They are large, ground-dwelling birds known for their elaborate mating games, played out in the sagebrush outback of rural Nevada and other Western states.
Sage grouse once thrived across the West. Now their numbers are limited and their habitat has dwindled, thanks to human progress, the rise of cheatgrass and the large rangeland fires it fuels.
The grouse population has dwindled so much that Nevada government officials fear it could eventually be listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. About 100 years ago, 16 million grouse inhabited the western U.S. and Canada. Now that population is about 200,000, according to the New York Times.
Making the list means the bird’s habitat would be federally protected. Green energy development of rural Nevada – seen by state leaders as integral to Nevada’s future – could grind to a standstill with added layers of bureaucracy. Mining would be affected, and so would ranching.
The Nevada Legislature is considering two bills to help the state maintain and boost the number of birds, keeping them off the list.
“A sage grouse listing in the West would mean billions and billions of lost revenue,” said San Stiver, sage grouse coordinator for the Western Association for Fish and Wildlife Agencies of Prescott, Ariz.
The bird is just one step away from making the list now, on the threatened-but-precluded list. It means that the bird qualifies for inclusion on the endangered species list, but there are too many others ahead of them, in more perilous conditions. That status is a big part of the reason that legislators are introducing bills to help protect the bird’s habitat to help keep it off the list.
“It is not just renewable-energy development, but also the Nevada way of life could be heavily affected,” said John Tull, conservation director of the Nevada Wilderness Project. “The potential for renewable energy development is one significant concern. But it could affect ranching, mining and the other existing economic drivers in rural Nevada.
“It could impact what has been the normal way of life as we see it,” Tull said.
Nevada’s spotted owl
The sage grouse has been called Nevada’s answer to the northern spotted owl, the endangered bird that has affected the timber and logging industry of the Northwest for the past 20 years.
The potential of economic havoc from the sage grouse is 10 times worse than that of the spotted owl, said Ken Mayer, the acting director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife.
“You have sage grouse habitat spread across 11 Western states versus a spotted owl that is basically in Washington and California,” Mayer said. “So, the impact to the people is just way, way bigger.”
If the bird is put on the endangered species list, trying to get federal government permission to build a wind farm, solar farm, get a grazing allotment or even build a fence in many parts of rural Nevada would be a nightmare, Mayer said.
“If you wanted to change a fence along Interstate 80, and it happened to go through sage grouse habitat, you would have to wait in line for a Section 7 Consultation (biological assessment) for the Fish and Wildlife Service,” Mayer said. “It would clog up the system so bad that it would be horrendous,” he said.
Nevada’s problem is shared by other Western states, Stiver said. Nevada is currently home to about 30 percent of the total sage grouse population, Mayer said.
“Think about where sage grouse live. They live in the sagebrush community, and think of what assets as a nation we have in this sage brush eco-system,” Stiver said. “Water, renewable energy… in Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota, you have coal, gas and oil. In Utah, oil and gas. So think about having all of those resources precluded from use by the people of the United States.
“So this is a huge potential problem, with a listed species like the sage grouse that covers so many miles,” Stiver said. “It’s not like you are going out to protect the nesting tree of a bald eagle.”
At the Nevada Legislature, Assembly Committee Resolution 3 encourages proactive protection and restoration of the greater sage grouse population and habitat. It urges cooperative efforts to do all things necessary for the sage grouse.
“It was a topic of concern that was mentioned consistently throughout the interim in the public lands committee,” said Assemblyman David Bobzien, D-Reno. “I think there is a concern from the ranching community, the sporting community, the mining industry and, particularly, the renewable energy industry that this is something that is hanging out there. And if a listing were to actually happen, it would have a dramatic impact for this state.”
The second is a bill that Bobzien has yet to introduce that would place a fee on companies hoping to build renewable energy facilities in Nevada, said Kyle Davis, political and policy director of the Nevada Conservation League.
The fees, which could range from $30,000 to $100,000, would be used to finance environmental studies on the proposed plant’s location. That would include impact on the sage grouse habitat. The money raised from the fees would also help Nevada receive matching federal money to help sustain the sage grouse.
“We are working with these energy companies,” Davis said. “We want to come up with a bill that they can be supportive of, as well.”
Bobzien, whose Assembly district includes the University of Nevada, Reno campus, has taken a lead role in legislative efforts to keep the bird off the endangered species list.
“We need to do everything we can from keeping the sage grouse from actually being listed because development in the rural parts of this state are going to come to a close,” Bobzien said. “I am very concerned about it from a renewable energy side because you have grouse habitat where you want to put solar projects, where you want to put geothermal projects and wind projects. We need to support those habitats so we can keep the numbers up.”
The real enemy
The increase of invasive cheatgrass in the Nevada outback has been a great detriment to sage grouse and those who want to protect them.
“Our sagebrush ecosystem has been in trouble for a while and for a number of reasons,” said Chris Healy, public information officer for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. “In the past 10 years, we have had a tremendous amount of wildfires, and these wildfires have burned up a lot of sagebrush.
“Then, the problem is that sagebrush doesn’t come back very fast but cheatgrass does. It dominates sites and doesn’t allow any other brush species to come back after the fire. Then, the cheatgrass dies out, and after a number of years, it becomes fuel on the floor. It catches fire and burns more sagebrush.
“And when you lose sagebrush, you lose sage grouse habitat,” Healy said.
In the past 25 years, two out of every three years have been drought years, which also work against the sage grouse, Healy said.
“In the old days, Nevada wildfires have never come close to the size they are now,” Healy said. “Because of the dryness of the outback, the cheatgrass and everything else, it’s like you have gasoline on the ground. So, instead of these fires burning 20,000 acres, they are burning 200,000, 300,000 acres, even a million acres in one fire event.”
The most vulnerable population of sage grouse in Nevada lives in the bi-state area shared by Nevada and California that runs from Inyo County in California and through Douglas, Mineral and Nye counties in Nevada. This sage grouse population was listed as less than 3,500, Tull said.
“The feeling is that is the population that is most in jeopardy,” Bobzien said. “So it is a California-Nevada situation.”
Mayer told members of the Legislature last week that the state wildlife department is working diligently on the sage grouse issue.
Others say current measures are not enough, that more needs to be done to keep the bird off of the list.
“If we don’t change what we are doing now, we will see the bird listed, I predict, within five to 10 years,” Tull said.
“But at the same time, we have an opportunity to recognize that and change what we are doing. And that change does not require dramatic changes in ranching or what we are doing on public lands. But it will require us to recognize key areas and come up with conservation provisions for those areas.”