Saving The Sage Grouse: Series Preview

Sep 4, 2015

Over the last few months you’ve heard a number of reports about a species of bird that lives in Idaho and 10 other western states. The greater sage grouse is in the spotlight as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decides whether the bird merits listing under the Endangered Species Act. If the grouse is listed, it could have devastating effects on the regional economy. 

The animal will be the focus of a KBSX series next week called “Saving The Sage Grouse.” Reporter Frankie Barnhill spoke with Morning Edition host Dan Greenwood about this multi-layered issue. Here's their conversation.

Dan Greenwood: So, take us back. When did this issue begin?

Frankie Barnhill: Well biologists first started raising the alarm about the declining numbers of sage grouse in the mid-90s. An estimated 16 million birds used to roam the range – but that number has declined by 95 percent. In the early 2000s there were a number of petitions filed by environmental groups, they were seeking federal protection for the bird. National and state agencies – including the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service – got together to make a range-wide conservation strategy. After the bird was not given a listing in 2005, environmental groups sued. Then in 2011, Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to a deadline for determining if the species needs federal protection. That deadline is finally here, it’s September 30th.   

So we’ve heard a lot of coverage on the sage grouse lately, and frankly it all sounds pretty complicated.

Well, it is! With 11 different states involved, the question of whether or not to list the sage grouse is as much a political story as it is a biological one. But what’s so captivating about the issue is this: it’s created what many people are saying is the largest effort to save a single species ever. People who usually don’t work together – and historically have been adversaries – have become partners in conserving the sagebrush ecosystem. Ranchers and environmentalists, biologists and oil and gas executives, all the way up to state governors and an Obama cabinet member have all worked really hard to protect what’s left of the sagebrush sea.  

As we said, you’ve been reporting on the bird for next week’s series.  What else will we learn from those reports?

Well on Tuesday morning we’ll share a profile of the bird, which is known for its elaborate mating ritual. The males strut and chirp and puff out their chests to try to get the attention of hens on the leks – leks are the names of their annual mating grounds. We’ll follow one bird through a typical life cycle as a way of helping folks understand this complex creature.

We’ll also go to Colorado and Wyoming for a report on oil and gas production, as well as ranching. People there who normally aren’t on the same page when it comes to conservation have been working together quite well.  We’ll hear from one energy company that’s actually pulling back on development in hopes of avoiding a listing of the greater sage grouse. 

You mentioned oil and gas. That industry has gotten a lot of attention because of its effects on sage grouse populations. But besides oil and gas production and ranching, what else threatens the sage grouse?

It’s a good question – the short answer is a lot of stuff. In Great Basin states like Idaho, the biggest threat is a one-two punch: invasive species like cheatgrass that have created unusually ripe conditions for wildfire. So this year, the Department of the Interior directed BLM fire managers to do all they can to protect sage grouse habitat, during the heat of battle. My story will take listeners to a fire in eastern Oregon where the new policy was tested this summer and was pretty successful. But we’ll also look at the policy through the lens of the huge Soda Fire that burned in southwestern Idaho and damaged a lot of sage grouse habitat.  

With all these different dangers the bird faces in all these different states, do you think it’s possible to save the sage grouse without a listing?

That is the billion dollar question, and one the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is weighing. In the eleventh hour, it’s really not clear which way they’re headed either. Our final story in the series will sort of get at that question: could the threat of the listing – and all the collaborative efforts and the money spent on the issue – could that have been the goal all along? To save a species with the threat of a listing?

Frankie Barnhill – thank you very much.

Thank you, Dan.

You can hear all five of our reports next week.  The series “Saving The Sage Grouse” begins Tuesday morning.