• On the Life List

    Can the sage grouse recover from an energy boom in the West?
    By Jim Robbins
    Photographs by Neil Losin


n the pitch black of an early April morning,

cooing and popping sounds fill the windless air. The first gray light of dawn slowly illuminates about 30 male greater sage grouse strutting on a circle of muddy ground in Oregon’s high desert. Each spreads its tail feathers in a broad fan. The source of the pops is two yellow, balloonlike air sacs that, as they inflate, emerge from a cushion of white breast feathers and slap emphatically together.

The sage grouse conducts one of the bird world’s most dramatic courting rituals. It takes place each spring on thousands of leks—a kind of sage grouse dance hall—across 11 Western states, from Colorado, Wyoming and the Dakotas westward to California, Oregon and Washington. Feathers fly as the males, which weigh up to seven pounds, clash and sort out their hierarchy. When the top male emerges, he will mate with as many as three-quarters of the females.

The superior cock brashly sidles up to a hen to catch her attention and impress her. If the hen likes what she sees and hears, she turns her tail, and in a flurry of thrumming wings, the deed is done in a matter of seconds.

Unfortunately, the ancient dance of these showy ground-dwelling birds is a rapidly disappearing phenomenon across the sagebrush steppes of the West, where the birds face a crush of problems, including energy development, land-use change and shifting wildfire patterns. A hundred years ago, there were an estimated 16 million birds. In recent years, the birds have declined so rapidly—there are now around 200,000 and trending down—that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to list the sage grouse as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Although the agency determined the bird was worthy of threatened status, the listing process is so backlogged—there are more than 250 other species waiting to be listed—that officials announced in 2010 they would delay final consideration of a listing until 2014. That’s only part of the story, however. Listing the sage grouse would be considered so onerous to ranchers, energy developers and state officials over such a wide sweep of the country—and so wildly unpopular—that agency officials feared the restrictions could backfire and cause damage and resentment by constituencies important to the bird’s protection.

Rather than wait for the big stick of the Endangered Species Act, an impressive number of stakeholders have agreed to embrace a couple of innovative carrot strategies aimed at protecting habitat on both public and private lands.

State and federal agencies—following the lead of officials in Wyoming—have moved forward with plans that will limit activities potentially affecting sage grouse on more than 57 million acres of public lands.

And in an unusual collaboration, a U.S. Department of Agriculture agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, kicked off a partnership with the Fish and Wildlife Service, state governments, The Nature Conservancy, land trusts, The Audobon Society and other stakeholders to implement the Sage Grouse Initiative.
So far the program has allocated $112 million to protect sage grouse habitat on cattle ranches and other private lands.

In its entirety, this one-of-a-kind science-based endeavor amounts to an all-out effort to turn things around—to reverse the bird’s precipitous decline and eliminate the need for a threatened listing. At the heart of the work is a series of maps—created in part by Conservancy scientists—that have helped to identify breeding populations of the birds and to guide the work necessary to protect core habitat. “This lets us invest our money where we can get the most bang for the buck,” says Conservancy Lead Scientist Joe Kiesecker.

“I haven’t seen anything this big and broad be so focused and quick acting,” says Garth Fuller, who directs Conservancy work to restore sage grouse habitat across eastern Oregon.

“I haven’t seen resources marshaled this quickly to go after barriers challenging a threatened species. It’s impressive.”

The scale of this conservation effort is unprecedented, as is the support for it. The undertaking has already spurred into action an army of agency officials, ranchers, scientists, conservationists and others. If the plan doesn’t work, the Endangered Species Act looms in the background. But if the public land protections and the work of the Sage Grouse Initiative halt the bird’s decline, the effort has the potential to revamp thinking about how to protect species and habitat before the threat of extinction ever arises.

Because the sage grouse occupies such a vast range, one of the most important steps in protecting the species has been simply identifying where the birds live. A series of analyses and detailed maps constructed by University of Montana biologist David Naugle and his collaborators, including Conservancy scientist Jeff Evans and Kevin Doherty of the National Audubon Society, reveal that the bird’s habitat—silver-green sagebrush shrublands—covers about 186 million acres and spans 11 states.

More significant, the maps show that just 50 million acres—about a quarter of the total range—are home to more than three-quarters of the remaining birds. This 50 million acres of core habitat is where the Sage Grouse Initiative is focusing its efforts to protect private lands, says Naugle, who is a science advisor to the program. “We’re targeting like a laser beam those places where there are a lot of birds,” he says.

The initiative is modeled in part on the Conservancy’s Development by Design program, with the bulk of the resources aimed at helping populations where the chance for success is greatest. (See “Proving Ground,” winter 2008.) But even with significant state and federal support and more than $112 million in hand for conservation work, protecting 50 million acres of core habitat from the looming threats is a big task. And the pressures on the country’s sagebrush lands are many.

For instance, numerous cattle ranches across the West, which have long provided sage-covered rangelands, are being plowed under, converted into cropland or residential developments.
The bird’s habitat has also been hard hit by decades of altered fire patterns. In some areas an increase in fires—often caused by invasive cheat grass, which capitalizes on grassland blazes—has burned out sagebrush. Elsewhere, fire suppression has enabled juniper and pinyon pines to propagate and overrun lands once dominated by sagebrush. And sage grouse tend to stay well clear of these trees, which provide cover and perches for raptors and other predators.

But perhaps the biggest overall threat to the sage grouse is energy development, including natural gas, oil and wind power. Wyoming has been at the epicenter of this threat, both because of its recent energy boom, and because it is home to 37 percent of all of the birds—the greatest concentration of any state.

“Wyoming is ground zero for sage grouse conservation,” says Holly Copeland, a Conservancy scientist in Wyoming. “The health of the population here is key to the health of the entire population.”

The process of oil and gas development has created thousands of small wells, roads, drill pads and power lines, and the impact has been enormous for the bird, which is very sensitive to development. At some drill sites near sage grouse habitat, more than 80 percent of the birds have disappeared.

Despite the enormous challenges, the possibility of a sage grouse listing has galvanized support for conservation and spurred unprecedented action throughout the West. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Wyoming, which has been at the forefront of current efforts to protect the bird.

Concerned about the economic impact of a listing on Wyoming’s energy-focused economy, the state in 2008 kicked off a plan to protect and restore core sage grouse habitat. This “core area strategy” limits activities, including energy development, on state and other lands where projects require state approval or permitting. This model is now being promoted in several other states as well.

“We see Wyoming as a template for how we address the challenges the sage grouse is facing,” said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in December 2011 at a gathering of state and federal officials working to protect and restore the bird.

While the ability to work on this scale has been made possible by the involvement of so many agencies and organizations, one of the most striking innovations has been the role of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in helping to protect sage grouse habitat on private lands.

The NRCS was established during the Dust Bowl in the 1930s to improve soil conservation practices on farms and ranches across the country. But until now, its conservation resources have been spread far and wide, with NRCS experts helping to improve a farm here or a ranch there. Random acts of conservation, biologists call it.

Now, for the first time, this conservation funding is being targeted to protect a single species’ core habitat across a large landscape. Says Jeremy Maestas, an NRCS state wildlife biologist based in Bend, Oregon: “This is the most exciting time in my career.”
The angry-hornet sound of chain saws cuts through a heavy April snowstorm as Maestas looks up at a hillside covered with dark green, freshly fallen trees. “People don’t understand why I feel so good about killing juniper trees,” he says. “People think trees are good no matter what.”

But here in the heart of sage grouse country, the more junipers that are felled, the merrier, says Maestas. And to that end he and his colleagues in other states are directing millions of dollars in funding to ranchers who want to cut down junipers in priority habitat areas determined by maps created by Conservancy scientist Jeff Evans.

Although the twisted, gnarly trees are beautiful, Maestas allows, there are far too many of them. Biologists who have examined historical black-and-white landscape photos estimate there used to be only a million acres of junipers in Oregon east of the Cascades before the arrival of European settlers. Today there are five million acres.

The past century of fire-suppression policies in this part of the country halted the purging fires that once roared across the plains. The junipers have taken advantage and expanded rapidly from their normal range on mountaintops. Today they can be found all over, growing on hillsides and in sagebrush-studded valleys.

The advance of junipers has forced the retreat of the sage grouse, which won’t go near the trees. Since the trees kill the grass and forbs beneath them, reducing forage for cattle and sucking up water that would instead be flowing into streams, ranchers have been cutting them down little by little for a long time. And they are on board with any program that pays them to do the job in months instead of decades.

“We see the forbs come back, and we always see the water come back, after we take the trees out,” says rancher Bill McCormack during a break from cutting trees with Maestas. And now, he says, protecting the sage grouse is another reason. “If we can do something to keep it from being listed, we’re doing that. Because if it’s listed, we will probably lose grazing on our government allotments, and they are important to our operations. It’s eastern Oregon’s version of the spotted owl.”

In these parts, some of the best intact sage grouse habitat is on private ranchlands. That why the Sage Grouse Initiative, with funding from NRCS, is helping cover some of the costs for McCormack and other ranchers to make conservation improvements on their lands. It’s a cost-share program, which gives landowners a stake in the success of the project. NRCS puts up three-quarters of the funds to pay for conservation work, and the landowners pay for the rest. The bottom line is that more sustainably managed ranchlands improve forage for grazing cattle while enhancing habitat for sage grouse.

In other regions, funds from the Sage Grouse Initiative are being used to buy conservation easements on ranches and other private lands in order to limit the threat of future residential development. Residential development is an especially big concern in Wyoming’s greater Yellowstone region, which is surrounded by some of the healthiest remaining sage grouse habitat—as well as a relatively healthy real-estate market.
Already, eight land trusts in Wyoming are working to use $73 million of NRCS funding to protect more than 50 ranches. And to complement Wyoming’s core area strategy, Governor Matt Mead has proposed spending $10 million in state funds to match NRCS dollars for easements on private lands, ensuring core habitat is permanently protected.

Conservancy scientists Amy Pocewicz and Holly Copeland are completing an analysis that estimates the protections conservation easements are likely to provide for the bird. The benefits could be significant, says Copeland, especially when coupled with new protections being planned by state and federal agencies.

“The challenge now for the Conservancy and other organizations is to help raise the matching funds to make these easements a reality,” says Copeland. Already in Wyoming, the state and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are protecting more than 6 million acres of core sage grouse habitat by restricting the development of oil and gas and wind power.

And when the new BLM and Forest Service management plans come online, more than 57 million acres of habitat on federal lands across 11 states will be protected.
But success is not guaranteed. Canada’s experience with sage grouse is on the minds of U.S. biologists. Western Canada once had flourishing sage grouse populations. Because of energy development, there are now just 200 birds in Saskatchewan and fewer than a hundred in Alberta, causing concerns that those populations might disappear.

Not everyone is optimistic about the recent efforts in this country. Jon Marvel, executive director of Western Watersheds, an environmental group that sued to have the sage grouse listed, believes the Sage Grouse Initiative is well-intentioned. But the scope of the project is so big, he thinks monitoring and accountability are inadequate. “It’s designed to placate Western political interests by avoiding a sage grouse listing,” he says.

Naugle insists that is not the case. The effort is driven by results, he says. Nest success—the number of chicks produced in each nest—must increase by eight to 10 percent, based on the habitat changes being made. “If it doesn’t increase, we’ll tweak the management of it to reach those benefits. It’s adaptive management, and we monitor every step of the way.” Studies to measure success are under way in areas where the project began two years ago. If it looks as though the species is not recovering, it will be listed.

This kind of large-scale adaptive management could become a new model for the scientific management of sage grouse. It also has the potential to create a new model for rallying unconventional allies in efforts to recover endangered species. Whereas some past efforts have been delayed and politicized by conflict and court battles, the future may involve more people working collaboratively—rather than at loggerheads—to come up with solutions.

“The important thing is to do conservation proactively so species don’t end up needing to be listed in the first place,” says Conservancy scientist Joe Kiesecker.

Clarification: The Audubon Society’s role in developing the core-area strategy to protect sage grouse in Wyoming was critical to efforts to protect the bird’s habitat throughout the West.

"If the sage grouse is listed, we will probably lose grazing on our government allotments, and they are important to our operations. It’s eastern Oregon’s version of the spotted owl."

Rancher Bill McCormack