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Saving the greater sage grouse, the most hotly-debated bird since the spotted owl (PHOTOS)

A sage grouse struts his stuff. Photo credit: Tom Koerner/USFWS.A sage grouse struts his stuff. Photo credit: Tom Koerner/USFWS.

We try to walk quietly on a path that’s barely lit by a waning moon and the night’s last stars, speaking in hushed whispers as we trip over sagebrush and pant in the thin air. It’s spring, and we‘re trekking across high prairie ranchland in northwest Colorado, headed for the state’s largest greater sage grouse lek, a communal mating ground.

As our group nears the blind from which we’ll view them, we hear a staccato chorus. Dawn slowly illumines the landscape, and there they are: 167 male grouse dancing in a rye field at dawn to grab the attention of 15 females. They fan their starburst tails in an elaborate courtship display, resembling miniature brown, black and white peacocks.

They strut and bob, and inflate their snowy chests into a massive cowl that drapes nearly to the ground. They gulp and fill air sacs with a gallon of air that they use to “sing” to the hens in a rhythmic series of pops, whistles, burbles and coos.

Sagebrush covered in hoar frost. This brushy plant is the only food for greater sage grouse from late fall to early spring, allowing it to survive harsh High Plains winters; it relies on different sagebrush species year-round. Photo credit: Sharon Guynup.

Occasionally, the males face off, beak-to-beak in challenging parries. Males at the periphery display for no one: Only the one or two most impressive performers will be chosen, and after mating, the females will go off to raise their broods alone.

The birds have been at it since midnight, and by the time the sky brightens to blue only a few stragglers remain.

The greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) — also known as the sage chicken, sage hen and sage cock — is North America’s largest grouse and an icon of both sagebrush country and the untamed West. But it is rapidly disappearing from the 11 Western U.S. states and two Canadian provinces it calls home.

The bird now occupies a little more than half of its original range — 275,000 square miles, stretching from Washington state south to California, east to Colorado, up through North Dakota and into Saskatchewan and Alberta. It’s the rarest endangered bird species in Canada, and has disappeared entirely from British Columbia and five U.S. states: Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico.

A tale of declining numbers

Some 16 million sage grouse lived in the American West before European settlers arrived, so many that flocks blackened the sky, according to historical accounts. Less than 100 hang on in Canada. At most, 500,000 remain in the U.S, and there may be as few as 200,000.

While populations fluctuate through 10-year cycles, numbers have dropped by about a third since 1985, according to estimates by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). A new report refutes claims that the species has stabilized: In a study conducted in 2013, Idaho sage grouse expert Edward Garton counted 56 percent fewer breeding males than were found on leks six years before.

Wyoming’s Wind River Range is an epicenter of the Western energy boom within prime sage grouse habitat. The Cowboy State is home to more of the birds than any other state. Photo credit: Theo Stein.

These dramatic declines have landed the bird at the center of a contentious debate between those who want it protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and those who vehemently oppose federal intervention and the restrictions it would bring. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is under court order to decide by September 30th of this year whether the bird requires ESA listing.

The loudest opponents are the oil, gas and coal industries; mining and drilling interests; and ranchers, who argue that ESA protections will impact their bottom line. In March, a coalition of industry groups and 19 Western counties filed a legal challenge questioning the legitimacy of federal scientific reports on the bird –studies that will play a major role in the listing decision and management of sage grouse habitat. The coalition charges that these reports “advance a one-sided narrative that is simply not supported by the full body of scientific literature and data.” It also contends that predation, not human activity, has reduced the birds’ numbers. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has stated that the agencies are using the best available science.

The historical and current range of the greater sage grouse. Map credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Click to enlarge.

Western governors and legislatures have urged the feds to leave sage-grouse habitat protection in state hands, pointing to major strides made by a multitude of local initiatives. Most environmental groups are on the other side of the debate, pushing for federal listing. It’s a fight that has raged in Western state capitals and in the halls of Congress for more than a decade. Last week, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper declared that: “A decision by the federal government to list the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act would have a significant and detrimental economic impact to the state.”

In May, as part of a flurry of efforts to address the many threats facing the bird, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released regional plans to conserve and restore priority habitat on more than 50 million acres of public land in 10 states. The agency manages Western public lands, which comprise two-thirds of sage grouse territory. Most of those lands are grazed, mined, or drilled, while just 7.5 percent of all sagebrush habitat is permanently protected.

Sage grouse are heavily impacted by fracking operations. Grouse have all but disappeared from Jonah Field, a 1,600 well natural gas drilling site on federal BLM land in Wyoming. Photo credit: Sharon Guynup.

It’s the agency’s largest-ever landscape-level conservation effort, with measures to prevent further habitat fragmentation, control fires, invasive species and more. It will launch this summer — if it sails through a mandatory two-month review and protest period.

Whether USFWS will deem these measures sufficient to save the sage grouse remains to be seen. But Brian Rutledge, vice president of the National Audubon Society’s Rocky Mountain region, notes that “by establishing where the most important places are, you can assure you have a population going forward. It’s not enough, but it’s a good place to start.”

Disappearing habitat, disappearing birds

I’m traveling through five Western states with a group of journalists and biologists to learn about this controversial, chicken-sized grouse: Why it’s declining, and what’s being done to stop its downward slide. It seems that the bird’s demise is some 130 years in the making and is largely the result of a vanishing sagebrush ecosystem — the largest and most imperiled biome in the United States.

A male sage grouse, lookinf like an inflated bagpipe, in the midst of its courtship display. Photo credit: Tom Koerner/USFWS.

About half of the sagebrush steppe has been ravaged by development of all kinds, and sage grouse can’t survive without sagebrush. It’s all they eat from late fall to early spring; it provides all the water they need; and offers cover from predators. This sensitive species requires huge swathes of unbroken habitat. “You rarely find them far from sagebrush,” says Pat Deibert, USFWS national sage grouse coordinator. “It’s 100 percent essential. Without it, they won’t exist.”

The species can range 230 miles or more to find food, to mate and raise young, and to survive brutal High Plains winters. The birds are faithful to particular sites, so protection of these places is critical to species survival. Males return year after year to the same leks, and hundreds or thousands of birds congregate on home wintering grounds. Once females have successfully raised chicks in an area, they’re hardwired to nest there, even if the habitat has been destroyed.

Sevenmile Ridge, part of Colorado’s “big empty”, where proposed wind power transmission lines could bisect prime sage grouse habitat, unless the project is “done right” and routed along existing roadways. Photo credit: Sharon Guynup.

A 2011 study by preeminent sage grouse biologist John Connelly found that nesting success is higher in relatively pristine habitat compared to altered habitat. A chick’s first weeks are tenuous. Sometimes just one may survive out of a clutch of seven or eight. Those odds improve where there’s dense protective vegetation.

Over the last hundred-plus years, each successive threat to the bird’s survival has been compounded in a deadly domino effect. It became a staple food for westward-ho settlers who hunted them by the thousands. Those homesteaders also brought in millions of sheep and cattle that “grazed the prairie into oblivion,” says Rutledge.

The railroads that crisscrossed the arid sagebrush steppe introduced Asian cheatgrass, an invasive species that displaces native plants and spreads rapidly on overgrazed land. It’s quite flammable, feeding the mega-fires that engulf thousands of acres of native sagebrush habitat with ever-greater frequency.

Conserving the greater sage grouse ultimately protects the entire sagebrush ecosystem, the nation’s largest, most imperiled biome, says Brian Rutledge, vice president of the Audubon Society’s Rocky Mountain region. “This is an opportunity, and if we don’t take it, other species will be put up for listing.” Photo credit: Sharon Guynup.

Ironically, fire suppression allowed Western juniper and piñon pine to encroach, trees that now further stoke wildfires driven by ongoing drought, which is deepening with changing climate. In a vicious cycle, fires kill off sagebrush, and cheatgrass takes over. Without native plants, the insects that keep chicks alive during their early years become scarce.

Pines and conifers also provide roosts for ravens that prey on nests. Once the trees cover about four percent of an area, the grouse flee.

As the West continued to develop, mines cratered the landscape, while roads, highways, towns and cities sliced and diced habitat. As human disturbance spread, grouse-eating predators followed: red fox, coyotes, striped skunks.

Massive devastation came during the 1950s and ‘60s war on sagebrush, when the livestock industry convinced federal agencies to plow, torch, and destroy hundreds of thousands of acres. That land was replanted with non-native forage for livestock.

Energy boom on the High Prairie

Then came fracking — new hydraulic fracturing technology — and the Western energy rush was on. Fracking blasts millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand underground to fracture shale bedrock and release oil and gas. Energy production in the West has doubled since 1990.

Sage grouse in flight. Photo credit: Tom Koerner/USFWS.

To understand how drilling impacts the sage grouse, we head to Wyoming, the nation’s second-largest energy producer and a state that’s key to sage grouse survival. The Cowboy State is home to a third of all that remain, more than any other state.

Sublette County is a fracking epicenter. We check into a Hampton Inn in Pinedale that’s been dubbed the “Halliburton Hilton,” named after the company that pioneered hydraulic fracturing. The next day we venture out to Jonah Field, a large natural gas drilling site that’s almost entirely situated on public BLM-managed land — that also sits amidst some of the state’s best greater sage grouse mating areas.

The site, run by Denver-based Jonah Energy, is remote prairie. Majestic Wind River Mountain peaks ring the horizon. But the air tastes metallic, and trucks raise clouds of dust as we navigate an endless maze of dirt roads, driving through an industrialized landscape of tanks, compressor stations, well pads, drill rigs and pipelines.

The greater sage grouse “is the symbol that got us all motivated to protect this landscape,” says Pat Deibert, USFWS national sage grouse coordinator. Photo credit: Sharon Guynup.

We visit a “remediated” area that had been previously drilled. A few grasses and tiny sagebrush poke through the desiccated, hard-packed soil. This is not an ecosystem that bounces back quickly. The steppe is like old growth forest; some sagebrush is 100 years old. It takes half a century to regenerate into suitable grouse habitat.

With 1,600 wells operating at Jonah Field, the grouse have all but disappeared. The 82 males counted on four leks in 2006 have dwindled to just six on a single lek. It’s not an isolated circumstance, according to Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab.
Seven studies documented the effects of oil and gas drilling on sage grouse populations during the mid-2000s; all showed declines.

Hydraulic fracturing, with its drill pads, truck traffic, storage tanks, pipelines, noise and pollution, convert remote pristine prairie into sprawling industrial sites. Photo credit: Sharon Guynup.

Jonah Energy’s proposed “Normally Pressurized Lance” (NPL) drilling field, with its 3,500-wells, will have far greater impact. About 2,000 sage grouse from across the region overwinter atop this gas play, and during severe winters, it’s the only place that provides enough food and cover to survive.

In May, a Wyoming state panel recommended a temporary ban on development of NPL. The state, which is on the vanguard of sage grouse conservation efforts, has identified 31 core conservation areas for the bird. Unfortunately, the NPL site was overlooked when initial surveys were done, so it presently has no protections.

Wyoming’s core habitat designation requires a half-mile buffer around leks, and allows no more than five percent total disturbance of the core area. For new energy projects like NPL, that could mean one well pad per square mile, or five clustered pads and none in surrounding areas. The USFWS praised the plan as “an excellent model for meaningful conservation of sage grouse.”

The NPL ban will stand until the state’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team has time to consider the emerging science on winter concentration areas, said Bob Budd, who leads both the team and the Wyoming Wildlife & Natural Resource Trust.

“If it isn’t designated as core, it raises doubts about whether without [ESA] listing, states will be able to adapt to new science,” says Deibert. NPL is just one of dozens of critical areas that have been identified since the greater sage grouse became a candidate for endangered species listing.

A sage grouse hen blends in with its prairie surroundings. Photo credit: USFWS.

Preserving sagebrush habitat also preserves the habitat of mule deer, an important game species. Photo credit: USFWS.

In eastern Wyoming, energy production poses a different threat. Some 27,000 coalbed methane wells pepper the Powder River Basin, which has created hundreds of wastewater ponds. Those stagnant pools breed mosquitoes, which can carry the deadly West Nile virus. Outbreaks have killed off three-quarters of the area’s male sage grouse, according to Garton’s recent report, raising concerns that this population may be “dropping into an extinction vortex.”

Across the border in Colorado, we 4-wheel through a pristine tan and khaki landscape, passing massive striated rock formations and climbing towards Sevenmile Ridge. Here, in the northwest part of the state, we learn that even clean energy is taking a toll on the sage grouse.

This land is the “big empty”, one of the last places in the West where there are almost no paved roads, power lines, or human inhabitants for as far as the eye can see. It’s both priority sage grouse habitat — and a proposed route for power transmission lines to be built by TransWest Express.

If approved, the lines would carry renewable energy 725 miles from a soon-to-be-built Wyoming wind farm to Nevada, where it will help light up the night in Las Vegas and beyond. The project will require giant towers and other infrastructure, including hundreds of miles of new roads.

Soren Jesperson, a public policy expert with the Wilderness Society, says that there’s an opportunity to do this the right way. Four alternative routes outlined in last month’s BLM environmental impact statement would skirt key habitat and follow existing roads and highways, but a determination is still forthcoming.

A plethora of other threats face the bird, from climate change to barbed wire fences and housing developments. In Wyoming’s Sublette County, for example, applications for new subdivisions have more than quadrupled since 2000, with a growing clamor for ranch-ettes offering Rocky Mountain views.

Conserving the sage grouse, without ESA listing

Meanwhile, the grouse continues to lose territory. “They hate fragmentation above everything else,” says Tim Griffiths, national coordinator for the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI). This multi-state partnership funds voluntary conservation projects in crucial habitat with money provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Bill. “They need large, intact landscapes,” he says, adding that even low levels of disturbance have serious impacts.

Wes McStay, who owns the ranch where we watched sage grouse courtship, has joined SGI in what he sees as a preemptive step to save the bird and help prevent the need for ESA listing. His tanned, deeply-lined face betrays a life on the range, and he tells us a story about growing up with sage grouse. There were many more back then, he says. Each spring they’d strut on County Road 3, and in the morning on the way to school, the bus had to stop and weave its way through a mass of birds.

Rancher Wes McStay favors a state and private property owner approach to greater sage grouse conservation, rather than federal listing. He is actively enhancing habitat on his ranch in partnership with the Sage Grouse Initiative. Photo credit: Sharon Guynup.

McStay admits to an affection for sage grouse. But he is among many fiercely independent ranchers who do not want it listed, citing possible restrictions, bureaucracy and dealings with federal agencies.

“Nobody likes government red tape,” he says. It’s why he’s been proactive. He runs fewer cows than he used to and carefully manages his herds to prevent overgrazing. He earns cash from SGI by taking down or marking fences, cutting conifers, and making other range-wide improvements that benefit both cattle and grouse. “What’s good for the herd is good for the bird,” he says, a refrain I hear echoed across all five states we visit.

The goodwill of private property owners is important to sage grouse survival. Forty percent of its habitat is on private property, and much of BLM land is leased out to ranchers. Livestock grazing is the most widespread use of this high prairie steppe. So far, SGI and its partners have invested $424 million, with 1,129 ranches signing on to improve habitat on 4.4 million acres, an area twice the size of Yellowstone National Park.

The bird shares its Western High Plains habitat with 350 imperiled plant and animal species, including elk, mule deer and these pronghorn. Photo credit: Tom Koerner/USFWS.

The looming ESA listing decision has become a major catalyst to save the bird and avoid the economic impacts that federal regulation might bring. That concern has forged unlikely alliances to protect sage grouse in places like Wyoming, where state and federal agencies are partnering with farmers, conservation groups, oil, gas and mining companies, ranchers and others to address the environmental assaults that whittle away at the natural landscape.

Many see this landscape-based, public-private partnership approach as a model for 21st century conservation. The greater sage grouse “is the symbol that got us all motivated to protect this landscape,” says Deibert.

Saving America’s most political bird

USFWS spokesman Theo Stein debunks the widespread fears around listing. “I don’t think people realize we don’t shut things down. We work with people. It’s not smooth sailing — it does affect the ability to do things quickly — but it’s not the black finger of death,” he says.

To reach its final decision, the Fish and Wildlife Service is evaluating long-term population trends as well as the vitality of distinct populations that have unique genetics or characteristics.

Ultimately, the agency must be able to defend its decision in court as to whether the greater sage grouse faces extinction or will become endangered without ESA protection. The USFWS mandate is meant to ensure that the sage grouse stays part of the Western landscape far into the future.

“Whatever happens, there will be litigation on this,” says John Connelly. “And whatever happens, it will be questioned.”

A sage grouse takes wing into an uncertain future. Photo credit: Tome Koerner/USFWS.

Industry lobbying seems to be further politicizing the debate in the states: Last year Utah state lawmakers paid consultant Ryan Benson $2 million in tax dollars to lobby against listing. Then in December, Congress stepped in, assuring that nothing will be settled right away. The 2015 federal spending bill includes a Republican-backed provision that prohibits the USFWS from using money to “write or issue” listing rules for four types of sage grouse, including the greater sage grouse. The result: The bird is in limbo until the rider is removed.

Preserving the huge tracts of habitat that the greater sage grouse needs to survive has a greater purpose. It will also help save the entire spectrum of life that shares their realm. To the untrained eye, sagebrush country looks like an empty wasteland, but the bird shares the Western High Plains with more than 350 imperiled plant and animal species, including iconic animals like mule deer, pronghorn and elk.

“By resolving this situation, we also protect the ecosystem,” Rutledge concludes. “This is an opportunity, and if we don’t take it, other species will be put up for listing.”

In the end, this battle is about much more than protecting one very beautiful bird, he says. It’s about saving what’s left of the Wild West.