Colorado History

How the Sage Grouse Became a Casualty of the Western Land War

The greater sage grouse, endangered no more?
The greater sage grouse, endangered no more? Jennie Stafford/
Washington, D.C.'s incursions on Colorado are nothing new. This excerpt from This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption Are Ruining the American West describes how the greater sage grouse moved from an officially endangered species to an unofficially very endangered species.

The recent calamitous decline of the most endangered bird of the steppe, the greater sage grouse, is due to a confluence of two factors: unrestrained grazing of livestock and frenzied drilling for oil and gas. Under the auspices of the federal Endangered Species Act, there was a way to stop the decline: list the sage grouse as an endangered species and curtail both the spread of cows and the spread of oil and gas fields. Listing of the grouse — a decision reserved for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — would thus threaten not only cattlemen, but also the huge corporate energy sector.

Pro-business editorial boards across the country published frantic alarms at the prospect. The Wall Street Journal decried the “draconian” land-use amendments that would constitute a “de facto ban on drilling,” with “huge swaths of land [going] off limits to development.” It would be, said the editors of the Journal, “one of the largest federal land grabs in modern times.” These talking points borrowed directly from the agonized press releases that issued in torrents from the energy lobby. Billions of dollars in economic activity would be lost. In Colorado, fracking for natural gas, the so-called "clean fuel," the bridge fuel to the future, would be shut down. As for cattle, the concern was not monetary but cultural, the same concern that the industry had always trumpeted. With cows driven from the land in order to protect grouse, the cowboy culture would be doomed to extinction.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management had oversight of the most pivotal sage grouse habitat, and the agency came under intense scrutiny. The bird’s fate, and the actions of the BLM to deal with it, became for a time the most talked-about environmental issue in the Obama White House, in heated congressional hearings, and in state houses across the West. From January 2014 through the summer of 2015, as the deadline for the Fish and Wildlife Service decision about ESA listing approached, the Republican-controlled Congress went into a hysteria of lawmaking. The House passed three bills, killed in the Senate, to forestall grouse listing by restricting FWS’s budget for endangered species determinations. Republicans in Western states proposed eighteen other bills to undermine or stop entirely any action to implement sage grouse protections.

It was a pleasure to watch the commodity users scrambling in terror of a beady-eyed bird no bigger than a chicken. They needed to prove to the Fish and Wildlife Service that grouse could survive without federal protection. Energy and livestock worked hand in glove with their friends at the BLM to come up with grouse conservation plans, to show that drilling and grazing practices could be modified to benefit the species. Ranchers promised to alter grazing regimes in modest ways, though independent scientists said the proposed measures would not save sage grouse — what was needed was a drastic reduction of grazing, if not its elimination. Energy companies promised to drill only at certain times of the day, avoid key areas during the mating and rearing season, and establish buffer zones around prime sage grouse habitat, though again researchers not in the pay of the companies said the measures would be ineffective — what was needed was an end to the drilling bonanza.
click to enlarge Author Christopher Ketcham will be in Denver to talk about This Land on July 24. - VIKING/PENGUIN
Author Christopher Ketcham will be in Denver to talk about This Land on July 24.
The scramble was especially amusing to watch in energy-rich Colorado, where I was living in the run-up to the 2015 announcement. The Colorado Oil & Gas Association warned that the industry’s $5 billion in activity and 22,000 jobs in the state would take a terrific hit. Drilling anywhere within a few miles of mating grounds or adjacent nesting grounds would be prohibited. Energy projects would face difficult permitting hurdles at the BLM. The Colorado office of the BLM drafted sage grouse management plans to avert listing, as did the energy industry with the steady help and guidance of Governor John Hickenlooper, a former oil geologist. Hickenlooper issued in 2015 an executive order for a state-led conservation plan whose primary motivation was to “safeguard the economic engine of northwestern Colorado,” where grouse populations and drilling were concentrated. “We are prepared to support conservation measures necessary to preclude a listing,” he wrote in a letter to federal regulators, “but we do not want to see overly restrictive measures that would irreparably harm the energy industry.”

The model for Hickenlooper’s plan was the oil-industry-backed Cooperative Sagebrush Initiative. Among the platforms of the Sagebrush Initiative was that energy companies could continue to drill in sage grouse habitat while making voluntary cash contributions to offset the impacts. That is to say, there was almost no difference between the Hickenlooper plan and the industry’s plan. The governor’s priorities were clear.

A similar charade unfolded in every one of the eleven Western states where sage grouse are found. It was a kind of contortionist conservation. And it was incredibly expensive for taxpayers. The Department of the Interior, along with state governments, invested years of effort and as much as a billion dollars to examine the threats to sage grouse, to fund population and habitat monitoring of sage grouse, to manage habitat “treatments” for grouse, to oversee so-called “restoration” of grouse habitat, and to find ways for energy and livestock to coexist with grouse, always with the preordained objective that industry could continue its spoliation.
The greater sage grouse. - FWS.GOV
The greater sage grouse.

A good portion of this money went to the BLM, which had been studying the sage grouse issue for at least a decade prior to the 2015 listing deadline. Erik Molvar, a conservation biologist, watchdogged the BLM’s grouse work as director of the nonprofit Western Watersheds Project. “There were people at BLM who knew how important this was and who wanted to do the right thing for grouse,” Molvar told me. But when it came time to implement stringent protections that BLM scientists had recommended, the agency turned on its own people. “The politics kicked in," Molvar said. "The Obama administration folded. The administration tried to appease every extractive interest, every commodity user. Obama didn’t have the guts to give the sage grouse what was needed. There was a veneer of protection. But that’s all it was. What was really being protected was business as usual for oil and gas and livestock. The worst of it was how livestock got almost a complete pass. Oil and gas is a train wreck for grouse, but grazing is like cancer. It’s chronic, it’s everywhere, and it’s slowly killing them.”

On September 22, 2015, dutifully meeting the deadline for a decision on the bird’s fate, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell held a press conference in Commerce City, to announce that the Fish and Wildlife Service would not list the species under the ESA. Jewell presented it as a celebratory event, and the DOI’s public relations office aired a video that same day called “Happy Dance for the Sage Grouse.” “This is the largest, most complex land conservation effort in the history of the United States, perhaps the world,” Jewell said. She reported that the Department of the Interior, with the BLM in the lead, had presided over an “epic effort” that would benefit grouse “while giving states, businesses and communities the certainty they need to plan for sustainable economic development.”

She smiled and laughed and offered congratulations to the governors of the sage grouse states who sat with her on the dais. Matt Mead of Wyoming, Brian Sandoval of Nevada, Steve Bullock of Montana, and John Hickenlooper of Colorado could not have been more pleased, as their careers, of course, depended on fellating the energy and livestock industries.

So it went in the Obama administration, on down the line of species that needed protection: A lot of big words about conservation thrown around, but no real help for the wildlife.

From This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption Are Ruining the American West, by Christopher Ketcham, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Christopher Ketcham.
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