Playing Politics With the Fate of the Sage Grouse

The greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) is a large, ground-dwelling, chicken-like bird, measuring up to 30 inches in length, is two feet tall and weighs between two to seven pounds. The sage grouse is an iconic bird of the wide-open sagebrush steppe of the western United States.

Sage grouse are found in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, western Colorado, Wyoming, eastern California and several Canadian provinces. They currently occupy 56 percent of their former range—but at nothing close to their original densities and many isolated populations are likely to become extinct in the next 30-50 years.

The once abundant bird has been in a long-term decline and was petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act. The Bush administration is alleged to have interfered with previous attempts to list the bird and the Fish and Wildlife Service was ordered by a court to review the bird’s status.

Today the US FWS announced today that the bird warranted listing under the Endangered Species Act, but would be “precluded”. A disjunct isolated sage grouse population along the California-Nevada border formerly known as the Mono Basin sage grouse was also determined to warrant listing but was precluded as well. Such a designation offers no protection to the bird.

The sage grouse may be one of the most controversial species petitioned for ESA protection in recent history. Listing would no doubt restrict oil and gas exploration, livestock grazing, and ORV travel on public lands. Warranted but precluded are how administrations avoid the political fall out from listing controversial species, so the decision by the Obama administration to dodge listing while disappointing, is not surprising.

While I have no particular knowledge of political backroom dealings, it’s not difficult to imagine that powerful western Democrats like Senator Harry Reid of Nevada and Senator Max Baucus of Montana were likely campaigning to keep the bird off the ESA list.

At one time the bird was very abundant. I have read historical accounts of settlers knocking birds out of the air with sticks while riding home from school and hunters in Nevada filling wagons with the birds.

I remember talking with a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist about his childhood when they hunted sage grouse near Dillon, Montana and always killed their limit. Today you would court yourself lucky to see a sage grouse in many places where they were formally abundant.

While indiscriminate and unrestricted hunting no doubt had a local effect on some sage grouse, regulated hunting per say is not likely a major factor in sage grouse decline over most of the West.

Livestock Major Factor in Decline

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to listing was from ranchers and for good reason. Sage grouse are negatively affected in a number of ways by livestock production. First, despite their name, sage grouse chicks forage on insects in riparian zones during the first few weeks of their lives. Riparian zones have been severely degraded by livestock, and indeed, some estimates suggest that 90% of most riparian areas are in poor condition.

Livestock grazing also removes grass cover for the birds. Even in “good” condition rangeland, grasses may be cropped so short that grouse may be vulnerable to predators. Many rangelands have plenty of sagebrush, but little grass to provide effective hiding cover for grouse.

Fences are another problem for sage grouse. Predators like hawks use fence posts to scan the surrounding landscape for prey like grouse. Grouse are also poor fliers and too frequently wind up flying into barbwire.

Another problem is the loss of sagebrush habitat due to herbicide treatments. In many parts of the West, sagebrush is treated as a “weed” to be eradicated to promote the growth of more grass for livestock.

Other factors that have compounded the negatives impacts of livestock production upon sage grouse are the additional loss of sagebrush habitat to farming. In many parts of the West, sagebrush has been converted into wheat fields, and alfalfa fields.

Other development, in particular, oil and gas exploration and drilling impacts the grouse as well. The activity associated with major development can disturb grouse which are forced to abandon good habitat to oil rigs. Plus telephone poles and power lines, wind farms, strung across open sage creates perches for hawks and other aerial predators.

Senator Reid recently requested more funds for sage grouse protection and advocates “voluntary” efforts to save the grouse. Such “solutions” is typical of politicians who don’t want to do anything. Throw more money at the situation to buy time and make it appear that you’re doing something good for the species. Some changes might actually benefit the bird, but such changes, and funding could be done even if the species were listed. The goal of such diversionary tactics is to delay listing as long as possible.

Will any good come from a warranted but precluded decision? Perhaps. The threat of listing can sometimes motive people to change some of their practices to benefit a threatened species. Intransitive ranchers might be motivated to change grazing practices and oil and gas companies might accept some restrictions on when and where they can drill for energy if they believe cooperation may preclude listing under the ESA.

It is unlikely that environmental groups will accept the warranted but precluded decision, and will seek to force listing through the courts. But as far as the administration is concerned, this is fine. Winding one’s way through the courts takes time, and even if ultimately successful, the Obama administration and/or any future administration can always blame environmentalists for any restrictions placed upon resource exploitation activities. It’s how the political game is played. One can only hope that time does not run out for the sage grouse while games are played.

Photo by John Carlson.

GEORGE WUERTHNER is the editor of Welfare Ranching—The Subsidized Destruction of the American West as well as a contributor to Fatal Harvest about Industrialized Agriculture, and a soon to be published book on Factory Farming.


George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy