The greater sage grouse is a peculiar and distinctly Western bird. It's about the size of a chicken and about as adaptable as the dodo bird, which is to say it's not very adaptable at all — at least not in a human-driven time scale.
In biological terms, the greater sage grouse is perfectly adapted for its habitat: the rolling hills of knee-high silver scrub that's sometimes called the sagebrush sea. It's the oft-forgotten parts of the fast-changing West — The Big Empty, as settlers used to call it.
Today, though, it's better known for its other uses: big energy, big mining and big agriculture, which has caused a big problem for the bird.
There are about 400,000 greater sage grouse left on the landscape, spread across 11 Western states, from California to North Dakota. That's a fraction of what their numbers were just a century ago, when homesteaders described them as blackening out the skies.
Human hunting, predators, drought and wildfire have all whittled their numbers, but it's human development that's the main culprit. A recent study by Pew Charitable Trusts found that greater sage grouse numbers decreased by 56 percent from 2007 to 2013.
Because of that decline, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been tasked with determining whether the greater sage grouse needs protections under the Endangered Species Act by the end of the month, a deadline that's led to hand-wringing across the West.
"When they listed the spotted owl in the Northwest, it literally devastated the counties and communities that their living was on timber," says Joel Bousman, a rancher and county commissioner in west central Wyoming. "Our fear here is that it would have a similar impact on oil and gas, grazing, livestock grazing."
The red tape and restrictions to development that would come with a listing, he says, would turn small rural hubs like the town of Pinedale into ghost towns.
'A Mecca For Sage Grouse'
That fear is particularly strong in Bousman's Sublette County. The county is about the size of Delaware, with about 1 percent of the people — 10,000, give or take, some of whom proudly boast that they live in one of the relatively few counties in America that don't have a stoplight. And it's at the heart of the greater sage grouse issue.
Sublette County's economy is 95 percent based on oil and gas, Bousman says. Two of the top 10 most productive gas fields in the country are here in the rolling hills south of the towering snow-covered peaks of the Wind River Range. Those hills just also happen to be the best place in the world to find greater sage grouse.
Wyoming Game and Fish biologist Dean Clause calls Sublette County "a mecca for sage grouse" in no small part because of the lack of people.
"They need very large, vast expanses of sage brush that are relatively quiet and undisturbed," Clause says. And that's becoming an increasingly scarce commodity in much of the West.
"In this day and age, with more people and more and more activity on the landscape, to try to minimize development and disturbance, it's not always feasible," he says.
That's partially due to the fact that for a greater sage grouse, a disturbance can be almost anything that fragments the landscape: roads, transmission lines, wind turbines, cattle fences, subdivisions, oil pads. Odds are if a human built it, sage grouse don't like it.
That's troubling to industry and developers of the land like Paul Ulrich, a Pinedale native who works for Jonah Energy, an oil and gas company.
"A listing would be devastating to our operations," he says.
Jonah Energy has more than 1,600 producing wells in Sublette County, most of them dotting a broad mesa that's prime sage grouse habitat.
"[A listing] would add significant timelines to every aspect of what we do, from drilling to completions, to reclamation, to up-front staking, where we can go, where we can't," Ulrich says. "And the issue isn't just oil and gas. It's ranchers, recreationalists, conservation groups. The impact across the board is significant."
A widely accepted study estimates that $5.6 billion of economic output would be lost if the bird was listed as endangered, which has spurred a lot of people into action.
The Sage Grouse Conservation Effort
On a sunny Friday morning earlier this summer, men and women representing the various parts of Sublette County gathered at the local Bureau of Land Management field office, walking past a stand of sage grouse-adorned pamphlets on the way in. There are representatives present from the BLM, the U.S. Forest Service, Wyoming Game and Fish, a sportsmen's group, a consulting firm, an oil and gas company, a conservation group and a local cattle association.
They meet like this at least once a month to discuss the greater sage grouse and what they can do here, on a local level, to protect its habitat and limit their disturbances to it. None of them wants to see the bird listed as an endangered species later this month.
"Certainly, the Endangered Species Act is a huge hammer that's motivated a lot of people to come to the table," says Tom Christiansen, Wyoming's Sage Grouse Program coordinator.
Christiansen is sitting in on this working group meeting this day, as he does at other local working groups in other parts of the state. Similar local efforts are happening in Montana, Idaho, Utah, Nevada and the other six states that are home to the bird.
The shared hope is that by putting sufficient protections in place for the greater sage grouse, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service won't list the bird as endangered. And for some, that means compromises and sacrifices up front.
The energy companies here in Sublette County say they've spent millions of dollars to fund sage grouse research and in off-site mitigation, a practice that preserves other sage grouse habitat from being developed. Jonah Energy has committed to holding off on the development of a planned 3,500-well operation in a gas-rich field at the southern end of the county because biologists recently determined that it's important winter habitat for the bird.
The state of Wyoming says it has spent nearly $10 million on protecting greater sage grouse in recent years.
Just last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture promised more than $200 million for sage grouse conservation efforts over the next three years, with the hopes of almost doubling the current amount of protected habitat. That's on top of about $400 million that it has already spent since 2010.
"This sage grouse conservation effort on a range-wide scale is the largest conservation effort ever undertaken for a single species, period," Christiansen says.
Not everyone agrees with that characterization, though. Some environmental groups, like the Western Watersheds Project, argue that it could be the largest conservation effort ever undertaken — if it works. And they're not convinced that it will.
"You can sum up all of the plans to protect sage grouse that have occurred over the last year and a half as 'planning to plan,' " says Travis Bruner, executive director of Western Watersheds.
And even those plans, Bruner says, allow for too much development on the landscape, which the science clearly says is bad for the bird. That's why he feels it must be listed under the Endangered Species Act.
"The Endangered Species Act provides us an opportunity to save the greater sage grouse now, before it's too late," Bruner says. "If we wait until we're down to some ridiculously low number of birds to try to reverse these human impacts, it will be much too late."
And by saving the sage grouse, they can save hundreds of other species, too. The sage grouse is what's called an indicator species. It's the canary in the coal mine for the greater sagebrush ecosystem, which scientists say is home to more than 350 species.
What's Good For The Bird Is Good For The Herd
Not all conservation groups feel that a listing would be the most productive end, though, come Sept. 30. The Audubon Society, for one, is supporting the diverse collaborative efforts that are under way in various states to protect the bird because it sees the buy-in from all of the mixed interests as the most effective way to protect the sweeping sagebrush ecosystem, even though they're not perfect.
"Instead of having five federal employees responsible for 160 million acres of habitat, we have 11 states responsible for that habitat," says Brian Rutledge, Audubon's vice president and a Wyoming rancher.
More importantly, he says, you have the buy-in of people who work on the landscape, a buy-in that's not entirely driven by economics.
"People think of ranchers as the Cliven Bundys of the world, and it's not the case," Rutledge says. "I've had ranchers corner me to say that they need help because they wanted the guys that were abusing the cottonwood galleries south of them straightened out because their hummingbirds weren't getting to them anymore."
That sentiment is clear when you spend a few days with the people and ranchers who call Sublette County home.
"The land really grabs you," says Albert Sommers, a local rancher. "It just really gets a hold of you."
Sommers is a Republican lawmaker in the state Legislature and an electrical engineer by training. He's been back on the family ranch since after college, but on most days you'd confuse him for a wildlife biologist, if it wasn't for his baseball cap, which proclaims: "Sommers Herefords: Grizzly Tested, Wolf Approved."
That's because Sommers spends many of his days bent over in the knee-high sagebrush measuring the height and distance between bunch grass and seeing how much of it has been eaten by his cattle. Bunch grass is important for sage grouse, too, and he wants to make sure that his cattle aren't overrunning the hillside, because that would be bad for the bird and bad for his cattle operation down the road. It's an idea best summarized by the phrase "what's good for the bird is good for the herd."
"What it really is, if you take care of the land, it'll take care of you," Sommers says. "In this industry we're in, we're multigenerational, we are sustainability. We can't abuse the landscape we're in."
And, he says, the sage grouse issue has made that abundantly clear.
The West is changing, Sommers says. More ranches are going under. More subdivisions are popping up. And, he thinks, a listing of the bird would speed that up because it would make ranching operations like his economically unfeasible. That, he says, would be the worst thing for the bird. It would make the large tracts of land that see little human impact — like his — open to development.
"If we can preserve and conserve these working landscapes, these economies of the West," Sommers says, about ranches, energy development and recreation, "we can preserve and conserve the ability for a lot of these native species to exist out here."
In other words, Sublette County is never going to be a national park. It's going to have humans on it. It's going to have development. And for a bird that needs wide-open spaces like the sage grouse, he'd argue that it's better to have that development be ranches like his instead of 20-acre subdivided plots.
For Sommers, the debate over the greater sage grouse is much larger than a bird. He's trying to preserve the way of life that his family started three generations ago. "If we fail to do that, and this land just becomes home sites for the next generation of American suburbanites, we'll lose the custom and culture of the West and we'll lose the wildlife of the West," he says.
And he says he won't let that happen without a fight.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A bird the size of a chicken may block a variety of business operations. The bird is the greater sage grouse.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It lives in the American West in dry, treeless countryside called the sagebrush steppe. Settlers once called it the big empty.
INSKEEP: Today, the sagebrush steppe is considered full of opportunity for oil and gas companies, cattle ranchers and others. That's why it's a big deal that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is deciding whether to protect the greater sage grouse.
MONTAGNE: By the end of the month, officials decide if the bird needs protection under the Endangered Species Act. NPR's Nathan Rott reports from Sublette County, Wyo.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Spotting greater sage grouse in the spring is relatively easy. The spiky-tailed males practically want to be found. They strut their stuff out in the open, puffing up mustard-colored air sacs in their chest before popping the air out in a dance that's equal parts cool and weird. Finding greater sage grouse in the summer is harder. They're bedded down for the most part, raising chicks and keeping cool under the gnarled knee-high cover of their namesake shrub, sagebrush. So in the summer when you're wanting to find sage grouse and you meet a guy at a bar who tugs at his beard and says, yeah, he knows where to find sage grouse, lots of them - well, you follow him out into a windswept field, and you watch your crotch on the barb wire fence.
TYLER WILSON: You want me to let you over or under, or you going to be able to...
This guy is Tyler Wilson, and at 6-foot-6, he can step over a barb wire fence without even coming close to his stained blue jeans. He'll be our guide for the day.
WILSON: There's chickens here, yeah.
ROTT: Oh, and one thing about Wilson, he doesn't call this bird by its proper name. To him, this icon of the West is the sage chicken.
WILSON: Chickens are funny. You could be out here now and not see him this evening. I'll guarantee you in the morning there will be chickens in here.
ROTT: We're lucky to have Wilson as a guide because he's a pretty good window into this place. He's a Sublette County local, one of about 10,000, born here, raised here, and worked here in just about every industry this part of Wyoming has to offer - fixing and constructing homes, branding cows, plowing fields, laboring out in the oil and gas fields. So he's got a pretty good idea of what's at stake with sage chickens. And it turns out he's good at finding them.
WILSON: There they are, right there.
ROTT: Whoa, yeah.
WILSON: Four roosters. Them are all rooster bombers we call them. And they don't shoot them because they're tough to eat.
ROTT: In fact, some locals say the best way to eat them is to bring a pot of water to a boil, throw in a bird and your boot, let both cook for a while, then dump out the water, toss the grouse, and just eat your boot, though that hasn't stopped us from trying. There are about 400,000 or so greater sage grouse left in the U.S., spread across 11 Western states from California to North Dakota. That's a fraction of their numbers just 100 years ago when they were described as blackening out the skies. Hunting and predators, drought and fire have all whittled their numbers down, but it's human development that's the main culprit. Dean Clause is a biologist with Wyoming Game and Fish.
DEAN CLAUSE: They need very large, vast expanses of sagebrush that are relatively quiet and undisturbed.
ROTT: Which is an increasingly scarce commodity.
CLAUSE: In this day and age, with more and more activity and more people on the landscape to try to minimize development disturbance, you know, it's not always feasible.
ROTT: Because disturbances can be anything - roads, transmission lines, windmills, cattle fences, oil pads. If humans built it, odds are sage grouse don't like it, which is why the region's key industries are so worried about a potential listing under the Endangered Species Act.
PAUL ULRICH: A listing would be devastating to our operations.
ROTT: Paul Ulrich is with Jonah Energy, one of the biggest oil and gas developers in the state.
ULRICH: It would add significant timelines to every aspect of what we do, from drilling to completions, to reclamation, to upfront staking - where we can go, where we can't.
ROTT: A widely-accepted study estimates that $5.6 billion of economic output would be lost if the bird was listed as endangered. So, needless to say, a lot of people here in Wyoming and around the West don't want to see the bird listed. Even the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which will make the determination this September, has said time and again that it doesn't want to list the bird. They'd rather see states, industry and federal agencies put plans in place that would protect the bird themselves, effectively taking away the need to list it. A lot of work has been done there, but a month out, not everyone thinks they've done off.
TRAVIS BRUNER: I feel the bird has to be listed.
ROTT: Travis Bruner is with Western Watersheds Project, an environmental group.
BRUNER: The Fish and Wildlife Service is mandated to make a science-based decision about whether the greater sage grouse should be listed.
ROTT: And he says the science is clear. Sage grouse don't like human development, and all of the plans that have been proposed by states, federal agencies and industry don't go far enough to curb it. So he says the best way to protect the bird is to list it.
BRUNER: And by protecting the sage grouse, they would tangentially protect many other wildlife species.
ROTT: Sage grouse are what's called an indicator species. They're essentially the canary in the coal mine for the greater sagebrush ecosystem, which is home to more than 350 other species. You see that walking around with our guide from earlier, Tyler Wilson. In the first 20 minutes of walking on his friend's property, just next to a field of sagebrush, we see sage grouse, antelope, lizards and a rabbit. Wilson says the owner of this land is a rancher and a farmer, what you'd call a land developer. But he's also a wildlife lover. And when it comes to hotly debated issues over endangered species and wildlife, people often think those two things are mutually exclusive. There are environmentalists and there are developers, and there's not much room in between. Wilson says that's not the case in Sublette County. It can't be. He tips his hat towards a few grazing pronghorns.
WILSON: See what they're doing? They're walking around here because that's where they belong. He's not environmentalist, but he is. I ain't environmentalist, but I am.
ROTT: In what way?
WILSON: Oh, you love to see the animals like this, but I like to kill them. I ain't going to go poach them. And they belong here for a reason. I mean, they belong here.
ROTT: So do people, Wilson says. And with them, the ranching, the farming and even the drilling rigs that dot a mesa to our south. It's the reality of the world we live in.
WILSON: I don't care who you are, and if you're back in the city, if you got to be heated, it's coming off that mesa. So you going to quit driving? You going to quit heating your house? No, we got to drill. That's just the way the world is. But I'll guarantee you that I can go through that mesa right by them drilling rigs and show you chickens, too, 'cause I know where they're at.
ROTT: So the idea is that they can all - it can all live in the same little world.
WILSON: They can all live in the same environment, but we just got to balance it out and take care of it, and they got to start listening to people that know what they're talking about.
ROTT: There's a real effort here by the state of Wyoming, industry, conservationists and the federal government to do just that. A listing decision is expected at the end of September. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Pinedale, Wyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.