The greater sage grouse is an emblem of the open range. This colorful bird—which boasts one of the most impressive mating displays on the planet—once flourished from Alberta, Canada, to northern Arizona. Now its habitat has been cut in half, and its numbers have dwindled from 16 million to 400,000. Decades of habitat fragmentation, along with wildfires and the introduction of invasive weeds due to poorly managed livestock-grazing operations, have eroded the sagebrush sea—an expanse of wide-open wildlands that stretches from New Mexico to Montana. Combine this with a recent trend of unconstrained oil and gas development in the West, and the very viability of the species hangs in the balance.
NRDC has worked for decades to secure meaningful protections that will conserve the sagebrush sea, and most recently, our work has focused on protecting the greater sage grouse and the land it depends upon for survival. We are collaborating with ranchers, sportsmen, scientists, wildlife officials, and energy representatives to map out recovery plans for the bird. The grouse is a hallmark of the West, yet it has lost nearly half of its historic range that at one time covered more than 62 million hectares. After urging the U.S. Department of the Interior to take a comprehensive, national approach to preserving sage grouse habitat, NRDC welcomed the government’s draft management plan in May 2015.
As we work with the Interior Department to strengthen the plan, we are also advocating at the state level for greater sage grouse recovery strategies that feature science-based habitat-conservation measures. And what is good for sage grouse is also good for the 350 other species that depend on having a healthy sagebrush habitat, including elk, mule deer, pronghorn, and golden eagles.
But a one-size-fits-all approach is simply not going to address the multitude of challenges associated with a dynamic range that stretches for thousands of miles. In fact, because sage grouse habitat crosses various ownership jurisdictions—private, state, and federal—over 11 states, strong science-based federal and state management plans are critical for addressing threats to the bird. That is why the federal government made sure to include Western states in the development of these plans since 2011, building upon the foundation for sage grouse conservation initiated by a number of states, including Wyoming’s core area strategy, Idaho’s three-tiered conservation approach, and Oregon’s “all lands, all threats” approach.
Some special interests, particularly oil and gas representatives and mining companies, are bent on blocking long-term protections for the sage grouse. NRDC fights back when they drive legislative attempts to prevent federal agencies from considering whether to add the sage grouse to the federally endangered and threatened species list. We also push back when federal land managers approve fracking in the middle of prime sage grouse territory in Nevada—an area that government officials themselves cite as the most important habitat for the bird.
Wildfire, grazing, conversion of habitat to agricultural use, invasive species, and energy development are a few of the major threats to the sage grouse. And while fossil-fuel development is running rampant across the West, when sited incorrectly, wind and solar power projects can also undermine the already struggling species. That’s why NRDC advocates for a smart-from-the-start approach to renewable energy, working with companies, government officials, and other groups to steer development away from sensitive wildlife habitat. Our Montana office is continuing to build relationships with scientists and wind-industry leaders who are studying ways to conserve sage grouse populations while allowing for responsible development. We are also continuing to collaborate with ranchers, hunters, academics, and local business owners who are committed to protecting the sage grouse.