MINERAL COUNTY, Nev. — In the frozen chill of a high-desert morning, Tony Wasley, the director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife, peers through a range finder down a dirt path and points out a group of birds strutting and preening among a low scrub brush. It’s mating season for the sage grouse, and dozens of males are descending upon breeding grounds, called leks, to show off their plumage to the hens.
The 40 or so grouse at this lek near the Nevada-California border look ridiculous. They waddle around, occasionally heaving their bodies into flight, sometimes chasing off younger males and always trying to one-up each other. They are the avian equivalent of a club-goer showing off his shiny new coat.
They are also at the center of a years-long battle that pits environmentalists who want the sage grouse protected under the Endangered Species Act against ranchers, gold miners, energy producers and Western state governments that stand to lose billions of dollars in tax revenue and economic activity if tens of millions of acres are blocked off from development, exploration or use.
The tension between the federal government and Westerners who want to use government-owned land garnered new attention last month, when the Bureau of Land Management moved to round up cattle owned by Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy over more than $1 million in unpaid grazing fees. Some state officials fear a decision to list the sage grouse, which would severely limit everything from grazing to energy development on a huge swath of land, could create a slew of new Bundys all over the rural West.
“Western states never welcome outsiders coming in and telling them how to do something,” said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, D, who co-chairs a bipartisan task force working to conserve sage-grouse habitats and prevent its inclusion on a list of threatened animals.
The fight over the sage grouse is similar in many respects to the debate over the Northern spotted owl, which in 1990 was listed as threatened. That decision shut down timber operations across more than 24 million acres in Northern California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, contributing to the industry’s precipitous decline.
The difference is that the sage grouse covers about 165 million acres, almost seven times the range of the spotted owl. The economic impact of virtually shutting down development in sage-grouse habitats could be orders of magnitude greater than what happened in the Pacific Northwest.
Much of the sage-brush range already is being drilled for oil and natural gas, while thousands of new wells wait for permits. Renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind farms, dot the sage-brush range. Even a gold mine in rural eastern Nevada would be affected.
“It’s going to affect agriculture, oil and gas, wind, all kinds of different industries,” said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs at the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance. “We’re talking about such a wide-ranging impact.”
The sage grouse has a long history in the American imagination. It is represented in Native American traditional dance and artwork. Lewis and Clark brought back drawings of a bird they called the spiny-tailed pheasant. Conservationist Rachel Carson warned in her seminal work, “Silent Spring,” that sage-brush habitat was being converted to grassland for livestock.
Sage grouse populations have “been declining significantly in numbers, and it’s very susceptible to development,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a December interview with The Washington Post.
“When you look at the Western landscapes and you look at what’s happening, there isn’t a state where there’s this habitat that’s not in some form of trouble.”
The federal Fish and Wildlife Service, which ultimately is responsible for deciding whether to include an animal on the endangered-species list, has been considering the several subspecies of sage grouse for about 15 years.
In 2005, the agency decided it would not list the grouse as threatened. Environmental groups filed a lawsuit, and a federal judge overturned the finding two years later. In 2010, the agency said the bird warranted protection.
Under an agreement between Fish and Wildlife and the environmental groups, the agency has until the end of September 2015 to propose rules governing the bird’s habitat or to decide to change its mind.
Environmentalists say protecting the sage grouse and its habitat is crucial to saving many more species, such as the pronghorn and the pygmy rabbit, that call the high desert home.
“The sage grouse is an umbrella species, so it’s sort of the canary in the coal mine,” said Randi Spivak, the public-lands program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups that initially sued the Interior Department to force it to recognize the sage grouse as threatened.
It’s not just industry that wants to keep the sage grouse off the endangered-species list. States are working desperately to convince the federal government to decline to list the bird.
The 11 affected states set up a bipartisan task force in 2011, co-chaired by Hickenlooper and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, R, aimed at working with Fish and Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies to coordinate conservation strategies and resource-management plans.
“The focus of all this is, how do we demonstrate that we’re going to do a better job of creating a proactive strategy?” Hickenlooper said. “We can probably do a better job with our local programs and partnerships than Fish and Wildlife can, trying to regulate from afar.”
The stakes involved in Fish and Wildlife’s decision are huge. The bird’s historic range covers 160 million acres across the Mountain West region, including huge swaths of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon and Nevada, along with smaller parts of Washington, California, Utah, Colorado, South Dakota and North Dakota.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service … must follow the best available science, and it must make sure that whatever’s being done is proven to be effective. And so we’re trying to keep all governors at the table,” Jewell said. “If one state doesn’t play, it could impact all of them.”
A listing decision could harm state conservation efforts, some officials said. Putting the sage grouse on threatened status “will be an incredible disincentive for states to develop voluntary conservation strategies,” said Shawn Reese, Mead’s policy director in Wyoming.
Estimates of the total economic impact depend on which conservation plans the government chooses. Plans calling for the strictest conservation measures could cost up to 31,000 jobs, up to $5.6 billion in annual economic activity and more than $262 million in lost state and local revenue every year, according to a widely cited study conducted by environmental lawyer Lowell Baier that is accepted by interests on both sides of the debate.
Several members of Congress have urged the Interior Department to hold off on making a final determination. Last July, Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Mark Udall, D-Colo., invited Jewell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to their state to see the progress Colorado had made in protecting the Gunnison sage grouse.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., have released a discussion draft of a bill that would address sage-grouse conservation. In February, 10 governors met with Jewell and Fish and Wildlife Service Director Daniel Ashe.
State land and wildlife managers almost uniformly believe the Fish and Wildlife Service will rule against them and list the sage grouse as threatened.
“They’re leaning toward listing it as threatened,” said John Harja, head of Utah’s Public Lands Policy Coordination Office and a member of the multi-state Sage Grouse Task Force. “We have great concerns.”
If the greater sage grouse is listed as threatened, the 11 states could be on the hook for as much as $1 billion in conservation costs. Adding to that burden, most states fund land programs through user fees, rather than out of general funds; declaring a species threatened makes it harder to generate those fees.
“If the hunters can’t hunt, if the miners can’t mine, if you don’t have that capital, then you lose,” said Leo Drozdoff, director of the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. A billion-dollar tab to save greater sage-grouse habitat, he added, “is almost insurmountable.”