Who speaks for the sage grouse?


Across the West, politicians and oil and gas industry spokesmen are wringing their hands, shaking their heads and saying “no” to Bureau of Land Management proposals to set aside large swaths of land for the greater sage grouse, and for federal plans to list the separate Gunnison sage grouse as an endangered species.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper wants the BLM to “look at the public-private partnerships that have been so successful in Colorado as a model on how to get things done.”

Perhaps. But who speaks for the sage grouse? What is at stake are thousands of square miles of the inter-mountain West because prime habitat for both species of grouse is also prime turf for oil and gas rigs and cattle. In Colorado’s Mesa County, Commissioner Rose Pugliese said stringent federal management of the greater sage grouse “will kill us” economically. Commissioner Chuck Grobe in nearby Moffat County worries that $1.1 billion worth of minerals are at risk.

But things sound different in one part of the state’s southwest. “San Miguel County wants to have U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists make a determination based on science, not politics, as to whether the (Gunnison sage grouse) is threatened or endangered,” said Commissioner Art Goodtimes. He added, “Losing another iconic Western species to extinction is a threat to the web of life, and the repercussions could have lasting consequences that we are not even aware of today.”

In Utah, however, San Juan County residents are voicing their opinions in letters to the editor and at public meetings, and some people say the issue is really all about a government conspiracy. As Eric George complained, “The Gunnison sage grouse isn’t the real issue here; no matter what the feds’ PowerPoint presented. This is about corruption and usurpation of power, plain and simple.”

No, it’s not. If we can step back long enough from the rhetoric and the handwringing, we see that we are now in the third great age of extinction on this planet. Not since the dinosaurs disappeared have species been dying with such overwhelming speed. Pulitzer Prize-winning scientist Edward O. Wilson explains, “The causes of extinction intensified throughout the 20th century. They are now the highest ever, and still rising. Almost one in four of Earth’s mammal species and one in eight of the bird species are at some degree of risk.”

This alarming and continuing story about extinction is all about our domination of nature and loss of habitat for all species. It’s also about restraint. The Endangered Species Act of 1973, signed into law by President Richard Nixon, was one of our finest hours as Americans because the legislation represents humility. The law posits that we are only one species on this continent, and that it is our moral responsibility to protect and preserve the diverse life forms our forefathers knew in abundance and bequeathed to us.

Conservationist Aldo Leopold said it simply: “The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts.” Now there are believed to be fewer than 5,000 Gunnison sage grouse. As Westerners, we have moved into their habitat with our oil and gas rigs and our cows.

How ironic it is that across the West, the same ranchers who have been eager to pocket federal subsidies for not growing crops and for protecting habitat by joining the Conservation Reserve Program are now demanding the federal government get out of their lives. In San Juan County, Utah, Conservation Reserve Program payments since 1995 have exceeded $23 million. How much has been paid out across the West for the same purposes?

The sage-grouse controversy is just beginning. A federal listing of the Gunnison sage grouse as an endangered species may change the way the rural West does business, but what’s wrong with that? Can’t we take the long view? When we’ve pumped the natural resources dry and oil and gas are gone, what kind of world will we have left for our children’s children?

Ranching has never been easy, and oil and gas revenues have financially propped up counties across the West. But as my hero, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, said, “We’re not building this country of ours for a day or even a year. It is to last through the ages.”

Who speaks for the sage grouse? That is something every one of us has an obligation to do.

Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Jan 14, 2014 03:28 PM
Thanks Andrew; for speaking for sage grouse and nature in general.The human footprint is to heavy and to much, we are "taking" to much. Especially the prairie where the sage grouse lives.Only one percent has been protected, and we then wonder why prairie species are disappearing. Over half of their sage brush habitat has been plowed of sprayed, to either grow mono-cultures of crops that almost support no life, let alone diversity, or planted to grass to feed more cattle. The private rancher does not want the goverment to tell him what to do on his land.But the public grazer, and energy developer, wants to tell the goverment or the public ,what and how to graze or develop on our land.The remaining public land sage grouse live on is being grazed to much, to the detriment of grouse and other wildlife. It is simple, money is a conflict of interest, and bias's all opinions be they cow or energy development interests,they want it all. They do not want to give back, or compromise one iota. Who really is the radical, the environmentalist, who is altruistic and cares about the planet, or the money interests that only seem to care about themselves and making as much money as they can, at natures expense.If we could preserve and protect a certain percentage, in large enough parcels of habitats, say twenty percent of all eco-systems then maybe that would be enough to sustain species, and keep the mass extinctions from happening,or we can continue to take and use it all for maximum profit and short term gain.
Kyle Gardner
Kyle Gardner Subscriber
Jan 14, 2014 09:20 PM
A very nice piece Andrew, and thanks for offering your heartfelt perspective. This is a critical question that must be asked, and hopefully answered. Who speaks for the grouse? Who speaks for...fill in the blank. We must speak for them. Experts, policy makers, but especially the "regular Janes and Joes who love the land and the critters. This is a worthy cause - to speak for them! Morally and ethically can we afford not to speak out? And can we - can they - afford to wait a moment longer? A season, a decade passes and then what is left for them? What will we have lost? I may only see a single critter in my lifetime - griz or grouse, cougar or condor - but knowing they are there, living where they rightfully belong, is enough. Time to speak up!
Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Jan 15, 2014 01:47 PM
Regarding Teddy Roosevelt's point of view, building for the long haul requires conservation of all resources, including gas and oil. Where will we turn if we exhaust our own reserves?
Larry Bullock
Larry Bullock
Jan 15, 2014 09:59 PM
     Mr. Gulliford, I couldn't have said it better.
     Readers should be aware of the relative proportions of destructiveness. Ranching impacts far more acreage than oil and gas ever will. Ranching started a hundred years before the oil and gas industry and will probably be around after the wells have run dry in 15 - 30 years.
     Gov. Hickenlooper is weak on wildlife conservation, soft on the oil and gas industry, and sympathetic to ag interests. At least in his public statements, that's the politics of the matter.