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

The Continuing Plight of the Sage Grouse

Air Date: Week of
The greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) is a large, ground-dwelling bird. (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The dwindling sage grouse population in the American west has caused a longtime controversy over whether to list the bird as an endangered species. Ten years ago we reported on the plight of the sage grouse. Host Bruce Gellerman updates the story with Tim Griffiths from the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service. Griffiths says an unlikely alliance has come together to protect the sage grouse without putting it on the endangered species list.


GELLERMAN: For a bird just a bit bigger than a chicken, the sage grouse has stirred out of proportion passions. Once, the sage grouse numbered in the millions and occupied more than 175 million acres across the northern plains of the US and Southern Canada. But today there are just a few hundred thousand left. Environmental advocates want the sage grouse placed on the Endangered Species List, but then there are those like Utah Republican congressman Jason Chaffetz who says the sage grouse should be listed on the menu of a French bistro.

Sage-grouse mating dance

We first reported on the plight of the sage grouse a decade ago. And today, as part of our on-going series updating some stories from the past, we find out what’s happened since 2002 when we broadcast that story by reporter Clay Scott.

In this clip from his story, we hear Clay and Ben Deeble of the National Wildlife Federation.

SCOTT: Sage grouse can have home ranges of hundreds of square miles, yet each year, like spawning steelhead, they return to the exact same spot to mate. But that extraordinary fidelity to place also makes them vulnerable to changes in their habitat, and almost everywhere the birds live that habitat is being altered, sometimes radically.

DEEBLE: They’re like the canary in the coal mine, from the standpoint that they’re one of the first species that disappears as these sage steppe ecosystems become unraveled.

SCOTT: The sage steppe ecosystem is a vast, arid area of mostly public land stretching from eastern California to the western edge of the Dakotas. Sage grouse, in particular, are dependent on old growth sagebrush. Their mating and nesting grounds have been disturbed by oil and gas drilling, coal bed methane development, the conversion of sagebrush to agriculture, and especially by the grazing of livestock.


Throughout the west the majority of grazing has been on leased federal land. Now, some environmental groups say it’s time for that practice to stop for the sake of the sage grouse and for the health of the entire ecosystem. But ranchers here say banning grazing on public land would deal a death blow to entire communities. Roger Peters is the owner of the Dragging Y Ranch. Like many ranchers, he’s suspicious of what he calls the environmental agenda.

PETERS: In Beaverhead County, Montana, we’re dependent on grazing on federal lands because that’s so much of what there is. You know, we live here. You have to use federal lands because there’s not enough deeded land to go around. So now it appears to us that sage grouse, they say, "Ah, sage grouse, we’ve got them on sage grouse. We’ll get them on something eventually to get their cows off the public lands."

SCOTT: Peters’ ranch is on 60,000 acres of his own land, along with several times that amount of leased federal land, much of it sage grouse habitat. He says he manages the land in an ecologically sound way and he has no patience for those who want to tell him when and where to graze his cattle. He’s especially angry at those environmental groups who think the sage grouse should be put on the endangered species list. If the bird is listed, Peters says, many western cattle operations would effectively be brought to a halt.

PETERS: Why penalize the guy that’s got the last one? He’s obviously the best caretaker of this endangered species, whatever it is. But whoever the poor guy is, the endangered species are found on his place, he’s the one whose management is penalized.

Male Sage Grouse during a mating display. (Photo: Flickr CC/vividcorvid)

GELLERMAN: Well, that was the situation in southwest Montana back in 2002. And now to update our sage grouse story, we turn to Tim Griffiths. He’s the Sage Grouse Initiative Coordinator for the Natural Resources Conservation Service at the USDA.

GRIFFITHS: That last piece that you had played gave a situation where the sage grouse is really a canary in a coalmine. Because they have incredibly diverse seasonal habitat requirements and extensive home ranges, they really occupy habitat that's home to a whole host of other species like elk, mule deer, pronghorn, as well as a lot of neotropical migrants. And what the landscapes represent are really the Wild West. It's the large, un-fragmented base that we have left and that's why the birds are still there.

GELLERMAN: So there's a lot at stake over this little bird?

GRIFFITHS: This is a very high stakes game.

GELLERMAN: So there was a huge controversy back in 2002 when we aired our story about sage grouse about whether the animal was going to be listed as an endangered species. What's happened? Did the sage grouse get listed as an endangered species?

GRIFFITHS: Well, a lot has happened. The Fish and Wildlife Service who actually makes that determination most recently in March of 2010 determined that sage grouse were, in fact, biologically warranted for listing under the Endangered Species Act but precluded by other, higher-priority species.

GELLERMAN: So the sage grouse is considered endangered but not legally because there are other animals which are threatened more.

GRIFFITHS: Exactly. So it's quote "biologically warranted" but they literally don't have the resources to move forward with the listing at this time.

GELLERMAN: So it's a matter of money?

GRIFFITHS: It is. At the same time, what we've really done, the U.S. Department of Ag, because of the huge nexus between, you know, obviously, our livestock producers out west and sage grouse, have really taken what appears to be a major threat to the agricultural community and turned it into just an amazing good news story filled with opportunity to voluntarily recover this imperiled species, at the same time increase sustainability and productivity of these western ranches.

GELLERMAN: Well, tell me more. You say that there's a voluntary silver lining to the sage grouse story.

GRIFFITHS: Absolutely. So what we've really done, starting early 2010 at the US Department of Ag, really took it upon ourselves to find out everything we could about sage grouse and what we learned was that sage grouse are highly clumped in their distribution. There's literally two here, three here, 500 here. And so if we can identify where these high abundance centers are for instance, we can proactively target resources to alleviate threats facing sage grouses in that area.

GELLERMAN: So you don't have to deal with all 186 million acres, you can just look at these hot spots.

GRIFFITHS: Exactly. So now that we know this, we can literally go to these areas and then do enough of the right practices to actually benefit populations of birds and use science to assess the benefit, to quantify the results, to continually adapt our program to make sure we're achieving the biological results that we wanted.

GELLERMAN: But besides the cattlemen and the grazing issues, you've got eco-energy interests, mining, gas, wind power that have been moving into this and are environmental drivers. How are you going to deal with those interests?

(Photo: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife)

GRIFFITHS: Another great question. So what you're seeing is a question of not if you're going to extract those resources but where you're going to do it. And so you're seeing this invent of what they're calling these core areas. So I'll take you to Wyoming, for example. That's ground zero for oil, gas, and wind and sage grouse. The most populous state of sage grouse anywhere in the world. They have about 38 percent of all the birds, and literally have energy resources directly overlaying those - so what's happened was former governor David Freudenthal had established a sage grouse task force made up of energy, agriculture, and state and federal governments that delineated out those core areas where the majority of the birds were. And by doing so, they opened up roughly 75 percent of the state and that gives energy the green light and the certainty to know that they can go ahead and develop our nation's energy future and at the same time preserve these incredibly large, intact landscapes that support the majority of sage grouse.

GELLERMAN: So you can have peaceful coexistence between ag interests, energy interests, and the sage grouse interests.

GRIFFITHS: Without a doubt. And that's the novel concept here. They're really capitalizing on the shared vision. Nobody wins if we end up listing this bird and we have all these restrictions put in place that really have dire economic consequences for both our ag and our energy and for western economies in general.

GELLERMAN: Joining us from Bozeman, Montana has been Tim Griffiths. He’s the sage grouse initiative coordinator for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Well, Tim, thank you so very much.

GRIFFITHS: Thank you as well.



Listen to our 2002 piece on the Sage Grouse

Learn more about the Sage Grouse Initiative—a non-regulatory success story.


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