In the nineteenth century, sage grouse were so numerous that they enabled hungry Europeans to expand across the American West. Credit PHOTOGRAPH BY ANACLETO RAPPING/LOS ANGELES TIMES VIA GETTY The sage grouse, the iconic bird of the American West, is disconcertingly oafish—football-sized and thick-chested, outweighed only by turkeys among North American birds. Their brains are barely larger than their two eyes, and the males, which perform one of nature’s most flamboyant mating rituals , have been known to mount robots that biologists have designed to mimic female sage grouse.
Yet the greater sage grouse, as the bird is formally known, and its ancestors have survived for forty million years, overcoming every climate shift and predator except, perhaps, man. Sage grouse can fly at sixty miles per hour, for brief stretches, usually while trying to elude ravens, golden eagles, coyotes, badgers, skunks, or red foxes, which prey on them. The dances of every Plains Indian tribe include imitations of the bird’s mating strut, and in the nineteenth century the birds, sometimes called prairie chickens, were so numerous—as many as sixteen million—that they enabled hungry Europeans to expand across the American West. Although their population has dropped to between two hundred thousand and five hundred thousand, they remain an “indicator” species, reflecting the condition of elk, pronghorn, mule deer, golden eagles, pygmy rabbits, and some three hundred and fifty other plant and animal species. Within the bird’s sagebrush habitat, an area that has shrunk by more than half but is still as big as Texas and spread across eleven states, the bird’s fate is tied to the fate of just about everything else.
In 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service settled lawsuits filed by two small environmental groups by agreeing to decide, by September 30th, whether to list the sage grouse as endangered. The decision promises to be the most important in the forty-two-year history of the Endangered Species Act. A listing would turn what is already a hot political issue in sagebrush states into a firestorm, infuriating Republicans hostile to federal regulation and jeopardizing the Act, one of the most significant environmental laws ever passed.
The intensity of resistance is in direct proportion to the vastness of sage-grouse habitat; opponents see the listing as the imposition of a layer of onerous federal regulations across parts of eleven states. It would compel ranchers, miners, and oil-and-gas developers to curb activities that disturb significant concentrations of sage grouse—by, say, changing a road’s route, a proposed gas field’s location, or the timing of cattle grazing. It would rarely cause proposed projects to be blocked, but it could increase costs and bureaucratic delays for land-users. Given the expected resistance, it’s uncertain how much a listing would help the bird. But if the scientific data, which the Service’s sage-grouse biologists finished compiling last month, show that threats to the bird aren’t declining, the Service is required by the law to list it as endangered.
At first glance, sagebrush terrain doesn’t look particularly inviting, but it’s seductive, an old-growth forest in miniature. Sagebrush, which usually grows to no more than a few feet tall, provides sage grouse with cover from raptors and nourishes chicks with plants and insects, and its leaves provide the entirety of the birds’ diet through the harsh winter. Sage grouse require lots of space: they mate in one area, nest in another, and raise their chicks in a third, which may be as far as twenty miles from the other two. Except when they’re mating, the birds are hard to find— so hard, in fact, that though they’re one of the world’s most studied birds, there’s no way to count them accurately; population estimates are extrapolations based on the number of males who show up at mating grounds, known as leks. The result is that you can look across a sagebrush expanse and be tricked into thinking it’s empty.
Much of sage-grouse habitat is also prized by humans for its natural resources. Thirty-seven per cent of the bird’s population resides in Wyoming, the nation’s leading coal producer, fifth-largest natural-gas producer, eighth-largest crude-oil producer, and twenty-third-largest beef producer—and much of that activity takes places near sage-grouse habitat.
The sage-grouse issue “is really a question about the future of the sagebrush ecosystem,” Holly Copeland, a Nature Conservancy biologist who has studied how sage-grouse conservation affects other species in Wyoming’s Green River Basin, told me. An oil well that disturbs a lek also damages surrounding sagebrush. Mule deer that, until drillers arrived, might have slowly grazed their way through the sagebrush during their spring migration instead move quickly across the degraded ground; as a result, they arrive at higher elevations before the grass there has greened, and they risk going hungry. But where sage grouse thrive, most of nature’s clocks are still working. Copeland’s study found that sage-grouse conservation measures alone doubled conservation of mule-deer habitat.
With the listing deadline approaching, the issue has become so fraught that Republicans inserted a rider into last December’s budget bill that would block the Service from enforcing or even publishing a decision to list the bird as endangered or threatened, although a decision not to list could be published. In addition, the defense-authorization bill that the House approved in May includes a provision that would extend the ban on listing sage grouse for another decade. Any effort to repeal or gut the Endangered Species Act would likely be met by a Presidential veto; instead, Republicans are using riders to nibble away at it. But even if the sage grouse isn’t listed, the Act has already served the bird’s interests by setting in motion the largest collaborative conservation effort in the nation’s history. Hoping to ward off an “endangered” listing, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture—government agencies known for regarding one another with indifference, if not disdain—have worked together and with land users to protect the sage grouse. The birds require large swaths of undisturbed terrain, but their habitat has become a tangled mosaic of public and private land. Helping them, therefore, requires coöperation across boundaries and agencies, involving the ranchers and developers who own or lease the land.
“The main reason that I’m engaged in the sagebrush-ecosystem work is because this is setting a prototype for a whole new way of doing conservation,” Brian Rutledge, a National Audubon Society vice-president and Colorado rancher, said. “Instead of curing little postage-stamp representative pieces, it looks at the whole organism at one time, so that we can devise a plan for the whole ecosystem in one fell swoop—that’s why this is important.”
In late May, the Bureau of Land Management (B.L.M.), a “multi-use” agency that manages two hundred and forty-five million acres of federal land, including forty-five per cent of sage-grouse habitat, announced a plan to ban development on about ten per cent of the B.L.M. property that contains sizable oil and gas reserves, in order to protect nearby leks and nesting grounds. It devised the plan with the Forest Service, state agencies, ranchers, miners, and oil-and-gas developers after years of negotiation. The House-approved defense bill includes a provision that would enable affected governors, most of whom are Republicans, to “opt out” of the B.L.M. plan, but few are likely to take up the invitation. The enemy, they say, isn’t conservation itself, which is widely acknowledged as vital and can be molded to fit local conditions, but the particular federal regulations that an “endangered” listing would trigger.
By the end of 2014, more than eleven hundred ranchers managing 4.4 million acres of privately owned land—an area almost as big as New Jersey—had signed on to the Sage Grouse Initiative, a voluntary program created by the U.S.D.A., which restricts grazing practices and herd sizes in order to protect sagebrush. A hundred and fifty-eight ranchers have also signed conservation easements, which ban subdivisions of their properties in perpetuity, a restriction that applies to more than four hundred and fifty thousand acres of land. All of this represents a triumph of conservation at the state and local level. If the bird is listed, many ranchers say that they will assume that conservation is the Feds’ problem, not theirs, and will walk away from the Sage Grouse Initiative.
Whether or not the bird is listed, the species will continue to face the threat of death by a thousand cuts. The greatest menace is the fragmentation of sage-grouse habitat by humans, but that’s hardly the only peril. At higher elevations, juniper is encroaching on sagebrush; at lower elevations, cheatgrass, an invasive species from Asia, is moving in. Cheatgrass replaces the native bunchgrasses and flowers that chicks need with a weed that creates tinder for wildfires, which, fuelled by climate change and drought, consume vast tracts of sage-grouse habitat. Miners and energy developers invariably shred sagebrush landscape. Even when restoration programs are put in place, sagebrush requires many decades to recover. Transmission lines from wind turbines and solar-power installations offer ideal perches for raptors to stare down into the sagebrush. Feral horses and burros, which range farther than cattle and can eat twice as much forage per day, ravage sagebrush terrain; fifty thousand of them now roam through ten Western states. Even sage-grouse physiognomy has been turned against the birds: their eyes point sideways, which is useful for identifying predators but leaves a blind spot straight ahead, causing them to crash into fences.
Of course, few sage grouse live a full lifespan; they’re prey, after all. Each March and April, the males show up at the leks whether or not any females are present; they have a strong loyalty to the lek, which they return to year after year, even if it was turned into a road a century and a half earlier. The males strut, fanning out their spiky tail feathers and displaying two pendulous ochre sacs that hang from their chests like water balloons. The birds take a few steps forward, emit a couple of bongo-like popping sounds, and make a grand lunge that jiggles the sacs portentously. Then they look around, perhaps to see if any females have noticed. The dance looks simultaneously preposterous and archetypal, like something out of high school. The females appear only when ready to conceive. They fly in, pick out a male with requisite genes, and copulate; the act takes all of two seconds. Males usually outnumber females on the lek by at least ten to one, and only a few of the males do all the mating. With possibly unintended vividness, scientists refer to the favored males as “master cocks.” The others, having convulsed to no avail, just watch. They’re dogged birds, accustomed to disappointment.
Watch: Rahman Khandker has been selling produce in TriBeCa for more than thirteen years.