Sage Grouse

Greater sage grouse
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services (CC-BY-2)

Tuesday’s announcement that the federal government won't add the greater sage grouse to the endangered species list is being called a historic decision. That’s because the threat of listing spurred state governments, ranchers, the energy industry and environmentalists to come up alternative strategies to protect the bird. Those strategies are being praised by many, but not everyone.

Greater sage grouse. The Department of Interior announced it's decision today not to recommend endangered species protections for the bird.

Governor Steve Bullock says Tuesday’s decision to not recommend endangered species protection for the greater sage grouse is good for both industry and conservationists.

The U.S. Department of Interior has decided that the greater sage grouse, a peculiar and distinctly Western bird, does not need protection under the Endangered Species Act.

In a statement, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said that an unprecedented land conservation effort has already significantly reduced the threats to sage grouse.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the conservation marked a successful effort by the government and ranchers on public and private lands.

Greater Sage Grouse
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Pacific Southwest Region (CC-BY-2)

The federal government could announce whether the greater sage grouse will be added to the endangered species list as early as next week.

Alarm bells echoed across the West in 2010 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warned that the greater sage grouse could be put on the Endangered Species List. The end of this month is the deadline for a final decision. In the interim, there has been an enormous amount of work done to protect the bird – enough to suggest a threat is sometimes big enough to get the job done.

Could this have been the intent all along? To make the threat big enough so that an actual listing might be avoided?

The federal government will decide whether or not to list the greater sage grouse on the Endangered Species List later this month. Another sage grouse species, the Gunnison sage grouse, has been on that list since last November. The government followed a distinct and separate process for the Gunnison grouse, classifying it as “threatened”.

About 170 greater sage grouse gather on Wes McStay’s ranch in northwestern Colorado.  They're here to mate in an open field of recently-planted rye.

Biologists call such a gathering a lek, where male grouse perform an elaborate mating dance that involves inflating two yellow air sacs in their chests and then releasing the air with a bubbling pop. 

In May, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell stepped up to the podium at a press conference in Boise. The smell of damp sagebrush was in the air, and the foothills in the background were green – a rare sight in the high desert. Jewell then cut to the chase:

“Fire is the number one threat to this ecosystem in the Great Basin states,” said the Obama administration cabinet member.

Brian Maxfield is a wildlife conservation biologist for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. And he's a bit of a voyeur.

Back in the spring, Maxfield strapped transmitters to about a dozen greater sage grouse in northeastern Utah. His goal? To spy on them.

Each bird’s every move is now a mosaic of color-coded dots on a clipboard he keeps in his pickup. Today, he’s honing in on the blue dot. And he’s worried.

Sage Grouse
USFWS Mountain Prairie (CC-BY-2)

Governor Steve Bullock Monday signed on to a joint state and federal plan to provide incentives for farmers and ranchers to preserve sage grouse habitat on their land. The chicken-sized wild bird is in decline and could be listed as an endangered species this fall.