UPDATE: The federal government today announced that the greater sage grouse does not warrant listing as an endangered or threatened species. The decision is a victory for the oil industry and a risk to the bird, which has seen its numbers plummet over the last decades.
Today’s decision rests on the hope that a series of novel federal and state conservation plans will be enough to stop the grouse decline and bolster its populations into the future. It’s the dream verdict for the fossil fuel industry, as well as developers and ranchers, since it averts the strict regulations that come with any Endangered Species Act listing—regulations that would sharply limit industry access to large swaths of land in the West. Some environmentalists have also celebrated the news, since the decision reduces the likelihood of a major blowback against the ESA by Republicans in Congress.
But the decision could be a serious mistake: If grouse numbers continue to drop, if the conservation plans are inadequate as some conservationists maintain, the federal government may have to implement the ESA at a later date. By that time, however, it could be too late.
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Driving north on Wyoming Highway 372, past rusty rail lines and a trona mine, in the shadow of the Wind River Range and the historic South Pass, there’s a place where wild things thrive. It’s called Seedskadee, a national wildlife refuge set amid silver sagebrush plains in remote western Wyoming. With the historic Green River at its heart, the preserve is home to hundreds of bird species and dozens of different mammals, including moose and antelope, jackrabbits, and coyotes. Its waters boast cutthroat trout and kokanee salmon. Vesper bats and four kinds of owl wing across the refuge come dusk. Of all these residents, though, the species that matters most is a skittish chicken-like bird with gravel-colored feathers and a frenzied mating dance. It’s called the greater sage grouse, and it’s hurtling toward extinction.
Tom Koerner, a stout, cheerful US Fish and Wildlife Service staffer, is the caretaker here. With a gun in his belt and binoculars around his neck, he roams this 26,000-acre parcel in a big white pickup with government plates. Tonight, he is on the prowl for grouse, hoping to catch a glimpse before they disappear into thick sagebrush to sleep. So far, no luck.
“I love watching these birds,” says Koerner, his truck inching down a washboard dirt road. “And right here in this area are some of the highest concentrations of grouse left in North America.”
Koerner estimates that as many as 1,000 birds live in or near Seedskadee, attracted to its abundant sage plains and insect-rich marsh. But this pristine reserve doesn’t represent the broader reality: Beyond the refuge fence, where wildlife is not a priority, the greater sage grouse is in grave danger. Oil and gas drilling, livestock grazing, subdivision development, power lines, road construction, West Nile Virus, wildfire, and general habitat fragmentation all take their toll on the bird. A century ago, the species numbered in the multi-millions. Today, scientists estimate there are between 200,000 and 500,000 grouse still alive, spread across eleven Western states and two Canadian provinces. The grouse population has declined 30 percent since 1985 alone. It has already lost more than half of its historic range, erased from the landscape completely in Nebraska, Arizona, British Columbia, and elsewhere.