Dirty Dancing in the Big Empty

A new documentary spotlights the sad plight of the greater sage grouse: They’re running out of dance floor.

Jeannie Stafford/USFWS

Each spring throughout the West’s vast sagebrush sea, one of the animal kingdom’s strangest rituals rises out of the cold, barren landscape. That’s when male greater sage grouse strut their stuff, inflating bulbous, yellow air sacks hidden deep in their breasts. Their exhalations beat like kettle drums and wheeze like zippers opening in the dry desert sage. It’s enough to give any female grouse goose bumps.

Unfortunately, this flamboyant mating dance hasn’t been enough to boost numbers for these birds, whose population has dwindled from an estimated 16 million in the 1800s to as few as 200,000 today.

This week’s PBS Nature documentary, The Sagebrush Seadirected by Marc Dantzker and Tom Swartwout, and produced by the Cornell Lab of Ornithologytells the tragic tale of this western icon. Relentless industrial development is crowding the bird’s style as it cuts into the its habit and shrinks mating grounds. Nobody should put this birdy in a corner.

“The greater sage grouse really is the canary in the coal mine,” says Bobby McEnaney, NRDC’s senior lands analyst (disclaimer). “It’s a real indication of poor sagebrush habitat, which impacts a variety of species in many areas.”

Today, the greater sage grouse is at the center of one of the biggest conservation battles since the spotted owl. After decades of pressure from environmental and conservation groups, the federal government is expected to release a major greater sage grouse recovery plan by early summer.

And come this fall, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to decide whether to declare the bird endangered—a designation that some members of Congress are trying to block before it’s even made. States are also trying to avoid that level of protection but doing so by working on strong conservation plans of their own. One thing’s for sure—something has to be done to save the greater sage grouse.

“I can’t imagine what the West would be without them,” says McEnaney. It would be a dull world, indeed. Without suitable grouse habitat, the sagebrush sea would lose its rhythm, and all its other inhabitants could soon fall out of step.

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by NRDC.org and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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