Waunita Watchable Wildlife Site
– Photo courtesy of Nate Seward, CPW.
Sisk-a-dee will no longer be coordinating the Watchable Wildlife Program, for 2024 inquiries please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
2024 Viewing Season Dates
Closed prior to April 1. Open April 1-13. Closed April 14-20. Open April 21-30. Closed on May 1 and after.
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. Please see the bottom of the protocol section below for instructions on purchasing an SWA Pass on their website.
Three Ways to View the Gunnison Sage Grouse
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.
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 2024 can be made starting January 1, 2023). The group fee is $100 (this fee will be $200 in 2024) for a trailer reservation. All funds go to Sisk-a-dee to further Gunnison Sage-grouse conservation efforts.
The third is by joining one of Sisk-a-dee’s 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. A $25 deposit is required to secure reservation.
Reservations are made by emailing email@example.com
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 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.
Directions to navigate CPW Webpage to purchase SWA Pass:
- Click on the link above to take you to the CPW webpage.
- In the blue header on the CPW webpage, choose “Buy and Apply”
- Select the box indicating State Wildlife Area (SWA) Pass
- A box appears asking you to input your Age, a second box asks you to indicate your residency status
- Then click “GO”
- A menu appears on the left side of the page, choose “Land and Trails”
- Then you have the option of buying an annual SWA pass or a daily SWA pass.
Photo: Two grouse, courtesy of Nate Seward, CPW.
The Waunita Watchable Wildlife Site is open in April to view the elaborate and bizarre breeding dance of the Gunnison Sage-grouse.
2024 Viewing Season Dates
Closed prior to 1 April
Open 1-13 April
Closed 14-20 April
Open 21-30 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.
Contact Colorado Parks and Wildlife at firstname.lastname@example.org
Gunnison Sunrises 2024
Times are adjusted for daylight savings.
April 1st – 13th
Mon, April 1st
Tues, April 2nd
Wed, April 3rd
Thurs, April 4th
Fri, April 5th
Sat, April 6th
Sun, April 7th
Mon, April 8th
Tues, April 9th
Wed, April 10th
Thurs, April 11th
Fri, April 12th
Sat, April 13th
April 21st – 30th
Sun, April 21st
Mon, April 22nd
Tues, April 23rd
Wed, April 24th
Thurs, April 25th
Fri, April 26th
Sat, April 27th
Sun, April 28th
Mon, April 29th
Tues, April 30th
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.
Observing the Grouse:
Each year the Gunnison Sage-grouse change their distribution and activity patterns at least slightly. In recent years, 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.