Sage grouse don’t vote. If they did vote, they’d have a difficult time picking between Democrats and Republicans on their own life and death issues.
Of course, there aren’t enough sage grouse to make much of a difference on election day. That’s the problem.
Last week the U.S. Department of the Interior released a decision on the fate of the sage grouse: Near enough to extinction to merit protection under the Endangered Species Act, but too far down the list of endangered plants and animals to merit action on anything at the moment.
That means that the vanishing habitats of the little, magnificent bird, can be crushed by trucks making tracks across westerns prairies, deserts and mountains searching for oil.
Exxon-Mobil 1, Sage Grouse 0. One might must hope that’s an early game score, and not the population counts.
Reporting from Washington — The Interior Department declared Friday that an iconic Western bird deserves federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, but declined to offer that protection immediately — a split decision that will allow oil and gas drilling to continue across large swaths of the mountainous West.
The department issued a so-called “warranted but precluded” designation for the greater sage grouse, meaning that the bird merits protection but won’t receive it for now because other species are a higher priority.
My childhood was marked by rapidly plummeting bird populations all around us. Stopping the use of DDT benefited some of them, the Endangered Species Act benefited others. Conservation efforts of groups like Ducks Unlimited and the Audubon Society saved others, and helped all of them. While I lived near a great river, a view of a heron, egret or crane is not what I recall from my childhood. Our children know the birds well.
Land birds, like turkeys, are even more rare. Turkeys, mostly in eastern forested areas, at least well out of the Mountain West, made dramatic recoveries with massive aid from state game commissions. I recall one column from the Washington Post’s recently retired hunting and outdoors columnist, Angus Phillips, in which he confessed that with the aid of professional guides paid from the paper’s expense accounts, in more than 15 years of hunting he had heard, but never seen, a wild turkey. This was two weeks after we had come upon a flock just off the side of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, the first I’d ever seen.
I remembered Phillips’ confession a few months later as I sat in the cold, at dawn, in a field at the Land Between the Lakes preserve of the Tennessee Valley Authority with other staff and members of the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors, when a guide summoned seven magnificent, lustful wild turkey toms to race across a field toward the lustful hen sounds the guide made with a part of a birth control diaphragm as a calling device.
In my years tramping the west for fun, in the months camping with the Scouts, in the professional tramping with the Air Pollution Lab and the Senate and the Utah Wilderness Commission, and just for fun, I’ve never seen a sage grouse.
Whether my children get such an opportunity, and their children, is a decision for the moment left to private interests, especially private groups with a financial stake in trampling out the nestings where the youth of grouse are grown.
Exxon-Mobil, will you and your colleagues go easy on the grouse, please?
- You will enjoy Phillips’ last column, even if you are not a lover of the outdoors. I was happy to see that he no longer complains of never having seen a turkey. He’s also hunted grouse, successfully — though, perhaps not sage grouse. One of the things that makes a great newspaper like the Washington Post a great newspaper, is the assignment of fine and curious writers like Phillips to beats that may appear to be backwaters to too many. Who succeeded him at the Post?
- Western Watersheds, a Wyoming-based group that advocates protection of mountain watersheds in the west, filed a supplement to their 2006 federal suit in Boise, Idaho, to contest part of the decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Story from the San Jose Mercury-News. More from the Idaho Statesman.
- Rocky Mountain oil explorers aren’t happy with the decision, either — if it means they still have to be careful, according to the Colorado Independent.
- Nevada wildlife and ranching poobahs are unhappy with the ruling, too – San Francisco Chronicle.
- Christopher Smart writes about the decision in the Salt Lake Tribune (news, not commentary)
- Press release from Western Watersheds at Ralph Maughan’s Wildlife News; commentary on Nevada grousing about the grouse decision, too; Jon Marvel’s comments on the USFWS decision