If you happen to be deep in Western grassland country on a spring morning, just after the break of dawn, get ready to hear a strange pop-pop-pop sound, like champagne bottles uncorking. It's the sound made by a dozen or so dancing birds.
"When a male greater sage grouse wants to attract a mate, he fluffs out his feathers, swells up his neck sac, and waggles, thumps, and struts his heart out," says Amanda Jahshan, an NRDC wildlife energy conservation fellow based in the organization's Bozeman, Montana, office. "It's one of the most impressive mating displays on the planet."
It's also increasingly rare. A century ago, an estimated 16 million greater sage grouse mated and nested across the West. Today, as few as 200,000 of these large, spiky, chicken-like birds are left. And this is bad news because the sage grouse, as it's commonly called, is what's known as an indicator species. "If they aren't doing well, chances are that other species depending on the sagebrush ecosystem are also in trouble," says Jahshan.
But she and other wildlife advocates at NRDC have spent several years working with the U.S. Department of the Interior on a plan to save these birds. By doing so, they also hope to restore and protect the native habitat of more than 350 species in the West, including elk, mule deer, and golden eagles.
What's good for the bird is good for the herd
"Protecting sage grouse habitat is the key to protecting the sage grouse," Jahshan explains. The birds can now be found on 165 million acres of open sagebrush and grassland country spreading across 11 states—which might seem like a lot, but it's less than half of their original habitat. Oil and gas drilling, coal mining, farming, invasive plants and animals that infringe on native species, and other disturbances have destroyed the rest, and the oil and gas lobby’s influence on Congress continues to be the biggest obstacle to reform. "They want to gut the environmental laws that protect these birds," Jahshan says.
Dwindling prairie land means fewer sagebrush leaves, as well as the other leaves, stems, buds, and insects that make up the sage grouse diet. But Jahshan argues that it's also bad news for everything else in the West. "Healthy sagebrush prairies help limit the spread of wildfires because native grasses are more fire-resistant," she says. One invasive species that is partially responsible for the destruction of sage grouse habitat, cheat grass, is far more flammable than the native species, according to studies.
The sagebrush ecosystem also contributes more than $1 billion to Western tourism every year, as the grasslands are popular destinations for camping, hunting, and other forms of outdoor recreation. "In protecting these open spaces," says Jahshan, "the government will be preserving outdoor traditions that are an important part of Western life."
There's an assumption that anyone who makes a living off these lands is against sage grouse preservation, but Jahshan is quick to dispel the stereotype. "Not all ranchers are reluctant sage grouse lovers!" she says. "Many understand that what's good for the bird is good for the herd."
Doug Thompson, a county commissioner in Lander, Wyoming, and a member of the state's Sage Grouse Implementation Task Force, is one of them. "Across the West, ranchers like me have spent many years of hard work to cooperatively maintain and enhance the sagebrush landscapes," he says. "The successful conservation of the greater sage grouse, our livelihoods, and the future of our children depend on coordinated plans for managed grazing and healthy working landscapes."
An effort called the Sage Grouse Initiative, made up of more than 1,100 ranchers across the West, has already helped to restore more than four million acres of sagebrush prairie. "They get that a native habitat is healthier and more sustainable for all the West's residents and wildlife," Jahshan explains.
How the West will (hopefully) be won
Efforts to save the greater sage grouse date back several decades. It all began in 1974, when NRDC sued to force federal land agencies to protect the West under the National Environmental Policy Act. The current plan, unveiled by the Interior Department in May 2015, unites environmental groups with sportsmen, ranchers, and government agencies to roll out a unified conservation plan with 14 individual recovery strategies, all focused on protecting the bird.
Hard-rock mining, oil and gas drilling, coal extraction, and other destructive activities will be restricted (though not fully banned) in the sage grouse's core habitat. New development on federal lands in breeding areas will also be curtailed. "This is the largest conservation effort we have seen in decades," says Jahshan. "If it works, it could help turn the tide."
But she and her colleagues consider the new plan to be "the floor, not the ceiling" on what needs to be done to save the bird and prevent the spread of wildfires. "The recovery plan doesn’t adequately address the cause of those wildfires," she says. "But it's a step in the right direction."