Interview: Rahul Mukherjee & The Henefer Lek

Rahul Mukherjee just finished up high school, but he’s already championed sage-grouse conservation in his home region of Salt Lake City, Utah. When he heard about plans to develop the Henefer Lek (on of Utah’s largest and most visited leks) into a resort community, he knew he had to drum up public support to represent the birds in the county council’s proceedings on the matter — and so far, it looks like his efforts have paid dividends for the grouse. We at the Cornell Lab, among many others around the country, were inspired by Rahul’s resourceful initiative and commitment to this issue, so we wrote him with a brief questionnaire in order to learn more about how a busy high school student could tackle so much, and ultimately, how the rest of us could follow his lead.

When did you first encounter the Sage-Grouse, and how did you learn about the issues surrounding it?  

I first developed a passion for birds during my freshman year while working on a project in which I was required to photograph and record the vocalizations of 35 different bird species. As part of the project, we took a field trip to the Henefer lek in April to watch the sage-grouse display. It was the first time I’d seen the sage-grouse, and it was a remarkable experience. The males’ displays were incredible to see and hear, with their bold strutting and outlandish popping and whooshing sounds. It was surreal. But on that trip, we also learned that sage-grouse populations were in rapid decline. After seeing those birds in person, and realizing they were really threatened, I just started reading up on the species, and getting connected with the local birding community that was already invested in the broader issue of bird conservation.

What impelled you to act?

Someone once said, “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” I felt a similar way with the sage-grouse in regards to all the upcoming freshman classes that would visit the Henefer lek over the years. I was grateful to have been able to see the sage-grouse and I felt the obligation to preserve this experience for future students. Given the precarious conservation status of the species, I was also concerned that these development plans would become just one instance of a widespread problem that is decimating the species’ population. I was impelled to act because I truly believed I had the ability to prevent the development plans as long as I put in the effort.

What was your first step towards taking action on behalf of sage-grouse, and where did your first steps eventually lead you?

The first steps were really about making sure people were aware of the issue. As soon as I heard about the development plans, I informed everyone in the local birding community through an email listserv, contacted the county office to ask about the status of the development plans, and requested a public hearing so that people could voice their concern for the sage-grouse. I opened a Facebook account and created a group to keep people up to date with any opportunities to speak up for sage-grouse. Our political system allows us to actually make a difference if the right representatives really get the impression that enough people care — so that’s what it was all about: getting more and more people to hear about it, and simultaneously creating and compiling resources to help people speak up.

It was difficult and sometimes frustrating, especially at the beginning. The county planning commission voted in favor of the development plans initially, so the issue then moved on to the county council, which also voted in favor of a preliminary amendment to advance the developments plans. These plans were not only a problem for the sage-grouse but also a problem for those that lived in neighboring counties: locals claimed that the proposed developments would worsen pre-existing water and sewage issues. I was able to find common ground with some of these people, despite different priorities, and got them to attend the public hearings, too — we were on the same side of this issue, and so we were able to speak up together.  I also contacted the local news media to make them aware of this developing story, and to convey the importance of covering it.

Rahul speaking to the county council, as covered by the regional news channel.

Rahul speaking to the county council, as covered by the regional news channel.

I think that coverage was the turning point because the county council was now publicly being held accountable for their decision — there was increasing pressure to get it right. With more people present at subsequent council hearings, and with more media attention from a larger area, we were able to gradually sway the council against the development plans — first with a tied vote to put the plans on hold, and later, with a 4-2 vote against development. And that’s where we stand currently — things are looking very good for now, but there’s always plenty more to be done.

What’s one thing you would suggest other people could do to get involved on a personal scale (and perhaps from afar)?

There are many opportunities for anyone to get directly involved in conservation, because conservation science is really a citizen science: conservation is always carried out within a human context. So there are lots of organizations that have citizen science initiatives, like eBird, where anyone can help to contribute to our knowledge base about a species or a habitat — these data are crucial for directing conservation action and determining priorities.

But conservation science becomes actionable when the knowledge is used to inform and shift the way we as humans interact with our environment, and that’s where community involvement and legislation comes into play. Communicating with the mayor, governor or the legislators in your area, or an area of concern, is an effective way to introduce regulations that can really help threatened species. And for those who do not wish to become directly involved, I’d encourage them to educate themselves on these issues and, in turn, inform others. Simply getting the conversation going about these issues is a very important step in the process.