The Gunnison Landscape Puzzle

Gunnison, located in west-central Colorado, is nestled in the sagebrush-covered Gunnison Basin ringed by the Sawatch, West Elk, Elk, and San Juan Mountain Ranges. Both cow town and college town, Gunnison blends ranching with academia and world-class recreation. It’s an iconic Western setting at 7,683 feet and home to the endangered Gunnison Sage-grouse. The bird, a close relative of the Greater Sage-grouse, will likely be added to the Endangered Species List in the coming weeks.

Hay meadows on centennial ranches lining creeks and the Gunnison River connect to rolling sagebrush-covered hills, plateaus, and volcanic domes backed by high peaks. The remaining Gunnison Sage-grouse, somewhere around 3,000 of them, depend on healthy sagebrush in the ranching-public land interface for survival. A massive effort to save the species stretches to Telluride and southeast Utah where satellite populations hang on by a thread. Sage grouse spend their entire life in sage and require large expanses of sagebrush habitat around leks (mating grounds) to survive. Like their Greater Sage-grouse cousins, Gunnison Sage-grouse are an umbrella species; healthy grouse habitat benefits other obligate species like Brewer’s sparrow, sage sparrow, and sage thrasher. In order for the species to recover, we have to find the right balance of conservation and preservation, while valuing traditional ranching and recreation.

I met LightHawk pilot Jim Grady at the Gunnison airport, where we reviewed our route on his iPad that mounts to the steering wheel of a spotless red and white 1953 Cessna 180. Under a bright winter sun with clouds building to the west, we contoured around Tenderfoot Mountain en-route to Tomichi Dome, an 11,476’ laccolith in the eastern part of the basin. I photographed sagebrush hills cut by countless streams, ranches along serpentine Tomichi Creek, the land flowing from snow-covered mountains. I wanted to see how this grand scale jigsaw puzzle all fits together, to better understand the relationship of ranching to BLM and Forest Service lands where cattle graze in summer. From the air, it’s always surprising how Western landscapes look chopped up, fragmented by roads and power lines, and Gunnison Basin is no exception.

The remarkable diversity and beauty of Gunnison Basin continued to unfold, and somewhere between where the icy Gunnison River parts Black Canyon and the soaring Elk Mountains, I was struck by the condensed geography that supports nearly the entire population of Gunnison Sage-grouse. There’s not much habitat left after you subtract the reservoir, mountains, forest, canyons, roads, and developed areas. On our return to Gunnison, we descended into the Ohio Creek Valley where ranchettes came into view along the upper reaches of the creek. Further east, black cows looked like specks of pepper on feed trails of hay spread in spirals across the snow, with Carbon Peak standing sentinel over the monochromatic valley.

Some speculate that the grouse face extinction. They cite low lek counts and fading satellite leks; nearly all of the eggs are in the Gunnison Basin basket. But there are still 3,000 birds in the sage and the extended community has been managing Gunnison Sage-grouse as an endangered species for years. Through conservation easements on private lands, habitat improvements, road closures, a captive breeding program, and countless other measures; local communities, ranchers, Western State College, conservation groups, and government agencies have prepared for the listing. Sue Navy of High Country Citizens Alliance told me “cooperation has been key to achieving any number of advances in habitat management in the Gunnison Basin. It will remain equally important if the Gunnison sage-grouse receives the protection of the Endangered Species Act.”

Big challenges lie ahead for the Gunnison community and its namesake grouse; and although every stakeholder may have a unique perspective, they’ll keep working together to give the Gunnison Sage-grouse a fighting chance.



Western State GuSG:

High Country Citizens Alliance:


Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Legacy: