Habitat Restoration for Gunnison and Greater Sage-Grouse-a literature Review

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Habitat Restoration for Gunnison and Greater Sage-Grouse—A Literature Review

Prepared for the U.S. Department of Interior

Bureau of Land Management

Gunnison Field Office

23 July, 2004

James A. Sedgwick

Research Wildlife Biologist

Fort Collins Science Center

2150 Centre Avenue, Building C

Fort Collins, CO 80526-8118

Table of Contents

Overview 3

Selected Abstracts 7

Extracted Papers 28

A. Sagebrush Ecosystems: Current Status and Trends 28

B. Guidelines to manage sage grouse populations and their habitats 40

Contact Information 49

Online Resources 52

References 54

Specific to Gunnison Sage-Grouse 54

Sage-Grouse Habitat Restoration 57

Sage-Grouse Habitat Characteristics 60

Sagebrush Ecosystems: Dynamics and Descriptions of Habitats 70

Cover Photo Credit: Louis Smith and Jessica Young©

Habitat Restoration for Gunnison and Greater Sage-Grouse—A Literature Review


Essential Elements of Restoration

  • Active restoration is warranted if invasive species (e.g. cheatgrass or noxious weeds) or native species that are generally inconspicuous at a site (e.g., junipers or pinyon pines) have replaced dominant species (e.g. sagebrush, perennial bunchgrasses, and forbs) in the community.

  • In the case of pinyon-juniper tree encroachment, as the site becomes dominated by the trees, sagebrush will die out, the herb layer may decline, and seed banks may become depleted.

  • Following invasions of exotic annual grasses, the communities become susceptible to more frequent fires because of the increase in fuel that is more continuous across the soil surface than the pre-invasion community.

  • Most species of sagebrush, except silver and threetip sagebrush, are intolerant of fires and require seed dispersal and germination to reestablish after a fire.

  • Cheatgrass is known to be a successful competitor against native plants for resources necessary for the native plants to establish and grow.

  • Site degradation in some locations may become so severe that soil erosion removes the upper soil horizons to such an extent that the potential for the site to support its former native plant community is impossible. In this case, restoration is no longer possible, but rehabilitation—an alternative to the historic native plant community that provides similar structure and function without allowing further degradation of the site—may be the only remaining alternative that might make the site usable by sage-grouse.

  • In sagebrush grasslands, grazing during the growing season tends to favor sagebrush growth until sagebrush becomes so dense that the competition of sagebrush restricts recovery of herbaceous plants.

  • Reductions in grazing will only show improvements in sage-grouse habitat quality if the vegetation community is a sagebrush grassland mix, retaining both sagebrush and the tall bunchgrass necessary for quality sage-grouse habitat. The release from livestock grazing should allow the full expression of vegetation height for hiding cover and nest protection. Improvements could be expressed in the next growing season, but might take 3 to 5 years for pre-existing plants to fully express themselves and 10 to 15 years for seed production and new plant recruitment to occur assuming the site is not fully occupied by other species.

  • Prescribed fires kill, eliminate, or reduce the density of sagebrush and provide a temporary flush of nutrients that may result in increases in herbaceous plant responses— but may leave sites susceptible to soil erosion during the first years after the fire. This tool is being applied on lands where pinyons or junipers have encroached into sagebrush grasslands. It results in a loss of sagebrush dominance for 25-45 years depending on the location of seed sources.

  • Herbicide applications of 2,4-D (2,4-dichlorophenoxy acetic acid) or tebuthiuron (–[5-(1,1- dimethylethyl)-1,3,4-thiadiazol-2-yl]-N,N’-dimethylurea) have been used to kill large expanses of sagebrush; risk of soil erosion is low but herbicide use during the growing season may kill or injure forbs.

  • Control of pinyon and juniper through chaining, cabling, railing, or chain saw can have moderate to little impact on the shrub canopy— but uprooting techniques disturb the soil and add to the risk of post-treatment soil erosion. Such techniques may facilitate rapid recovery of the shrub and herb understory if adequate levels are present prior to treatment.

  • Treatments such as mowing, roller chopping, rotobeating, and plowing will have a greater and longer lasting impact on the sagebrush shrub layer; it is critical that invasive annual grasses do not exist within the community.

  • Tebuthiuron at low rates has been reported as a technique for thinning dense sagebrush and opening the community for herbaceous plants. Provided herbaceous perennial plants exist in the understory, this technique might yield immediate improvements to habitat quality; however, if exotic annual grasses exist in the community, then expansion and spread of these invasive plants might result. There are no empirical data on the response of sage-grouse to tebuthiuron.

  • Browsing animals may be used as a biocontrol for reducing the densities of sagebrush and potentially increasing the herbaceous component. Several studies have shown long-term declines in threetip sagebrush with recovery of herbaceous vegetation at high elevation sites in Idaho; declines of Wyoming and mountain big sagebrush densities due to heavy deer or elk browsing have been noted in Utah and Montana.

  • Cox and Anderson (2004) suggested this method for restoring a complete sagebrush grassland community: sites dominated by cheatgrass could be seeded with crested wheatgrass to control the cheatgrass. Later, sites dominated by introduced grasses could be prepared by a till, harrow, or with herbicides and then reseeded with native species.

  • Rehabilitation and restoration techniques to transform lands currently dominated by invasive annual grasses into quality sage-grouse habitat have been largely unproven and experimental. Several components of the process are being investigated with varying degrees of success. The first aspect of the process will be the reduction in the competition that invasive annual grasses provide against native seedlings during the establishment phase. Proposed techniques to reduce cheatgrass densities include herbicides imazapic (Plateau) (Shinn and Thill 2002) and glyphosate (Whitson and Koch 1998), defoliation via livestock grazing (Hulbert 1955, Finnerty and Klingman 1961, Mosley 1996), pathogenic bacteria (Kennedy et al. 1991) and fungi (Meyer et al. 2001). Although prescribed fire alone is not recommended (Mosley et al. 1999), it may be an effective technique worth investigation if applied in combination with a spring glyphosate treatment and conducted either in late spring or autumn. The glyphosate will kill the current-year’s plants, thus reducing or eliminating seed production, and will prepare a fuel bed for the fire that will reduce the litter seed bank. In addition to density reduction techniques, applications of carbon in a form readily available for microbial uptake in the soil may increase soil microbial content and cause the microbes to reduce the available soil nitrogen, thus reducing the growth and competitive ability of cheatgrass (McLendon & Redente 1990, 1992, Young et al. 1996).

  • Immediate revegetation is required after reduction of invasives; otherwise invasive annual grasses that escape treatments will grow unabated, produce large numbers of seeds, and quickly dominate a site again (Mack and Pyke 1983). Successful revegetation efforts are generally those where introduced forage grasses have been sown (Asay et al. 2001). Some evidence from wildfire rehabilitation studies shows that native plants can be sown and eventually coexists with invasive annuals, but these were generally sown in combination with introduced grasses (Pyke et al. 2003, Cox and Anderson 2004). Theoretical frameworks hypothesize that multiple native species representing a variety of growth and life forms may successfully compete with invasive plants where any one species would be unsuccessful (Sheley et al. 1996).

  • Techniques for reseeding sagebrush have been successfully demonstrated, but surface sowing followed by compaction of the soil may be necessary for establishment. Establishment of forbs important to sage-grouse have also shown promise, but availability of seed tends to limit their widespread use on rangeland restoration and rehabilitation projects (McArthur 2004).

  • Availability and cost of native seed is a major obstruction to the use of native seeds in revegetation projects (McArthur 2004). Equipment for sowing native seeds is not widely available. Native seeds, because of their differing sizes, will require mixing within the seed boxes on the drills to insure that equal proportions of all seeds are sown, or will require separate seed boxes to allow seeds of different sizes to be buried at different optimal depths.

  • See Connelly et al. (2000) (and below; Extracted Paper B) for details on habitat restoration of (a) breeding, (b) summer-late brood-rearing, and (c) winter habitats.

Selected Abstracts

*Whitson, T. D. and D. W. Koch. 1998. Control of downy brome (Bromus tectorum) with herbicides and perennial grass competition. Weed Technology 12:391-396.

Abstract.—Long-term control of downy brome with an integrated approach is needed in order to sustain range productivity. Studies were conducted to study the effectiveness of a combination of downy brome control practices. In two studies, glyphosate and paraquat were evaluated at various rates for up to three successive years for control of downy brome in rangeland. A third study evaluated the competitiveness of perennial cool-season grasses against downy brome in the absence of herbicides. Glyphosate, at 0.55 kg/ha, and 0.6 kg/ha paraquat provided selective downy brome control on rangeland when applications were combined with intensive grazing. Downy brome control was greater than 90% following two sequential years of 0.6 kg/ha paraqUat at either the two- to eight-leaf stage or bloom stage at both study locations. At one study location, 0.55 kg/ha glyphosate provided 97% control after the first application at both growth stages. In the second study, control averaged greater than 92% following three sequential applications of glyphosate. When perennial cool-season grasses were seeded in the spring following fall tillage (no herbicides) and allowed to establish for three growing seasons, three of the five species were effective in reducing the reestablishment of downy brome. 'Luna' pubescent wheatgrass, 'Hycrest' crested wheatgrass, 'Sodar' streambank wheatgrass, 'Bozoisky' Russian wildrye, and 'Critana' thickspike wheatgrass controlled 100, 91, 85, 45, and 32% of the downy brome, respectively. Yields of perennial grass dry matter were 1,714, 1,596, 1,135, 900, and 792 kg/ha. Replacing noncompetitive annual grasses with competitive cool-season perennials will provide a longer term solution to a downy brome problem than the use of herbicides alone or with intensive grazing.

*Aronson, J., C. Floret, E. Le Floc’h, C. Ovalle, and R. Pontanier. 1993. Restoration and rehabilitation of degraded ecosystems in arid and semi-arid lands. I. A view from the south. Restoration Ecology 1:8-17.

Abstract.—A general model is presented describing ecosystem degradation to help decide when restoration, rehabilitation, or reallocation should be the preferred response. The latter two pathways are suggested when one or more "thresholds of irreversibility" have been crossed in the course of ecosystem degradation, and when "passive" restoration to a presumed predisturbance conditions is deemed impossible. The young but burgeoning field of ecological restoration, and the older field of rehabilitation and sustainable range management of arid and semiarid lands (ASAL), are found to have much in common, especially compared with the reallocation of lands, which is often carried out without reference to pre-existing ecosystems. After clarifying some basic terminology, we present 18 vital ecosystem attributes for evaluating stages of degradation and planning experiments in the restoration or rehabilitation of degraded ecosystems.

*McLendon, T. and E. F. Redente. 1990. Succession patterns following soil disturbance in a sagebrush steppe community. Oecologia 85:293-300.

Abstract.—A study was begun in 1976 to measure succession patterns following soil disturbance within a sage-brush community in northwestern Colorado. The principal hypothesis was that type of disturbance affects the direction of succession, resulting in different plant communities over time. Successional dynamics were studied through 1988. Four types of soil disturbance resulted in 3 early seral communities: one dominated by grasses, one by annuals, and one intermediate. The annual-dominated communities were opportunistic on these sites, lasting 3-5 years and not determining the direction in which succession proceeded following their replacement. Twelve years after disturbance, 3 communities (one grass-dominated, one shrub-dominated, and one intermediate) occupied the site, the characteristics of which were functions of type of initial soil disturbance.

*Sage-grouse brood-rearing habitat manipulation, sage-grouse use, and lagomorph herbivory, after two field seasons. David Dahlgren, Utah State University, Department of Forestry, Range, and Wildlife Sciences, 5230 Old Main Hill, Logan, UT 84322, dkd@cc.usu.edu

The greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) population on Parker Mountain has seen a downward trend over the last couple of decades. In 1998-1999 the Parker Mountain Adaptive Resource Management (PARM) team funded a study to assess baseline information on sage-grouse. Based on 1998-1999 study, PARM proposed to treat 100-acre plots, containing approximately 40-70% big mountain sagebrush, with two mechanical treatments. In 2000 experimental plots were randomly allocated, with 4 replicates per treatment, of Dixie harrow, Lawson aerator, and control plots. Pre- and post-treatment data was taken using a variation of the point-intercept and line intercept methods. In October 2001 treatments were completed. In 2002 and 2003 post-treatment data was collected. In 2003 bird dog flush counts and sage-grouse pellet counts were conducted to assess use within treatment plots. In addition to sage-grouse research, we became interested in the effect of lagomorph herbivory on treatment response. In 2001 ungulate exclosures were erected due to grazing concerns. Researchers observed increased rabbit use within ungulate exclosures during late summer. In spring 2002 we constructed rabbit exclosures in each treatment type to determine the impact of lagomorph herbivory on the grass/forb component. In 2002 and 2003 data was collected using a daubenmire frame within exclosures. Data will continue to be collected through the 2004 field season. [From 24th Meeting of the Western agencies Sage and Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse Technical Committee, Wenatchee, WA, 28 June–1July, 2004].

Gunnison sage-grouse in San Juan County, Utah: winter ecology, effects of grazing, and insect abundance. Sharon Ward, Utah State University, Department of Forest, Range, and Wildlife Science, 5230 Old Main Hill, Logan, Utah 84322, sharonward@cc.usu.edu; Terry A. Messmer, Quinney Professorship of Wildlife Conflict Management, Jack H. Berryman Institute, College of Natural Resources, Utah State University, Logan, 84322, terrym@ext.usu.edu

Gunnison sage-grouse (Centrocercus minimus) were recently reclassified as a separate species from Greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus). Given their current limited range, and declining populations they have been identified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a candidate species for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act. Currently, the only known populations are found in southwestern Colorado (Gunnison Basin) and southeastern Utah in San Juan County. A combined population estimate is 3,500-4,000 birds. Less than 10% of the population occurs in Utah. In 1996, a local organization, called The San Juan County Gunnison Sage-grouse Working Group (SWOG) was formed to coordinate conservation efforts in the county. The group consists of private landowners and natural resource conservation agencies. To guide the conservation efforts, SWOG initiated a local research project to learn more about the species’ habitat requirements. In response to severe drought conditions in 2002 in San Juan County, a number of landowners were given permission to graze agricultural lands enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Many of these CRP fields are important Gunnison Sage-grouse habitat. This study is part of a larger collaborative effort involving the local community, private landowners, and government agencies to collect additional information necessary for preserving this species. The objectives of my research are to: 1) determine winter habitat use patterns for Gunnison sage-grouse, 2) determine nesting, brood-rearing, and reproductive success of Gunnison sage-grouse, 3) determine Gunnison sage-grouse use of grazed and ungrazed CRP fields; compare vegetation structure and percent canopy cover, and 4) compare insect abundance and diversity in brood locations to adjacent areas within the study site. [From 24th Meeting of the Western agencies Sage and Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse Technical Committee, Wenatchee, WA, 28 June–1July, 2004].

Leonard K M; Reese K P; Connelly J W Distribution, movements and habitats of sage grouse Centrocercus urophasianus on the Upper Snake River Plain of Idaho: Changes from the 1950s to the 1990s. Wildlife Biology, 6(4): 265-270, 2000. ISSN: 0909-6396

Abstract.—The sage grouse Centrocercus urophasianus population level on the Upper Snake River Plain of Idaho has declined significantly over the past 40 years. We investigated migration patterns and seasonal ranges of these birds to compare to patterns from the 1950s and 1960s. Furthermore, we examined landscape changes that occurred between 1975 and 1992. Migration patterns have not changed since the 1950s. The grouse currently migrate up to 125 km and use an annual population range of at least 2,764 km2. The major landscape change since 1975 that occurred in sage grouse habitat was a decline in the total amount of winter range. Between 1975 and 1992, 29,762 ha of sagebrush Artemisia spp. rangeland were converted to cropland, a 74% increase in cropland. Regression analysis suggested a relationship between sagebrush habitat loss and grouse population decline r2 = 0.59, P = 0.002). Approximately 1,244 km2 of privately-owned sagebrush on the study area could potentially be converted to cropland, which we predict would have serious negative implications for the sage grouse population.

*Danvir, R. E. 2002. Sage-Grouse ecology and management in northern Utah sagebrush-steppe. A Deseret Land and Livestock Wildlife Research Report, 2002. Deseret Land and Livestock Ranch and The Utah Foundation for Quality Resource Management (QRM).

Abstract (in part).—Grazing exclosure data suggest: a) grass production was strongly dependent on prior-year precipitation (r2 = 0.84) and b) excluding livestock increased shrub production, reduced forb production and failed to increase plant species diversity. Hot, August wildfire burns in Wyoming sage sintering areas appeared detrimental, while cool-season controlled burns in summering areas appeared beneficial to grouse. Mechanical brush thinning and planting desirable forbs may be effective ways to improve grouse reproductive/summer nutrition, without severely reducing winter and nesting habitat. DLL lek counts increased significantly as forb abundance was increased on 5% of the DLL sage grouse summer range. Results of this study suggest livestock grazing and brush management techniques can be used to enhance sagebrush habitats for sage grouse if used wisely.

*Wisdom M. J., M. M. Rowland, B. C. Wales, M. A. Hemstrom, W. J. Hann, M. C. Raphael, R. C. Holthausen, R. A. Gravenmier, and T. D. Rich. Modeled effects of sagebrush-steppe restoration on Greater sage-grouse in the interior Columbia Basin, U.S.A. Conservation Biology, 16(5): 1223-1231, 2002. ISSN: 0888-8892

Abstract.—Habitats of Greater Sage-Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) have declined across western North America, and most remaining habitats occur on lands administered by the U.S. Forest Service ( FS) and U.S. Bureau of Land Management ( B.M.). Consequently, managers of FS-B.M. lands need effective strategies to recover sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) habitats on which this species depends. In response to this need, we evaluated the potential benefits of two restoration scenarios on Greater Sage-Grouse in the interior Columbia Basin and adjacent portions of the Great Basin of the western United States. Scenario 1 assumed a 50% reduction in detrimental grazing effects (through changes in stocking rates and grazing systems) and a six-fold increase in areas treated with active restoration (e.g., prescribed burning, native seeds, wildfire suppression) compared with future management proposed by the FS-B.M. Scenario 2 assumed a 100% reduction in detrimental grazing effects and the same increase in active restoration as scenario 1. To evaluate benefits, we estimated the risk of population extirpation for sage grouse 100 years in the future under the two scenarios and compared this risk with that estimated for proposed (100-year) FS-B.M. management. We used estimates of extirpation risk for historical (circa 1850-1890) and current time periods as a context for our comparison. Under historical conditions, risk of extirpation was very low on FS-B.M. lands, but increased to a moderate probability under current conditions. Under proposed FS-B.M. management, risk of extirpation on FS-B.M. lands increased to a high probability 100 years in the future. Benefits of the two restoration scenarios, however, constrained the future risk of extirpation to a moderate probability. Our results suggest that expansive and sustained habitat restoration can maintain desired conditions and reduce future extirpation risk for sage grouse on FS-B.M. lands in western North America. The continued spread of exotic plants, however, presents a formidable challenge to successful restoration and warrants substantial research and management attention.

Wisdom. M. J., B. C. Wales, M. M. Rowland, M. G. Raphael, R. S. Holthausen, T. D. Rich, and V. A. Saab. Performance of Greater sage-grouse models for conservation assessment in the Interior Columbia Basin, U.S.A. Conservation Biology, 16(5): 1232-1242, 2002. ISSN: 0888-8892

Abstract.—Valid modeling of habitats and populations of Greater Sage-Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) is a critical management need because of increasing concern about population viability. Consequently, we evaluated the performance of two models designed to assess landscape conditions for Greater Sage-Grouse across 13.6 million ha of sagebrush steppe in the interior Columbia Basin and adjacent portions of the Great Basin of the western United States (referred to as the basin). The first model, the environmental index model, predicted conditions at the scale of the subwatershed (mean size of approximately 7800 ha) based on inputs of habitat density, habitat quality, and effects of human disturbance. Predictions ranged on a continuous scale from 0 for lowest environmental index to 2 for optimal environmental index. The second model, the population outcome model, predicted the composite, range-wide conditions for sage grouse based on the contribution of environmental index values from all subwatersheds and measures of range extent and connectivity. Population outcomes were expressed as five classes (A through E) that represented a gradient from continuous, well-distributed populations (outcome A) to sparse, highly isolated populations with a high likelihood of extirpation (outcome E). To evaluate performance, we predicted environmental index values and population outcome classes in areas currently occupied by sage grouse versus areas where extirpation has occurred. Our a priori expectations were that models should predict substantially worse environmental conditions (lower environmental index) and a substantially higher probability of extirpation (lower population outcome class) in extirpated areas. Results for both models met these expectations. For example, a population outcome of class E was predicted for extirpated areas, as opposed to class C for occupied areas. These results suggest that our models provided reliable landscape predictions for the conditions tested. This finding is important for conservation planning in the basin, where the models were used to evaluate management of federal lands for sage grouse.

*Hemstrom, M. A., M. J. Wisdom, W. J. Hann, M. M. Rowland, B. C. Wales, and R. A. Gravenmier. Sagebrush-Steppe vegetation dynamics and restoration potential in the Interior Columbia Basin, U.S.A. Conservation Biology, 16(5): 1243-1255, 2002. ISSN: 0888-8892

Abstract.—We modeled the dynamics and restoration of sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) habitats for Greater Sage-Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) in the interior Columbia Basin and adjacent portions of the Great Basin (referred to as the basin). Greater Sage-Grouse have undergone widespread decline and are the focus of conservation on over 13 million ha of sagebrush steppe in the basin, much of which is managed by the U.S. Forest Service (FS) and U.S. Bureau of Land Management (B.M.). Consequently, we evaluated changes in the amount and quality of sage-grouse habitat on 8.1 million ha of FS-B.M. lands in the basin. Changes were estimated from historical to current conditions and from current conditions to those projected 100 years in the future under proposed management and under two restoration scenarios. These two scenarios were designed to improve long-term (100-year) projections of sage-grouse habitat on FS-B.M. lands in relation to current conditions and proposed management. Scenario 1 assumed a 50% reduction in detrimental grazing effects by livestock (through changes in stocking rates and grazing systems) and a six-fold increase in areas treated with active restoration relative to proposed management. Scenario 2 assumed a 100% reduction in detrimental grazing effects and the same level of active restoration as scenario 1. Under the two scenarios, the amount of FS-B.M. habitat for sage grouse within treated areas declined by 17-19% 100 years in the future compared with the current period, but was 10-14% higher than the 100-year projection under proposed management. Habitat quality under both scenarios was substantially improved compared with the current period and proposed management. Our results suggest that aggressive restoration could slow the rate of sagebrush loss and improve the quality of remaining habitat.

Commons, M. L., R. K. Baydack, and C. E. Braun. 1997. Gunnison sage grouse Centrocercus minimus use of fragmented habitats in southwestern Colorado. Wildl. Biol. 3:283.

Abstract.—Gunnison's sage grouse Centrocercus minimus historically occurred throughout sagebrush Artemisia rangelands in southwestern Colorado, southeastern Utah, and northern New Mexico. Because of the reduction of sagebrush habitat for the enhancement of livestock grazing, agricultural use, and other human activities, only a few remnant populations remain in highly fragmented habitat in southwestern Colorado and extreme southeastern Utah. In 1994 and 1995, two geographically isolated populations of sage grouse were studied in southwestern Colorado to identify seasonal movements and habitat use. Radio transmitters were fitted to 55 male and 8 female sage grouse in Dove Creek, Dolores County, and at Dry Creek Basin/Miramonte Reservoir, San Miguel County, Colorado. The Dolores County population was separated by the town of Dove Creek and movements occurred between the two sites. Sage grouse in Dolores County were in agricultural fields (alfalfa, bean, and wheat) from May through September, and sagebrush and Gambel Oak Ouercus gambelii from October through February. Sage grouse in Dry Creek Basin were in areas with low sage A. arbuscula, snakeweed Gutierrezia sarothrae, black greasewood Sarcobatus vermiculatus, and winterfat Eurotia lanata while sage grouse near Miramonte Reservoir were in sagebrush A. tridentata, A. nova, wet meadows, and Gambel Oak throughout the year. Hamilton Mesa between Dry Creek Basin and Miramonte Reservoir was also used by sage grouse. Dominant vegetation of this site included forbs, grass, gambel oak, and serviceberry Amelanchier spp. Extensive movements occurred from Dry Creek Basin to Hamilton Mesa and to Miramonte Reservoir. Management considerations must include all three sites in San Miguel County and both sites in Dolores County if sage grouse are to persist in southwestern Colorado.

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