The greater sage grouse saga is but just one salvo in the U.S. frontier war—pitting fossil fuel extraction against environmental conservation—but the Obama administration's announcement on Tuesday that it would not issue Endangered Species protections for the iconic bird made clear who won this battle: the oil and gas industry.
In a statement Tuesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service along with the Department of the Interior framed the decision as a win for the sage grouse, highlighting what they described as an "unprecedented" public-private conservation effort between ranchers, energy developers, conservationists, and states.
And while some environmental organizations are celebrating this partnership, conservationists are sounding the alarm.
Randi Spivak, director of public lands at the Center for Biological Diversity, said that she would grade the overall sage grouse conservation campaign a solid "D."
"Greater sage grouse have been in precipitous decline for years and deserve better than what they’re getting from the Obama administration," Spivak said in a press statement. "While there are some important improvements for sage grouse in the new federal land-management plans, they still ultimately fall short of what’s needed to ensure these birds’ long-term survival."
The chicken-sized bird ranges across 11 western U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. Sage grouse once numbered in the millions but now have an estimated population of 200,000 to 500,000.
"In the end, this decision seems more based on political science than biological science."
—Randi Spivak, Center for Biological Diversity
Spivak explained to Common Dreams that the conservation plan was developed as a compromise with certain stakeholders, such as livestock ranchers and the oil and gas drilling industry, in mind.
For example, despite recommendations from the federal government's own scientists to grant sage grouse mating zones a four-mile buffer, the conservation plan in Wyoming—where 40 percent of the existing population resides—only calls for a 0.6 mile perimeter for non-surface occupancy, or horizontal drilling. Both the noise and drilling itself impacts the sage grouse, causing the birds to abandon these crucial areas, known as "leks."
Further, there were a number of instances where lands initially considered a "priority habitat," due to the high concentration of the birds, were stripped of that designation by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) after being challenged.
Spivak said, "It's interesting to see the oil and gas industry up in arms about the plan, but I look at it and see that [the government] didn't withdraw a single acre. They can still drill."
The BLM also failed to address the impact that livestock grazing had on the species, particularly through spreading non-native "cheat grass," which facilitates uncharacteristic wildfires, in turn further threatening the sage grouse's survival.
As an "indicator species," the survival of the sage grouse is emblematic of the strength of the region's fragile ecosystem, which has been under increasing threat from the competing issues of climate change and ecological destruction through overgrazing and development.
"The sage grouse is the canary in the coalmine for the whole sage brush ecosystem," Spivak explained. She said there are 350 species dependent on that system: "songbirds, pronghorn deer, snakes, rabbits, a whole complement of wildlife... "
While the new government plan may slow the rate of decline, Spivak said there is no room for this sort of compromise in seeking sage grouse protection. "This is a pass/ fail. If they get it halfway, it's still a failure."
"In the end, this decision seems more based on political science than biological science," she concluded.