Sage grouse is becoming Utah's spotted owl
Endangered grouse, endangered economy? • Like the spotted owl in the '80s, sage grouse are losing numbers and habitat. So Utah and the West are rushing to preserve them before federal rules shut down industry and more.
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Pinedale, Wyo. • A sage grouse was the first target that ranch boy Albert Sommers chased when he picked up a shotgun at age 12, back when no one worried much about big, wild chickens.

Why? Because they were here, there, everywhere. At least 15 hens raised broods at his family's place on the lush banks of the upper Green River in the early 1970s, breeding brown bombers that were the unavoidable quarry of a young hunter on the sage plains below Wyoming's wild Wind River Mountains.

"There were so many sage grouse in the willows in the summer poking around," the weathered cowboy recalled this spring, "you wouldn't believe it."

Now Sommers wishes it were still so — the cackling ground birds flushing from wherever he or his cattle marched; the Winds still wild, less ringed by human footprints. Because now, in a good year, there are only two broods on his ranch. Like so many Westerners, he fears what that will mean to his way of life.

It could mean the Endangered Species Act comes to town in 2015 — here, in Utah and across an 11-state sea of sagebrush harboring the greater sage grouse (the most widespread of two struggling species). It could shut down everything from seasonal grazing on public lands to big-dollar energy drilling and mining — and the jobs that come with them.

If federal biologists impose the act, they would have to affirm that any project — coal mine, oil well, wind farm or other — wouldn't threaten grouse populations. For instance, the oil shale, tar sands, oil and gas ringing eastern Utah's Book Cliffs could become off-limits.

"That's hundreds of millions, if not billion-dollar resources," warned Kevin Carter, director of the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.

It's a looming economic conflagration that ranchers liken to the Northwest's spotted-owl battles of the 1980s.

20th-century crash • Scientists estimate humans have slashed the sage grouse range by about half since Europeans settled on this continent. And Sommers' memories of a late 20th-century plunge are backed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that grouse numbers have fallen 30 percent since the 1980s, likely to fewer than a half-million birds.

In Utah, the Division of Wildlife Resources' annual counts (22,000 this year) have dropped 1 percent to 2 percent a year since the '80s — an improvement over steeper 1960s and '70s losses.

Biologists don't see hunting as a significant factor, and the practice continues in most states that are home to the birds. But it likely would end after an endangered-species listing. Utah already has stopped the hunting of the much rarer Gunnison sage grouse, which live around Monticello and in western Colorado.

Utah and other states are hustling to produce conservation plans this spring to convince federal officials that they can save the greater sage grouse without wide-ranging federal restrictions. They're racing to complete prescriptions for the bird's survival before the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management start revising their grouse protections in the next year.

For guidance, they look to Wyoming, sage-grouse central. With perhaps 40 percent of the species, the Cowboy State already has produced a plan and has a working group stocked with industry and wildlife groups trying to apply what they call common sense to save most of the birds.

Fish and Wildlife Service officials, who will rule on the bird's legal status by 2015, say they like the model but it needs to apply to a larger swath of the range that covers most of the interior West.

What's killing birds? • As the name implies, sage grouse need sagebrush. They eat its pungent greens in winter, when bugs and other plants are under snow, and hide under it to avoid eagles and other predators. In decades past, pioneering plows converted brush to wheat and other crops, shrinking the bird's home.

Today, the biggest threat is what biologists call "fragmentation," a catch-all term that includes residential subdivisions, roads, wildfires, windmills, power lines, pipelines and gas wells.

"The future of the economy of the West is probably tied to the future of the sage grouse," said Tom Christiansen, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department's sage-grouse point man and adviser to his state's working group.

Virtually every way in which Western states use the range could suffer if the bird wins endangered status. Even cattle grazing, a factor that federal officials don't consider a top problem in most places, faces questions. For one thing, Christiansen said, a startling number of grouse die when striking barbed wire while flying away from their breeding grounds (called leks).

Wyoming's core grouse habitat contains just 4 percent of the state's oil and gas wells, Christiansen said, and the plan's aim is to keep that overlap low.

"They can't coexist on the same footprint," he said.

That's obvious on the massive Pinedale Anticline gas field. Trailers and storage tanks ring towering drill rigs, trucks rumble constantly along new dirt roads, and compressors hum — all conspiring to eliminate what was once prime grouse land. Even if grouse wanted to live there, Christiansen said, they couldn't hear the mysterious, bubbling chest bellows that males inflate to woo hens.

Reclamation is hardly a given anytime soon, he said. New technologies keep old well fields pumping, sometimes beyond a century.

"The oldest oil field in this state," Christiansen said, "is still producing."

The law's heavy 'hammer' • Sommers works with other Pinedale residents on a committee that directs grant spending toward grouse-saving projects such as weed and predator suppression. Ravens are a particular target, both for poisoning and for installing anti-nesting devices on structures such as power poles and storage tanks. Ravens eat grouse eggs and thrive alongside humans — they pluck trash and even stalk prey by following biologists who track sage grouse.

Walking his pasture after pitching hay in knee boots, jeans, canvas jacket and brown wool cap, the wind-burnt rancher said he always loved this land. He has sold development rights in an easement across much of it to protect grouse and other wildlife, and to give him and his wife enough of a nest egg to hand the place over to a new generation of cattle ranchers — without charging the prohibitive price that recently has accompanied the mountain views.

He worries the Endangered Species Act could jeopardize future partnerships — to the bird's detriment.

"Once the great hammer falls, cooperation tends to fall away," he said. "Then you do only what you're forced to do. It's not a good way to get sympathy for a species that probably deserves it."

The threat of federal protection, though, certainly has the attention of states.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert appointed a working group after a late-December BLM announcement that district managers must start considering grouse when approving development plans. An interim guideline recommends a three-mile buffer around each lek (a flat opening in the sagebrush where males return to puff and strut each spring).

The Utah group includes federal, state and county officials, a university expert, energy-industry executives and a Nature Conservancy representative. It's charged with quickly — this spring — fashioning a Wyoming-style plan that the Fish and Wildlife Service might accept in place of either BLM rules or stricter endangered-species protections.

"Everybody will have to bend," said group coordinator Kathleen Clarke, the governor's top public-lands adviser. The idea is to save birds so the state can save its industry — and to do it, more or less, through consensus.

"It's so nice to be looking at each other around a table," she said, "instead of in court."

At a mid-April meeting, the group reviewed several clusters of leks it might ask the governor to include as "core" protection zones: the hills northwest of the Great Salt Lake, ranch lands in Rich County, Parker Mountain in south-central Utah and a west desert pod in Juab and Tooele counties.

In a hint of how a plan could work, the group examined grouse populations around the intensively drilled gas fields of eastern Utah's Uinta Basin. Several with healthy habitats were considered essential, but one — squeezed between developments north of the Book Cliffs — would likely be sacrificed to drilling.

That's probably OK with the feds, who say they're looking to save the larger population over time, not individual birds.

"We don't want to lose any more [habitat]," said Pat Deibert, Wyoming-based national sage-grouse coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service. "But I drive a car. I fly in airplanes. We have to be realistic."

Lawyers and leks • Wyoming protected more than 80 percent of its birds in core zones that restrict but don't bar industry. Generally, companies may not make more than one incursion, such as an oil well, for every 640 acres of protected habitat, or alter more than 5 percent of the surface. The agency accepted the possible loss of the other birds, Deibert said, because existing scars like open-pit coal mines tilted cost-benefit analyses against them. Such loopholes will close if other states fail to act before the agency decides the bird's legal status in 2015. If biologists determine protections are inadequate and invoke the Endangered Species Act, every bird is enshrined.

For now, ranchers such as Sommers are under scrutiny. He found himself in a Boise courtroom this month defending grazing practices against a lawsuit by the Western Watersheds Project. Sommers fears sought-after grassland improvements on BLM turf could spell an end to his enterprise while ignoring what he sees as the true culprits: climate change and relentless subdivision of nearby ranches.

"You can get rid of every cow out here," he said, "and it's not going to affect sage grouse."

Western Watersheds counters that changes are crucial to protect nesting areas. Jonathan Ratner, the group's Wyoming director, said Sommers might have to simply start trucking cows to grazing areas instead of trailing them.

On the whole, though, Deibert said grazing isn't the issue that will sway her decision on an endangered-listing recommendation. "Range-wide, it's not a big deal."

The Wyoming way • Wyoming's plan is operated by consent of the governor, under executive order. Industry officials say they signed on partly because it's a process that preserves not just birds, but jobs.

At a late-March meeting in Casper, the governor's appointees approved several rule exceptions for companies wanting to build in protected grouse habitat. In a room full of Wrangler jeans, wool vests and Copenhagen tins, companies asked to exceed the 1-per-640-acre encroachment rule.

In one case it was a pipeline company seeking to pump carbon dioxide to the slowing Grieve oil field west of town, to pressurize new life into old wells. In another, an electric company wanted to follow the same route to power the CO² pumping. Both would follow an existing road to minimize the fragmentation effect and would not boost total surface disturbance beyond the allowed percentage.

The group signed off because to do otherwise would mean pushing the lines away from the road through untouched territory, ruining more grouse country.

"What we're going to see all day long are efforts by industry to do the right thing," said Bob Budd, a rancher who heads the Wyoming committee and also is guiding Utah's planning effort.

Imperial government? • Environmentalists see potential for consensus to save the bird, but they're watching to ensure exemptions don't whittle away core protections.

"We've developed a great idea, a good plan," said Sophie Osborn, Wyoming Outdoor Council wildlife program manager. "We just have to carry it through."

Others are bitter critics of a program they point out involves no legislative recourse. Natrona County rancher Doug Cooper said his land's inclusion in the state's core habitat zone scared off wind-power developers who signed million-dollar leases with his luckier neighbors. He recommends that other states involve lawmakers and due process, not "the whim of a governor." The threat of federal oversight, he said, is no excuse for states to shut out citizens.

"What we're saying here is, 'I won't hit you as hard as Dad, so let me spank you.' "

But Budd noted all of the meetings he conducts are open and all comments considered. It takes too long to involve the Legislature in every decision, he said. "That's not reasonable. We're learning as we go."

Sommers thinks it's helping and hopes future generations will see grouse on his Pinedale ranch.

How many generations are likely to be so lucky? He's unsure. Humans keep closing in, he said, and if there's still a need for coal or oil or something else in the West's ground, someone will find a way to get it.

"The way we're going as a race," he sighed, "we're going to crowd a lot of things off the planet. Sage grouse is probably one of them."

bloomis@sltrib.com Why we should care

Beyond economics, biologists say sage grouse are a key indicator of range health — sort of the canary in the sagebrush steppe's coal mine.

More than 100 species, from the Brewer's sparrow and the sagebrush vole to the pronghorn antelope, rely on the same mix of sagebrush, grass and forbs that sustain grouse. Ultimately, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sage-grouse coordinator Pat Deibert, the list includes humans who need healthy watersheds.

"It's much bigger than the sage grouse," she said, but this bird is showing the most obvious effects of two centuries of sagebrush losses. —

Photos, video

To view more photos of the sage grouse — and video of the bird's exotic mating ritual — go to www.sltrib.com.