Way out on the sagebrush sea of the American West, people are embarking on an uncharted new journey called community-based conservation. Their flagship is the greater sage grouse, a bird that has narrowly avoided being added to the endangered species list because of the cooperative efforts of people around the region.
The decision not to list the sage grouse signals the beginning of a bold new experiment. For many years, people in communities around the West have been arguing that they are the best stewards of their local public lands, resources and wildlife. Now, locals are being given the chance to prove it.
The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, which controls about half of the 258,000 square miles of existing sage grouse habitat in 11 Western states, is working closely with state wildlife agencies, and local users of the public lands on conservation plans for the sage grouse. Owners of ranches that provide important habitat are also involved as is the Western Governors’ Association, which has made sage grouse conservation a top priority.
Together, they have succeeded in keeping the sage grouse off the list. But now comes the tough part: actually learning to live with sage grouse. If Westerners succeed at that, it will provide compelling evidence that community-based conservation efforts can manage species and ecosystems without the heavy hand of a listing and all of the regulation that follows.
But if they fail, it will be on a grand scale.
The sage grouse has been called the spotted owl of the inland West and the proverbial canary in the coal mine for the health of the region’s sagebrush grasslands. These are not the most scenic stretches of the West, though this is the heart and soul of the region.
To see these birds dancing at dawn on a cold spring day and to hear their call echoing across a high desert valley — as I have in northern Nevada — is not something that stirs feelings of grandeur. Instead, it evokes loneliness and vulnerability.
This is a vast, harsh landscape. Few people can live out here. And yet, these birds have made it back to their lek, as their mating grounds are called, to participate once more in the ancient ri tual that begins their migratory round, from the dry uplands to the nearby creeks and streams where they raise their young in the summer, then back to the shelter of the sagebrush for the winter.
There is no reason communities in the West cannot ensure that sage grouse survive, but there are plenty of reasons why they might not. A sage grouse lek that sits over a valuable natural gas deposit is soon surrounded by wells and roads. New powerlines cut through sage grouse territory. Cattle graze tender plants that provide food for young sage grouse and grasses that shelter the birds the rest of the year. Subdivisions sprawl into the sagebrush on the edge of a Western town.
Any one of these is no big deal. It could be argued — indeed it is argued all the time — that any given sage grouse habitat is marginal. In many cases, it is true. But often, marginal habitat is all that is left. That is why the sage grouse was a candidate for the endangered species list. Half of the sagebrush habitat that existed 200 years ago has been converted into something else, and their populations have declined precipitously everywhere until recently.
Business as usual is what has driven the greater sage grouse to its precarious brink. The best you can say is that in recent years their decline has slowed and in some cases sage grouse populations appear to have stabilized, while a few have increased.
That is why I believe the decision not to list the sage grouse is not an ending. It is just the beginning of something that everyone who cares about the future of the West should be watching closely. It will take a community to save the sage grouse.
Jon Christensen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He spent 12 years as a journalist in Nevada and is currently on a graduate fellowship in history at Stanford University. He lives in Palo Alto, Calif., but returns east to the real West as often as possible.
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