Sage grouse of Western plains seen as next 'spotted owl'

In a vast panorama of scruffy land near the scenic gateway to the Wind River mountains, two natural treasures exist. One has collected in pools beneath the surface; the other forages among the sagebrush from which it takes its name.

Hundreds - soon to be thousands - of oil and gas wells pound the earth outside Pinedale, drilling for a natural bounty that is bringing much-needed revenue to a recovering state that once served as a backdrop to the Marlboro Man.

But the energy boom spawned by the Bush administration, conservationists say, comes at the expense of the greater sage grouse, whose last robust population lies directly in the path of the drilling.

"This is a robbery of national proportion," says librarian turned activist Linda Baker, who commutes to work every day past the beehive of drill pads and pipelines in the Jonah Natural Gas Field and equally rich Pinedale Anticline. "It's as far from balanced public land management and multiple use as you can get."

Hoping to slow the pace of development, Ms. Baker wants the greater sage grouse to receive federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. Yet natural-resource industry groups argue that listing the bird would only transform it into "the spotted owl" of the high plains and harm both the grouse and the industry.

"Even if sound science shows someday that the greater sage grouse is threatened by possible extinction," says Jim Sims of Partnership for the West, "imposing the regulatory straightjacket of the Endangered Species Act on this situation would be the absolute worst thing for the bird and for the people of the West."

Once common across the West, greater sage grouse - the native resident game birds known for their distinctive spring mating dance called "strutting" - have dwindled dramatically. Reduced to scattered clusters in 11 states, the total grouse population today is one-tenth the number that existed 200 years ago, and only half as large as in the '70s. Some biologists believe that without federal protection, the bird could be extinct in 50 years.

Earlier this month, however, the plumed avian won a surprising ally. Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D), who has applauded energy development in Wyoming, joined New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson in asking the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to impose a temporary freeze on the leasing of new wells until all of the impacts have been studied.

A variety of causes are blamed for the bird's decline in the West: livestock grazing, habitat encroachment by exotic plants, ATV recreation, new homes, and possibly the West Nile virus. But none has prompted more debate in Wyoming than energy development worth billions of dollars.

In 2002, the Bush administration set a new record for the number of oil and gas permits it processed in the West and Alaska, and the mark was surpassed last year. BLM staffers across the West say they are overwhelmed with processing drilling applications but insist the buffer zones they have proscribed to protect grouse breeding areas are adequate.

To others like Baker the green light to drill in the diminishing sage grouse habitat serves as a barometer for the impact of progress on a variety of wildlife - including the world's longest pronghorn antelope migration corridor. "When people return to this place after having been gone for a while and see what is happening, their hearts sink," she says.

From a local economic standpoint of jobs, commerce, and tax revenue, however, "the [benefit of energy development] has been great and very positive," says Laurel Bing, a Pinedale native who runs an embroidery shop in town. "As far as gas development ruining our beautiful views and driving off the sage grouse, I don't see it," she says. "The Jonah Field is just a big ugly patch of sagebrush."

Mr. Sims, whose nonprofit organization represents 375 resource-extraction interests, is actively involved with lobbying the Bush administration to derail listing. One of its stated tactics, leaked to the press, is to "unleash grass-roots opposition to a listing, thus providing some cover to the political leadership at the [Department of Interior] and throughout the administration."

Sims favors allowing states to voluntarily adopt conservation measures. Baker, who was a citizen member of Wyoming's sage grouse working group, counters that biology was trumped by economic considerations and that federal protection is the grouse's only hope.

Earlier in June, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies completed a biological overview of sage grouse and their habitat on 770,000 square miles. While pronouncing that grouse numbers have "stabilized" since the 1990s, the panel of two dozen scientists nonetheless painted a dim outlook.

Retired grouse expert Clait Braun, who worked for 30 years with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, says the report's estimate of between 140,000 and 250,000 birds is exaggerated. "They've created grouse on paper that do not exist in the wild, particularly in Wyoming and Montana [which have the highest remnant concentrations]," he says. "No one wants to face the real numbers because it's political dynamite."

Mr. Braun ticks off a list of fractured grouse populations - in California, Utah, Washington, New Mexico, the Dakotas - that he says are steadily headed toward "winking out." By 2030, he predicts the Gunnison sage grouse in Colorado, a subspecies, will be extinct; by 2050, he believes the greater sage grouse - if current trends persist - will be so reduced in number and lost habitat that it will never recover.

Despite fierce rebuttals from the BLM, he claims the agency has suppressed dissent from biologists who are concerned about environmental impacts yet are worried more about losing their jobs for speaking out.

Thomas Graf, a federal attorney with the Interior Department's Solicitor's Office in Denver says listing probably would not halt existing energy development. It would, however, require that the BLM show in the future that any new wells or modifications to existing rigs not harm grouse survival.

"Numbers of sage grouse don't mean much unless you view them within the context of what they are confronting on the ground," says Peter Aengst with the Wilderness Society. "Unless we safeguard the habitat now, it's going to be a hundred times more difficult, and a hundred times more expensive, to try and fix."

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