The Washington Post Sunday
No country for the old sage grouse
The mating dance of the sage grouse is like a ballet with percussion and wind. If you were to view it in slow motion, here’s what you’d see: Costumed in a white fur-like ruff, the male grouse makes a whooshing sound by rubbing his wings against the ruff ’s feathers. His sharply pointed tail feathers fan out like a shield, and dangling filoplumes sprout from his head like a crown — but it is the flashing yellow air sacs on his chest that dominate the spectacle, protruding as he jerks his head upward. He bounces, deflating the sacs with a series of loud popping noises. Pause. Repeat. Then he gives three lowpitched hoots followed by a hollow plopping sound. In real time, he performs this ballet up to 10 times a minute.
Sage grouse once numbered in the millions, and explorers such as Lewis and Clark encountered flocks of thousands. But the birds’ population dwindled precipitously in the last decade of the 20th century. A 2014 study found they declined by a further 56 percent between 2007 and 2013, coinciding with the rapid expansion of oil and gas extraction in their native habitat. Today there are fewer than 500,000 alive in 11 Western states, about half of the grouse’s historic range.
Now, the sage grouse, with its spectacular mating dance, is being further threatened by a Trump administration plan to roll back conservation measures on 9 million acres in seven states — 80 percent of the birds’ remaining habitat in the vast “sagebrush steppes” of the American West.
The grouse depend on returning every year to the same mating grounds. Only one or two males, chosen by females based on the vigor of his dance, will successfully mate with a female. Once mated, the females travel up to 10 miles to find a nesting site that is near food and water and provides sagebrush for cover. After the eggs hatch, the hen abandons the nest, leading the chicks to water and food in the form of insects. When the chicks are older and the summer sun parches the landscape, she will lead them to higher altitudes for water and cooler temperatures.
The birds have evolved over millennia to survive in extreme conditions, from below-zero temperatures in whiteout blizzards to deserts that routinely reach 100 degrees. In the winter, they grow feather-like appendages on their feet to help them walk on snow. In extreme cold, they burrow into it.
Sage grouse are considered indicator species for the great expanse of open range where they reside. At least 297 species of birds, 87 species of mammals, 63 specials of fish and countless species of reptiles and insects call the sagebrush steppe their home. Loss of sage grouse habitat affects them all.
In September 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided not to put sage grouse on the Endangered Species List, which would have restricted development within their habitat. Energy and mining executives were relieved — and so were ranchers and other landowners. They wanted to take care of the problem themselves.
With “What’s good for the bird is good for the herd” as their mantra, the ranchers worked with state and federal land managers to preserve sage grouse habitat. They removed invasive trees and kept cattle away from sensitive areas during mating and nesting seasons. These steps were both unprecedented and profitable: By allowing the birds to flourish, ranchers were ensuring the health of the land their cattle depended on.
“The whole approach was based on cooperative, locally led conservation,” said Duane Coombs, a Nevada rancher and coordinator for sage grouse conservation. “It involved sitting down at a table and talking about mutual objectives. Sure, there are differences that come up, but you have to just talk through them and focus on common goals. That’s the basis of a civil society.”
The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies encouraged member states to create grouse conservation plans. Wyoming, a state rich in oil, gas, minerals — and sage grouse — drew 5-mile buffers around sage grouse mating grounds. They banned industry activity within six-tenths of a mile from those grounds and limited surface disturbance to 5 percent of each square mile within the larger buffered zone. Other states soon followed Wyoming’s lead.
Oil and gas developers weren’t happy. But after the 2016 election, they knew they had a friend in high places. The Trump administration promised it would revisit sage grouse protections — a significant move because the federal Bureau of Land Management manages half of all sage grouse habitat, and leases large areas to ranchers and industry. On Dec. 6, the administration announced the elimination of Obamaera regulations that conserve sage grouse habitat. The concept of cooperative conservation based on common goals was lost in the face of greater profits for the fossil fuel industry.
Trump administration officials deny that the rollback will have an impact on the birds, but document language emphasizes the intent is to eliminate regulations that might “impede local economic opportunities.” It is sad that fossil fuel extraction will contribute to climate change while simultaneously threatening an iconic bird that has existed on the sagebrush steppe for millennia. Kathy Love is the author of “Sage Grouse, Icon of the West,” illustrated with photographs by Noppadol Paothong.