What’s good for the land is good for the grouse

Oregon DFW

There’s a mad scramble going on out west to find ways to protect the iconic greater sage grouse from extinction. This peculiar little bird has long been an icon of the American West, ever since droves of them were first documented by explorers Lewis and Clark during their travels across the frontier. Now, the species is being pushed to the edges of survival as rampant oil and gas development threatens to gobble up their native habitat.

More than 9 million acres of sage grouse habitat have already been lost to development. In order to save this well-known bird, The Wilderness Society and other groups are working to protect the last remaining western grasslands that could support the sage grouse’s biological needs for years to come.

Sage grouse depend on hundreds of miles of sagebrush-dominated land for feeding, breeding and nesting. Only undeveloped and unfragmented wildlands will allow these birds to perpetuate on their own without excess human intervention.

Greater sage grouse. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is currently undertaking a huge effort to determine how to protect sage grouse habitat on America’s public lands. More than 50 million acres of BLM and U.S. Forest Service land across ten western states are at stake as the oil and gas industry eyes federally managed lands for natural resource extraction.

In the northwest corner of Colorado, where the BLM is responsible for stewarding much of the state’s remaining greater sage grouse habitat, more than 700,000 acres of land have been found to possess wilderness characteristics. These characteristics, or natural values, are what allow millions of acres of public land to “grow up” to be permanently protected wilderness. Places with wilderness characteristics are technically defined as large parcels of roadless BLM lands with little to no traces of human development—just the kind of habitat that sage grouse need.

Of these 700,000 acres, 80 percent contain vital sage grouse habitat. Protecting these special places is the best thing that we can do to ensure the survival of imperiled sage grouse populations.

Pronghorn antelope and greater sage grouse both depend on the same habitat to survive. Photo: Sasha Nelson, CEC

Sage grouse are found in places with uniquely western names like Coffeepot Spring and Shaffers Draw, both of which are wilderness quality habitats and should be protectively managed by the BLM. These wild landscapes of sagebrush sea and juniper trees are not only important for sage grouse, they’re also popular destinations for hiking and wildlife photography. Well-known residents such as elk and pronghorn antelope depend on the sagebrush ecosystem might not be around for future wildlife-watchers if sage grouse populations are allowed to dwindle or disappear entirely.

Now is the time to save this iconic species and America’s western heritage. By identifying the overlap between sage grouse habitat and wildlands, the BLM can designate permanent sage grouse sanctuaries and effectively protect the species along with other native wildlife and outdoor recreation opportunities. Prioritizing conservation of areas with multiple values would be a smart approach to public land management, and will influence future management across the country for years to come.