Sage grouse numbers are worse than we thought, the crisis is symbolic of the American political divide, and is well on the road to catastrophic consequences
Throughout the rural sprawl of the American West, the sagebrush ecosystem has slowly been disappearing, replaced by invasive annual grasses and conifers.
With it, sage grouse are disappearing, too.
According to new data from the U.S. Geological Survey first reported by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, there are 80 percent fewer male sage grouse at leks compared to 1965, an annual loss of roughly three percent—one percent more than what was previously believed. Further, half of that loss has come in the last 17 years. This report highlighted five reasons sage grouse are in a steeper decline: habitat conversion to cropland, energy development and mining, conifer intrusion, climate change, and cheatgrass fueling more and hotter fires.
“I wish I could say I’m surprised by this, but I’m not,” said Ashley Ahearn, Science and environment public media journalist.
Ahearn is an award-winning journalist from eastern Washington who is most notable for her work for NPR and member stations over the last decade. While she’s most recently hosted and produced Terrestrial, a national podcast in partnership with NPR’s Story Lab and KUOW in Seattle, she also dove into the world of climate change and created and produced a podcast series on how it’s affecting sage grouse. A riveting and attention-grabbing series, the aptly named Grouse podcast had Ahearn in the heart of the American West, exploring through different interviews the reality of the situation, future advancements we need to make, and some of the work that folks are doing to fight wildfires and the steep declines of the birds.
“Everything I was hearing from scientists and experts that I was talking to in making the Grouse podcast was pointing in this direction of consistent declines with some blips and pockets of healthy populations here and there across the West,” she said. “But the general trend…those new stats are consistent with what I was hearing.”
Since the sage grouse is an indicator species, their declines signal that the sagebrush ecosystem is also in peril. This habitat loss in turn affects other species, such as mule deer, elk, pronghorn antelope, Pygmy rabbits, and a host of reptiles and songbirds. Yet, on a wider scale, in recent years the sage grouse has also been an indicator of our internal relationships as a nation, as the rural-urban divide widens.
With that, I want to add a sixth reason for the bird’s decline: our nation’s political polarization. But before we dive into the nuances of how a bird can signal our civil strife, it’s worth revisiting one of the biggest advancements we made for the species, the 2015 Great Compromise.
Polarized politics is crippling sagebrush country
When the Obama Administration and a bipartisan coalition of Western governors and private industry leaders released the greater sage grouse conservation strategy to protect almost 70 million acres of habitat in September 2015, the plan incorporated federal agencies, over 1,000 ranchers across 11 states, and four governors—John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), Matt Mead (R-Wyo.), Brian Sandoval (R-Nev.) and Steve Bullock (D-Mont.). It also created 98 resource management plans that were based on the “best available science,” according to a release from the White House press. Further, the plan was slated to have federal and state agencies work to reduce the threat of wildfire in western portions of the range.
John Swartout, the rural advisor, in-house sage grouse expert, and representative at the Western Governors Association for the Hickenlooper Administration, remembers when the initiative was released, especially the feeling that bipartisanship had prevailed, a rarity at the time.
“Those of us who had been dealing with the Endangered Species Act for 30-plus years realized at its inception there was a disagreement,” Swartout said. “The disagreement was over, do you list habitats or species? This, by its very nature, becomes adversarial really quickly; it’s polarized. The public supports the Act heavily, and that makes it difficult often to have these conversations, so I think Sec. Salazar, Matt Mead, and John Hickenlooper said, ‘Let’s see if we can get out of this polarization and work together on something that would provide a win-win.'”
“In Colorado, we spent almost $100 million on both Gunnison and greater sage grouse; state money for conservation easements, for working with landowners, working with NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service), and the development of science around it. The whole idea behind the thing was, if we work together we can get to a place outside of that polarity where maybe we could drive the ball to actually enhancing and increasing sage grouse habitat. It’s difficult; the work is difficult and the agreements were difficult. And the science, frankly, is difficult. We’ve protected 2 million acres in Colorado—open space, habitat, and other things—through our programs. We look at that as a win-win when we get people to work together.”
The cooperative approach wasn’t just a signal that public servants in different camps could work together, but it also was touted for how it involved all stakeholders. With western states comprised of mostly public lands owned by the federal government, tensions have risen in the past over certain practices that help sustain rural life. The Bundy Standoff in Nevada is a prime example of how serious things can get when private citizens aren’t brought into the process, and according to Swartout, Hickenlooper used to use Cliven Bundy as a symbol of why landowners and industry leaders needed a seat at the table.
“Hickenlooper thought, ‘Look, the resentment on the local level comes from the fact that they don’t have a seat at the table when decisions are made,'” Swartout recalled. “If you’re in Colorado, we have counties that are more than 75 percent public land. There are a lot that are 50 percent. And those decisions that federal officials make on those lands have impacts on the local communities. We went into our sage grouse policy with the local governments knowing how the game is played and knowing how, intuitively, they’re not going to get everything they want. They want the resource development because that’s where their money comes from. But they agreed to roll up their sleeves and get in the process because we gave them a seat at the table.
“Hickenlooper always had this thing: where does Cliven Bundy come from? Not him specifically, but symbolically. It comes from the frustration that when they do a project and say, ‘NEPA says you need to look at the demographics and economics of the area,’ well BLM goes to the state demographer, runs the numbers, checks the box and that’s the economic analysis of what the impact is. They don’t really work with communities on what that impact is, so people tend to get frustrated that they’re shut out of the decision-making. What we try to do is give them a feeling of having a seat at the table, let them see how difficult it is to balance these things, and see if they’d be part of a compromise. And it matters. Too many federal agencies do a lousy job at giving people that sense of a seat at the table. I don’t care what side you’re on—people need a seat at the table.”
Ahearn remembers the compromise, too. She also remembers the fallout and why a more local-based approach to issues like this is more important than the Feds running the show.
“In that instance, we saw the guillotine descending of listing this species as a motivational factor to bring a lot of very diverse stakeholders to the table across the West to figure this problem out,” she said. “And it was successful. It created this agreement to protect key habitat and some of the best science was incorporated, and still, there were lawsuits that flew back and forth. States withdrew after the fact or a lot of unhappy parties, i.e. ranchers or oil and gas who may have come to the table in good faith and then realized what the actual ramifications were of this agreement.”
“I think we like to think that a federal listing or federal legislation is going to solve a problem, but the more time I spend in the rural West, you see that a lot of these thorny issues—if we’re going to solve them—happen on the deeply local level. Federal action definitely has a role to play, especially in terms of galvanizing action, bringing people to the table, but when it comes down to actual, long-term success, the central empowerment or line of the process needs to be in the smaller community level. I don’t mean the good ole boy network that’s going to keep ranchers doing whatever they want to do or oil and gas do what they want to do, but I do mean a sort of new model of collaboration where it’s deeply centered at the smaller scale. I think a lot of Americans are disenchanted, tired, or distrustful of the federal government’s ability to accomplish anything—and it’s not just Trump supporters—so I think when we talk about more federal involvement to save this bird I’m kind of like, ‘OK well the Feds should be involved but what do the people in Utah say? What do the people in Montana say? What do the people in Idaho say about their sage grouse and how do we bring more diverse stakeholders to the table for those conversations?'”
Bipartisanship and cooperation will save our threatened species
The severe polarization of everything in our nation has become almost a new pastime, but if we want to move forward and make real change, Swartout and Ahearn both believe it’s time to find smart, sustainable solutions.
“It was always about balance and of course people define that differently,” Swartout said. “I’ve been doing this work since Reagan so I see the pendulum swing back and forth and it’s just part of what you deal with. But when things in the polarization get really tough and it seems like it’s getting worse in terms of—and I don’t hold this all on Trump, it’s been moving in this direction for a long time—when they use the Congressional Review Act to undo certain regulatory things from the Obama Administration, my comment to the commissioners who were applauding it in the resource-dependent part of our state was, ‘Be careful, because what you do to them they’ll do to you.’ Whether I agree with the policy determination or not, the question is, ‘Is this the kind of precedent we want to set?’ Where’s the sustainable policy, a policy that can hold up in those pendulum swings? That’s always what I look for. Whether you’re in the oil and gas industry or a landowner, the thing you need is consistency before you invest capital, and these pendulum swings don’t provide that consistency and that makes it difficult.”
“Private landowners, they’re in an interesting conundrum,” Ahearn added. “If there’s anything I’ve learned about private landowners in the West, it’s many of them care very deeply about the lands they inhabit and own. They are also struggling to make a living in these rural places. The question for one of the episodes focused on, ‘Can we have cows and sage grouse?’ And the resounding answer was, ‘Yes,’ however when the rubber hits the road and it comes to making some sacrifices in terms of where you graze your cows and when you graze your cows, that becomes a little more complicated.”
“There are certain sticking points where, even with the best intentions, certain sacrifices are going to be required of private landowners, and the question I have and I think many others have is, are we going to be up for making those sacrifices and at what cost? Is it a threat to the way of life to have sage grouse around in the future? I think we face the same questions with the climate change question; we know we need to reduce emissions, but at what cost to people who rely on driving pickup trucks and a certain price of gasoline to do their jobs in rural America? These are very real questions and I have a deep sympathy for people who are trying to survive on a landscape that is very harsh and is changing before their eyes, and to keep this bird around on top of that.”
Another harsh reality for Western landowners is, as Ahearn mentioned, the threat of climate change. As our planet continues to heat up, wildfires become more frequent and more dangerous. As of late April, drought levels in the West were at dangerous levels, fuel for the many fires that have already broken out and likely will. With that, as conifers and annual grasses like cheatgrass overtake burned areas, suffocating sagebrush seeds which need much longer to take hold and grow, the fires will only get worse.
Simply put, a landowner can put in years of work to maintain their property, and one wildfire could set them back almost entirely.
“That’s nobody’s fault but it deeply harms all those efforts, many of them collaborative between private landowners and environmentalists to protect these key areas of habitat,” Ahearn said. “We’re talking hundreds of thousands to millions of acres of sage grouse habitat burned in recent decades, and that is our collective fault; that’s climate change, that’s drier conditions. Some of these larger existential crises or challenges that face the bird are beyond that individual landowner’s realm of control.”
When asked about how Colorado has worked with private landowners to encourage them to protect land even in the face of climate change and its consequences, she noted the state essentially joined in on a collaborative carbon credit plan with the Environmental Defense Fund, Colorado cattlemen, and the oil and gas industry. This plan attacks the problem from both sides: encouraging landowners with money and creating credits for companies that need to mitigate their carbon emissions.
“We can do conservation easements but it’s a very limited tool; we can do candidate conservation agreements, agreements with assurances…we can do all that and are doing it, but how do you actually put it into a rancher’s bottom line? Especially because the best sage grouse habitat in Colorado is on private land,” she said. “We created this idea of working with the Environmental Defense Fund to…create a credit system that if people would go the extra mile on their private ground to protect the habitat they can get paid for it. And the people buying that would be people that were in an industry that was disturbing habitat and to provide mitigation. On public land, you’re in marginal sage grouse habitat where rules still apply and the companies are forced to do mitigation, and we can take our best habitat and pay a landowner to work with NRCS or someone else to do some substantial work that will grow that population. I know Wyoming had their own version of that, but this idea that we make it part of their bottom line, that they’re getting rewarded. The problem with conservation easements is that it’s Treasury guided, which means that it’s based on appraisals. Those appraisals before and after, if you’re in a rural area which is where the sage grouse are, it’s not a great value for them.
“I think that’s the future: how do we pay them and make it a part of their self-interest? And if we can just get the oil and gas industry to work with that, and minimize their impact we can figure out. Because the goal isn’t to do no more damage, the goal is to reverse it.”
Where do we go from here?
Of Ahearn’s goals for Grouse, one stands out.
“My hope in making the podcast was to make the sage grouse a player, to put it in the front peoples’ minds in the hopes that by understanding the trouble this bird is in and by understanding, frankly, the great intentions of the stakeholders who are trying to figure out life in sagebrush country with this bird still around, hopefully, it would be more front-of-mind when we talk these local partnerships,” she said. “Maybe Western Watersheds, a very litigious environmental group can soften a little bit and come to the table and work with locals, or other groups can step forward that maybe represent a little more of a collaborative approach rather than a litigious approach to solving these problems. It’s not to speak ill of Western Watersheds. They play a very important role; as I said in the podcast, sometimes you just gotta sue. Something needs to be a backstop for the loss of these birds because the numbers are still going down.”
While litigation, objectively, has held back many needed projects it has also killed troublesome permits and projects that would have further led to declines in certain species. With that, most litigation is based on polarized thinking, or, as Swartout put it, the mindset that there needs to be a winner and loser.
“In an us versus them , you have a winner and a loser,” he said. “No one wants to lose and no one wants to think they’re a schmuck. With all the land protection we’ve done over the years, getting people to work together, we generally have been on the right track”
So where do we go from here? Ahearn looks to empowering local and state governments as one means to recover the bird, enhance habitat, and begin to close the ideological rift.
“There is drastic action that is needed and that will come at a cost and it will hurt,” Ahearn said. “I think the way forward is to, gosh, it’s just a combination; it’s the carrot and stick. You have to have the lawsuits but you also need to have people working at the table to get stuff done. That’s the million-dollar question of when do you get litigious and when do you keep your head down and work hard on the ground to say, ‘OK, a wildfire burned this many hundreds of thousands of acres, who’s going to show up now to replant native sagebrush? Who’s going to be asking the questions about can we introduce sage grouse to this habitat or is it trash, or should we be putting our efforts elsewhere and what does that look like?’ Lawsuits aren’t always the answer.
“What’s really emerged for me in making the series is, yes, it’s about the grouse; invariably the story is about the bird, but it’s really about us. How we live with these ‘controversial’ wild creatures really tells us more about our divisions as a society. The sage grouse podcast was really an exploration of the urban-rural divide in this country—the divisions between conservatives and liberals, environmentalists and land-based people who are trying to make a living in rural America right now.”
While Swartout is in line with this localized thinking, he added one more caveat.
“Part of it is driven by litigation,” he said. “The litigants are in that space of black and white where they operate, and they need to be. I’ve been around this a long time and getting good people to come in and do public service is our biggest challenge. Who wants to do it? In this adversarial structure, who wants to go through the grief?”
Journalists tend to be unabashedly honest, and when they’re speaking to a fellow journalist it can sometimes be enhanced more. Before we ended our conversation, Ahearn left me with one last note, one we all know deep down, one that hurts regardless of that.
“Unfortunately, if we don’t solve or starting thinking about how to come together and how to find the common things we can work on and do care about as Americans, we’re going to lose the bird,” Ahearn said. “Just like we’re not going to take action on climate change, these kinds of thorny problems, unfortunately, become the victims of our inability to work together. The place I’m finding hope is the small community where I live, and small communities across the West that are going to have to adapt to climate change. We’re going to try and figure out together do we keep sage grouse around.”
Currently, 55 percent of the bird’s historic range remains. If things don’t change, 45 percent of the remaining leks could disappear by 2041 and 78 percent could be gone by 2077. An indicator species, the bird is telling us one important thing: we have reached critical mass.
Andrew Spellman is a professional journalist and Project Upland's digital editor. A 2017 graduate of West Virginia University, Andrew has written for and produced multimedia content for multiple Mountain State newspapers, securing awards for his work along the way, and has contributed to many outdoor magazines.