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Pity the Poor Sage Grouse, A Symbol of the Times

In the end, it’s not about the sage grouse, a rather modest little fowl that lives amongst sagebrush throughout the western United States. Instead, the continuing political battle over the sage grouse’s potential endangered listing is a symbolic clash all too common in the New West: environmental protections versus economic growth.

Sage grouse — the largest of the grouse, foragers that live mainly off sagebrush — can be found throughout West, as well as southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. They’re not an adventurous sort: no long-range movement (100 miles at the most), no migration, just a move to lower ground in winter months. And they’re not exactly a prolific sort when it comes to the fine art of mating: the mating dances need to be performed in some very specific habitats — leks, where they congregate in mating season — and if the conditions aren’t right, the mating doesn’t happen. These leks are open areas next to the sagebrush habitats and may be as important as sagebrush to the species’ future.

As the sagebrush goes, so goes the sage grouse. When sagebrush habitat goes away, the number of sage grouse goes down. And we know sagebrush habitat has been in decline in the West for several decades now. By some estimates there were 16 million sage grouse on the plains; today there are 500,000 at the most, with some estimates pegged as a depressing 200,000.

That sort of decline is alarming and caught the attention of environmentalists, who sought an endangered classification for the sage grouse as far back as 2004, when the Bush administration denied protections for sage grouse — a move later overturned by a federal judge, who scolded Bush officials for letting political concerns outweigh science. But U.S District Judge Lynn Winmill, while strongly criticizing federal officials for ignoring science, missed the point: of course it was a political decision. Because, as we all know deep down, it’s always a political decision as to endangered species.

And, in this case, there are some serious political overtones. It all comes down to a familiar theme in the New West: money. The Bureau of Land Management under Bush had sought to open up major areas to natural-gas drilling, and these areas were primarily sagebrush habitat. Grazing has also been cited as impacting sagebrush habitat and driving down the sage grouse population. Oil and grazing interests tend to align on one side of an equation when it comes to the New West; quality of life measured by how species like the sage grouse are on the other. Letting sage-grouse populations decline to make way for oil and cattle is a debatable proposition: that’s not a trade many would make. But as the battle over the New West economy rages, this sort of trade is proffered regularly. Which raises the status of the sage grouse to the purely symbolic. Currently the sage grouse is a candidate for the federal Endangered Species List, and the debate ranges between whether energy development and grazing will impact populations to purely political arguments from the likes of Montana State Rep. Nicholas Schwaderer (R-Superior), who says that because the Obama Administration allows wind farms to kill birds, Westerners should be allowed to kill the sage grouse. Money quote from an op-ed distributed to the press:

What an interesting irony, then, that so much effort is going into “protecting” one bird from energy development, when the Obama administration is turning a blind eye to hundreds of thousands of other birds being killed by wind energy turbines each year- including protected birds like bald eagles.

Recent research puts the annual butcher’s bill by wind farms at 573,000 birds.  Included in that number are 83,000 hunting birds, like eagles and hawks.

Most bird deaths are violations of the ESA, the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, or other protective acts.  Indeed, there are examples of the Obama administration prosecuting power companies for birds killed by power lines and oil companies for birds that drown in waste pits.  But to date, not a single wind energy company has been prosecuted for bird deaths.

It’s not true to say the feds are doing absolutely nothing to enforce these laws—in one example a wind company was ordered to employ “spotters” to watch for eagles and shut down turbines when they get too close.  How’s that for government efficiency?

It’s a dirty little secret, but the Obama administration has been granting renewable energy companies “take” permits that allows them to kill bald eagles with impunity for up to five years.  On December 6, the Interior Department announced they were extending the length of those permits for up to 30 years.

It would seem that not all birds are created equal, at least for the Obama administration and their environmental allies.  Wind energy has a literal “free pass” to kill bald eagles, but traditional energy development could get shut down in eastern Montana because of the potential that it could disturb sage grouse habitat.

Now, what this all has to scientific management of sage-ground populations is questionable, to say the least: when in doubt, blame Obama for killing a nationally treasured symbol, the bald eagle. So there you have it.

Listen, we know it can be complicated for game management across multiple governmental lines, with Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming taking different approaches to the issue. Witness this account from Brian Smith at the Twin Falls Times-News:

As sage grouse numbers and habitat shrink, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service have scrambled to create a plan to save the bird from being listed as endangered.

Understanding the alternatives in a 2,000-page, three-volume plan can be a dizzying task. But it’s critical considering the Wednesday deadline for public comment.

At stake is the management of mining, grazing, off-road travel, power lines, renewable energy and oil and gas development on more than 11 million acres in Idaho. While grazing is of primary concern locally, federal biologists don’t consider it one of the state’s top threats to sage grouse. Those are fire, invasive species and human development.

So as lawmakers make absurd arguments about the sage grouse, the population continues to decline (some 90 percent in the last century), with no resolution in sight. But, as symbol, the sage grouse is bigger than ever, approaching the spotted owl in legal importance and a puppet of two sides that can’t seem to agree on the basics: the proper stewardship of nonrenewable natural resources.

Image by Rob Crow, via

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