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LAST GROUSE STANDING


by GUSTAVE AXELSON, MARC DANTZKER, and GERRIT VYN

Photography by GERRIT VYN

 

Wyoming's core plan attempts to salvage the state's last populations of Greater Sage-Grouse in a landscape of energy development. Some conservationists say it's a good deal. Others say it won't stop the slide towards extinction.

(A version of this article was printed in the Spring 2015 issue of LIVING BIRD)

 

In the pitch-black predawn darkness on this patch of Wyoming sagebrush country, the stars still glitter overhead, but they’re forced to compete with the pulsating lights of a sprawling industrial complex on earth. There is no still moment in the dark here anymore, just a continual subsonic tremor—the kind of low frequency rumble that you don’t so much hear with your ears as feel in your lungs.

The gas-drilling frenzy was just ramping up here in 2004 when National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore visited to document the fantastical, chest-puffing spring display of male Greater Sage-Grouse. This spot was still a flat, grassy opening amid a dense sagebrush tapestry in the forefront of the Wind River Range, the perfect setting for a lek. At that time, the sage-grouse came in numbers that filled the entire frame of Sartore’s camera.

Greater Sage-Grouse numbers on this lek in Wyoming have declined due to intensive development for natural gas extraction. The photo above was shot by National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore in 2004. The same lek area is pictured at the top of the page in a 2009 photo by Gerrit Vyn.

Greater Sage-Grouse numbers on this lek in Wyoming have declined due to intensive development for natural gas extraction. The photo above was shot by National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore in 2004. The same lek area is pictured at the top of the page in a 2009 photo by Gerrit Vyn.

Sage-grouse still come to this lek every morning in spring. They arrive in small groups, streaking through the darkness on arched wings, then hitting the air brakes with a rapid flutter of feathers to drop on the lek. Immediately it begins—the whoop-whoop, pop-pop of males vigorously thrusting yellow air sacs out of a billow of snow-white feathers draped around their neck. From their behavior, these grouse don’t seem bothered by the gas field next door. Their ancestors have been coming here since long before there was drilling; they have a cultural draw to this place.

This satellite image, from 2014, shows the approximate location of the lek in the two photographs above. The closest well pad is about 1,000 yards from the lek.

This satellite image, from 2014, shows the approximate location of the lek in the two photographs above. The closest well pad is about 1,000 yards from the lek.

But the numbers tell a different story. In 2007, 184 males were counted on this lek. By 2011, peak attendance on the lek was below 100 males. Last year, the peak count was 43.

It’s a story that has played out repeatedly across the West during the oil and gas boom of the past two decades, sparking the biggest wildlife controversy yet in the 21st century. But on this much there is universal agreement: energy development has been bad for sage-grouse. Seven of seven studies on sage-grouse population response to oil and gas drilling conducted in the mid-2000s reported negative effects.

Historically low populations of sage-grouse made the bird a prime candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act, which would in turn endanger energy development in Wyoming. So the state proactively issued its own plan for protecting core habitat for Greater Sage-Grouse, in hopes of staving off a federal intervention. It is a conservation plan that has driven a wedge between conservationists. Some say the core plan is a big win, a turning point for a species in a decades-long decline. Others say the plan is weak, doesn’t do nearly enough for sage-grouse, and will not stop the decline.

Now more sage-grouse conservation plans are in the works at state and federal agencies in all 11 states of the bird’s range. Unprecedented coalitions are forming across the West that include state agencies and federal, conservationists and energy companies, private ranchers and public land managers. States have invested more than $200 million in sage-grouse, and the federal government has invested $300 million—with another $200 million on the way. The grand total spent on sage-grouse conservation is getting into the ballpark of building a new sports stadium.

“This whole sage-grouse deal, there’s never been a larger conservation effort on the planet directed toward a single species,” says Tom Christiansen, sage-grouse program coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

It’s all coming to a head this September, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is due to announce a final decision on whether this species ought to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. And the stakes are big in Wyoming, which is #2 in the nation for energy production and the #1 state for Greater Sage-Grouse— with a population of 100,000 to 150,000, more than one-third of the Greater Sage-Grouse left in the world today.

As goes Wyoming, so goes the sage-grouse.