The sage grouse, or how not to talk about conservation

Over the weekend the AP published a story about the greater sage grouse, which has become a political hot potato in an important election year.According to the world Wildlife Federation, the greater sage grouse was once found in 13 western U.S. states and 3 Canadian provinces. They are iconic birds of western North America, making their home in sagebrush grasslands. They are particularly well known for their eccentric mating dance.


The number of sage grouse in the wild has dropped significantly, from 16 million to under 200,000, due to loss and fragmentation of their native habitat. Its official status is “near threatened” but environmental groups have been pushing to have it listed as endangered since 2005 — and sued the federal government to make it happen. As part of a settlement of the lawsuit in 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service committed to decide on whether to list it by 2015 — next year.

The impact of listing the sage grouse as an endangered species is significant, as it invokes provisions of the Endangered Species Act to protect its habitat. This is particularly troublesome because of the kinds of habitat encroachment and fragmentation that have occurred.  Actually some of it is fairly straightforward, at least in theory: due to climate change, conifers are invading “steppe grasslands” at higher altitudes and turning them into forests. But ranching, and particularly the energy industry, have set up shop in many grassland locations. It’s important to note that in this kind of ecosystem, plunking down a wind farm or a gas mining operation has a far wider impact than just the square footage where development occurs; it effect lands for a radius of several miles by changing migration patterns, noise, human presence, predatory hunting patterns, water availability, and many other aspects of the ecosystem. To protect the sage grouse, development would need to be limited on up to 165 million acres of habitat across 11 states.

As you can imagine, given the oil and gas exploration boom happening at the moment and the economic benefits that many states are seeing from it, many people would like to avoid that outcome. The good news is that state agencies are very actively moving to put in place their own locally-controlled protections, so that the Fish and Wildlife service doesn’t feel the need to list the sage grouse as endangered. And Congress is drafting legislation that would prevent it from being listed. And of course the rhetoric is being amplified as well.

Fortunately, reason seems to be prevailing and for once most of the right people are working together to create a good outcome. Much of this is being driven be the Sage Grouse Initiative, a partnership spanning environmental groups, state and federal government agencies, ranchers, universities, and industry. Their recent fact sheet lists some impressive accomplishments related to  removal of invading conifers, improving grazing practices, reducing habitat fragmentation, and marking fence systems to prevent bird collisions.

This is a smart effort, on many levels. They invoke the Blackfoot Challenge model as a key tenet: recognizing that all the stakeholders agree on 80% of what needs to be done, the alliance should focus on that 80% and not get hung up arguing about the other 20%.  They also have applied some smart science and logic: while the sage grouse habitat in total covers about 165 million acres, three quarters of the grouse inhabit only 50 million acres of that territory. So they have concentrated their efforts on that “vital core” of land.

So hopefully when next year rolls around things will be on a positive trajectory, the sage grouse will not need to be listed as endangered, and this won’t become another political fistfight between pro-growth and pro-environment forces. But I worry.

I worry because even though people seem to be figuring out how to band together and do the right thing, we still talk about it the wrong way, and that is an ongoing impediment to most citizens’ understanding of what’s really going on. In this case, the conservation question is being framed as “save the sage grouse,” just as in the past efforts have been about “saving the spotted owl” or “reintroducing gray wolves in Washington state” or “saving the California condor.”  This quickly leads to an argument about “<animal> versus people,” which is entirely the wrong way to think about this.

The sage grouse is a cool, funky bird and I like the way the males dance and puff out their air sac when trying to attract a mate (reminds me of some human males I know). But that’s not why the sage grouse is important, or why it’s the focus of this kind of large conservation effort.  The sage grouse is an indicator species for sagebrush grassland habitat, the home of hundreds of species, including pygmy rabbits, sagebrush voles, lots of reptiles, golden eagles, pronghorn, mule deer, and elk. The reduction and fragmentation of sagebrush grassland is a threat for an entire ecosystem that can only survive on that kind of land. It supports a rich food web that can easily be thrown out of balance and collapse if too many species are removed. Here’s a great 2-page whitepaper about why sagebrush grasslands are so vital.

When done right, conservation efforts are about saving entire habitats, not about saving individual species. It’s easy for us to monitor how sage grouse populations are doing, so it’s a very useful proxy for the health of sagebrush grassland habitat. In the act of saving the sage grouse, we will save hundreds of species and maintain important environmental diversity within our national boundaries.

But no one ever says that! Well, almost never. The AP story gave it four short sentences. If you dig around enough on the Sage Grouse Initiative web site, you can eventually find information about the larger importance of the habitat. The WWF gives it all of two sentences. Politicians on both sides don’t give it any airtime. We can do much better — we have to LEAD with that message. If we can help people to understand that this is a conversation about habitats and whole ecosystems under threat, and not about individual species, it will be so much easier to get to the right answer. The sage grouse is only the most recent case, and we need to get good at having this conversation for all the futures cases yet to come.


  1. Enjoyed your commentary and appreciate the words of support for the Sage Grouse Initiative–getting things done on the ground, working together and following the Blackfoot Challenge model.

    And it’s particularly thoughtful to consider how to talk about the sage grouse in terms of conservation–as you might note–our tagline is not save the sage grouse, it’s “wildlife conservation through sustanable ranching.” That said, I agree with you that connections to the larger habitat at stake and the ecosystem are what it’s all about. Perhaps we can strengthen that connection more on our website. I’ll look into it–as the communications director that’s my bailiwick is articulating the message.

    I have found, however, that people often need some kind of charismatic species to become attached to as a way “in” to the ecosystem–they relate to living, breathing creatures more than the place those creatures live–so that’s why we end up with icons for habitats–polar bears in the Arctic, golden tamarind monkeys in the rainforest, and yes, sage grouse in the sagebrush-steppe. If people can fall in love with the funky bird that dances so wondrously, they can also fall in love with the subtle beauty of the sagebrush steppe. The other way “in” is through the people who make a living in this country and need the same intact range and are also threatened by subdivisions and development–so we focus, too, on the real people on the ground with our stories about ranchers who care and are carrying out conservation.

    Cheers, Deborah

  2. Dr Zizmor says:

    Dr Zizmor

    The sage grouse, or how not to talk about conservation

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