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This Beautiful Bird Might Thwart the Oil and Gas Industry's Drilling Plans

A quarter-century ago, a fight over the fate of a nocturnal bird came to symbolize the standoff between environmentalism and industry. In 1990, the federal government declared the northern spotted owl a threatened species, thwarting timber operations on millions of acres in California and the Pacific Northwest where the bird nests in trees. Conservationists cheered. The timber industry jeered. A cultural icon with feathers was born, and a culture war over ecology erupted. 

Sometime in the next two weeks—likely on November 12, a legal deadline that happens to fall a week after the midterm elections—the Obama administration is scheduled to announce whether it will put another imperiled critter on the Endangered Species List. The Gunnison sage grouse, a chicken-like bird, roams the range of Colorado and Utah. Its numbers have dwindled over the years due, scientists say, to many factors, from wilder wildfires to increased development. A move by the government to put the bird on the Endangered Species List would, in turn, threaten many other things in the grouse’s habitat: among them, surging oil and gas production.

The potential designation of the Gunnison sage grouse is seen as a kind of preview of possible federal intervention to protect another animal, one for which the stakes are even higher. The Gunnison has a cousin—the greater sage grouse—whose habitat comprises an area roughly seven times as large as the spotted owl’s: roughly 165 million acres that stretch across 11 Western states ranging from Washington, down to California, over to Colorado, and up to North Dakota. 

Gunnison Sage Grouse
Joel Sartore

By September 2015, the government will decide whether to place the greater grouse on the Endangered Species List, and that prospect has struck terror into an unlikely alliance of interests across the West: recreation, ranching, mining, oil drilling, even wind- and solar-power development. Adding the animal to the protected list would essentially threaten every land-intensive economic pursuit across a significant swath of the nation. Studies estimate the economic hit to the region could total billions of dollars a year. Among the biggest effects: It would severely limit energy production in a part of the country that, over the past few years, has become one of the most prolific sources of energy on the planet. 

Greater Sage Grouse

Clashes over wildlife are hardly new to the American West. But today’s concern over the sage grouse is doing something very different from what yesterday’s worry over the spotted owl accomplished. Instead of prompting a war between nature-preservers and nature-exploiters, it’s uniting strange bedfellows who have gambled that their divergent interests all are best served if they join forces to try to protect the environment and the economy simultaneously. The green movement cut its teeth on the notion of opposing growth, but now, in an age of climate change, it too wants growth of a certain sort, particularly of large-scale renewable-energy operations. When those green-growth goals clash with other green goals—such as protecting critters—the environmental movement is having to make some hard choices. The alliance in favor of state action to protect the grouse is tentative, it’s controversial, and it may well break apart. But so far it’s sticking.

The greater sage grouse is an iconic feature of the American West. The birds can stand up to 2 feet tall and weigh as much as 7 pounds, and they sport big fans of feathers on their rumps that resemble crowns. They’re famous for their grand mating ritual, which occurs in “leks,” areas of the range to which the birds return yearly to mate. The males preen around, repeatedly billowing out their chests to attract females. At one time, millions of greater sage grouse occupied more than 290 million acres of sagebrush in the West, the federal government says. Today, the population of birds across a swath of the country known as the “Sagebrush Sea” has declined to between 200,000 and 500,000 birds.

Controversy over the grouse has played out for years. In 2005, the federal government decided not to put the greater sage grouse on the Endangered Species List. Environmentalist sued, a federal judge overturned the decision, and in 2010, the government said the grouse indeed justified threatened status. That set off a high-stakes scramble by the 11 states where the grouse lives to come up with their own conservation plans that would protect the grouse enough to stave off a federal listing. 

The push to keep out the feds is now reaching a fever pitch as the September 2015 deadline for Washington to decide whether to list the greater sage grouse slowly approaches—and it’s bringing together some unlikely allies. In September, Montana Governor Steve Bullock announced that the state plans new restrictions on oil and gas activities in grouse territory and new funding for activities including fire management, bird-friendlier fencing, and the removal of perches for raptors that prey on the grouse. Other states, including Wyoming, have rolled out similar initiatives. “At the end of the day nobody got everything they wanted,” Bullock said, “but we know that by coming together and working together we’re going to be in a lot better position than if ultimately we can’t manage this and it’s managed by Washington, D.C.” (The states’-rights rhetoric on the range is evocative of the language used in the South during the civil-rights era.) 

Washington, it turns out, doesn’t disagree. In the lead-up to the midterms, the administration has made it clear that it wants to avoid the political fight that putting the grouse on the Endangered Species List would surely unleash. If the federal government can be seen as protecting the grouse without clamping down on development in the West, all the better. So the administration is acting as cheerleader, urging industry, environmentalists, landowners, and state officials to hatch grouse-protection plans of their own. 

In some Western states, landowners who agree voluntarily to manage their property in ways that officials deem likely to protect grouse get a guarantee that, for 20 years, they won’t be hit with any more-onerous grouse regulations.

Those voluntary agreements “will take care of the land and wildlife and preserve their ranching heritage and the Western way of life,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, the former head of REI, the outdoor-equipment store, said at a signing ceremony for several such landowner agreements earlier this month. Using such agreements to keep the grouse off the Endangered Species List would be just the latest such compromise for the federal government. In Texas, for instance, the administration accepted a state conservation plan intended to help the dunes sagebrush lizard rather than give the lizard federal protection. 

But environmentalist are divided. Those from mainstream green groups tend to back the state plans designed to keep the feds at a distance. Sage grouse “affects so many acres, oil and gas, grazing, our economic engine, and we want to make sure we can manage it on our own terms as much as we can,” Janet Ellis, program director for Montana Audubon, told a Montana newspaper last month. 

Other environmentalists, though, particularly those from local groups based in grouse territory, contend these state agreements amount a sellout. Such “collaboration is the elixir of the status quo,” Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians, an environmental group, wrote in September in the Missoulian in a piece criticizing Montana’s proposed grouse-management plan as too weak. “For the sage grouse, the status quo is a path to extinction,” and Montana’s attempt to avert a federal listing for the bird stems from “appeasement of the oil industry.”

State efforts to avoid a federal listing of the greater sage grouse are picking up speed, and they’re employing increasingly desperate tactics. In Oregon, officials are cutting down junipers, because the trees consume water and crowd out native sagebrush, the grouse’s habitat. In Montana, officials are considering programs to kill birds and other creatures that prey on the grouse.

As a federal decision on the fate of the sage grouse nears, the stakes are rising. Out on the range, it’s a jungle.