I would venture a guess that the vast majority of Americans have never heard of the sage grouse, let alone seen one. Sage grouse used to be one of the most abundant birds in the sagebrush steppes of the American west, providing food for early settlers and game for modern hunters.
Their complicated and somewhat unusual mating rituals give life to open spaces and their health is an indicator of the health of whole communities. Just watch this short video from the BBC to see how unique these birds are.
Sage grouse are a fun and weird prairie bird (if you want to learn even more about them, check out this longer video from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department) – but as I said in a previous column, from the beautiful and popular, to the bizarre or ugly and hardly-known, all critters deserve protection.
That time is now for the sage grouse. Decades of unsustainable livestock grazing, minerals and energy extraction have now pushed the sage grouse to the brink of extinction. Wildlife scientists in Wyoming say because of encroaching development from humans, sage grouse now only comprise about half the area they used to.
Energy development is one of the threats crowding out the sage grouse. The sage grouse live in sagebrush-covered prairie lands in Wyoming and Montana, areas threatened by the massive coal mining in the Powder River Basin region (which stretches across both states). This mining destroys that land, as well as threatens water supplies for other prairies inhabited by the sage grouse.
To help recover the species, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency responsible for stewarding the majority of America's public lands, has launched an ambitious multi-state effort to promote the conservation and restoration of sage grouse habitat.
This regional sage grouse conservation strategy is a potential herald of change in the way the agency operates. If the strategy is weak and does not address impacts like coal mining and oil drilling, it is likely that the bird’s numbers will continue to dwindle.
BLM is now accepting ideas from the public for how their sage grouse conservation strategy should be developed, and so far we think they are headed in the right direction. A strong plan will keep the sage grouse off the endangered species list and move towards more balanced land use in the West.
The strategy is an opportunity to help the agency move America beyond oil and off coal and towards the development of secure, renewable energy sources while safeguarding our natural heritage.
BLM needs to get this right, and that includes rejecting more coal and oil development in and around the Powder River Basin, or we may see the last of the sage grouses.