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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Biggest Endangered Species Controversy Yet
To put the issue in perspective, the federal listing of the Northern Spotted Owl affected forests in Oregon, Washington, and northern California. The listing of the Greater Sage-Grouse would affect 165 million acres from California to North Dakota. It’s an area of the West where oil and gas production has doubled since 1990. The Western Energy Alliance calculated that a federal Greater Sage-Grouse listing could cost more than $5 billion in annual economic output.
The fragmentation of the sagebrush steppe ecosystem cost Greater Sage-Grouse dearly. Over the past two centuries, settlement, farming, ranching, mining, sprawling urban development, and fossil-fuel extraction have cut the Sagebrush Steppe almost in half, and sage-grouse numbers have dropped from an estimated 16 million presettlement to a few hundred thousand today. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, Greater Sage-Grouse populations have declined by more than 60 percent over the past five decades.
The Greater Sage-Grouse's range has shrunk by about half, and its population has declined by as much as 95%, from pre-settlement estimates as high as 16 million to between 200,000 and 500,000 birds today. (Midpoint of current population estimates depicted above). Figure by Matt Kania, Map Hero.
An Endangered Species Act listing for Greater Sage-Grouse has been batted back and forth in federal courts since 2006. With uncertainty looming, Wyoming governor Dave Freudenthal sought to prevent a federal takeover of his state’s sage-grouse by establishing a policy for the conservation of their core areas in 2008. The core plan was written by a multidisciplinary team made up of elected officials, ranchers, and representatives from county, state, and federal agencies; oil, gas, and mining companies; and conservation groups (including Audubon).
“I’ve never been in a meeting with 30 different people wearing all kinds of different shoes…work boots, hiking boots, high heels…all working together on a collaborative solution,” says Mary Flanderka, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Habitat Protection Supervisor for sage-grouse.
The next Wyoming governor—Matt Mead—followed up with his own revised core area plan in 2011. The plan identified 31 core areas for Greater Sage-Grouse populations that altogether covered about a quarter of the state’s land area, and included more than 80 percent of the bird’s population in the state. The plan recommends that new energy leasing be done outside of core areas, but still allows leasing and development inside cores. The plan’s regulations mostly focus on new energy development in core areas, the key stipulations being the establishment of a 0.6-mile no-surface-occupancy buffer zone around leks and a 5 percent cap on all surface disturbances with an average density limit of one disturbance per 640 acres (or one well-drilling pad per square mile).
Because it’s an average, that could mean six well pads clustered in one sec ion with no pads in five other surrounding sections. The core plan team set the disturbance density limit based on research that showed it to be the disturbance threshold that sage-grouse will tolerate.
The federal government was impressed with the plan: the USFWS issued a statement praising it as “an excellent model for meaningful conservation of sage-grouse.” The Bureau of Land Management (the biggest landowner in the West) used the state core plan as a blueprint for crafting their first regional management plan for sage-grouse on federal lands, issued out of the Lander, Wyoming, office.
Plans to Drill
Greater Sage-Grouse are a bit like land mines; they don’t explode into the sky until you’re just about right on top of them. In late January, a flock huddled deep among clumps of frosted sagebrush and freshly fallen snow at the bottom of a draw, waiting until the last possible moment before a pickup truck driving along the BLM access road set them off.
“We’re basically way behind the curve.”—Steve Holmer, American Bird Conservancy
The Sagebrush Sea is a one-hour documentary about life in the sage through the eyes of the Greater Sage-Grouse, and explores the impact humans are having on North America’s most contested landscape. Visit PBS.org/nature to watch the film.
Whoosh!—a cloud of snow crystals sparkled in the cold air as a flock of more than 100 sage-grouse jetted off into the distance. Local BLM biologists say these sage-grouse migrate down from the higher elevations where the snow gets deep. They come from 30 to 60 miles away to nibble on the exposed sagebrush leaves that stick above the windswept snow, and to eat the alkaline dirt.
But this wintering area on federal land is not protected by the core plan. It’s leased for energy development, and an energy company has proposed to drill 3,500 gas wells in the area. BLM biologists are trying to get it protected. They say more than 1,000 sage-grouse gather here in winter. Wyoming’s core plan instructs that “All efforts should be made to minimize disturbance to mature sagebrush cover in identified winter concentration areas.” In April, the Casper Star Tribune newspaper reported that the energy company has halted plans for exploratory development of the area until federal and state agencies have completed reviews of the project and its potential impact on sage-grouse. Ultimately, Governor Matt Mead will decide on whether to protect this area under the core plan.