Waunita Watchable Wildlife Site

 

– Photo courtesy of Nate Seward, CPW.

Viewing Site:

 

NOTICE: The Sisk-a-dee programs are full for 2022

 

Some people make an annual pilgrimage to the Waunita site to see the Gunnison Sage-grouse, while others travel long-distances to get a one-time glimpse of this rare species found only in the sagebrush of the Southern Rocky Mountains.  Being able to see the Gunnison Sage-grouse at the Waunita site is not guaranteed as the birds are over 1 km from the viewing area, are active in early predawn light, often move throughout the morning, are often obstructed by vegetation, and sometimes their dances are foiled by inclement weather; or if they are present, they may not be visible through snowfall or fog.  While viewing can be challenging, the distinct field marks (long thick filoplumes and contrasting tail banding pattern) that differentiate the Gunnison Sage-grouse from the Greater Sage-grouse are visible – particularly when the grouse are observed on the eastern ridge as the sun is rising – visitors often see the males strut and watch their breath rise into the shimmering frosty sagebrush.

The Gunnison Sage-grouse not only perform an elaborate dance, but they also belt out low-frequency vocalizations.  It is very challenging to hear the Gunnison Sage-grouse from this distance.  Their liquidy plops may be masked by the similar-sounding gurgling creek that runs by the viewing site.

 

All photos this page courtesy Patrick Magee unless otherwise noted.

2022 Viewing Season Dates

Closed prior to 1 April, open 1-9 April, closed 10-16 April, open 17-30 April, closed on 1 May and after.

See Details about COVID-19 Protocols for the 2022 season below


Visitors to the Waunita Watchable Wildlife Site State Wildlife Area must have a valid Colorado fishing or hunting license or a State Wildlife Area pass. To obtain these, you can visit your local Colorado Parks and Wildlife office, a sporting goods store that sells licenses, or the CPW webpage.

Three Ways to View the Gunnison Sage Grouse

Viewing Self Serve

Self-Serve

The first way to view the Gunnison Sage-grouse is by self-serve drive-up viewing from your personal vehicle. This is available every day the site is open, free of charge, and no reservations are needed.

Viewing in Trailer

Waunita Viewing Trailer

Secondly, groups or individuals can reserve the Waunita viewing trailer provided by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and managed by Sisk-a-dee.  All commercial groups are REQUIRED to reserve the trailer.  Trailer reservation open on January 1 of the year prior to visitation (e.g., reservations for April 2023 can be made starting January 1, 2022).  The group fee is $100 for a trailer reservation. All funds go to Sisk-a-dee to further Gunnison Sage-grouse conservation efforts.

Viewing Free Programs

Sisk-a-dee Free Programs

The third is by joining one of Sisk-a-dee’s free programs that include an evening slide presentation on the ecology and conservation of the Gunnison Sage-grouse followed by a morning adventure to the viewing trailer to see the grouse dance.  Space is limited and reservations are required.

Reservations are made by calling 970-641-3959 or emailing from our contact form.

NOTICE:
The Sisk-a-dee programs are full for 2022.

 

Sage-grouse Lek Viewing Protocol

 

The Gunnison Sage-grouse is a seriously threatened species and highly vulnerable to human disturbance. Sisk-a-dee, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and Western Colorado University are actively managing the Waunita Watchable Wildlife site to minimize the impacts of viewing the birds.  Please help us make this viewing experience quality for you and other birders by following the protocol below. Thank you for your efforts, and enjoy the rare and beautiful dance of the Gunnison Sage-grouse!

 

      • The Waunita Watchable Wildlife Site State Wildlife Area is the only site where Gunnison Sage-grouse viewing is permitted on public or private land.
      • Plan ahead and know the protocols and viewing dates!
      • From Gunnison head east on U.S. Highway 50 and turn left (north) on to Gunnison County Road 887. This is a well-maintained gravel road.  Proceed for 0.6 miles and arrive at the pull off on the right side of the road.  This is the Waunita Watchable Wildlife Site State Wildlife Area. The State Wildlife Area is located on the side of a county road and is surrounded by private lands. The sage-grouse lek is located on private land as well.  Please be highly respectful of the neighbors and recognize that movement away from the parking area is trespassing on private land.
      • Viewing Gunnison Sage-grouse is permitted only from the Waunita Watchable Wildlife parking area or trailer. Gunnison County installed no parking signs along County Road 887 north of the parking area.  The county sheriff, USFWS, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife District Wildlife Managers patrol the area and issue wildlife harassment violations for individuals who deviate from the protocols.
  • Arrive at the viewing site at least 1 hour before sunrise. You should leave Gunnison at least 1 hour and 45 minutes before sunrise. See the sunrise timetable on this page. No overnight parking or camping is allowed at the site.
  • If you are the first vehicle to arrive in the morning, drive as far north as you can into the semi-circular drive behind the rock wall.  Subsequent vehicles parallel park behind the first car.  Please pull up as close as possible to the vehicle in front.
  • When you arrive at the Waunita Watchable Wildlife Site, a volunteer will greet you.  They can help answer questions and will be monitoring your activities through the morning.  Please do not leave your vehicle. Plan ahead when you leave Gunnison so you have your equipment ready and reduce the need for setup when you arrive at the viewing site.  Remember that you will stay in your vehicle and only one side of the car will face the lek (the right side, passenger side).  If you have two people in a car and a backseat you might put one person in the back so both can view out of the right side windows.
  • Turn off vehicle engine and turn all lights off when you arrive and do not start the engine until you leave. It is important to roll your windows down when you turn your engine off and leave them down to reduce car sounds that are produced when you turn the engine on to roll down the window.  Because your windows will be down throughout the morning, be sure to wear warm clothes and bring blankets to wrap up.  You must remain in your car until all birds have flushed from the lek or until a volunteer signifies it is ok to get out of your car and/or leave the site.
  • The Gunnison Sage-grouse are often seen over 1 km from the viewing site. Therefore, it is important to have a spotting scope and it works best to have a window mount for your scope.
  • Please remain in your vehicle and set up your spotting scope.  Remain as quiet as possible: Avoid radios, cell phones, horn honking, car door slamming or other automobile noises, and avoid turning on lights. 
  • This is site is not designed for photography. The grouse are over 1 km from the viewing site, they are often active at very low light levels, and the site faces into the sun.  If you attempt to photograph the birds, flash photography is not permitted.
  • An outhouse is available at the site. After the grouse have flushed or the volunteer has indicated it is ok to depart your vehicle you are welcome to leave your vehicle, use the outhouse, and read the interpretive literature.
  • Remain very quiet; if you do talk keep your voices to a whisper.
  • Do not leave the site. Remain in your vehicle until the birds have ended their displays and a volunteer has indicated when it is appropriate to leave.
  • All visitors to the Waunita Watchable Wildlife Site State Wildlife Area must have a valid Colorado fishing or hunting license or a State Wildlife Area pass. To obtain these you can visit your local Colorado Parks and Wildlife office, a sporting goods store that sells licenses, or the CPW webpage.

Photo: Two grouse, courtesy of Nate Seward, CPW.

Site Calendar

The Waunita Watchable Wildlife Site is open in April to view the elaborate and bizarre breeding dance of the Gunnison Sage-grouse.

2022 Viewing Season Dates

Closed prior to 1 April
Open 1-9 April
Closed 10-16 April
Open 17-30 April
Closed on 1 May and after

On closed days, a volunteer will be parked on County Road 887 just north of U.S. Highway 50 and about a half-mile down from the Waunita parking area. The volunteer will have a sign indicating the site is closed. Please do not proceed beyond the volunteer’s position on these dates.

Thank you for helping us maintain the opportunity to view the magical Gunnison Sage-grouse. Please contact us if you have any questions or concerns.

Patrick Magee!
Sisk-a-dee, Director
970-641-3959 or pmagee@western.edu

The viewing site, a curved gravel pullout with a rock wall and a small enclosure. A signs says "welcome to your state wildlife area, Waunita."

Covid-19 Response

Due to the COVID-19 situation, important changes have been made to the Waunita Watchable Wildlife Site and program for the 2022 season.

  • The viewing trailer is tentatively open and available for 2022. However, this depends on what happens with COVID in the next three months and on health orders and guidance from the Center for Disease Control, the State of Colorado, the Gunnison County Health Department, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.   If more restrictive protocols are enacted, commercial groups who currently have 2021 reservations for the viewing trailer will likely be permitted to view from the parking area (a limit of 2 vans, or one van and 2 cars, or 4 cars are allowed).
  • At this point, anyone who uses the trailer will be required to be fully vaccinated and wear a mask. Anyone who is symptomatic must NOT participate in lek viewing in any manner.  Please help keep our community safe and make decisions that benefit others. 

Please feel free to contact Patrick Magee at 970-641-3959 or pmagee@western.edu if you have any questions. 

Gunnison, US
9:19 am, June 29, 2022
54°
Sunrise: 5:46 am

Gunnison Sunrises 2022

Times are adjusted for daylight savings.

April 1st – 9th

Fri, April 1st
6:52 am

Sat, April 2nd
6:50 am

Sun, April 3rd
6:49 am

Mon, April 4th
6:47 am

Tue, April 5th
6:46 am

Wed, April 6th
6:44 am

Thu, April 7th
6:43 am

Fri, April 8th
6:41 am

Sat, April 9th
6:40 am

April 17th – 23rd

Sun, April 17th
6:28 am

Mon, April 18th
6:27 am

Tue, April 19th
6:25 am

Wed, April 20th
6:24 am

Thu, April 21st
6:23 am

Fri, April 22st
6:21 am

Sat, April 23rd
6:20 am

April 24th – 30th

Sun, April 24th
6:19 am

Mon, April 25th
6:17 am

Tue, April 26th
6:16 am

Wed, April 27th
6:15 am

Thu, April 28th
6:14 am

Fri, April 29th
6:12 am

Sat, April 30th
6:11 am

Map to the Waunita Lek:

Directions to the Waunita Lek:

Gunnison Sage-grouse predictably use the Waunita Lek, located 19 miles east of Gunnison just north of U.S. Highway 50. Turn north on County Road 887 (Waunita Hot Springs Road) and drive 0.6 miles to a small pull-off on the right where you will enter the Waunita Watchable Wildlife parking area and viewing trailer.  The small pull-off is a designated State Wildlife Area. The lek (mating ground) is located to the east and north of the parking area over a large landscape and the birds are 1 km or more from the parking area and viewing trailer. This observation point offers a view of the birds through spotting scopes and is far enough away from the lek to minimize disturbance to the birds.

Where to see the birds:

Each year the Gunnison Sage-grouse change their distribution and activity patterns at least slightly.  During the 2021 season, the grouse mostly used the north meadow which is about 1 km northeast of the trailer.  The meadow has numerous willows interspersed with more open grassy sites.  The topography is complex and grouse can disappear behind mounds or as they drop into a ditch. When the grouse are in the north meadow they can be challenging to see and count.  We often count less than one-fourth of the birds on the ground and get a better count if they flush. Viewing from the trailer is better than from cars because of the higher elevation of the trailer.

The grouse often start the morning in the north meadow and then move to the eastern ridge.  Here they are easier to observe from cars because they are higher than the viewing area.  The east ridge extends a long way above the Waunita meadow.  The grouse tend to be on the northern end of the ridge.  It is good practice to observe the ridge top through a spotting scope directly east of the trailer and then scan left (north) along the entire length of the ridge to its end at a broad plateau.

The third location to observe is directly east of the parking area and trailer.  This was the traditional lek area up until 2014 when the birds started changing their distribution.  Nevertheless, we still occasionally see Gunnison Sage-grouse within 400 m of the viewing area in the open meadow.  We try to manage the site with the possibility that the grouse will return to this original lek site where they are highly vulnerable to human activities and sounds at the viewing site.