Struggling towns welcome ecotourism

first_imgWALDEN, Colo. – People jostled cameras and squirmed on benches inside a trailer on a high-mountain meadow as the tour guide gently opened retractable doors, turning the bird blind into a window on one of nature’s most spectacular shows: Strutting, chest-puffing male sage grouse in the last throes of mating season. Dozens of greater sage grouse were first heard in the 5 a.m. darkness: Swishing sounds followed by pops, like a loud percolating coffee pot. Light gradually spread over the meadow, brightening the jagged, snowcapped peaks of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness and revealing the source of the sounds – two big white air sacs on the birds’ chests that repeatedly inflate and deflate. The brown-and-black birds, about 2 feet tall, fanned out their spiked tail feathers, trying to attract the two or three hens checking them out and charging at the other eager males. The prancing stopped an hour later when a golden eagle looking for food swooped down and the grouse flew away in one bunch. The abrupt end didn’t disappoint visitors who drove 100 miles or more to get to Walden, a town of nearly 700 in north-central Colorado. “That’s quite a show. I was really impressed,” said George Oetzel, a semiretired engineer from Boulder. Oetzel has traveled to Australia and Costa Rica to see exotic wildlife, but he’d never seen the greater sage grouse, the largest of chicken-like birds on the Great Plains and rolling, sagebrush-dotted hills of the West. “I think there’s a good chance we’ll go again next year,” he said. Like numerous small towns whose traditional economic foundations are crumbling and populations are plummeting, Walden is struggling to survive. And like other towns in Colorado and the West, it’s trying to capitalize on what’s in its own backyard by offering sage grouse tours. Monte Vista in south-central Colorado has a March celebration when thousands of sandhill cranes drop by the San Luis Valley on their northern migration. Wray, on the state’s eastern plains, draws visitors from across the country in late March to watch prairie chickens go through their mating ritual. Communities often team up with state and federal wildlife agencies and involve local residents and businesses to put on the festivals. In Wray, the town museum hosts a program and ranchers allow groups onto their land to see the prairie chickens’ lek, or mating ground. Walden’s chamber of commerce books sage grouse watchers in motels throughout town to spread the wealth. Chamber director Rea Redman estimates the grouse tours and birdwatchers out on their own provide up to 70 percent of the revenue in a “dead, slow month” for local restaurants and motels. “Ice fishing is at an end. Snowmobiling is winding down. They don’t really have anything going on too much before the summer tourist season comes along,” Redman said. The Moose Creek Cafe, where tour participants dined the night before rising at 3:30 a.m., would’ve been easy to find even without the life-size concrete moose out front. Several businesses on Walden’s Main Street are vacant or closed until the tourist season gears up. “This time of year, we have almost no business, so this gives us some weekends where there are people coming in,” said Bobbie Scott, owner of the Roundup Motel. Scott’s convinced that once people visit Walden, the largest community in remote North Park, they’ll return. A report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that bird and wildlife watchers in 2001 spent $38.4 billion nationwide. Wildlife viewers in Colorado spent about $624 million 2001. The agency is expected to release updated figures later this year. “It is becoming more mainstream as a rural economic development tool as the Great Plains in particular have undergone significant social and economic change,” said Ted Eubanks, whose Austin, Texas-based Fermata Inc. works with communities nationwide to promote their natural resources, wildlife or cultural history. 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img read more