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.
* * *
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.
For months the federal government has anxiously debated whether to invoke the Endangered Species Act, or ESA, to protect the greater sage grouse. On September 22, it will make its initial determination: It will decide whether to remove the greater sage grouse from consideration as an endangered species or to move forward with a listing.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. The species is an icon of the American West and an indicator of the region’s ecological well-being. It also resides on some of this country’s prime fossil-fuel real estate. Should it be listed, more than 160 million acres of grouse habitat could be subject to regulation under the ESA. Large swaths of federal land could close to oil and gas extraction. The bird could prevent new development, from metal mines to wind farms, in Montana, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and more. It would fundamentally change the way the federal government manages a vast portion of our resource-rich public lands. It could undermine, even break, the fossil-fuel industry’s dominance of the West.
Oil and gas interests, led by a powerful consortium called the Western Energy Alliance, have done everything in their power to prevent such an outcome. The industry has drummed up vitriolic opposition to grouse protections, particularly in Congress, where oil money runs deep. It has tried to sow scientific controversy, and it has filed protests against federal conservation plans meant to bolster the species. It has launched scare-tactic PR campaigns to alter public opinion. The industry and its allies have even taken aim at the Endangered Species Act itself, trying to block the law from working properly and erode its widespread support among the American people. Make no mistake: Big Oil is afraid of a little bird.
* * *
Meriwether Lewis, groping his way west at Thomas Jefferson’s request, was one of the first white men to see a greater sage grouse. In June 1805, near the confluence of the Marias and Missouri rivers in present-day Montana, he saw a flock of mountain-dwelling birds he described in his journal as a “large species” with a “long, pointed tail.” He sent one of his subordinates to shoot one, but the man missed. For the whites the greater sage grouse was a new discovery, a strange creature in a strange country, but the native people here had used the bird for food and feathers long before Lewis’ arrival. Seedskadee, the refuge where Tom Koerner spends his days, is named for the species.
“The name comes from the old Crow or Shoshone word sisk-a-dee-agie,” Koerner says. “It means ‘river of the prairie chicken.’” Still behind the wheel of his white pick-up, he points towards the Green River where the birds come in summer. “The Shoshone saw what we’re seeing.”
After Lewis and Clark came fur trappers, then missionaries and finally a flood of settlers. Countless immigrants from the Eastern seaboard crossed the Green River here aboard an old ferry that operated within the refuge’s present boundaries. Their wagon tracks are still visible along the water’s edge. They were heading to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, to California’s coast, or the Great Salt Lake. In due time, they would kill off or quarantine the Shoshone, the Crow, the Nez Perce, and more. Their descendants would turn the West into what historian Bernard DeVoto called “the plundered province,” a place where beef was raised, metals mined, oil drilled, and timber cut to fuel industrial America and enrich Eastern investors. The sage country couldn’t survive it.
Sagebrush is a tough, lovely little plant. Its gnarled green-gray foliage, its unmistakable bittersweet aroma, its ability to survive drought and sleet and snow make it a perfect expression of the West. Artemisia is its genus, named for the Greek goddess of wild things. It’s the essence of wilderness. Likewise with grouse.
“The sage and the grouse seem made for each other,” wrote Rachel Carson in her 1962 jeremiad, Silent Spring. “The original range of the bird coincided with the range of the sage, and as the sagelands have been reduced, so the populations of the grouse have dwindled.”
“The sage,” she says, “is all things to these birds of the plains.”
Scientists call the greater sage grouse a sagebrush obligate. The bird can’t long survive anywhere but sage country—it depends almost entirely on the plant. In winter, sage leaves and twigs account for more than 90 percent of a grouse’s diet. The birds use the shrub as protective cover from predators. They lay their eggs under its silver leaves. Because grouse are sensitive to disturbance and vulnerable to predators, they also need the wide-open space that sagebrush steppe affords. Oil wells within 4 miles of their breeding or nesting grounds can drive them away. They tend to fly into barbed wire fences, which kill or maim them. If electricity poles invade their habitat, offering perches for predatory birds, eagles eat them and ravens raid their nests. They are famously flappable.
They are also a portent. The bird’s decline and peril represents the decline and peril of hundreds of other species—from pronghorn antelope to burrowing owls, snakes and voles—that also need sagebrush to survive.
“As you destroy or alter the sagebrush habitat,” says Clait Braun, a grouse biologist and one of the first scientists to warn of the species’ decline, “a lot of other birds and mammal species go away also.”
More than a century of white dominion has shattered much of the original sagebrush landscape. Millions of grouse disappeared with it. The naturalist George Bird Grinnell, writing in 1910, recounted a trip to Wyoming in 1886 where he saw grouse by the thousands take flight. “The number of grouse which flew over the camp reminded me of the old time flights of the passenger pigeons that I used to see when I was a boy,” he said. “Before long, the narrow valley…was a moving grey mass.” As with the passenger pigeon, grouse gatherings dense enough to darken the sky are history.
Today, scientists and conservationists are trying to protect what’s left. As far back as the mid-1990s, researchers warned of the bird’s disappearance. Clait Braun, then a staffer at the Colorado Division of Wildlife, was one of the most prominent. In 1998, he published a landmark paper that reported on the causes of the grouse decline. A year later, environmentalists filed a petition requesting that the Washington population of greater sage grouse receive ESA protection. More than a decade and a half since that first petition, and nearly ten other like it, the bird is still not federally protected. The long delay should come as no surprise. The species has many enemies.
Koerner has turned the truck around and is heading back to headquarters. Birds are everywhere—kestrels, harriers, sage sparrows—but still no grouse. The air cools, mosquitoes gather at the truck window. It’s been a long day, and Koerner’s about to call it quits.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, he sees rustling in the brush. He hits the brakes and grabs his binoculars and turns his head to look. From the undergrowth, a dozen big birds burst into the air.
* * *
The first years of the new millennium were notably grim ones for environmentalists. George W. Bush had just taken over the White House, and he promptly stocked the Interior Department with pro-oil sympathizers. One of the most notorious of these was Julie MacDonald, who served as deputy assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks. During her three-year tenure, she leaked internal government data to industry lobbyists and tampered with scientific reports in an attempt to prevent endangered-species listings for a wide range of animals. The sage grouse was one of her targets.
In 2005, in response to petitioners seeking federal protection for greater sage grouse, the Bush administration determined that the species did not warrant ESA listing. The decision was based in part on a Fish and Wildlife Service report that MacDonald had tampered with, despite having no training wildlife science. In 2007, MacDonald resigned in disgrace. Less than a year later, a federal court overturned the Bush administration’s tainted 2005 ruling on grouse, citing MacDonald’s meddling.
Since then, the bird has had better luck with federal bureaucrats. Under a 2011 court settlement with the environmental group WildEarth Guardians, the US Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to make a final decision on the bird’s ESA status by September 30, 2015.
Powerful opponents, however, have been determined to torpedo an ESA listing, ramping up their efforts over the last year as the deadline approaches. Consider a series of attack ads that began wafting across the airwaves of six Western states last August, casting grouse advocates as a bunch of creepy environmental carpetbaggers and framing the bird as a job killer.
“Environmental activists, teamed with powerful out of state lawyers, are using bad science and the courts to stop responsible energy development and eliminate jobs for hard working Westerners,” warns one clip. In another ad, an ominous voice accuses green groups of trying to “close off public lands.” And still another warns viewers that a grouse listing threatens “our rural Western way of life.”
These ads, along with an Internet messaging campaign and a traditional lobbying push, are the work of the Western Energy Alliance (WEA), a Denver-based consortium of oil and gas companies. Bankrolled by a slate of wealthy member corporations like BP, Chevron, Halliburton, and Koch Exploration, WEA’s influence reaches from the halls of Congress to the statehouses of the West. Along with the American Petroleum Institute and state-based oil groups, it is Big Oil’s chief surrogate in the effort to undermine grouse-conservation efforts and erode the ESA.
Fossil-fuel interests have a lot to lose in the grouse fight. Oil and gas operators currently lease more than 6 million acres of prime grouse habitat in seven different Western states, according to an analysis by the Western Values Project. An additional 8.8 million acres of prime habitat have medium to high oil and gas production potential, but remain undeveloped. Combined, that’s an area nearly twice the size of Massachusetts. If the US Fish and Wildlife Service lists the grouse now or in the future, all that land and more could be burdened with strict environmental regulation.
To help forestall that fate, WEA followed its 2014 ad campaign with a quixotic attack on science itself. Last March, the organization and its allies filed challenges under the little-known Data Quality Act in an attempt to force the feds to retract or revise three seminal government reports that will play a crucial role in the upcoming ESA decision. The reports draw on hundreds of peer-reviewed papers and offer recommendations meant to protect the species. But WEA’s attorney, Kent Holsinger, claimed last spring that the reports’ use of “flawed information reveals these agencies aren’t as much interested in sage-grouse conservation as they are in controlling our economy and western way of life.”
The alliance also denounced the reports’ authors. In a particularly sleazy incident, it obtained and published the e-mails of prominent Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Pat Deibert in an attempt to discredit her.
If WEA succeeds in forcing a retraction or revision, it could hamper ongoing grouse-conservation efforts on federal lands. Grouse advocates, however, say they are not that worried.
“The data-quality-act challenge is ridiculous,” says Mark Salvo, senior director of landscape conservation at Defenders of Wildlife. “The industry attacks scientists and their work in an effort to create doubt about whether the science is valid. They are the sage-grouse merchants of doubt.”
Despite multiple interview requests, WEA staff would not provide comment for this story.
The last front in the fight is Capitol Hill, where Big Oil’s anti-grouse agenda has seen great success. The first victory came last December, when Representative Mark Amodei of Nevada slipped a rider into a spending bill that effectively barred the Department of Interior from issuing an ESA ruling on the greater sage grouse during the 2014–15 fiscal year. It was a direct assault on the proper working of the ESA, which mandates that science, not politics, should determine the listing status of candidate species. Yet the bill passed, no doubt pleasing Amodei’s energy-industry benefactors. During two terms in Congress, the lawmaker has received more than $40,000 in oil and gas campaign contributions.
But it was only the beginning. In May, less than six months after Amodei’s maneuver, Congressman Rob Bishop of Utah introduced his own amendment to a $613 billion military spending bill. The proposal would bar the Interior Department from listing the grouse for 10 years. The measure is still working its way through Congress, but Bishop has cashed in. Over the course of his career, he’s collected $280,000 in Big Oil campaign contributions.
Then there’s Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, who has taken more than $1,000,000 in oil- and gas-industry campaign funds. He introduced a bill last spring, a Plan B should Bishop’s effort fail, which would transfer federal authority over sage grouse conservation to the states and delay a listing by at least six years. The bill has hefty support from WEA, and that means a lot. Its seven most prominent corporate members spent more than $21 million on lobbying expenditures last year alone.
These attacks are part of a right-wing push to undermine the Endangered Species Act itself. This year alone, Republicans in the US Senate put forward 66 proposals to reform or interfere with the law. From prohibiting protection for specific species to amending the act outright, the bills signal a breakdown of the bipartisan consensus that once supported our most important piece of conservation legislation. The great grouse debate is a stark case study of this emboldened anti-conservation approach.
* * *
Erik Molvar is tall and lanky, with a black beard, a deep voice, and a near-obsession with sage grouse policy. A campaigner with WildEarth Guardians, he is among the cohort of hardline sage grouse defenders laboring to ensure that the species is well-protected, whether by the ESA or otherwise. On a stormy mid-July morning, he sits in the passenger seat of a black Ford sedan as it rumbles along old roads in the Red Desert of south-central Wyoming. Sky-high anvil clouds are marching eastward across the plains, and oil and gas wells are all around.
“This is what prime sage grouse habitat looks like after the oil and gas industry gets done having its way with it,” Molvar says. “[T]he habitat is fully fragmented…and the wildlife can’t survive.”
Halliburton trucks rumble past as the car makes its way through what’s called the Continental Divide–Wamsutter II field. The place is a spider web of roads and pipelines, dotted with gas wells and humming with traffic. Molvar says grouse used to live here, plenty of them. Big Oil moved into the area in the early 2000s, before anyone was protecting the bird, and erected thousands of wells. It has plans to build at least 8,000 more.
WEA and its allies are anxious to preserve this sort of access to sage-grouse habitat. The bird’s defenders are determined to stop them. Federal and state governments stand somewhere in between, trying to balance the needs of conservation with the robust fossil-fuel and ranching economies that are hallmarks of the West.
To that end, federal agencies like the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, alongside Western states, have developed conservation plans meant to stanch the grouse die-off and obviate the need for an ESA listing. At the state level, Wyoming has led the pack, gathering together different stakeholders, including energy interests, to develop its conservation plan. The plan, at its most basic level, designates “core” grouse habitat in the state and limits the amount of development within those core areas. Ten other states and the federal government have followed suit. The feds unveiled plans in late May that designate millions of acres of “priority habitat” on public lands and establish new rules for drillers, miners, and others operating in such habitat.
Overall, this landscape-wide conservation effort, unprecedented in its scale, is a noble effort. It’s been called “the biggest experiment in the history of the Endangered Species Act.” If successful, it could halt the declining grouse numbers and strike a balance between economic development and wildlife conservation.
“This is the future of conservation,” says Brian Rutledge, vice president of the National Audubon Society and a key player in crafting Wyoming’s grouse plan. “Instead of trying to put together a piecemeal conservation program to protect sagebrush habitat, we looked at the entire of the ecosystem. These plans will protect it.”
Yet, as forward thinking as the conservation plans are, they don’t go far enough for activists like Molvar. They have little to say, for instance, about a place like the Continental Divide–Wamsutter II field. The plans respect existing oil and gas leases, Molvar laments, and do not add new restrictions to them. Nor do they offer a robust strategy for rehabilitating habitat where grouse are already eradicated. Such policies spell doom for crucial populations that are struggling to survive in industrialized regions.
The Powder River Basin, at Wyoming’s northeastern edge, is an important example. There, a remnant grouse population, one that provides a key link between different grouse gene pools, is beset by troubles, from extensive mining to oil and gas drilling to West Nile Virus.
A recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts warned that sage grouse in the Powder River Basin fell by 76 percent population between 2007 and 2013 and that they may already be dropping into an “extinction vortex.” And this decline continues, despite more than five years of state intervention on the bird’s behalf. The Powder River population’s disappearance would isolate grouse in Montana and North Dakota from those in Wyoming, making the former vulnerable to inbreeding and extirpation.
Molvar stands at the edge of a vast plain where golden thread-and-needle grass sways high and healthy above miles of sagebrush. This, he says, is the sort of place that grouse love. No wells. No trucks. Hardly a human to be seen from here to the horizon. He blasts the state and federal plans for their failure to ban oil and gas leasing outright in still pristine priority habitats like this.
“There are no areas that are really closed to future leasing,” he says. “You’ve got these last remaining healthy habitats and maybe the real answer is to put them off limits to development entirely.” Though the federal and state plans impose rules and restrictions on new development in priority habitat, they don’t prohibit it.
Regulations that fail to comport with the best available science are another Molvar target. In Wyoming, for instance, both the state and federal plans prohibit industrial development within .6 miles of grouse breeding grounds. The BLM’s own foundational grouse study, meanwhile, which claims to draw on the best available science, recommends a four-mile buffer around breeding areas. He can list a dozen such examples.
These policy failures and half-measures, Molvar says, are a sign that federal and state authorities and even some environmental groups are bending to industry pressure.
“Americans love wildlife and they hate the idea that through carelessness or recklessness or greed, we humans would drive another species all the way to extinction to pursue self interest…,” he says. “And yet a very small minority of extremely noisy political interests have succeeded in capturing the ear of Congress with the idea that the Endangered Species Act is unwelcome in the West.”
* * *
Back at Seedskadee, 12 big grouse, all males, glide across the road, wings outspread, bellies hanging low, and land without a sound in dense sagebrush on the edge of the refuge. For a few minutes, their heads bob up and down among the vegetation as they make their way to the night’s roosting place, then they disappear. “It’s a group of bachelors,” Koerner says. “They’ll be back in the morning.”
The boys are biding their time until breeding season. Next spring, they will gather at the ancestral mating ground. It’s a flat, open circle of land somewhere amid the brush where sage grouse return year after year to make babies. Scientists call it a lek. Before the fun, the males will dance and fight. They will march in circles, make strange popping sounds and puff the two yellow balloon-like bags fixed to their chests. They will hope to impress a female. If they succeed, they breed.
For some conservationists, these fragile, finicky creatures are reason enough to justify the regulations and restrictions that an ESA listing would invoke. The greater sage grouse has a right to exist, the thinking goes. That its salvation might reduce oil revenue or eliminate industry jobs is unfortunate and should be avoided if possible, but, ultimately, such concerns are secondary to the forever threat of extinction.
Yet the grouse fight is, in its broadest contours, about more than a bird. It’s about fossil fuel and the warped logic of extraction at all costs. In an era of acidifying oceans and carbon-choked skies, the sage grouse offers a controversial opportunity to counteract Big Oil’s agenda and alter the future course of Western energy development. An awkward, four-pound bird could prevent the fossil fuel sequestered beneath the sagebrush steppe from flowing forth unhindered and harming animals and atmosphere alike. But it needs a little help from humans.
“We are talking about an opportunity to take back millions of acres that are currently in the hands of the oil and gas industry,” says Jeremy Nichols, the climate and energy program director at WildEarth Guardians. “That’s about as big as it gets.”
This notion largely failed to penetrate the broader environmental movement. Despite the stakes, influential urban climate groups like Greenpeace and 350.org have not weighed in adequately on the grouse debate. When asked whether Greenpeace was working on the issue, a spokesman said the organization hasn’t really been involved. A call to 350.org, the global network of climate campaigners, yielded a similar response. “I am not really aware of it,” said Karthik Ganapathy, a spokesperson for the organization. “Our bread and butter are more divestment and fracking and Keystone XL.”
It’s past time for groups like these to help resist the oil industry’s influence over the sage grouse’s fate.
“When we try to pick out anything by itself,” wrote the naturalist John Muir, “we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” So it is here. Wildlife, wilderness, and climate are all at stake. The case will be decided this week. Will the Fish and Wildlife Service invoke the ESA and protect the bird with the full strength of federal law? Or will it bet on the efficacy of the untested and variable conservation efforts? Those are the choices. If it errs, extinction doesn’t offer second chances.
As the big males vanish, Koerner turns his attention back to a mother and four chicks at the road’s edge. They don’t fly away, despite the truck’s proximity, because the little ones haven’t yet learned how. As they march away from the leering humans, they become harder and harder to see. So many millennia have made the hue of their feathers perfectly match the color of the surrounding ground. They are safe among the sagebrush. Then, as the sun fades behind thunderclouds, they withdraw into the wild.