Gunnison Country Wildlife

The public lands of Gunnison County are home to world-class populations of elk, mule deer and other big game, one of North America’s rarest birds, native cutthroat trout darting through clear mountain streams, and healthy stands of forest. Whether you like hunting, fishing, birding, or simply cherish solitude with wild critters, the public lands in and around Gunnison County are a paradise for wildlife.

HCCA’s Public Lands Program works diligently to protect wildlife and the public lands they depend on from ill-planned resource extraction, unsustainable recreation and bad environmental policy. Healthy and diverse native wildlife depend directly on healthy public lands. Happy wildlife viewing!


If you run across what looks like a cowprint on the trail, in the absence of telltale cow pies, you’re probably in the vicinity of an elk herd. Colorado west of the Continental Divide is home to large numbers of Rocky Mountain Elk, one of six subspecies of North American Elk (Cervuscanadensis), whose range extends along a broad, almost unbroken mountainous corridor from Montana to New Mexico.

These magnificent ungulates are easily distinguished by their size – a bull can weigh around 700 pounds, the smaller cow about 500 pounds – distinctive brown mane, tan bodies and light beige rumps, and – during the fall rutting season – the unmistakable bugling of bulls in their quest for mating rights. Fall is the season to view bulls at their finest, with their spreading antlers the largest of all elk subspecies.

Like deer, elk give birth in late spring to spotted calves that hide motionless while their mothers feed. Although elk are primarily grazers, they also share the browsing deer’s diet of grasses, forbs and – in the winter – tree bark and twigs. Until the fall rut, bulls roam in bachelor bands while females and calves form larger, loose herds. Like many species of deer, elk migrate to higher altitude in the spring and seek the protection and food sources of lower valleys and woods in winter.

While elk are fairly common in the Gunnison country, their numbers are a fraction of the millions that roamed the Rockies before European settlement. Humans remain their main predator, followed, in Colorado, by the solitary cougar, bear and occasionally coyote packs.

Map at right: The red area denotes the elk’s current range. Of the six subspecies, the Rocky Mountain Elk has fared the best, boasting large numbers in Colorado, Idaho and Montana.

Source: Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
Mule Deer

In the field mule deer are easy to distinguish from elk. About half the elk’s size, “muleys” sport long ears, a grey-beige coat, a small, black-tipped tail, and a distinctive black forehead above a light grey face. When alarmed, muleys don’t run but “stot,” pushing off and landing on all four feet at once. At the same time, both large ungulates share migration and feeding ranges,experience a fall rut, when males sport antlers to fend off competitors, and produce single or, in the case of muleys, often twin fawns in late spring. The buck’s antlers, like those of the elk, also make them favorite targets of hunters, among their main predators.

Once hunted close to extinction, deer have become so prolific they’re now considered a significant traffic hazard across the country. The risk of hitting a deer is no less a concern in Colorado, where the Mule Deer (Odocoileushemionus), found throughout most ofwestern North America, has undergone a population boom like that of its cousin, the ubiquitous White Tail of the eastern half of the nation.

There are important differences between deer and elk that make muleys more vulnerable to environmental changes. Elk are larger and more aggressive than deer, making both adults and calves less vulnerable to predation by cougar, bear and coyote. While elk graze on grass and other low-nutrient plants, deer browse, depending on the more nutritious twigs and leaves of woody plants, which limits their foraging options compared to elk and makes them less able to survive harsh winters.

The ongoing boom in human population in Colorado presents both species with new challenges to survival. Less elusive than elk, mule deer have enlarged their range to include “edge” settings that often place them in close proximity to humans and the dangers they pose. While hunting is now regulated, deer often fall prey to vehicles and poaching, and sprawling development is reducing their habitat and cutting off vital migration corridors. Indeed, despite their recent population boom, deer numbers are once again in decline.

Sources: Mule Deer Foundation; Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Dusky Grouse

There are two predominant species of grouse in the Gunnison Basin. One is the Gunnison Sage-Grouse, a species currently listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, which prefers open sagebrush meadows. The second is the more plentiful Dusky Grouse, which is more apt to be seen year-round in the mountains among the coniferous trees.

While their colors are similar, Dusky Grouse have blunt, white-tipped tails, while Sage-Grouse have long, pointy tails with barred markings. It’s easy to confuse the two, but location is a good giveaway as to which type you are seeing. Both are about the size of a chicken.

One of North America’s largest grouse, the Dusky Grouse used to be considered a subspecies of the Blue Grouse. In 2006, DNA evidence supported the split of the Blue Grouse into two separate species, the Dusky Grouse and the Sooty Grouse. Similarly, the Gunnison Sage-Grouse became a separate species from its relative, the Greater Sage-Grouse, in 2000.

Dusky Grouse nest on the ground, but also live in trees, where they eat buds, needles and insects. Their sudden flight often startles unsuspecting recreationists, who inadvertently flush the birds.

Sources in part: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Audubon Field Guide

Gunnison Sage-grouse
A male Gunnison Sage Grouse put on a display early in the morning during a snow storm at Woods Gulch BLM area in Gunnison, CO.

A male Gunnison Sage Grouse put on a display early in the morning during a snow storm.

The Gunnison Sage-grouse is a ground dwelling bird species endemic to a small number of populations in western Colorado and eastern Utah, whose survival is at stake and whose protection is often mired in controversy. At approximately 8% of its historic range, factors such as habitat destruction, subdivision development, mining and historic overgrazing are some of the adverse processes that undermine Sage-grouse populations in the region. Population size and individuals attending breeding grounds (called leks) have been showing declining numbers and approximately 40% of the leks in the Gunnison Basin alone have been classified as inactive. The Gunnison Basin population contains about 80% of the remaining birds, while other populations are quite small and display very little genetic diversity to sustain them long term. Collaborative efforts have been ongoing in Gunnison since 1995, in an attempt to stabilize and grow the Gunnison Basin population, with some promising results. HCCA has been involved in collaborative efforts in Gunnison since 1995, in an attempt to stabilize and grow the Gunnison Basin population, with some promising results.mapGUSGpresettlement

Organizations such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature have deemed the Gunnison Sage-grouse as a globally endangered species, and the Audubon Society lists it as one of the top 10 endangered birds in North America. The bird is currently listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

In early 2017, the Bureau of Land Management is framing a series of new alternatives for land management plan amendments that will mitigate factors that threaten the Gunnison Sage-grouse. Click here for more information on this process.