This spring, Earth Team volunteers with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) surveyed approximately 300 hundred acres of remote Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and private lands north of Villa Grove, Colo., looking for Gunnison sage-grouse, a ground-dwelling bird considered a keystone species in this habitat.
The participants walked into roost areas accessible only by foot and braved cold temperatures to look for evidence of the Gunnison sage-grouse, also known simply as the sage-grouse, as part of an effort to improve the bird’s habitat and long-term success.
In the western states, BLM and private land often intersect with no fences between them, meaning that sage-grouse habitat created or improved on one type of land helps the birds on the other.
There has been a significant decline in the sage-grouse population throughout the West over the past few decades, prompting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider protecting the bird under the Endangered Species Act. NRCS has implemented a Sage Grouse Initiative, a program offering technical and financial assistance to landowners in western states to improve sage-grouse habitat and reduce threats to the bird.
In Colorado, NRCS volunteers, led by NRCS Wildlife Biologist Ruth Lewis, conduct counts throughout the year in an effort to monitor the effectiveness of the initiative. This spring, Earth Team volunteers found four birds during one count and evidence of others. Without volunteers, it is unlikely that NRCS employees would have had the time to conduct such a census, which helps NRCS decide which areas may be in most need of its efforts on behalf of the sage-grouse.
Sage-grouse are native to the American West. They are found at elevations ranging from 4,000 to over 9,000 feet and are highly dependent on sagebrush for cover and food. The area surveyed by Earth Team volunteers in Colorado is at 7,500 feet in a desert valley. It is surrounded by 14,000-foot peaks and receives only 7 inches of moisture per year.
Nationally, in 2010, Earth Team volunteers donated 641,000 hours of service to NRCS worth $13.2 million. Since being formed in 1985, over a half-million Earth Team volunteers have donated $327 million worth of time, in 2010 dollars, to help NRCS with its conservation mission.
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