Michael Johnsen

September 3, 2000

Listing Sage Grouse Could Save West From Itself

There has been much reporting and opining about efforts to protect sage grouse. Most articles and editorials have focused on how listing sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act might affect Western land use and economics. However, of greater concern is the condition of the sagebrush habitat where sage grouse, and increasing numbers of westerners live and work.

The fragile sagebrush steppe, sagebrush grasslands, "sagebrush country" -- as its variously called -- has been maligned, mistreated, and ignored by resource users, land managers, and decision makers for two centuries.

The sage grouse are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. Where the grouse struggle to survive the landscape has suffered serious degradation. Listing the sage grouse as a threatened or endangered species may be the necessary first step to reverse their decline and restore this ecosystem.

Sagebrush habitat has been fragmented, damaged, and destroyed by livestock grazing, agricultural conversion, suburbanization (and "ex-urbanization"), mining, herbicides and pesticides, skewed fire regimes, invasive species, coal bed methane development, off-road vehicles, utility corridors, roads and fences. The Bureau of Land Management estimates that 220 million acres of pristine sagebrush country have been reduced to 150 million acres of mostly degraded habitat across the West.

Although the sagebrush country may seem less scenic than mountains, forests and rivers, it is of equal importance for fish, wildlife and humanity. Where functional, sagebrush ecosystems protect water quality, prevent soil erosion, and provide habitat for hundreds of sensitive plants and animals.

As many as two million sage grouse lived in the West when Lewis and Clark first saw them in 1806, and huge flocks were still reported to darken the sky nearly a century later. The historic range of sage grouse closely conformed to the distribution of sagebrush habitat covering what became sixteen western states and three Canadian provinces.

Since 1900, however, sage grouse distribution has been reduced. The grouse no longer occur in Arizona, British Columbia, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico and Oklahoma. The total sage grouse population is currently estimated at 140,000 individuals in eleven states.

Since our nation lacks an Ecosystem Protection Act, conservationists must address the symptoms of degraded ecosystems through the Endangered Species Act. While sage grouse are considered a good candidate for protection, federal biologists have admitted that any number of other sagebrush obligate species could also be successfully petitioned for listing. Conservationists have already petitioned to list sage grouse in Washington and the Gunnison sage grouse, a newly designated species that occurs primarily in southwest Colorado.

The prospect of protecting the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act has prompted a flurry of local and regional meetings to craft management plans and memoranda of understanding between state and federal management agencies in an attempt to avoid listing. Whether these instruments will result in real protection for sage grouse is yet to be seen. Clearly, these agencies and Western resource users fear the impact of the "spotted owl of the desert."

The mere threat of listing has already yielded positive results for the sage grouse and their habitat. Protecting sage grouse is one purpose of the multi-million dollar Great Basin Restoration Initiative unveiled by the Bureau of Land Management to restore millions of acres charred by wildfires and choked by weeds in Nevada.

In Wyoming, the affect of coal bed methane development projects on sage grouse habitat is being scrutinized by the BLM, industry, ranchers and conservationists. The BLM national budget for 2001 includes millions of dollars to inventory sage grouse in several Western states. Sage grouse are now being considered in local grazing management plans, and proposals to protect huge tracts of public land as national monuments or conservation areas.

The sage grouse has become an important symbol of a new sagebrush movement in the American West. This time its not a rebellion but a revolution by sagebrush patriots seeking to protect and restore watersheds, habitat and wildlife for future generations. Westerners who live and work in sagebrush country should rally to support stronger protections for sage grouse as their destiny will be our own.

For more information about the American Lands Sage Grouse Conservation

Project and how you can help please contact Mark Salvo at

mailto:mark@sagegrouse.org or call 503/978-1054.