The Sage Grouse: Saved or Sold Out?

The federal government’s decision to try to protect the iconic bird without an endangered species listing divides environmentalists.

Greater sage grouse males. (Photo: Danita Delimont/Getty Images)

Sep 22, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Did the Obama administration just sell out the greater sage grouse, an iconic symbol of the American West, to the oil industry—or pave the way to save species without costly and lengthy legal fights?

The U.S. Interior Department announced on Tuesday that it would not list the sage grouse as an endangered species. Instead, the government will protect the imperiled bird through a complex land management plan involving 11 states. Ranchers and the oil and gas industries had opposed an endangered species listing for the sage grouse, fearing it would scuttle development across the West.

“The epic conservation effort will benefit Westerners and hundreds of species that call this iconic landscape home while giving states, businesses, and communities the certainty they need to plan for sustainable economic development,” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in a video post.

But Erik Molvar, a campaign director for conservation group WildEarth Guardians, said the land management plan is really a victory for the oil, gas, and livestock industries, which can keep drilling, exploring, grazing, and developing on the bird’s dwindling habitat.

RELATED: Two for One: Saving Sage Grouse Also Helps Protect Mule Deer

“Working on a comprehensive plan between multiple states is absolutely the right idea, but the level of protections they are applying in some of the grouse’s priority habitat area is too weak to maintain sage grouse there,” Molvar said.

The greater sage grouse is as peculiar and unique as the rugged western American wilderness it calls home. Its unusual mating rituals, breeding activity, and nesting practices require ample space, plenty of sagebrush, and few disturbances.

Oil and gas development, farming and ranching, and wind farms have whittled away suitable habitat across the birds’ 165-million-acre range. By 2013, the sage grouse population, which once numbered in the millions, had been reduced by more than 90 percent. Only 50,000 male grouse remained to perform the bird’s patented chest-billowing, tail-wagging mating dance.

Scientific studies conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey found the birds needed a buffer of about 3.1 miles around their mating grounds, called leks. The Interior Department’s land management plan requires such a buffer in 10 of the states, but not Wyoming. The state is home to 40 percent of the remaining population of greater sage grouse, yet the buffer required there is only 0.6 miles.

RELATED: This Year’s Wildfires May Change Western Forests Forever—and Not for the Good

“The science shows that having oil and gas drilling that close will negatively impact the breeding and nesting habits of these birds,” Molvar said. “Why ignore the science in just Wyoming?”

Molvar wouldn’t say whether WildEarth Guardians was planning a legal challenge to the decision not to list the sage grouse. “The land management plan is getting heavy scrutiny from our legal team,” he said.

WildEarth Guardians’ main concern is that the sage grouse becomes a template for how to deal with other hot-button critters. “The same thing could certainly happen in the future to any species that is politically controversial or inconvenient to list,” said WildEarth endangered species advocate Taylor Jones.

Still, the multistate cooperative effort to create a comprehensive land plan for one bird should be lauded, said Randi Spivak, public lands program director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

“Identifying priority habitat and providing some levels of protection are all positive,” Spivak said. “My guess is more people know about the iconic sage grouse and the sagebrush landscape than before the Fish and Wildlife Service found the sage grouse warranted protection in 2010, and all of the attention and science afforded to the sagebrush landscape and the sage grouse is very positive.”

That awareness has helped spark the resurgence in conservation efforts to save the sage grouse, which has resulted in a nearly 60 percent increase in the population of male sage grouse since 2013. Some point to the recent rise as a sign that the conservation efforts are working without a need for the strict protections of an endangered species listing.

“We’ve written an important chapter in sage grouse conservation, but the story is far from over,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe in a statement. “By building on the partnerships we’ve forged and continuing conservation efforts under the federal and state plans, we will reap dividends for sage grouse, big game, and other wildlife while protecting a way of life in the West.”