The Bird That Could Rock the West

By Hal Clifford

Jessica R. Young scoops out a small depression beneath a sage bush and places her sunglasses in it, as if they were sage grouse eggs. We crouch down a yard away. "I shouldn't be able to see those from here," says Young, a 38-year-old biologist who two years ago proved that Gunnison sage grouse are a distinct species from the more common Northern sage grouse. "The grass here should be knee-high, even waist-high."

The sunglasses are easily visible. In fact, we can see for a dozen yards through the sage. The grasses and wildflowers that once filled this flat terrain above Tomichi Creek are largely absent. The valley--like almost all the arid sage lands that sprawl across 150 million acres of the West--has been grazed for more than a century, and the wear and tear is showing.

As a result, both Gunnison sage grouse and Northern sage grouse, once found in 16 Western states and three Canadian provinces, are in trouble, their numbers down to just 7% of historic highs. The sage grouse, a gray-and-brown bird the size of a large chicken, may end up on the U.S. endangered species list. That could alter radically the way ranchers, oil drillers, and others use the public lands of the West.

If the grouse make the endangered list--and a petition is likely to be filed with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service later this year by the American Lands Alliance (ALA), based in Washington, D.C.--"it would have a tremendous effect on the oil and gas industry," warns Dru D. Bower, vice-president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming in Casper. To protect grouse during mating and nesting season, government biologists may draw exclusion zones--circles four miles in diameter from which drillers would be seasonally barred--around every known mating ground. "If you start drawing circles," says Bower, "and those circles start overlapping each other, it's very easy to be locked out from at least Feb. 1 to the end of June."

But ranchers may have the most to lose. About 27,000 ranches lease 341 million acres of federal land for grazing. The cattle raised on these generally arid lands account for only 3% of American beef production. "I hate to say it, but there may be some historic resource uses that are going to have to end if we're going to save species like the sage grouse," says Mark N. Salvo, grasslands and deserts advocate for the ALA.

Ranchers bristle at such talk. "The radical environmental community would like to use sage grouse as the reason to remove livestock from public land in the West," says John H. O'Keeffe, an Adel (Ore.) rancher who runs 800 to 1,200 cattle each year on 100,000 acres of federal land.

Ranching makes an easy target, but there is no one reason for the sage grouse's decline. Housing development, the noise of oil-and-gas drilling, power lines that create perches for raptors--everything people do seems to harm grouse. To head off endangered-species listings, all 11 states that harbor grouse have embraced a "working group" strategy that brings agencies together with interest groups to halt the bird's decline. But participation in the groups is voluntary and most work by consensus, which means the plans that result include only what everyone can agree on. "Preparing paper plans is nice, but the best way to protect habitat is to remove livestock," says Andy Kerr, a consultant to the ALA.

This spring, even fewer sage grouse are expected to appear than last year to perform their mating dances. Unless something is done, says biologist Young, the Gunnison grouse may vanish soon. "If we're going to sustain this ecosystem, there are going to be real economic repercussions," says Young. "That's the choice we face. And we don't have a lot of time."

Clifford, based in Telluride, Colo., often writes on environmental issues.

Edited by Harry Maurer

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