Sage grouse face a new threat: Kanye West

The famous artist’s Wyoming ranch highlights a conservation battle surrounding the important indicator species.

 

A banded male greater sage-grouse in Wyoming pauses on the lek.

This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is republished here through the Climate Desk partnership.

The greater sage-grouse has a very hard life. Aside from facing predators like foxes, bobcats, and coyotes, the ground-dwelling western bird is also threatened by oil and gas development, miners, ranchers, hunters, climate change, invasive grasses, and, now, Kanye West.

This spring the rapper and presidential hopeful, who purchased a sprawling ranch in Cody, Wyoming, in 2019, got the go-ahead to expand development on the property, which happens to be situated in key sage-grouse habitat. And while West isn’t likely to single-handedly wipe out the sage-grouse with a few (albeit big) ranch upgrades, the episode illustrates how a lack of protection under the Trump administration — which has aggressively sought to dismantle safeguards for the species — has further threatened the already vulnerable bird.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Kanye West (@kanyewestt_official) on

According to permits shared with Mother Jones by officials from Park County, Wyoming, and as first reported by TMZ last month, West plans to add to his ranch several new structures: a two-bedroom lake house; two underground, 10,000 square-foot parking garages; and a 10-bedroom, 52,000 square-foot residence, which coincidentally would be about the size of the White House. (Park County is also where West is reportedly registered to vote, as a Republican.) West had originally hoped to construct an underground “meditation structure” on the property, according to previous reports, though it’s unclear if a facility of the sort will be incorporated into his new plans. (Mother Jones attempted to contact West’s representatives through an email address listed on the latest permits, and did not hear back.)

But it turns out the proposed construction, and the entirety of West’s ranch, fall in “core” sage-grouse habitat, area designated by the state as important for the bird’s survival — and for the health of the larger sagebrush ecosystem, the largest interconnected habitat in America. Although the bird is known for its stunning, jiggly mating dance, the sage-grouse isn’t just a pretty face: As an “indicator species,” it serves as a proxy for the wellbeing of more than 350 other species that share its habitat. It’s seen its population decline from as many as 16 million birds at historic levels to somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 individuals in recent years, thanks in large part to human activity like road construction, oil and gas development, and coal mining.

To conserve the species, back in 2015 the Obama administration approved a bipartisan agreement — imagine that! — that required cooperation between 11 western states and the federal government. The plan aimed to prioritize development outside key sagebrush habitat areas and keep the bird from requiring listing under the Endangered Species Act. All told, it was the largest conservation effort in US history, costing more than $45 million in funding. The deal was a massive experiment to see if environmentalists, ranchers, and energy industry groups could work together to prevent the species’ further decline, explains Brian Rutledge, director of the National Audubon Society’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative, who helped craft the 2015 agreement: “The idea was, and the agreement was, that in 2020, we would review our progress, review our hypothesis, and see if it had held true.”

When the Trump administration took over, the agreement essentially went out the window. “This administration came in,” Rutledge says, “and they hijacked the process — that’s the terminology I use, not the states — and said, ‘your hypothesis has become our conclusion.’ ”

“The blueprint they’re adopting is basically a wish list for industry. There’s no biology or science to support it.”

“Without data, without support,” he says, the Trump administration declared that the sage-grouse didn’t need further protection — a contentious decision I reported on back in 2018. “The blueprint they’re adopting is basically a wish list for industry,” Bobby McEnaney, then the senior deputy director for the Western Renewable Energy Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me at the time. “There’s no biology or science to support it.” By March of 2019, the federal government, which owns about half of the land designated as important sage-grouse habitat, was handing out oil and gas leases in those areas at a rate nearly 3 times higher than it had in the last 15 months of the Obama administration, according to analysis funded by the National Audubon Society, the Wilderness Society, and the National Wildlife Federation.

Environmental groups promptly sued over the leases, and later won; “nonetheless, [the Trump administration is] threatening to offer some of the leases up for sale again,” Rutledge says.

At the same time, the administration has gutted protections for endangered and threatened species across the board, guaranteeing that if the sage-grouse ever did get listed under the act, its protections would be seriously weakened. And, according to Jayson O’Neill, director of Western Values Project, a conservation group focused on the West, federal officials stopped tracking and regulating other kinds of land development in sage-grouse habitat, like extensive ranch expansion projects proposed by billionaire musicians. 

“By saying, ‘We’re no longer going to honor that agreement, that handshake,’ the Trump administration just gave the signal to all the other governments, associations, oil and gas, it’s the Wild West again,” says O’Neill. With the lack of federal oversight, he says, projects like West’s put the sage-grouse’s habitat at risk of becoming even more fragmented. Under state regulations, according to reporting in December by local news outlet the Cody Enterprise, West’s ranch expansion required a sage-grouse “density and disturbance” analysis before permit approval, but it's unclear what the review found. (Mother Jones has submitted a public records request for the analysis.)

  • A permit issued by Park County, Wyoming, shows where Kanye West’s proposed 52,000 square-foot residence will be located.

  • A permit issued by Park County, Wyoming, shows where Kanye West’s proposed parking garages and two-bedroom lake house will be located.

“When we make those one-off decisions without looking at the holistic picture of the habitat degradation, it’s slowly and surely death by a thousand cuts for this species and the 350 other species in that habitat,” O’Neill notes. And, as he points out, West isn’t the only landowner who has potentially benefitted from Trump’s lack of regulation: Other notable ranch owners include RuPaul, who has leased parts of their land to oil and gas interests, and Karen Budd-Falen, a Trump administration official who worked to roll back Endangered Species Act protections while owning and operating “hundreds of thousands of acres overlapping prime sage-grouse habitat,” according to Western Values Project, presenting a clear conflict of interest.

The loss of this key land, Rutledge warns, might not just spell disaster for the critters that inhabit it. “If you ever drive across sagebrush in the springtime, every sage bush and every stand of sagebrush has a berm of snow that engulfs it and surrounds it.” Without the sagebrush, he says, the snow “blows to the nearest exit,” and we are left with “one gigantic high desert.”

“So this is not just about a quaint bird,” he says. “This is about the very survival of an ecosystem and the non-desertification of Western North America.”

Jackie Flynn Mogensen is an assistant editor at Mother JonesEmail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...