The greater sage grouse is a funny bird. Not as funny as the cuckoo or the ptarmigan, but still. The male, with its dark brown body, spotted tail feathers and elaborate white ruff, can resemble down-at-the heels minor royalty.
It nests on the ground. It forages on the ground. It has wings to fly but, with its heavy body, it would rather fly-run, fly-walk-skip. Its best response to threats is to hide. Harmless itself, if you are not sagebrush or an insect, it is easily disturbed.
Its populations each depend on unbroken access to more than 75,000 acres of sagebrush steppe in the North American West.
Before Europeans arrived, there were estimated to be as many as 16 million of the birds. Today, there may be as few as 150,000, primarily because it’s getting harder to find tens of thousands of acres of sage land that has not been broken by humans. Some survive in northwest Colorado.
Adding to the sage grouse’s trouble, as well as the problems of those left behind, it is popular in some circles. Coyotes, bobcats, badgers, falcons, hawks, eagles, crows, ravens, magpies and ground squirrels all like to eat them, and there are people who find them tasty as well, or did. Nevertheless, hunting by any species has not been shown to hurt the grouse’s numbers in an otherwise intact ecosystem.
It once inhabited British Columbia, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kansas and New Mexico, but it is gone from all those places now. Its habitats and numbers were consumed by grazing cattle, subdivisions and oil-drilling. And this brings us to the politics of the sage grouse, which are much less enchanting than its natural history.
So far from getting threatened-species protection, the bird has raised the ire of Republicans in Congress, because its neediness stands in the way of development on public lands, particularly drilling. So they forced the Department of the Interior to state in 2015 that it would not use any part of its budget to protect the sage grouse pursuant to the Endangered Species Act.
About half of the remaining sage grouse habitat is on private lands, however, often bordering public lands, and this turns out to have been good news for the birds. The Department of Agriculture funded the 2015 Sage Grouse Initiative, partnering with more than 1,500 volunteer ranchers, to “proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life,” which includes the sage grouse. This has been a success.
At the same time, under the Obama administration, oil and gas drilling was curtailed on 10.8 million acres under the Bureau of Land Management to protect sage grouse, giving it unbroken habitat between public and private lands.
On Dec. 6, the current BLM, under new management, said it would open nine million of those acres to drilling, in Colorado, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming. The greater sage grouse could lose much of its habitat.
“With this single action, the [Trump] administration is saying: This landscape doesn’t matter. This species doesn’t matter. Oil and gas matter,” Bobby McEnaney of the Natural Resources Defense Council told The New York Times.
Gov. John Hickenlooper disagreed, saying the bird would still be protected while its interests would be balanced with the human benefits of oil and gas.
We hope he is right. We would like to have both, but we fear that is too much to ask, especially when it comes to such a funny, unique and essential bird.