Measure Us by Our Sage Grouse

By Jon Christensen

Way out on the sagebrush sea of the American West, people are embarking on a journey called community-based conservation. This is a journey communities around the world are undertaking. But it’s new for us Westerners. Our flagship is the greater sage grouse, a bird that narrowly avoided being added to the U.S. endangered species list this year, in part because of the cooperative efforts of people around the region.

The decision not to list the sage grouse signals the beginning of a bold experiment. For many years, people in communities around the West have been arguing that they are the best stewards of local public lands, resources, and wildlife. Now, we’re being given the chance to prove it.

The U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, which controls about half of the 668,000 km2 of existing sage grouse habitat in 11 Western states, is working closely with state wildlife agencies and local users of the public lands on conservation plans for the sage grouse. Owners of ranches that provide important habitat are also involved, as is the Western Governors’ Association.

These efforts have helped keep the sage grouse off the endangered species list for the time being. Now comes the tough part: actually learning to live with sage grouse. There is no reason communities in the West cannot ensure that sage grouse survive, but there are plenty of reasons why we might not.

A sage grouse lek sits over a valuable natural gas deposit and is soon surrounded by wells and roads. New powerlines cut through sage grouse territory. Cattle graze on tender plants that provide food for young grouse and grasses that shelter the birds the rest of the year. A new subdivision spreads into the sagebrush on the edge of a Western town.

Any one of these is no big deal. It could be argued-indeed it is argued all the time-that any given sage grouse habitat is marginal. In many cases, this is true. But often, marginal habitat is all that is left.

This is all business as usual-exactly what has driven sage grouse to the brink. And it is a familiar scenario in communities around the world. The question is: once communities take explicit responsibility for conservation, as Westerners have now done for sage grouse, can we change the way we do business? The whole world will be watching. And sage grouse will be the measure of our success.

The sage grouse has been called the spotted owl of the inland West as well as the proverbial canary in the coal mine for the health of the region’s sagebrush grasslands. These are not the most scenic stretches of the West. But they are the heart and soul of the West.

To see these birds dancing at dawn on a cold spring day and to hear their calls echoing across a high desert valley, as I have, is not something that stirs feelings of grandeur. Instead, it evokes loneliness and vulnerability.

If we succeed on this journey into the future with the sage grouse, we will gain some much-needed evidence, along with other tentative examples around the world, that community-based conservation can manage species and ecosystems without the heavy hand of regulation that follows an endangered species listing. But if we fail, it will be on a grand scale.

Jon Christensen is a research fellow in the Center for Environmental Science and Policy at Stanford University.

The Uneasy Chair is named in honor of Bernard DeVoto, who, from 1935 to 1955 wrote “The Editor’s Easy Chair” column for Harper’s magazine-a perch from which he often sallied forth in defense of conservation. Wallace Stegner’s biography of DeVoto was more aptly titled The Uneasy Chair (Doubleday, 1974), from which this column takes its name and its challenge.

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