Save the Sage Grouse!

Save the Sage Grouse!

The Trump administration’s decision to ease Obama-era sage grouse protections make the peculiar bird an unlikely conservation symbol at a crucial time. Will it be a fatal blow for the sage grouse?

On March 15, 2019, President Trump finalized plans to greatly reduce sage grouse habitat across 10 western states, a plan in the works since December. The decision will slash sage grouse protective habitats by almost nine million acres, making that land more accessible for oil and gas drilling. Environmentalists widely panned the move, labeling it a handout to oil companies. Slightly lost among the outrage over slashing protected areas for drilling was the grim fate of the sage grouse.

The greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) may not look like the most graceful birds, with its spiky tail feathers and scarf of fluffy white feathers adorning its head, but they do know how to “woo” potential mates. Every spring, male sage grouses gather along the plains and strut their stuff in their unique and elaborate courting display. Male sage grouse inflate the two large yellow air sacs hanging over their white stomach and then pop them, making a bizarre noise similar to the sound of a rubber ball bouncing off a wall. Over 70 sage grouses may gather at this festival, proudly inflating and popping their air sacs, filling the sagebrush plains with strange, rubbery sounds.

Unfortunately this spectacular occurrence is becoming less and less frequent as the birds’ habitat continues to dwindle. These birds only live on the sagebrush plains of the western United States, which happen to be some of the richest oil sites in the country. The sage grouse has been involved in land disputes over oil for more than a decade. Sage grouses once numbered in the millions but are now restricted to only 56% of their natural range according to the Audubon society. The bird’s population currently sits at a meager 200,000-500,000 birds as the sagebrush ocean around them disappears.

In 2015, the sage grouse was denied listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) because it was believed that federal and state protections were enough to help protect the bird and alleviate the environmental pressures its dwindling population was facing. In 2015, these protections were surprisingly robust thanks to organizations like the Audubon Society and an ambitious sage grouse protection plan implemented by the Obama administration. That plan banned oil and gas drilling in 10.7 million acres where the remarkable birds resided. The protected area was marked as “sagebrush focal areas” and these spaces would provide a safe haven for the birds and their ecosystems.

The decision reached last week will turn over all but 1.8 million acres of that plan to the oil and gas companies. Environmentalists claim that this will destroy the birds’ nesting areas, further devastating a population in decline. A possible mitigation from this massive loss of habitat would be to list the sage grouse as endangered under the ESA now that federal efforts to help the bird are gone. But that will be fraught with political discord and endangered species status may not be as valuable as it used to be. The actual ESA is threatened by former oil lobbyist David Bernhardt, who now runs the Interior Department. His goal is to weaken the law, which has existed since the Nixon administration in 1973, by making the economic repercussions of listing a species come into play during the listing process. Currently, only scientific proof of a species’ decline is needed for listing.

For the last few years, the sage grouse has repeatedly become a symbol for conservation vs. fossil fuel extraction. It pits one species’ survival against the extraction of energy sources that could potentially put us all in danger due to emissions. But the sage grouse doesn’t care about the potential ramifications down the line. It is in grave danger now as over 80 percent of its protected land from the 2015 plan has been opened up to drilling. We are facing the sobering reality of a loss of not only a strange bird, but an iconic western landscape altogether. In a few years there could be no rubbery popping sounds filling the sagebrush with life. The groups of strange, beautiful birds strutting around, puffing out their chests could be gone. All that will be left are silent oil derricks, extracting the life from the sagebrush.