During mating season, the greater sage-grouse gather in “leks” where the males perform an extraordinary strutting ritual. Standing in the brush, they spread out their long, spiky tail feathers and puff out their chests to reveal strange yellow air sacks. “I’m here, I’m here, pick me,” they seem to be saying to the females, though it sounds more like “swish-swish-coo-oopoink.”
The sage grouse are iconic in a series of western states, and now the subject of one of the largest federal conservation efforts in history. From this September, millions of acres of mating grounds are set to be protected under plans drawn up by the U.S. Interior Department and a host of state agencies.
“It is by far the largest comprehensive plan for an individual species. When it comes to together fully, it will cover portions of 11 western states and cover billions of acres,” says David Hayes, a former deputy secretary of the interior and now a visiting fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Estimates show up to 16 million grouse once lived in the west, and that numbers now have fallen as low as 500,000. The federal plan would limit energy and other development on 20 million hectares of federal land–or about 65% of all grouse habitats–and create buffer zones around breeding grounds (the leks), in hopes of rebuilding populations.
Under a court order, the U.S. government has to decide by the end of September whether to designate the bird an official “endangered species.” It doesn’t want to do that: a “nuclear option” that would place too many restrictions on development. The plan, while far-reaching, is actually a compromise. While protecting the grouse, it aims to maximize economic activity, according to the Obama Administration. But it’s being challenged by the oil and gas and wind power industries, which argue the normal planning and development approval process is sufficient protection.
“There’s no doubt the habitat for this bird has shrunk enormously over time and that the laissez faire approach we’ve had to date has led to this point,” says Hayes.
Hayes says the conservation plan is better for industry than an outright “endangered” finding: “Actually, it’s industry’s self-interest to cooperate with this and come up with workable conservation plans. The [alternative] will lead to more draconian legal restrictions on the the oil and gas industry.”
Though the debate centers on the sage grouse, it’s also proxy for the wider environment. Up to 300 species depend on the sage brush for habitat. “It’s not just about the greater sage grouses. It’s also about the ecological health of habitat throughout the West,” Hayes says.