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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Conserving the Sage Grouse

Air Date: Week of

The deadline is near for government scientists to decide whether to add the Northern Sage Grouse to the endangered species list. That's causing a flap among Western business interests who say putting the bird’s habitat off limits could stop ranching, roads and oil drilling across nearly a dozen states. Washington correspondent Jeff Young reports on one of the most closely watched endangered species decisions in years.


CURWOOD: In the United States the agency charged with managing endangered species is the Fish and Wildlife Service of the Interior Department. The service has placed some 1200 plants and animals on the list of threatened and endangered species over the past 30 years, and biologists there are nearing a deadline to decide on whether to add another: the northern sage grouse.

Male Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) (Photo: USGS researchers)

Environmental groups petitioned the government to give the sage grouse the protection of the Endangered Species Act. Western states, the oil and gas industry, as well as some cattle ranchers and developers, have mobilized to stop that. It's one of the most closely watched endangered species decisions in years. Our Washington correspondent Jeff Young has been watching and joins us now to talk about what's at stake. Jeff, welcome.

YOUNG: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: Jeff, what's the concern with protecting this bird?

YOUNG: Well, the nothern sage grouse, or greater sage grouse, depends on sagebrush land that was once found in these vast stretches of the western U.S. When Lewis and Clark passed through there, it’s estimated the bird numbered in the millions; now its population is estimated somewhere around 200,000, and some biologists say it’s in a free fall that could lead to extinction. But it still has a broad range, over about 11 states. So if the bird is listed, as they say, that could put much stricter limits on how a lot of that land is used. Once land is designated as critical habitat for a listed species, it's largely managed to protect that habitat, and other uses of the land will take a back seat.

CURWOOD: And this is where industry and agriculture are concerned, right?

YOUNG: Indeed. But it’s not just industry voicing concerns here. Gale Norton, President Bush's Secretary of the Interior, has joined them.

NORTON: I'm concerned about the impacts on many types of activities taking place on the public lands, as well as private lands in the areas that have sage grouse. It's everything from road construction to cattle grazing to hunting to oil and gas activities.

(Photo: USGS researchers)

YOUNG: Norton insists the Fish and Wildlife Service will make this decision based on science, as the law requires. But she's clearly hopeful that some land management strategy will allow both habitat preservation and some development.

CURWOOD: I want to discuss how the Interior Department might try to strike that balance, but first Jeff, let's talk about the concerns Secretary Norton mentioned. How would oil and gas drilling be affected by this exactly?

YOUNG: The Bush administration, as you know, places a lot of emphasis on increasing the domestic energy supply. This goes back to, say, Vice President Cheney's energy task force, where we saw a lot of pressure to allow more exploration and drilling on public lands. Some estimates say there's a trillion dollars worth of oil and natural gas under the intermountain west, and much of it is probably under some sagebrush land. So industry groups see this as a collision course. They're calling the sage grouse "the spotted owl on steroids."

CURWOOD: The spotted owl, of course, being one of the big endangered species disputes of the past, tied in with logging old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. What are business groups doing now, Jeff?

YOUNG: Well, they're challenging the data the environmentalists used in their petition to list the sage grouse. But they're doing more than that. Joe Sims represents ranchers, drillers and some developers in a group called Partnership for the West. Sims says the grouse doesn’t need endangered status because the folks he represents recognize what could happen if the bird is listed, and that has sufficiently motivated them to get together and come up with ways to preserve habitat.

SIMS: I don't think there's ever been a more coordinated range-wide conservation effort aimed at any species than with the greater sage grouse. Now that that's going on, our message to Washington is let that continue. Don't come in and do a federal takeover of our local conservation efforts, because that federal takeover ends up chilling those local conservation efforts.

YOUNG: Western state wildlife agencies have come together on this. And there's another major player: that's the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management. BLM controls about half the possible sage grouse habitat. It's just released its strategy for sage grouse conservation, which is aimed at conserving and enhancing sagebrush habitat.

CURWOOD: And how is that conservation plan being received?

YOUNG: Well I talked with a scientist who worked with sage grouse for nearly twenty years before he retired, Clait Braun. Braun’s work is cited in that BLM strategy, and here's what he thinks of it.

BRAUN: I think it's a feel-good document. I think it’s exceedingly shallow, I think it’s a lot of smoke and mirrors. Basically, the BLM remains in denial that sage grouse has a problem and that they can do anything about it.

CURWOOD: Well that’s far from a ringing endorsement, Jeff. How do the environmental groups see this shaping up?

YOUNG: They point to the access that industry has to this administration. For example, Mr. Sims of the Partnership for the West, who we heard from, he worked in the Bush White House and helped Vice President Cheney with his energy task force.

Jacob Smith directs the Center for Native Ecosystems in Denver. Smith thinks that access, that pressure will play too large a role in this decision, and, in fact, Smith says he’s already seen that in other recent negative decisions on whether to list some western species.

SMITH: Fish and Wildlife Service bowed to industry pressure. So it’s a pattern that’s becoming ever more prevalent. I'm happy to reserve judgment, and we'll see what the Fish and Wildlife Service does.

YOUNG: The decision deadline is December 29, and either way it goes, I’m guessing you can expect some litigation to follow.

CURWOOD: Jeff Young is Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent. Thanks, Jeff.

YOUNG: You’re welcome.

[MUSIC: Pat Metheny Group “The Search” AMERICAN GARAGE (ECM – 1979)]

CURWOOD: As always, we welcome your comments. But today we want to encourage you to take advantage of the opportunity to step in front of an open microphone here on Living on Earth. Maybe you’ve always wanted to tell a special story about experiences, concerns and feelings about the natural world we all share. Well, we’re all ears. We invite you to send us a brief recording.

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Now, this is not a contest. There are no winners or losers. This is simply an invitation to you to get involved. What do we want to hear? Your opinions count, of course, but even better are stories, tales from your life on this planet that we all share. So visit Living on Earth dot o-r-g for complete directions and some sample stories. And if you’re not online, send us a card, and we’ll send you some instructions. The address is Stories, Living on Earth, 20 Holland Street, Somerville Massachusetts, 02144.

CURWOOD: Coming up: strategies of survival—why some make it against seemingly impossible odds. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Charlie Haden/Hank Jones “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” STEAL AWAY (Verve – 1995)]



Center for Native Ecosystems in Denver

Bureau of Land Management’s new strategy for conserving sage grouse habitat

Partnership for the West


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