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.

 ?? COURTESY OF NOPPADOL PAOTHONG ?? A sage grouse performs a mating display during the spring courtship ritual to attract hens in Wyoming.
COURTESY OF NOPPADOL PAOTHONG A sage grouse performs a mating display during the spring courtship ritual to attract hens in Wyoming.

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