Crisanta Duran put it on the House floor, “We’re voting on peace, love, and rain barrels.”

Deb Neely, Colorado urban gardener, uses rain barrels to water her plants. Photo by Michael Ciaglo for The New York Times.

But lifting the ban on rain barrels is not a done deal yet. The bill will next work its way through the Senate, where it died last year due to just one Senator stalling it in his committee. Fortunately, after the promising start in the House, there’s a good chance it’ll do well in the Senate. Senator Michael Merrifield is carrying the torch and is committed to getting this bill passed in the Senate.

So, in the name of peace, love, and rain barrels — here’s to hoping we can legally catch this summer’s downpours to use for something good.

Read more: Supportive editorials from around the state

(3/05) EDITORIAL: It’s still a crime to catch the rain — Colorado Springs Gazette

(3/03) Rain barrels — Durango Herald

(3/01) Editorial: Colorado should allow rain barrels — Loveland Reporter-Herald

(2/22) Tribune opinion: Arguments against rain barrels don’t hold water — Greeley Tribune

(2/23) Rain barrels and runoff — Grand Junction Daily Sentinel

(2/13) Colorado should give green light to rain barrels — Denver Post

(1/21) When in drought, stop holding residents over a rain barrel — Aurora Sentinel

Written by Scott Braden, Wilderness and Public Lands Advocate

Americans love our rugged outdoor spaces, as demonstrated by the record number of people visiting national parks, the booming outdoor recreation industry, and the high proportion of hit movies with stunning scenery as a focus.

But some opponents of public lands have been raising their voices — and even their guns — to take away these shared outdoor spaces that belong to all of us and turn them over to private owners or the states. From armed militants in Oregon to a fringe group of elected officials in statehouses around the West, we’re seeing threats to our beautiful wild places from monied interests with some very deep pockets.

In response to the bullying antics of the Bundy family, militias, and elected officials who are trying to enact the Bundy agenda in Western state legislatures, Coloradans are fighting back — with a holiday.

Senator Kerry Donovan and some of the sweeping natural beauty in her district.

Conservation champion state Senator Kerry Donovan, whose district includes over four million acres of Colorado’s most prized public lands, is sponsoring a bill in Colorado’s legislature to set aside a Public Lands Day to celebrate our public lands. This idea is backed by a majority of Coloradans who favor keeping public lands in public hands, and believe that these places are essential to both our economy and quality of life.

A Public Lands Day is about as uncontroversial an idea as there could be. It would not cost the state a dime, as it’s not a holiday that would close schools or the government. At most it would cause an increase in volunteerism on the holiday. It provides Coloradans — and the entire West — with a positive antidote to the negative sentiments swirling around this issue.

People enjoying Colorado’s public lands in every season.

Unfortunately, this celebratory bill has been derailed by Senate Republicans, led by anti-public lands Senator Jerry Sonnenberg. They’ve added amendments that are antithetical to the spirit behind the bill, which is that Coloradans support and enjoy our public lands. Instead, the new amendments use language copied from the playbook of the Koch Brothers-funded American Legislative Exchange Council that erode the president’s ability to protect national parks and national monuments, even though 84% percent of Coloradans support such actions.

Most Americans know our public lands are a uniquely American concept. Public lands boost tourism and local economies; they contain some of our nation’s most iconic, historic, and beautiful places.

“This uniquely American idea, that lands should be set aside to not belong to one person but instead the collective good, is a foundational feature of our state. Public lands support our quality of life and our state’s economy — we would be a different state without them.” — Senator Kerry Donovan

While the sentiment of “giving land back to the people” may be an enticing message, the truth is that these lands already belong to the people. Here in Colorado, we love sharing places like Pike’s Peak, the Maroon Bells, and Rocky Mountain National Park with the rest of the country, and we encourage visitors to come enjoy our incredible lands.

But we need to speak up for our public lands in order to protect them. Public Lands Day for Colorado would do just that — show extremists that Colorado’s public lands are invaluable to the people of our state and our nation. We’ve got our work cut out for us to get the bill across the finish line and make Colorado’s Public Lands Day a reality.

For more information, read Sen. Kerry Donovan’s article about the bill.

Cover image by John Fielder

Written by Theresa Conley

When I first heard about a state water plan, I was skeptical as to how useful it would be. I thought about how notoriously difficult it can be to change water policy in Colorado; meetings are long, technical, and only have one person (among as many as 50) representing environmental interests.

However, two things made me optimistic about the plan.

First, the Executive Order required that the plan, and our water policies, reflect our water values. Second, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) stated that we needed a water plan because “our current statewide water trajectory is neither desirable nor sustainable.” So the plan presented an opportunity for change.

Since Coloradans overwhelmingly prefer solving water challenges through conservation and recycling over diverting more water from our Western Slope rivers, we set out with four basic principles that guided our outreach to citizens and decision-makers alike. The plan needed to:

  • Keep Colorado’s rivers healthy and flowing
  • Increase water conservation and recycling in our cities and towns (e.g., statewide conservation goal)
  • Modernize agriculture and water sharing practices
  • And avoid a new, large transmountain diversion.

We advocated strongly for these principles at water planning hearings, one-on-one meetings with designated planning representatives, and the public. We heard from roundtable members that they needed more information and data on how to best protect their streams. We heard pushback that a statewide conservation goal was impossible because it would be seen as a “mandate” and “one size fits all” requirement. We heard that more Colorado River water needed to be transported to the Front Range. We kept hearing these things but we kept pushing our principles.

We persevered.

This first iteration of Colorado Water Plan is an important step forward for Colorado because it reflects Coloradans’ values and priorities.  The plan:

  • Sets the first-ever statewide urban water conservation goal;
  • Addresses the importance of preserving and restoring our rivers and streams including proposing annual funding for river assessments and restoration work;
  • Makes new, large, and controversial large trans-mountain diversions, which harm rivers and local communities, a lot less likely.

We are seeing conservation prioritized as never before, expanded language on reuse and water banking, and incentives and funding toward “alternative transfer methods” which replace water providers buying up agricultural land and then taking the irrigation water for municipal use. There is broad support for and a greater focus on stream health across the state including funding and the importance of preserving and restoring the environmental resiliency of our rivers and streams.

We’re excited about the plan and are now focusing our attention to getting it implemented.

The plan must be executed properly to be effective for Colorado. We also need more detailed and thorough water project evaluation criteria that determine which projects get state support (and which do not). We need to ensure that any tweaks to the state’s permitting authority maintains the strong environmental safeguards that protect our rivers and drinking water.

As the state implements this plan and looks to make changes to it, we will continue to advocate for what is best for Colorado and best for our rivers. Thanks to Governor Hickenlooper for tackling such a contentious issue as water and developing the first ever state plan!

Written by Sasha Nelson, Field Organizer based in Northwest Colorado

Our Conservation Colorado team scored a major touchdown on September 22, when Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced that Greater sage grouse do not need the protection of the Endangered Species Act. That same day, the Bureau of Land Management released Records of Decision for their grouse management plans.

At Conservation Colorado, we have been working for over a decade to conserve sagebrush landscapes that are important habitat for grouse and over 350 other plants and animals. Our engagement on this issue has extended far beyond policy and politics; we’ve developed a successful economy around grouse tourism, aided in essential scientific data collection, and put boots on the ground to affect meaningful conservation measures.

Wins:

1. The Bureau of Land Management’s Northwest Colorado plan for Greater sage grouse closes all areas within one mile around active Greater sage grouse leks to new fluid mineral leasing.

2. 80,600 acres of Greater sage grouse habitat on state land have been protected by the state of Colorado.

3. 926,700 acres of BLM and Forest Service land in Colorado have been designated as “Priority Habitat Management Areas” and  will be managed to limit or eliminate surface disturbance.

4. 742,900 acres of BLM and Forest Service land in Colorado are now designated as “General Habitat Management Areas”, meaning that habitat impacts from development will be avoided, minimized and compensated.

5. Governor Hickenlooper’s 2015 Executive Order on sage grouse establishes the “Colorado Habitat Exchange”, a program to allow private landowners and industry to work together to create a program of compensatory mitigation.

6. As a result of the collaborative conservation that has already occurred and favorable weather conditions, Greater sage grouse populations have already increased by 60% in Northwestern Colorado the past few years.

Secretary Jewell’s recent announcement and the release of these critically important plans are as exciting to many of us as a Broncos touchdown. And while we’re spiking the ball and doing a funky chicken dance in the end zone, it’s important that we don’t leave the ball at the line of scrimmage.

In the coming years, US Fish and Wildlife Service will review our collective progress by periodically assessing the health of the Greater sage grouse population. If we don’t continue to see real recovery of the species, an ESA listing could be revisited. So for this work to really matter, we must play through the 4th quarter for the win.

Work still to be done:

1. Continue bringing people together to conserve sagebrush.

2. While we will no longer offer grouse lek tours, we will continue to work side by side with local business owners to further develop the economic model of Greater sage grouse tourism.

3. Hold the Governor, federal agencies, and local managers accountable to successfully implement these new management plans on state and federal lands.

4. Ensure projects like Transwest Express and Gateway South Transmission lines are done in a way that either avoids harm to our fragile landscape or provides meaningful mitigation measures on public land.

5. Continue to work towards permanent, landscape-level protections for Greater sage grouse habitat in Western Colorado.

So please join us as we keep our eye on the ball and continue to work toward permanent conservation of sage grouse landscapes.

For wild Colorado,

Sasha Nelson

Written by Scott Braden, Wilderness and Public Lands Advocate 

Photography is one of my favorite hobbies, and it can sometimes make wilderness work seem easy. That is certainly the case for the Continental Divide campaign. The pictures of mountainous wilderness dreamscapes from a bevy of photographers like John Fielder and so many others come easy to this landscape.

While the beauty of the Continental Divide proposal is undeniable, the quest to win permanent protection for these remaining unprotected lands of the White River National Forest has been hard fought. For the past eight years, a collaboration of conservationists, local leaders, mountain bikers, sportsmen, veterans, and other interests have come together to forge a proposal that balances protecting wilderness quality lands with sustaining the recreational economy on which the local communities depend. This balance of natural and recreational qualities is what attracts people from the world over to Summit and eastern Eagle county to visit, to play, to be in nature, and to live a higher quality of life.

The Continental Divide proposal would designate 58,000 acres of the White River National Forest as a mixture of wilderness, the highest level of federal public lands protection, and more flexible special management areas designed to balance conservation and sustained recreational access. New wilderness areas would be added to the Tenmile Range and the Williams Fork Mountains, while existing designated wildernesses such as the Holy Cross and Eagles Nest would be expanded.

Holy Cross Wilderness

Unlike the stunning photography, this effort has not always been easy, but it is surely worth the effort. With Colorado’s population predicted to double by 2050 and competing uses for lands only likely to increase, it is prudent and even our responsibility to conserve and protect our wild lands while they are still in that condition. On top of that, climate change is already placing additional stresses on the plants and wildlife of the region, increasing the need to link and protect habitat for species on the move.

Fortunately, the Continental Divide has strong allies. U.S. Representative Jared Polis has introduced the Continental Divide Wilderness and Recreation Act in the U.S. House while, Senator Michael Bennet has recently announced that he will be introducing a similar bill in the U.S. Senate. We sincerely hope that Senator Cory Gardner will reinvigorate Colorado’s legacy of bipartisan action on wilderness by lending his support.

Though the U.S. Congress is often dysfunctional, there is reason for hope. Last year, the long drought for conservation lands bills broke and Colorado’s Hermosa Creek, as well as a quarter million acres around the West, were protected.

Even more recently, Congress moved in a Republican-led effort to protect another quarter million acres in Idaho. So we can get this done.

You can help make this happen by adding your voice to demand that we safeguard our mountains of the Continental Divide so they remain a haven for recreation and wildlife for many, many years to come.

For wild Colorado,

Scott Braden
Wilderness Advocate

Cover image by Devon Balet

Written by Micha Rosenoer, Southwest Field Organizer

The recent disaster on the Animas is news to no one at this point. Headlines across Colorado and national outlets have spread this recent development far and wide; the Animas turned orange, and that’s a big problem. That’s true — an abandoned mine leaking toxic chemicals into one of Southwest Colorado’s primary rivers, which sustains countless residents’ livelihoods, is a tremendous problem.

This is a tragedy. There’s no doubt about that. We’re all angry and profoundly saddened to see the lifeblood of Southwest Colorado spoiled. And the question on most of our minds is: how on earth was this allowed to happen?

So what actually happened?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was trying to clean up the Gold King Mine when a plug failed, which sent 3 million gallons of yellow toxic sludge into the Animas. Efforts at Gold King are one of many projects the EPA is undertaking to clean up the thousands of abandoned old mines that remain from Colorado’s mining legacy.

Yep, that’s right — there are thousands of mines like Gold King across our state, and many are like ticking time bombs. As anyone who has lived in Southwest Colorado for longer than a few years will tell you, the region is no stranger to mining-related catastrophes. This time around, the EPA’s hand happened to be on the shovel, but disasters like this one demonstrate the need to recognize our history of reckless exploitation.

What can we do to confront that history?

Quite a bit, actually. Here are some ways we can prevent future disasters, and how YOU can get involved:

  • Support efforts of local science-based groups conducting independent monitoring in conjunction with the EPA
  • Get involved — contact your elected representative and engage in public comment opportunities like town hall meetings and opportunities to speak with elected officials
  • Get involved with current and future BLM planning processes. Many of these plans  invite public input on where and how industry should be allowed to mine and drill within our communities. Strong standards and limitations for industry could prevent accidents like this one decades down the road.

Remind me again why we’ve been having to deal with such rampant pollution?

It’s because, in the late 19th century, westward expansion was largely about mining. People broke their backs to glean their wealth out of the ground in the form of gold, silver, or other metals. And they found that wealth in mineral-rich Southwest Colorado, which led to an explosion in mines in the area.

Here’s the big problem; many of these mines were established far before environmental protections were even a part of our country’s vocabulary. But they continued to provide welcome financial support to the area, so the mining industry continued until the 1990s. After a they ceased to be financially viable, those mines largely closed, but cleaning up their toxic sludge has fallen to the EPA, which leads us to our current situation.

Looking ahead

At this point, it is absolutely imperative that we work together to find solutions. The legacy of mining in the Southwest and across Colorado is a massive problem, but it’s a solvable one. We need to ensure that the mining industry is held accountable for the messes they make. They’ve been allowed to pass the buck for far, far too long.

One silver lining in this disaster is that it has brought worldwide attention to the sorry state of our mining legacy here in Colorado and the thousands of mines that pose similar unacceptable risks to our water, recreation, and wildlife. While the spill is awful, the Animas has struggled with water quality for decades thanks to runoff from mines like Gold King across the watershed.  It’s unfortunate that the river turning such an alarming shade was required to increase our sense of urgency on this issue, because conditions have been deplorable for a long time. Whenever it rains reasonably hard in Southwest Colorado, zinc and cadmium levels go up 100% on the Animas. This is not a hazard that we should be comfortable with in Colorado. So while it’s a shame that it took an incident of this magnitude to generate the appropriate alarm and urgency, perhaps we will see some real improvements as a result.

The best result from this disaster would be political will to take decisive action to clean the mines around Silverton and developing long term solutions for the hundreds of miles of Colorado rivers currently impacted by mine drainage.  Returning to the status quo of ignoring pre-spill contamination levels is not good enough for our town or the future of Colorado’s rivers.

For more detailed information on the spill and its roots, click herehere, and here.

Your Southwest Field Organizer,

Micha Rosenoer

Written by Scott Braden, Wilderness and Public Lands Advocate 

As I head to Buena Vista this weekend for the official dedication of Browns Canyon National Monument, it is with a  heart full of emotions. In February, President Obama proclaimed Browns Canyon as Colorado’s newest national monument, concluding an almost 40 year effort to protect it. I worked on the proposal for four years, both at Conservation Colorado and in my previous tenure at the Colorado Mountain Club, and many of my coalition partners for much longer.

I am also thinking a lot about my colleague Becca Strelitz, who we lost earlier this summer to a motorcycle accident, and what a good time she would have had in Buena Vista this weekend. We worked together on this campaign and it meant the world to her. I like to think she would have had a blast this weekend, toasting the new monument. She will be missed…

Navigating environmental work can sometimes seem impossibly complex, but Browns Canyon National Monument is just one of those things that inherently seems like a good idea. It elevates a crown jewel of Colorado’s public lands, sustains the local recreation economy, and protects the natural resources and splendid scenery.

But the path has been a long one. Browns Canyon has been proposed for wilderness in several bills in Congress, including bills introduced by former Rep. Joel Hefley, a conservative Colorado Springs Republican and Denver’s Rep. Diana DeGette. Former Senator Mark Udall tried to break the pattern and proposed, instead, a legislative national monument with a wilderness area within. But despite rousing local and statewide support, deadlock in Congress stymied Udall’s bill as well.

Fortunately, there was another path forward. After the election, in late 2014, Senator Michael Bennet and Governor John Hickenlooper issued a joint letter asking President Obama to consider designating Browns a national monument with his authority under the Antiquities Act. After a public meeting in December with a stirring demonstration of local and regional support (over 500 people showed up in support!), the administration acted decisively to proclaim Browns Canyon National Monument.

For me, the story of protecting Browns Canyon is a lesson in perseverance and pragmatism. If you have something worthwhile, never give up on it, and be open to different paths to getting the thing done. It paid off for Browns, and the nation, state of Colorado and the Arkansas River valley are the richer for it. And I am glad that I played a small role in making that happen, and happy that I got to know and work with talented and passionate people, people like Becca Strelitz, along the way.

 

Written by Eliza Carter

Public land seizure has been making headlines in Colorado and across the West for years now, and lots of us aren’t quite sure what to make of it. This confusion is understandable; the logic behind the movement is not particularly coherent and there are a lot of different influences at play. Terms and names are often dropped, and their relationship to one another is not always clear — what or who is ALEC? What is ALC? What does this have to do with Cliven Bundy?

And last but not least, how exactly would this idea work?

We intend to clear all this up for you.

What is public land seizure?

Short answer: Nonsense.

Long answer: Public land seizure is essentially the idea that land currently managed by national agencies should be owned by the state. The legal validity, financial prudence, and feasibility of this argument have all been debunked several times over, and yet it persists. It stems from ideological values that resemble those of Cliven Bundy, the law-breaking Nevada rancher who made headlines last year for engaging in an armed standoff with BLM officials because he didn’t want to pay grazing fees. His basis for this was simply that he doesn’t believe that the American government is legitimate.

We’ve seen this before — in the “Sagebrush Rebellion” of the late 1970s and early 1980s, ranchers rebelled against the federal government because of grazing fees that they felt were too high, despite the fact that they are usually a fraction of the average private leasing cost.

If this reasoning seems bizarre, that’s because it is. The real reason for these efforts is not a principled stand against federal overreach, it’s a thinly veiled push to privatize and profit off our land, mostly through extractive industries.

Yeah, but there must be some grounds on which people are arguing for it.

Short answer: Not really.

Long answer: There is an argument, but it disintegrates under even the lightest scrutiny. Proponents say that, in Western states’ enabling acts or constitutions, the federal government promised to give the land back to the states. A quick glance at any enabling act proves this is just not true. For example, here’s Colorado’s:

“That the people inhabiting said Territory do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within said Territory.”

Seems pretty straightforward.

So how would it work?

Short answer: It wouldn’t.

Long answer: Public lands require a great deal of costly management, which would be an enormous burden for cash-strapped state governments. As Fort Lewis College Professor Andrew Gulliford recently detailed, the Utah government spent $450,000 to discover that seizure would cost around $300 million. That price tag, which is currently handled by the federal government, would either be placed on state taxpayers, or would have to be generated by dramatically increasing development on our public lands.

Currently, our public lands create a great deal of revenue through our recreation and tourism economies, prompting the outdoor industry to become more active in fighting for public lands. In Colorado alone, recreation generates $13 billion per year in spending.

If the state were to seize public land, it would have to find a way to make up the budget shortfall from the aforementioned staggering cost of management. The most obvious way to do that is to sell it off for private development, which would inevitably lead to access closures and environmental degradation.

Even if the land weren’t immediately sold, simply becoming owned by the state is a serious threat to access; while federal lands are required to be available for multiple uses, state lands must be managed for profit.  So public land seizure would unavoidably result in decreased access to our favorite places to hike, camp, fish, and hunt. Worse, it would rob future generations of those opportunities.

What do ALEC, ALC, and the Koch brothers have to do with this?

Short answer: They’re funding it so they can maximize private profit on our public lands.

Long answer: The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been involved in this since the beginning. It is a special interest group that creates “model legislation” for mostly conservative lawmakers, and it is notorious for bringing state legislators together with industry representatives in closed-door sessions. Every public land seizure bill we have seen yet can be traced to ALEC’s unsavory origin. Its corporate advisory board includes fossil fuel groups like ExxonMobil, Altria, and Koch Industries, and has pushed public land seizure bills across the country. Sound like a dangerous combination? It is.

The American Lands Council (ALC) is a similar corporate front group whose guiding mission is to seize control of public lands. It pays state legislators handsomely to push their agenda in state legislatures. ALC’s members, which include county commissions, sheriff’s offices, and individuals across the country, pay fees in return for the opportunity to profit off the land once it has been transferred.

What’s Ahead

Unfortunately, despite the abundance of conclusive evidence that seizing public lands is a terrible idea, we are seeing it continue to rear its ugly head at the state level and in Congress.This year’s legislative session saw several reckless bills that would have furthered the seizure agenda. Luckily, they were ultimately defeated thanks to resounding opposition from Colorado’s businesses and outdoor recreation community as well as our legislative champions’ tireless efforts. Coloradans know this is wrong for us — we just need to make sure our leaders aren’t being swayed by special interests.

Written by Sasha Nelson

Our fifth and final year of Greater sage grouse lek tours is underway and we wanted to share some of the reasons this species is worth protecting.

  1. Grouse have been called “sage chicken.” Historically, these relatively large birds provided an important protein source to people of the Western United States. They were once so prolific that explorers described how flocks would “darken the skies” and many a settler made it through hard times subsisting on the bird. Last year Colorado had a two-day hunting season to allow people to experience the traditional custom of harvesting grouse for a food source.

  2. Grouse have four types of scat or poop called castings: the tar like secretions of sage oil, the pellets from a mix of sage and forbes, the runny droppings from forbes and insects and the large “clockers” produced from hens who leave the nest only once or twice a day when sitting on the nest.
  3. Mating season is early to mid-March until mid to late May. Females lay between 8-12 eggs and are responsible for creating the nest and brood rearing. Greater sage grouse do not pair-bond, they are not monogamous. Outside of mating, males do not take part in raising the young. Eggs and nests can be lost due to disturbances such as bad weather and predators such as ravens, red fox, raccoon and coyote.
  4. Mating occurs on a landscape known as a “lek.” Leks are ancestral spots visited each year where the males dance to attract mates. Lek is a Nordik word that loosely translates to mean dance hall or dance floor. All leks have limited vegetation and afford 360 degree view for the birds to watch for Eagles – the predator most likely to kill a mature leking bird. Leks are surrounded by sage in succession (baby sage to granddaddy sage all play a role in the life cycle). Birds may travel from over 3-6 miles away to get to this lek. At this time attempts to relocate birds from one lek to another have failed. Leks that are disturbed and abandoned do not usually result in birds using a nearby lek. We do not yet understand why. Protecting leks and the 3-6 miles surrounding these breeding grounds is a priority to enable conservation of the bird. The lek we are viewing is one of the most populated by Greater sage grouse in the State of Colorado. It is a field that has been cultivated since 1912, but grouse danced long before it was a cultivated field.
  5. Northwest Colorado is home to two thirds of all Greater sage grouse in Colorado. The greatest threat to Colorado grouse is habitat fragmentation from human causes such as urban expansion, oil and gas development and transmission lines.

Grouse are a bird worth saving if not for themselves then for the sake of the 350 other species and the countless communities living on our great sagebrush steppe. They need our public lands to stay public for best management. So please show your support by taking action now.

 

Written by Jim Masure

Conservation Colorado’s Greater Sage Grouse Tour offers photographers a unique opportunity to capture very special inhabitants of our earth –  the Greater sage grouse.  The tours take place on a “ lek”, which is an ancestral strutting ground which the birds instinctively return year after year. I was fortunate to take two trips in three years and would love to do it again. Taking a camera and photographing these nearly-extinct birds will make you realize how important the earthly elements are to survival. Watching the birds through my lens, it is dramatically evident how important our environment is to us all.

If you are lucky enough to go on tour, here are my top five tips for photographers (and grouse watchers):

1. Dress warmly:

Sage grouse tour participants bundle upIt is winter and you should expect to be cold.  But trust me, at the end of the day, your senses will be rewarded with such a special event and you will tell the story over and over.  Be ready for  a great adventure — the staff will greet you and be very upbeat even with the very early morning. They will drive out of Craig some 30 miles or more as these special birds need a lot of space.  So bring your best attitude for this new adventure and be ready to go.

2. Bring a long lens if you’ve got one:

The bird itself is stunning with its umbrella of feathers and unique color patterns. Huge bags protrude from under its bill and bounce when making the mating call. I have a 400 prime lens and use a tripod for the bird shots as it is very dark at the start of this event.  If hand holding a camera, crank the ISO up to get the shutter speed a little faster and open the aperture as big as one can get.

3. No flashing the sage grouse:

No flash photography is allowed. Flashes of light send the grouse flying away, you will walk home early, and the fellow guests may not let you back in the car for the ride home.

4. It’s not all about long lenses:

Sure, that’s the lens for the Greater sage grouse, but the landscape and vistas will be just as amazing. Go with whatever lens you have and enjoy this special experience.  As the sun rises it will become clear that the vistas are just as amazing. In addition to sage grouse, photographers will most likely see other important species of the sagebrush – like elk, mule deer, pronghorn antelope – all of which need healthy sagebrush to survive.

5. Take time to absorb the sage grouse experience:

Greater sage grouse survive in huge expanses of sagebrush, which is disappearing with oil and gas roads, pesticides, and other human caused disturbances on our open spaces. Try this trick: pinch a few sprigs of sage between your fingers and just smell the aroma of the west. It will stop you in your tracks just long enough to be in the moment.  Without clean water, air, and a few other things that let us live here, neither you and me, nor the Greater sage grouse, can survive.

Now that you have tips to take great images while on tour, please consider sharing images and your support for our work to save the sage grouse on social media!

#SageGrouse
#COpolitics

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