Easement Protects Gunnison Sage Grouse Habitat
Conservation easements are an important aspect of all land trusts work. Though the particulars of each deal differ, in essence, a conservation easement represents the granting of a legal agreement to reduce or eliminate altogether certain property rights on a given piece of property, to benefit conservation values identified as being present on the property. When the conservation values include protecting habitat for an endangered species, the accepting land trust gets very excited. Such is the case with one of the two conservation easements TLR accepted in 2003.
This past December, Chris and DeAnn Baker donated a conservation easement to TLR on a portion of their ranch property on Iron Springs Mesa, in San Miguel County that included habitat for a threatened species, the Gunnison sage grouse. The Bakers also pledged to donate a second easement to TLR in 2004 on neighboring property that they own, and they agreed to develop a livestock grazing management plan covering their entire ranch.
Gunnison Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation1
For centuries the Gunnison sage grouse has made its home on Iron Springs Mesa. Populations most likely fluctuated over the years in response to the ebb and flow of natural fires that formed the necessary sagebrush communities that are essential to these birds. At times in the past, the habitat must have looked somewhat different than it now does. For the sage grouse to survive, it is assumed that the vegetative communities must have been more open, with less pinion-juniper woodlands and perhaps fewer areas dominated by oakbrush and serviceberry. In fact, the isolated populations of Gunnison sage grouse that exist today in southwest Colorado were likely connected to a web of sagebrush that allowed for movement of birds between populations which allowed for genetic intermingling that contributed to the characteristics in the birds we see today. At some point in the past (estimated at 300,000 years) these birds separated from their sage grouse relatives to the north and evolved to where these birds are considered a separate species today.
In the recent past, records shows that sage grouse populations had a wider range than we see today in San Miguel County. Intensive studies in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s tend to support the theory that the bird’s range is contracting, with only the most favorable habitats being used today. Fragmentation of habitats by urban growth, poor livestock grazing management, and a progression towards older-aged vegetation appear to be the primary reason for decline.