Birds & Birding

The Sage-Grouse’s Next Dance: What the Recent Decision Means for the Bird and Conservation

October 2, 2015

Under the U.S. Department of Interior plans released in September, about 90 percent of federal areas with high-to-medium oil and gas potential are free from restrictions that protect greater sage-grouse. Photo © Gerrit Vyn/Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The first text came in at 5:02am, from my brother in-law in Texas:

“So what is your take on the sage-grouse ruling?”

Similar texts and calls followed from other friends and relatives.

Why all the early morning interest in a bird? Because that Tuesday, September 22, the Department of Interior announced they would not be listing the Greater Sage-Grouse, a bird native to America’s sagebrush country, as an endangered species.

The day of the announcement was a strange one. This beautiful dancing bird has been in my thoughts almost daily for the past nine years, as it has also been for the hundreds, maybe thousands, of other scientists who are working on sage-grouse.  But suddenly, because of all the national new coverage, this species was now in the consciousness of many other Americans, too.

So my response to their questions whether it was a good sage-grouse decision: in short, yes. But, of course, there are caveats and subtleties.

Make no mistake sagebrush country is in great peril. The scientific weight of evidence is overwhelming.  Sage-grouse numbers are a tiny fraction of historical counts, and populations of other species that live in this habitat, such as mule deer, pronghorn, and pygmy rabbits, are down as well. These numbers are low because the entire system is slowly converting to one overrun by invasive species, rampant wildfire, and little refuge from the presence of humans.

The peril to the sagebrush isn’t just energy development or ranchers or urban sprawl. It’s all of us using the sagebrush ecosystem— the proverbial “death by a thousand cuts.” We’ve made it our home, played in it, drilled it, grazed it, allowed invasive species to proliferate, and not paid enough attention to the consequences.

Running through the sagebrush just this morning, I passed through a patch of cheatgrass, a flammable non-native grass that has invaded native sagebrush stands throughout the West. This kind of place, a flat opening in the sagebrush, may very well have been a lek site forty years ago, but was abandoned when cheatgrass and residential development encroached (a lek is a breeding area where male grouse dance and parade to attract female partners). Cheatgrass is terribly pernicious. Once it dominates a sagebrush patch it sets up an unnatural fire cycle that makes it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to restore sagebrush back to its native condition.

Cheatgrass in the foreground invading sagebrush habitat in Wyoming. Cheatgrass is harming sage-grouse by making its habitat much more flammable. Photo © Holly Copeland.
Cheatgrass in the foreground invading sagebrush habitat in Wyoming. Cheatgrass is harming sage-grouse by making its habitat much more flammable. Photo © Holly Copeland.

On the heels of these building challenges, eight years ago we began an attempt to heal these cuts through the largest landscape-scale conservation effort in US history, spurred by the threat of an endangered species listing for sage-grouse.

Western states responded by crafting plans to conserve sage-grouse. For years these plans were drafted and revised. There were countless meetings. Scientists debated buffers, thresholds to disturbance, and indirect effects such as noise; they published a massive number of studies on everything from how much development grouse can tolerate to how far they migrate to wintering areas. Someone even made a robot grouse.

Initiatives like the Natural Resource Conservation Service -led Sage Grouse Initiative launched efforts to increase the health of the sagebrush ecosystem by enrolling ranchers in programs to increase the sustainability of their ranching operations and benefit grouse, made new funds available for voluntary conservation easements, and supported research to understand the benefits of these actions.

At the heart of this effort was collaboration – a coming together of citizens and scientists from industry, government, non-profit, and the private sectors.

The Department of Interior’s decision of “not warranted” for greater sage-grouse is right not because the sagebrush system doesn’t need our help. Quite the opposite – truly in the next few decades we could lose this ecosystem to cheatgrass, fire, and development.

Scientists will need to continue monitoring sage-grouse numbers, as this one is doing on a Conservancy-protected property in Wyoming. Photo © David Stubbs.
Scientists will need to continue monitoring sage-grouse numbers, as this one is doing on a Conservancy-protected property in Wyoming. Photo © David Stubbs.

But the decision is right because collaborative conservation is the only strategy likely to work. We desperately need an all-hands-on-deck approach where those who work with these lands daily – largely ranchers and federal land managers – are critical partners that understand the danger, believe that they can succeed, and have backing at the highest levels of government to make decisions that support sagebrush health.

At the announcement Tuesday, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell suggested the “epic collaborations” of the sage-grouse efforts represent a new model for conservation in America. I agree.

While I can find gaps and weaknesses in these plans, I refuse to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. This is a favorite saying of my friend Paul Hansen, who was a conservation champion of the Clean Air Act in the 1980s—an era when we seemed to know how to do collaborative conservation better. Maybe we took another step in that direction this past week.

And so now begins the next chapter in this saga: taking action to implement all the plans, securing full funding from Congress to support these actions, and following up on our progress.

The “not warranted” decision for sage-grouse was based in part upon the Bureau of Land Management, other federal agencies, and states being able to take action to implement protections written in the sagebrush habitat conservation plans they submitted previously. If they can’t implement these measures because Congress prevents them or doesn’t provide the proper funding, then this whole process of science, sweat, and tears will have been for naught. At that point the Department of Interior would then almost certainly have to list the sage-grouse as endangered, and prescriptive limits would necessarily be placed on both federal and private lands to protect sage-grouse.

Lastly, monitoring  is critical.  Scientists who previously studied what sage-grouse need to survive will now have to monitor sage-grouse populations to determine whether or not the actions put in place are working. 

And so we begin a new phase in the unfolding sage-grouse story— rest assured we scientists will be looking to track and monitor their numbers.  But we are counting on a collective vision of restored health for the sagebrush ecosystem, and security for the treasured wildlife it harbors.  Nothing short of that will save this bird in the heart of the American West. 

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  1. Holly, a very good piece explaining the decision and what is still needed.

  2. I wish there was something I could do, I’m too old to work and have to be careful of spending as I never earned much while I worked for thr state of Colorado. But there is so much that needs care and watching, and I can’t . I wish I could. But it’s too late and I spent so many years trying to keep everything running in my life that things like this, the important things just got thrown out, no time, no money, no whatever.

  3. Thank you for your comments and efforts. I agree that moving forward continues to depend on the collaboration and consideration of the many groups involved. I agree that this is about much more than the sage grouse but about an ecosystem and that good stewardship is dependent on considering how today’s actions impact the future. It is unfortunate that my state of residence, Utah, does not engage in the collaborative efforts.

  4. One thing we can do as citizens of the world is to write to key people in states that do not collaborate to say we are not inclined to visits their states if they do not make efforts to make a difference for the Sage Grouse and any other species of concern.

  5. I agree that cooperation between governmental and private land owners is essential. But unfortunately the “cooperation” contained in the agreements that are being relied on for the “non-list” decision is sorely inadequate to actually protect the sage group from decline. (E.g. Wyoming has proposed very meager protected zones around their rapidly expanding oil/gas drilling areas.) The grouse protection measures were not coordinated between states (there are 15 separate environmental impact statements). Cumulative effects have not been evaluated. And bottom line: these agreements don’t appear to be enforceable. Grouse “takings” (i.e. kills) will have little consequence. (With the sage grouse not being listed, some private land owners said, oh, then we don’t have to do all the things we talked about. Not a good omen. ) The collaborative approach is a good start, and these efforts should be supported – as you say. It’s necessary, but very likely not sufficient.

    1. Deanna, I agree with you that the buffer distance of oil and gas wells from leks in Wyoming is too close. Based on the most recent research, it should be 2km instead of the current 1 km. However, that isn’t the only stipulation governing oil and gas drilling. They also have to meet density and disturbance caps. Because of that, the overall incentive and cost effectiveness to drill in core areas should be greatly reduced. The fact that each state’s plan is different speaks to the differing threats across the range of grouse and of course to some degree the politics in that state. The FWS evaluated each plan and the BLM EISs. All plans meet a minimum set of baseline standards intended to protect grouse. Will that be enough? We shall see–that’s why monitoring is so critical.

  6. It is my understanding the the sage grouse conservation plans have loop holes that… if it happens that the conservation plans fail to work, that anyone who signed on to the current agreement (ranchers, farmers, mining, oil companies) that they would NOT be subject to any future rulings that would provide greater protection for sage grouse, including any future “endangered status”.

    If that is true, then this law is a terrible law, just another gigantic loophole that allows Congress, the most squirrelly animal of all, to, perhaps, NOT fund the conservation efforts so desperately needed for the success of this current program. And if the program fails, then future “endangered status” may not apply to millions of acres of land that were signed on as part of the current agreements.

    Let me know if I am wrong about that. If I am right, then a lawsuit needs to be started to overturn those “loophole” portions of this current conservation program. It does not seem legal for a Federal Agency to “give away” laws that provide the very protections required to do the job that these agencies are designed to do in the first place…which is to protect our wild lands and species first and foremost.

    Also, the main culprit around the globe for the demise of nearly all the world’s wild species is, pure and simply, OVER-population, including in the U.S., where with 325 million people we consume and impact the globe at 5x the average per capita rate as citizens in other countries. In other words, the U.S. impact is that of a country of over 1.6 Billion (with a “B”), more than any other nation on earth, including India and China.

    And even if the U.S. only had 65 Million people (1/5th the current U.S. population), our nation would still be asked to grow crops and supply products for an already over-populated global community whose populations are rising far faster than that of the U.S. and who are wanting to live lifestyles of much higher consumerism.

    Everyone wants to live a better quality of life, and I support that, but humans need to consider that such higher lifestyles will require a far lower global human population, perhaps as low as under 1 Billion…IF we want to preserve any semblance of the glorious wild lands and oceans and species this earth once held.

    Humans could choose to bring most species back from the brink of extinction; we have but a few years left to decide if we want a robotic planet of steel and high tech contraptions and hyper dense housing with humans compacted together, living like termites, with 12 Billion or more people, few or no freedoms, extreme regulations, highly artificial foods, and NOTHING wild left.

    Or we can choose to chart a steady course for fair and humane world population reduction plans, with the goal of a far lower human population, resulting in a future of abundant natural resources, fresh natural foods, affordable homes, more land per person, more resources per person, and lots of personal freedoms, and a bounty of soul nurturing nature all around us.

    Unfortunately, our cultural beliefs in “growth is good”, our bigotries, tribalism, and the various religions that promote “an after life of nirvana or heaven” and even those religions that believe that an apocalypse is a necessary part (a goal) of God’s plans…these are all primary hindrances to working together to quickly save this planet, the only planet we have ever known to have life on it.

    Right now, we are destroying earth…which is the heaven that has been right in front of us all along…and we are destroying it for a “faux heaven/nirvana” that won’t happen. What God or Gods would reward a species that destroys the amazing planet that we now have? Would a rational Parent given their their 16 year old kid a car, then allow that kid to drive drunk, kill people, and destroy car after car, and then turn around and buy the kid another new car? A functional, rational parent would not. So is God (or Gods) enabling parents? or rational parents that would say “no more”, you’re an idiot!”

  7. Avid hunter and outdoors-man. Seriously studied wildlife since childhood, yet not a trained biologist, etc.
    However, in my observation and opinion(s) and because it appears to be so true in Western Oregon of the Ruffed and Blue Grouse, and now Mountain Quail populations (the Pheasant (Chinese Ring necked) and the California Quail have already declined to predation and habitat loss. Predation from the invasive species Opossum who have spread from Portland during WWII to the entire region West of the Cascade summit, and now we also have 10Xs more coyotes. Habitat loss in Eastern Oregon is an issue, but not due to encroachment of houses, except for Bend Oregon (which never did have many Sage Grouse) Eastern Oregon’s rural areas are declining in Human habitation. However, even over there there appears to be many more coyotes. And, the lack of water is hard on sage grouse also. They congregate at the few watering holes, springs, creeks, ever shrinking lakes and reservoirs and the coyotes are waiting for them. More golden eagles than when I was a kid too, (which, is a good thing), but I am sure they take a few grouse also, especially the young, hawks and owls also. Regardless, its the cattle population and coyote population that negatively impact sage grouse.., no doubt about it. I have seen flocks/coveys of sage grouse decline and found their remains from coyote hunts/kills during camping and hunting trips. Let the experts study fires and cheat grass, but put a bounty on coyotes and instead of ears or tails have ’em bring in remains inside the stomach, especially in May-June. A dead hen is the same as 7 dead sage grouse that time of year, maybe more if you factor in no more broods for the next 3 years, etc. gao, out.

  8. So sad. The sage grouse outlook long term is bleak. The great Obama is supposed to be on our side, but his administration has let us down on so many environmental & wildlife items. SAD. JTB

  9. Sage grouse and prairie hens are unique and lovely creatures that deserve our protection. I remember reading about such creatures as a child in the “Little House on the Prairie” books. It is entertaining to watch their mating dances and displays on nature programs. And prairie dogs are like America’s answer to meerkats. We must protect these animals and their habitats, for their own sakes, and for the balance of nature, and for posterity to appreciate. Congress needs to have it impressed upon them, that maintaining the balance of nature and preservation of species is very important. It’s not only the moral thing to do, it is necessary for a healthy environment, and adds to the quality of life of people and their descendants.

    The oil and gas industry are contributing hugely to climate change and pollution of the air, soil, water, and causing earthquakes. This must be stopped! We must turn away from fossil fuels and phase in alternative forms of energy that are clean, safe, sustainable, practical, and don’t harm the environment or change the climate. This is the future, if there is to be one. If Congress won’t or can’t see the light, then the short-sighted members must be replaced with new ones who care enough about the planet to do right by it.

  10. Heroes among us are unsung – the people named and shown here (and my daughter Geneva in Jackson, WY, too) who’ve made their life-work as quiet as these birds they hope to save. While saving the sage grouse, the local ecology also is saved. All parts are connected. The energy industry in Wyoming is too corporately irresponsible, caring only for bottom line money-income. I always wonder if those energy industry people have grandchildren, and why they don’t love them enough to make the world clean rather than dirty.

  11. People like those named in this article are quiet heroes. My daughter Geneva in Jackson, WY, also working to save the sage grouse, I count among them. Energy industry is bad, bad for the planet, especially in WY. I always wonder if the energy industry corporate leaders have grandchildren, and if they do, why don’t they love them enough to make good choices for the planet rather than bad? All that matters to them is bottom-line money. How pathetic. The sage grouse are a part of larger ecology; what keeps them alive keeps us all alive. And they are beautiful.

  12. Natural resources of all types are being depleted; farmland is being overtaken by urban development; parks and recreation land/grounds are being overrun by housing development, grazing, mining of coal and other minerals; and fracking/oil drilling rigs. Once the land is overtaken by greedy corporations and investors it can never be the same; i.e., vegetation, landscape, wild life (fish and game), floods, fires; and loss of tourist and sporting enthusiasts.

  13. I was a lesser prairie chicken tech a few years back in New Mexico and would say that cheatgrass poses a much larger threat to ALL wildlife populations, even more than that of human activities! Not only is it highly flammable (which is not really that big as issue, prairies are supposed to burn from time to time, but, i creates a vegetative monoculture, with no food value and no cover value for the birds.

    Just say NO to cheat grass!

    I’m curious what the various agencies are doing to combat the cheatgrass problem? I LOVE prairie chickens and hope that their populations rebound.Perhaps some of the rain we had last year will help…I know that it was a HUGE help for quail populations here in Texas – we actually had birds to hunt! I haven’t hunted quail i so long, due to low populations, that I’d forgotten how difficult they are to shoot!

    Debbe Ferris, BS Natural Resource Management, Sul Ross University and Freelance Writer (since I can’t get a job in my field!)

    1. From Holly Copeland – Hi Debbe. I agree that across large portions of their range and especially in the Western states (OR, WA, ID, NV), cheatgrass is a tremendous concern…It has been identified as the lead threat, along with fire, which promotes establishment of cheatgrass, in the USFWS Conservation Objective Team report that has guided sage-grouse conservation actions ( . In the Rocky Mountain states, where I live, it is a serious concern as well, but so are fragmenting activities associated with energy development. Because we are a bit higher and drier, cheatgrass has been slower to establish than in states east. Under a warming climate, though, that risk certainly increases. There are many challenges for conserving sage-grouse…Thanks for your comments. Holly