Salt Lake City, UT – Forget about the Mayan calendar or an asteroid hitting the earth. For a lot of people in Utah, the end of the world could happen when the greater sage grouse is listed as an endangered species. A deadline for making that decision is still about three years away. Utah's governor is leading an effort to keep that from happening.
Early on a spring morning, a dozen male grouse are puffing out their chests, spreading their tail feathers and strutting to convince the females to pick them as their mates. Occasionally they get in fights, and while no harm is done, one male makes it clear who's in charge on this lek near the Morgan-Summit County line in northern Utah. Lek is the term biologists use for the habitat where this display takes place every spring.
Sage grouse depend on sagebrush, big stands of it, with healthy plants of varying ages. They also eat and nest in the plants that grow under and around the brush. Damage to that habitat from drought, wildfire or human activity like oil and gas drilling, has led to a dramatic decline in sage grouse populations in recent decades. That's why the state of Utah is now working on a plan to protect the birds - and to avoid more stringent limits on development that could come if they're listed as an endangered species under federal law.
At Utah's state capitol, Bob Budd is leading a discussion on threats to the sage grouse. He's a range management expert from Wyoming who helped to create that state's plan for protecting the sage grouse. Around the table are members of an advisory council appointed by Governor Gary Herbert, including representatives of ranching and drilling interests, academics and government experts.
Wyoming has been leading other western states on the sage grouse issue, in part because it has more than any other state. Its plan is already in place. But Wyoming governor Matt Mead says, "It's to no one's advantage to have it listed. Where we want to be is that the habitat is such, the population is such and the health is such that the bird is not listed."
Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee is a member of Utah's panel. He's haunted by the prospect of an endangered species listing, saying, "It could be, not only in my county, but across the West, quite devastating, particularly with energy and energy use because, as we know, sage grouse habitat covers broad swaths of land across the West."
If oil and gas drilling were the only threats to sage grouse populations, the problem might be easier to deal with. But the birds and their habitat are also vulnerable to predators and damage from grazing, any disruption at all to the sagebrush habitat they depend on. Terry Messmer, a wildlife management professor from Utah State University who also sits on the panel, says they face a wide range of hazards.
"Those birds that typically have to go further to meet their essentials," Messmer says,"have to engage in longer migrations, have to transcend more fragmented habitats, those birds have been shown to be more at risk to issues of predation and to mortality from vehicle strikes. There's a lot of different other factors."
The panel includes only one member of an environmental group, Joan DeiGiorgio from the Nature Conservancy. Biologist Allison Jones works with the Wild Utah Project and attends every meeting, even though she's not officially a member. And she says they won't get away with sacrificing populations in energy producing areas like the Uintah Basin even if grouse in other parts of the state do well. "This plan has to pass muster with the feds," says Jones. "So we just have to see how it unfolds."
Larry Crist, who heads up the U-S Fish and Wildlife Service office in Utah, says there's likely more than one way to meet the requirements of the law. "For the Fish and Wildlife Service to try to dictate something doesn't really work. I mean, you have to have buy-in from all the stakeholders and this is a great process for doing that."
The Wyoming plan designates "core areas" of sage grouse habitat, and that's where drilling and other activities are restricted to protect the birds. Bob Budd helped create the Wyoming plan, and he says whether Utah will have to do the same thing is still an open question.
Budd says, "The state of Utah has a greater risk of fire and invasive species over a larger area than we did in Wyoming. We had a much larger impact from oil and gas development than you do. Every state's different."
If the working group is looking for a successful model of managing both grazing and sage grouse habitat, it might look at what's been done at the Deseret Land and Livestock ranch in Rich County. The 225-thousand acre ranch is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Bill Fenimore, who runs the Wild Bird Center in Layton, has been working with them for years. Rotating the spots where cattle are allowed to graze and sometimes using fire to create new growth and improve the habitat are among the practices that have allowed the sage grouse to flourish there.
"We've had a lot of success on Deseret Ranch through some of the work," Fenimore says. "[They] have they've "increased the number of leks, the number of birds. So we're quite excited about that and we're bringing in lots of people from around the state and other states, ranchers, to see the work we've done and to use it as a demonstration project to help them go back with some of those best practices when they are working on their places."
The working group is hoping to have a plan ready for Governor Herbert to look at this summer, and Herbert is confident they can meet the standard he's set. "I don't think we need to sacrifice the sage grouse for any reason. I think we can make sure there's habitat and the sage grouse population can not only thrive but flourish."
That's the result Deana Foxley is hoping for. She's a teacher at Kennedy Junior High School in West Valley, and she was among a group of birdwatchers who went out to see the grouse strutting on their lek one early morning this spring. "I was very impressed. The sound, the sights, the birds themselves. They're so beautiful, so majestic. They're worth every moment of our efforts to save them and make sure that they are there for our children and grandchildren."