Birders and Naturalists Ponder the Fate of the Greater Sage Grouse

The greater sage grouse was almost listed under the Endangered Species Act two years ago. The bird has lost almost half of its sagebrush habitat across 11 western states, and its population has declined from many millions to a few hundred thousand. Audubon Rockies says the greater sage grouse population has declined by 95 percent.

But on Sept. 22, 2015, then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced that the sage grouse would not be listed, because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was confident that threats to the bird were being effectively mitigated by a package of federal and state plans across the West that protected habitat while still allowing for energy development and livestock grazing.

“We had settled on the biggest landscape conservation deal ever made,” said Brian Rutledge, director of Audubon’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative. Mr. Rutledge sat alongside energy industry representatives, ranchers and government officials to hammer out what he calls a compromise among all interests. For example, Mr. Rutledge points out that the deal still allowed for oil and gas drilling, just not in ways that would excessively disturb sage grouse breeding areas.

On June 8, Secretary Zinke announced that the sage grouse plans will be reviewed to “protect sage grouse and its habitat while also ensuring conservation efforts do not impede local economic opportunities” to follow through on President Trump’s executive order on energy independence. On August 7, Secretary Zinke issued the order to revise the sage grouse plans, including modifying the policy on fluid-mineral leasing and development.

“The far left bank of the conservation movement always thought that it should be listed,” Mr. Rutledge said, in reference to the sage grouse. “And the far right pro-development group always wanted no restrictions. But we had a deal in the middle,” Mr. Rutledge said. “Now, the far right folks have the ear of the new Secretary.”

Most concerning, said Holly Copeland, a landscape ecologist for the Nature Conservancy in Wyoming, is the prospect of allowing oil and gas drilling in core areas for sage grouse breeding habitat. Ms. Copeland has published research that showed the 2015 plan would significantly reduce future losses of sage grouse populations, while also benefiting other sagebrush wildlife such as mule deer.

“That plan was a compromise, with concessions by environmentalists and industry. But one key win for sage grouse was to steer leasing away from the most important breeding areas,” said Ms. Copeland.

But under the Trump Administration, the federal Bureau of Land Management has already restarted putting out oil and gas development leases in sage grouse habitat.

The lek where Mr. Obercian, the birding guide, takes his clients is on Bureau of Land Management land in Colorado. Now he’s worried that the greater sage grouse may go the way of another springtime dancing bird, the lesser prairie chicken.

“They have always been part of our Colorado birding tours,” he says. “But last year we had to go to Kansas to see a lesser prairie chicken.”

Where to see Greater Sage-Grouse

On a tour: Evan Obercian guides an April trip to see greater sage grouse, their close cousin the Gunnison sage grouse, and three other dancing bird species on the Lekking Grouse tour (April 3 to 13, 2018, $3,500).

On your own: The Wyoming Game and Fish Department publishes a guide to do-it-yourself lek-watching with locations of sage-grouse leks across the state. Holly Copeland of The Nature Conservancy highly recommends the Twin Creek Lek near Lander. “You just pull up to the side of a dirt road, stay in your car, and the sage grouse will dance right in front of you,” she says, adding that if you bring breakfast and a cup of coffee, it’s a little like a drive-in movie.