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History of sage-grouse (Centrocercus spp.) in New Mexico.

Presettlement distribution of sage-grouse (Centrocercus spp.) in New Mexico is poorly known (Bailey, 1928; Ligon, 1961) and was generally depicted by Schroeder et al. (2004:fig. 1) and ascribed to Gunnison sage-grouse (Centrocercus minimus). Detailed presettlement distribution records within New Mexico are lacking as both Ligon (1927, 1961) and Bailey (1928:211) reported sage-grouse had been extirpated by about 1908-1912. Merrill (1967) provided only a general account, citing J. S. Ligon as his source of information. The lack of published records of observations (this paper) suggests sage-grouse were uncommon to rare well before 1900.

Our objectives are to report on (1) the historical distribution of sage-grouse in New Mexico based on the fossil record and the published literature and (2) the well-intentioned releases of greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) in attempts to establish that species in areas within the state where sage-grouse had been extirpated or where suitable habitat was believed to exist. Biologists made these attempts prior to the discovery and description of Gunnison sage-grouse in southwestern Colorado and adjacent southeastern Utah (Young et al., 1994; Kahn et al., 1999; Oyler-McCance et al., 1999; Young et al., 2000).

METHODS--We reviewed the available literature for sagegrouse in New Mexico and adjacent states, requested information on specimen records of sage-grouse through the Ornithological Newsletter and contacts with museums in the United States and Canada (several non-North America museums also reported their holdings to us), and visited museums to examine specific specimens of sage-grouse. We also reviewed Ligon's (1961) and Merrill's (1967) writings about transplants of greater sage-grouse to New Mexico and the unpublished records of those introduction efforts in the files of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (J. P. Hubbard to C. E. Braun, pers. comm.,19 December 1991).

RESULTS--Fossil records from the late Pleistocene (13,000-18,000 BP) document sage-grouse in San Juan, Sandoval, Grant, Hidalgo, and DoUa Ana counties in New Mexico. Howard and Miller (1933) reported bones of sage-grouse from Conkling Cavern and Shelter Cave on opposite sides of Pyramid Peak at the southern end of the Organ Mountains in DoUa Ana County. Bones of sagegrouse were reported from Howells Ridge in the Little Hatchet Mountains in Grant County by Howard (1962). Sage-grouse bones were reported from Sheep Camp Shelter in Sheep Camp Canyon by Gillespie (1985) near Chaco Canyon in San Juan County. Harris (1989:210, table 2) reported sage-grouse bones from U-Bar Cave in the Alamo Hueco Mountains, Hidalgo County, in extreme southwestern New Mexico. More recently, Brasso and Emslie (2006) reported sage-grouse bones from the late Pleistocene from Sandia Cave in Las Huertas Canyon, in southern Sandoval County (Fig. 1). Sites with sage-grouse bones occur on both sides of the Continental Divide in New Mexico with a wide distribution from north to south and west to east.


The Gunnison sage-grouse was described and recognized as a new species from southwestern Colorado by Young et al. in 2000. This species also occurs in southeastern Utah and was presumed to occur in New Mexico and Arizona (Young et al., 2000). The original known distribution of the species was mostly in Colorado where the present distribution is greatly reduced from what is known from specimen records and the literature (Braun et al., 2014). This species differs from greater sage-grouse in size (smaller; Hupp and Braun, 1991), breeding plumage of males (prominent feathery filoplumes), and tail barring pattern (Young et al., 2000). It also differs in display behavior (Young et al., 1994) and genetic profile (Oyler-McCance et al., 1999, 2005).

The Gunnison sage-grouse was the native species in New Mexico and was apparently extirpated from the state by 1912 (Bailey, 1928; Ligon, 1961). The presettlement distribution in New Mexico was limited (Schroeder et al., 2004), contiguous with the species' distribution in Colorado, and apparently only occurred in three counties. We know of one specimen record of Gunnison sagegrouse from New Mexico. C. E. Aiken was reported by Bailey (1928) to have collected a specimen near Tierra Amarilla in Rio Arriba County south of Chama in September 1874. W. W. Cooke (1928:22) indicated that Aiken was in southern Colorado at Pagosa Springs during 5-21 September 1874 and made a foray into New Mexico. We believe this specimen was retained by Aiken in his personal collection, which was purchased by Colorado College (Warren, 1936). This collection was eventually transferred to the University of Colorado. We (CEB) examined this specimen several times, and it is an adult male Gunnison sage-grouse. The tags were no longer properly attached when last examined, but it is likely UCM 13333 (Colorado College CCS 6009).

The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish introduced at least 326 greater sage-grouse from Wyoming (246), Nevada (48), Washington (17), and South Dakota (15) into Taos (175), Rio Arriba (103), and San Juan (48) counties between 1933 and 1969 (Table 1). Some of the birds included in the totals arrived dead (one in 1949; nearly dead [four] or with a cramped leg [one] on 18 March 1958; birds in poor condition and one moribund, one nearly so, and one dead on 29 March 1958). Details for birds involved in other translocation attempts are lacking. The goal of the Department of Game and Fish was to reestablish sage-grouse into formerly known habitat or areas which appeared to be suitable based on field surveys by J. Stokely Ligon (1927, 1961). These releases initially appeared to be successful in establishing greater sage-grouse between Taos and Tres Piedras, and they "thrived best" northwest of Taos and in the Stinking (Burford) Lake area (Ligon, 1961:93); all of these introductions failed.

DISCUSSION--Sage-grouse were widely distributed in New Mexico in the late Pleistocene based on the fossil record as they were reported from five counties from north to south (San Juan, Sandoval, Grant, Hidalgo, and Dona Ana). The presence of subfossil bones at Conkling Cave and Shelter Cave in southern New Mexico (Dona Ana County) shows that the species was present south of its current range at the end of the last ice age (Howard and Miller, 1933). No bones of sage-grouse were found by researchers in Rocky Arroyo Cave in the Guadalupe Mountains (Eddy County), 145 km east of the two sites in Dona Ana County (Wetmore, 1932), but bones attributed to lesser prairie-chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) were recorded at that site. The presence of lesser prairie-chickens suggests those areas were more likely grasslands than dominated by sagebrush (Artemisia) and were not suitable for sage-grouse. Howard (1971) reported material from two undetermined grouse species in Dark Canyon Cave in Eddy County in southeastern New Mexico, 24 km southwest of Carlsbad. It is not known which species (greater sage-grouse or the recently recognized Gunnison sage-grouse) occurred in New Mexico at the end of the Pleistocene. The Gunnison sage-grouse is smaller than the greater sage-grouse (Hupp and Braun, 1991; Young et al., 2000), but comparisons of fossil bones of these two species have not been reported (Brasso and Emslie, 2006).

The earliest known (about 1.6 million years ago) fossil sage-grouse is from Porcupine Cave in Park County, Colorado, east of the Continental Divide (Emslie, 2004). Thus, the Colorado and New Mexico records indicate the Continental Divide was not a barrier to the presence of sage-grouse. These records may suggest an expansion to the north and northeast following the Pleistocene Epoch. Fossil records have documented sage-grouse during the late Pleistocene (13,000-18,000 BP) well south of their current range (Howard and Miller, 1933; Harris 1989; Brasso and Emslie, 2006).

Reports of sage-grouse in New Mexico from early travelers are lacking based on information in Cooke (1928:15-36). These include travels of William Gambel from Santa Fe through northern New Mexico in 1841; M. F. Gilman, who collected in San Juan County from 1 February-1 September 1871; H. W. Hinshaw, who traveled from the San Luis Valley in Colorado along the Rio Grande into New Mexico in July 1873; Frank Stevens, who passed through northern New Mexico in March 1875 from Mosca Pass, Colorado, to Taos; and J. A. Loring, who collected at Tres Piedras (Taos County) in July 1892, and traveled by rail to Chama (Rio Arriba County) during 1920 December 1893. None of these observers and collectors mentioned sage-grouse, which suggest this species was at least uncommon or possibly quite rare in northern New Mexico in the mid to late 1800s.

We found no reports of sage-grouse surviving and reproducing from the transplants of greater sage-grouse into New Mexico until that of Ligon (1961:93) near Stinking Lake. Alexander Wetmore (1920) studied bird life at Stinking Lake (Rio Arriba County) over 4 weeks from 23 May-19 June 1918 and reported sagebrush was common but did not mention sage-grouse. Huey and Travis (1961) attempted to duplicate Wetmore's bird surveys at Stinking Lake in early June 1960 and also did not report sage-grouse. These authors (1961:607) included some of their observations at Stinking Lake made while working at that site in 1958-1959. The 1960 (and 1958-1959) survey work raises further questions about the observations in 1953 and 1956 of sage-grouse in the Stinking Lake area. The published record does not indicate sage-grouse were present at Stinking Lake in 1918 or in 1958-1960. The published studies by Wetmore (1920) and Huey and Travis (1961) that focused on birds were in May and early June, when it would be normal for sage-grouse males to be conspicuous. No sage-grouse were reported in either study.

However, Ligon (1961:93) mentions reports of "17 seen crossing a road near Lake Burford" by E. R. Gomer of the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs on 12 November 1953, and nine males observed by Wayne H. Bohl in the Stinking Lake area on a "booming ground" (lek) on 5 May 1956. These reports were after the releases from 1933-1949 and before the releases of 1958. We found no other reports of observations of sage-grouse after the known releases from 1933 through August 1949, or other possible releases in 1950-1957 prior to or after the releases of March 1958. We contacted K. J. Tator, Wildlife Biologist for the Jicarilla Apache Nation, for any data on releases or observations of sage-grouse near Stinking Lake or on tribal lands. He provided an unpublished literature review for sage-grouse in north-central New Mexico, which only provides mention of sage-grouse based on Ligon (1961).

The reports included in Ligon (1961) are puzzling without other observations after the releases in 1933-1949 or after the observations in 1956. We note that Merrill (1967) suggests that sage-grouse were still present in 1965 in small areas in Rio Arriba (near Stinking Lake) and Taos counties. However, no data or recent observations were cited. It is possible that additional unreported releases were made near Stinking Lake in the 1953-1956 interval but no data are available to support this hypothesis (K. J. Tator, pers. comm.). Sage-grouse are not long-lived birds (Zablan et al., 2003), and it is unlikely that any birds resulting from the releases from 1933-1949 were still alive in 1953-1956. Further, survival of the progeny of those birds is not likely as there are no observations after the releases from 1933-1949 (only 15 birds were released [1949] after 1941 before 17 birds [some in poor condition, moribund, or dead] were released in 1958). Thus, we could not verify the reports in Ligon (1961) or the general comments of Merrill (1967). Two more recent published reports of this species in New Mexico are questionable--one female in Farmington (San Juan County) during 9 April-26 May 1986 (American Birds [1986] 40:509-510), which we believe arrived with human transport, and one imperfectly described female east of Stinking Lake on 28 June 1989 (American Birds [1989] 43:1352), which may have been a different species.

Much of the area in the Southwest was not covered by ice during the Pleistocene Epoch (Brown and Davis, 1995) and, at 18,000 BP, deserts were absent from this area (Thompson and Anderson, 2000). Pollen records suggest the requisite sagebrush habitat to support sagegrouse was patchily distributed (see Hall and Valastro, 1995) throughout the southwestern United States during the Pleistocene (Van Devender and King, 1971; Wright et al., 1973; Madsen and Currey, 1979; Emslie, 1986). It would follow that sage-grouse were limited to these patchily distributed refugia during this epoch. Gunnison sage-grouse in southwestern Colorado presently are also patchily distributed as reported in the historical records (Oyler-McCance et al., 2001; Braun et al., 2014). These authors found that reduced distribution and abundance of Gunnison sage-grouse in southwestern Colorado were related to the loss and fragmentation of sagebrush habitats.

Hall and Valastro (1995) concluded, based on pollen records from White Lake (near Muleshoe, Texas), that the southern Great Plains was a treeless Artemisia grassland during the late Wisconsin Glaciation. This finding is similar to that described by Markgraf et al. (1983) for the San Agustin Basin, New Mexico, during the late Pleistocene. Sage-grouse are known to depend upon a variety of low to midheight sagebrush (Artemisia arbuscula, Artemisia cana, Artemisia nova, Artemisia tridentata vaseyana, Artemisia tridentata wyomingensis, and probably other Artemisia species). The fossil record for sage-grouse in New Mexico indicates species of sagebrush were common in the areas near the sites studied. Thus, it is feasible that sage-grouse were far more widely distributed to the south during the Pleistocene and became more fragmented in the Holocene. This supports the early reports of sage-grouse in southwestern Oklahoma (Tate, 1923; Nice, 1931) and southwestern Kansas (Goss, 1883, 1886; Cable et al., 1996), as well as in northern Arizona (Coues, 1866; Huey, 1939). Sage-grouse fossils have also been reported in states adjacent to New Mexico (Arizona: Rea and Hargrave, 1984; Colorado: Emslie, 2004; Utah: Emslie and Heaton, 1987). We conclude that reports of sage-grouse in Kansas and Oklahoma, as in Arizona, may have merit and should not be considered hypothetical (Applegate, 2001).

The known distribution of sage-grouse has changed in the past and is still changing. Both Gunnison and greater sage-grouse could become increasingly vulnerable as global climate change increases the humidity in semiarid regions or decreases precipitation in the sagebrushsteppe ecosystem.

We thank D. M. Armstrong and C. M. McCain of the University of Colorado Natural History Museum for access to specimens under their care. Many other curators in museums responded to our queries about sage-grouse accessions over a period of years and we thank them for their courtesies. We thank S. D. Emslie and A. H. Harris for providing information about fossil records of grouse. Personnel of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish were particularly helpful over a period of years in providing access to unpublished records. J. P. Hubbard was especially helpful in providing access to the records of releases of greater sage-grouse in New Mexico and, after reviewing early drafts of the material, in encouraging us to think more broadly. We thank Patricia Mehlhop for preparing Figure 1. The reviews of C. L. Aldridge, M. A. Schroeder, an unidentified reviewer, and Associate Editor M. C. Green improved the manuscript.


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Submitted 31 May 2014.

Acceptance recommended by Associate Editor, M. Clay Green, 17 December 2014.


Grouse Inc., 5572 North Ventana Vista Road, Tucson, AZ 85750 (CEB)

Division of Birds, Museum of Southwestern Biology, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM 87131 (SOW)

* Correspondent:
TABLE 1--Number, county, release area, and state of origin for
greater sage-grouse released by the New Mexico Department of Game
and Fish in New Mexico, 1933-1969.

                    Number released

Date                Male   Female   County

18 November 1933    16     24       Taos
4 October 1934      12     6        Taos
4 October 1934      13     14       Taos
19 October 1934     22     22       Rio Arriba
31 October 1936     21     21       Rio Arriba
19 November 1936    13     14       Taos
30 September 1941   23     25       Taos
6, 8 August 1949    7      8        Taos
18 March 1958       8      4        Rio Arriba
29 March 1958       3      2        Rio Arriba
11 September 1969   20     28       San Juan
Total               158    168

Date                Release area

18 November 1933    Between Tres Piedras and Taos
4 October 1934      Between Tres Piedras and Taos
4 October 1934      Between Tres Piedras and Taos
19 October 1934     Between Tierra Amarilla and El Vado
31 October 1936     Between Tierra Amarilla and El Vado
19 November 1936    Between Tres Piedras and Taos
30 September 1941   Between Tres Piedras and Taos
6, 8 August 1949    South of Costilla
18 March 1958       Between Tierra Amarilla and El Vado
29 March 1958       Between Tierra Amarilla and El Vado
11 September 1969   Navajo Dam Wildlife Area

                    State of

Date                origin

18 November 1933    Wyoming
4 October 1934      Wyoming
4 October 1934      Wyoming
19 October 1934     Wyoming
31 October 1936     Wyoming
19 November 1936    Wyoming
30 September 1941   Wyoming
6, 8 August 1949    South Dakota
18 March 1958       Washington
29 March 1958       Washington
11 September 1969   Nevada
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Author:Braun, Clait E.; Williams, Sartor O., III
Publication:Southwestern Naturalist
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Jun 1, 2015
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