(EnviroNews Nature) — On World Wildlife Day, March 3, 2017, EnviroNews Nature released one of the largest and most expansive documentaries ever published on a wildlife species in peril — the greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus). The academic yet entertaining film spans a plethora of topics and includes intersecting interviews, viewpoints and analyses from expert personalities in the arenas of biology, ecology, zoology, ornithology, environmental studies, conservation, journalism, political science, ranching, energy development, land-use and many more. The transcript is as follows:
Emerson Urry (Narrator): Welcome to the EnviroNews USA news desk. I’m your host, Emerson Urry. Coming to you tonight in 4K, we bring you a nature exclusive that features one the most embattled wildlife species of the current generation: the greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) – an imperiled bird, denied Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) on Sept. 22, 2015, following the costliest and most expansive conservation and land management effort in U.S., and possibly world history, according to U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) Secretary, Sally Jewell.
Excerpt #1 From DOI Sage Grouse Listing Announcement:
Secretary Sally Jewell: How did we get here? And where does today fit into this bigger picture? So, in short, this is the largest, most complex land conservation effort ever in the history of the United States of America – perhaps the world. So, there’s too many partners and individuals to recognize here because of the scope, scale and complexity of the state, the federal, and the private actions, because they are unequalled in the history of wildlife conservation in the U.S.
Urry (narrating): The announcement turned the page on a chapter in the story of this bird, in what had been a 15-year-long raging political battle. But as soon as that fiercely fought political chapter closed, a new legal chapter opened – suggesting the most nebulous wildlife battle the world has ever seen is far from over yet.
Excerpt #2 From DOI Sage Grouse Listing Announcement:
Jewell: In many ways, today’s announcement is really the end of the beginning – because in the weeks and the months and the years ahead, we need to implement these state plans, and these federal plans, and the fire strategy that made this decision possible.
Urry (narrating): Tonight, in this unique documentary/news-desk hybrid, we zero in on two birds – not only the greater sage grouse – but also the bi-state sage grouse. In this feature-length, jam-packed report, we bring together the major parties and players, and piece together an otherwise perplexing puzzle containing myriad sides, angles and dimensions, in a wildlife expose’ of unparalleled proportion.
Various agencies of government, several sage grouse working groups, a committed rancher, a sagebrush ecosystem expert, a bird-trapping researcher, a sagebrush steppe biologist, environmental activist organizations and many more, all get a say in this epic story – a journalistic treatise made to match the size and scope of the saga itself.
Scientifically known as Centrocercus, the greater sage grouse spans 11 states and is referred to by experts as a “lynchpin species” in the sagebrush sea ecosystem – an ecosystem that once encompassed some half-a-million square miles — though today, its size has been whittled away by humans to less than half that.
An estimated 16 million of these unmistakable birds roamed the brush less than a century ago – but in 2015, as few as 208,000 may remain in the wild. Bleak statistics like these have resulted in an all-out, all-hands-on-deck, sage grouse crisis – throughout the West, and in Washington.
Excerpt From Senate Committee Meeting:
Senator Dean Heller (R-NV): If the sage grouse were to be listed, I think it would have a devastating impact on the economic activities on public lands, including one of, I think, our shared priorities, and that’s renewable energy. And I have many concerns with the land management controls proposed by BLM [for] the sage grouse, and for that reason, I’m putting together a sage grouse working group.
Urry (narrating): Many sage grouse working groups have sprouted up throughout the West over the years, sharing the common goal of keeping Centrocercus off the endangered species list through carrying out “habitat restoration” treatments. The most prominent of these “conservation” coalitions is a rancher-driven group called the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI).
SGI Campaign Video Excerpt #1:
Rancher 1: Our family has always enjoyed wildlife and we are very much advocates of the agricultural industry, and so, we’ve seen this as an opportunity to preserve into the future ranching and wildlife.
Tim Griffiths, SGI Coordinator (Narrator): What’s good for ranch lands is good for sage grouse. With SGI, both wildlife and agriculture win. Through the power of the Farm Bill, our ultimate goal is to negate the need to list sage grouse as “threatened” or “endangered” under the federal Endangered Species Act. Such a designation would have a profound negative impact to ranching operations and rural communities throughout the West.
Dennis Mercer, Montana Rancher: The listing, we don’t want it. If there’s anything we can do to avoid it, we’ll do it. I can’t imagine trying to operate with it.
Urry (narrating): Just about everyone you can imagine has been out to make sure this unsuspecting avian creature, under no circumstance, makes its way onto the list of endangered or threatened animals. But why is that? Why all the ruffled feathers over this particular species? Surely, it is one amongst thousands in trouble.
Well, for starters, the oil, gas, coal, ranching, mining, agriculture, wind power, timber, nuclear, and real estate sectors (to name a few), could’ve all taken palpable hits to their bottom lines had Centrocercus made the endangered list, as many developmental activities around breeding grounds could’ve been put on hold for several months every year, while other business plans would have been thwarted altogether.
But as for now, industry will no longer have the lurking threat of the sage grouse foiling its exploitative plans in the West. At EnviroNews, we’ve often referred to Centrocercus as the “monkeywrencher bird” – not because it threatens to monkeywrench the economy, but because it singlehandedly, by its very existence, has the ability to monkeywrench the exploits of all the aforementioned industries – all by way of a listing to the Endangered Species Act – a protective order the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has now said will not happen. However, the battle is far from over yet, and it’s very safe to say, it will be the courts that ultimately have the last word in this seemingly endless fight.
But to fully understand the Service’s hotly contested decision on the greater sage grouse in September, we need to rewind several months to last April.
A good bit of controversy ensued following a 2015 Earth Day announcement in Reno, Nevada, by Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to not list the Nevada and California-based bi-state sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.
Excerpt #2 From DOI Sage Grouse Listing Announcement:
Jewell: What a brilliantly beautiful sunny day, and a great day to celebrate the fact that the bi-state distinct population segment of the greater sage grouse will not be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Nice going everybody. Nice going!
Urry (narrating): The bi-state sage grouse is a distinct population segment of the greater sage grouse located exclusively in parts of Nevada and California.
The vast majority of local and national media outlets bought into the claimed merits of the announcement hook, line and sinker, as they reported on the triumphant “conservation success” story pumped up by Jewell.
Excerpt #3 From DOI Sage Grouse Listing Announcement:
Jewell: So, for all of you out here, thank you for coming together. How many of you have had some hand, some meeting, some discussions around the bi-state sage grouse? Could you just raise your hands? Look at that! Just look around the table. Uh, the table – the outdoors here. This is epic collaboration. Let’s give all of you a round of applause for being at the table together.
So, because of your work, this amazing species no longer faces the imminent threat of distinction – of extinction, excuse me. It’s a conservation success story. It’s got sound science behind it, that’s the only way we can make these decisions. It’s got strong conservation plans at every level of government and the private sector.
Urry (narrating): When the Secretary came to Commerce City, Colorado, on September 22, to announce the most anticipated wildlife decision in U.S. history on the greater sage grouse, it looked like an instant replay, carbon copy of the Nevada bi-state announcement.
Excerpt #4 From DOI Sage Grouse Listing Announcement:
Jewell: …on this historic day. So, let me get straight to the point of why we’re all here today; and that is that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the premier wildlife agency in the world, has concluded that the greater sage grouse does not need protection under the Endangered Species Act.
So, could I ask Tom Tidwell, Chief of the Forest Service, Neil Kornze, Director of the BLM, and Dan Ashe, Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, to stand up – and for all of you in those three agencies to raise your hands, and let’s give all these guys on the federal side a round of applause.
And I want to give a nod to the ranchers that are here today, and we’ll be hearing from one a little bit later, who have proven to be true conservationists. Thousands of ranching families – thousands, have taken steps to make their land better for the sage grouse, and in doing so, often better for their cattle, as I’ve seen on the ground.
Urry (narrating): On and on the Secretary rolled, giving shout-outs to nearly everyone under the sun.
Excerpt #5 From DOI Sage Grouse Listing Announcement:
Jewell: So, in particular, I want to call out another federal agency: the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). We have Suzette Kimball, Acting Director of the USGS here. If she could just stand up – and everybody from USGS could you just raise your hand? Let’s thanks our scientists here. Thank you.
Urry (narrating): Jewell took special care in expressing her gratitude for several governors, and reminisced about the good times she’d had prancing around the West with each of them while engaging in their own political prairie dances.
Excerpt #6 From DOI Sage Grouse Listing Announcement:
Jewell: Governor Hickenlooper took me out to a very chilly day outside of Craig, Colorado. Governor Mead and I were together in Pinedale, Wyoming. Governor Bullock took the reins in Montana. And Governor Brown from Oregon, who really wanted to be here today, but couldn’t.
Urry (narrating): For the record, the Interior Department flat out ignored several requests by EnviroNews to sit down with Secretary Jewell on camera, in what could have been a clarifying interview to be sure. Maybe next time.
Excerpt #7 From DOI Sage Grouse Listing Announcement:
Jewell: Governor Sandoval, you’ve been on the other end of the phone as we’ve had interesting conversations about all these things, but I can’t thank you enough for joining in a similar celebration, as we spanned the border of Nevada and California and celebrated a similar “not warranted” listing determination on the bi-state population of sage grouse.
Urry (narrating): For the second time in a year, Jewell patted politicians on both sides of the isle on the back, while slapping a happy-face on the ranching sector – an industry considered by many scientists to be the biggest culprit where sagebrush sea habitat destruction is concerned — all this, in front of a cherry-picked crowd full of partners and friendlies, accompanied by the complacent, compliant, mainstream media (with the exception of EnviroNews of course). And when we say “cherry-picked,” don’t take our word for it – allow the Department of Interior to tell you instead.
Excerpt From This Week at Interior Video:
Department of Interior Narrator: This week at Interior: Secretary Jewell in Colorado this week, to announce the largest land conservation effort in U.S. history has paid off. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that the greater sage grouse does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. The Secretary made the announcement at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, alongside Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, Montana Governor Steve Bullock, Wyoming Governor Matt Mead, and leaders from the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey and National Resources Conservation Service.
Urry (narrating): A few days after the historic announcement in Colorado, the Interior, in an email to its press list, released a celebratory video, advertising the largest conservation success ever – but is it really? The header on the email read, “Happy Dance for the Sage Grouse.” How nice.
Excerpt From DOI Sage Grouse Video, Happy Dance For The Sage Grouse:
Jewell (Narrator): Today, I’m proud to mark a milestone for conservation in America. Because of an unprecedented effort by dozens of partners across 11 western states, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that the greater sage grouse does not require protection under the Endangered Species Act. Here’s why that matters:
The deteriorating health of the bird has sparked the largest land conservation effort in U.S. history. People from different backgrounds and livelihoods came together for a common goal: to protect the remarkable sagebrush landscape that defines the American West. Government at every level, ranchers, industry, firefighters, scientists, sportsmen and women, and conservation organizations came together to reduce threats to the bird and to conserve the sagebrush ecosystem. This has been an extraordinary effort on a scale we’ve never seen before, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that these collective efforts add up to a bright future for the sage grouse. This is not only good news for the greater sage grouse, but for Westerners who want to honor their proud wildlife and outdoor heritage and pass it on to future generations.
With climate change and an expanding population the stresses on our land, water and wildlife aren’t going away. But I’m optimistic that we have shown that epic collaboration across a landscape, guided by sound science, is truly the future of American conservation.
Urry (narrating): Many local news outlets have eaten up DOI’s spoon-fed information in this saga for years now– like hungry fledglings receiving informational meals from a mama bird. The problem is: they then re-regurgitate this information to their unsuspecting audiences – keeping them in the dark, and failing repeatedly to connect critical pieces of the puzzle in the larger overarching story. For the better part of a decade, an exorbitantly nebulous media fog has engulfed the embattled sage grouse, resulting in a lot of very shortsighted reporting – and it was that overall lack of connectivity in the media that inspired the making of this very documentary.
Excerpt From Video Featuring Governor Matt Mead:
Governor Matt Mead: As you know I came from a ranching background, and a ranching background is a great background I think for politics. When I ran for governor, I made you a promise.
Urry (narrating): While Wyoming’s pro-industry governor Matt Mead floated along in Sally Jewell’s sage grouse parade, notice how these two next-door neighboring governors stayed home for the biggest wildlife announcement ever.
That’s because this guy, Idaho Republican Governor Butch Otter, has already filed suit against the federal government for its handling of the situation – only three days after Jewell’s Colorado event. On the other hand, insiders say it seems likely pro-industry Republican Governor Gary Herbert of Utah, will either sign on with Idaho’s suit — or do something similar himself.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This film was narrated in early 2016 and edited later in the year. On February 4, 2016, Governor Herbert’s Attorney General filed a lawsuit against the Department of Interior and the Department of Agriculture. The suit claims the government violated numerous laws when it prohibited mining near key sage grouse habitats.
Excerpt From Feature-Length Interview With Gov. Gary Herbert by Monica Bellenger, EnviroNews Utah:
Governor Gary Herbert (R-UT): Our point sources from our corporation friends out there and businesses; the largest reductions we’ve had in pollution over the last 20 years have come from business.
Urry (narrating): The Secretary’s gleeful celebration gushed a river of shout-outs rivaling the mighty Colorado. She even gave thankful nods of approval to governors standing vehemently opposed to U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s decision – a kindhearted gesture of bipartisanship to say the least.
Excerpt #8 From DOI Sage Grouse Listing Announcement:
Jewell: I also want to call out Governor Otter who couldn’t be with us today, but we’ve been together talking about rangeland fire. And Governor Herbert in Utah and I have met multiple times. He’s opened his doors – he’s been open to our conversation.
Urry (narrating): Otter’s office called the land-use plans accompanying DOI’s decision “draconian,” saying they will destroy years of “collaborative” on-the-ground efforts.
While Idaho’s chief executive defended his state’s efforts on the sage grouse with a big thumbs-up for ranchers and farmers, many local researchers stood directly opposed to the governor’s position.
We spoke with one biologist and sagebrush habitat expert by the name of Katie Fite, while staking out leks in Idaho’s Jarbridge National Forest earlier this year.
A board member of the group WildLands Defense, Fite holds nothing back when it comes to the chronic habitat degradation and fragmentation caused by livestock grazing.
Urry to Fite: So, what’s going on here with the cattle?
Fite: What’s going on with the cattle? Well, what’s going on with the cattle is BLM mismanagement of the cows, allowing a proliferation of upland water sources all fed with pipelines. These aren’t natural water sources at all. These are put in for the cows so the cows can exploit…
You can see this spot on aerial photos, you know, Google Earth, and you can see livestock trails just radiating outward like the spokes in the wheel, as they all converge on water and sites where this supplement is placed – and it amounts to habitat fragmentation — certainly of nesting habitat…
…and then trampling the crusts that are trying to grow in the inner-spaces, and then manure and urine. It’s just like the perfect storm of effects coming from grazing livestock in this very sensitive sagebrush ecosystem that did not evolve with large herds of hooved animals trampling it. There were jackrabbits; there were antelope; I mean, those were the primary herbivores. And now we have half-ton, bred to just be food processors and spew manure all over the place and drink an ungodly amount of water…
It’s all the intensive livestock disturbance, the livestock facilities, the artificial upland water sources, and the essentially mining of forage, so the cover that is needed to hide and conceal the sage grouse nests, that’s what the problem is – the level of the livestock impact and the facility impacts out here. It’s not the ravens (Corvus corax) that are the problem.
Excerpt #9 From DOI Sage Grouse Listing Announcement:
Jewell: So, I just want to pause for a second and applaud the men and women at the BLM, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service who created this new successful paradigm.
Urry (narrating): Even back in the spring, Fite telegraphed DOI’s September decision, saying the Department “lacked the backbone” to list the species. Sufficed to say, she doesn’t share in the Secretary’s optimism as to the health and wellbeing of Centrocercus.
Fite to Urry: BLM’s monitoring is so messed up. But, I guess what’s going on here is, we have an agency, BLM, that tells the public in press releases; Sally Jewell, the Interior Secretary comes out and says what great things the Interior Department is doing for sage grouse – and BLM of course is under the Interior Department. But instead, when we go out on the land, we see the dead opposite is true. What we have here is a situation that I personally have been complaining to BLM about for several years now. It hasn’t been fixed. It’s gotten worse. And if you walk out here into the sagebrush you can see there really is hardly any native understory left. This green that you’re seeing is crested wheatgrass. That’s the only thing that can survive with this intensive level of livestock impact that BLM is allowing out here.
BLM is politically shackled by the ranchers and the energy industry. They are incapable of stepping outside their box, or their cage, or whatever it is that these industries have them in, and doing what’s right for the land.
The system just breaks down. Basically, sage grouse don’t tolerate a lot of disturbance. And it’s just like, you can only cram so much disturbance into an area and they don’t live there anymore. They can’t live there anymore.
Urry (narrating): While everyone might not agree with Fite’s outspoken stance on grazing destruction in the West, if one thing is for sure about this scientist, when it comes to the sagebrush steppe ecosystem, she’s as hands-on as it gets.
Fite to Urry: And it’s just the disturbance too, and all this concentrated cow manure. I’ve actually seen ravens come in, and if you flip over cow manure, sometimes there’s insects under it; come in, oops. I’m not as good as the raven… and flip over the cow-flops and forage for whatever creepy-crawlies are living underneath them.
Urry (narrating): One important thing we learned, amongst many, from this outspoken biologist, was about poop. Poop can tell you a lot about grouse activities in a lekking area. And interestingly enough, sage grouse have two kinds of dung to be aware of.
While the Earth Day celebration parade was going on in Reno over the bi-state grouse in April, behind the scenes, biologists and environmental activists blasted DOI for the decision, pointing to the population’s extraordinarily low numbers, and saying the choice to not list the bi-state bird was one of “political expediency.”
The moves to not list both the bi-state and greater sage grouse will almost certainly land DOI in not one, but multiple Wild West shootouts in court, as several environmental and advocacy groups have indicated they plan to sue over what they see as a shortsighted decision driven by political and industrial special interest pressure.
Such lawsuits have been effective in the past. Two environmental organizations, WildEarth Guardians and Center for Biological Diversity, are in and of themselves, responsible for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service moving forward toward protection on hundreds of imperiled species. The two groups sued the Service in a 10-year behemoth lawsuit; whereafter the Service agreed to act on some 800 previously neglected species, in a settlement of unparalleled proportion.
Excerpt From Center for Biological Diversity Campaign Video:
Narrator: Whether polar bears, wolves, orchids, of frogs, we believe all species should have a safe place to live and thrive. Once a species is extinct, it’s gone forever, and we’re all poorer for it. We do more than believe, we win. The Center is the most effective, most successful endangered species organization in the nation – bar none. Since 1989, we’ve won positive decisions in 93 percent of our cases, protecting more than 500 species under the Endangered Species Act, and winning protection for more than 220 million acres of wildlife habitat – that’s more than twice the size of California.
Urry (narrating): While lawsuits from environmental groups seem nearly inevitable where the sage grouse is concerned, other parties are even more eager to attack the federal government for its handling of the issue – but for completely different reasons.
Excerpt From Fox13 News Utah Report:
Danica Lawrence – Field Reporter, Fox13 News Utah: So, this decision faces a lot of heat. While there are some who are cheering on the sage grouse species, that’s it’s growing, others are saying this decision only allows the federal government to control all of that land.
We also spoke with Congressman Rob Bishop (R-UT). He’s saying this is just a strategy the federal government is using to occupy all of that land. He told me this over the phone: “I’m not fooled by the announcement. To me it’s extremely cynical. If they listed the sage grouse, then states could take it to court and get stake claims. But now the federal government will have control over the land. This is going in the backdoor,” he says. “Changing all the management plans under the BLM means the state plans are all moot. Utah had a good plan. Had the bird been kept on the endangered species list the states could have used their own plans.” Bishop also says he worries about the federal government’s power over the land. For now, we’ve live in Salt Lake City – Danica Lawrence, Fox 13 News Utah.
Urry (narrating): While Republican Representative Rob Bishop of Utah might not be “fooled” by USFS’s decision, neither was EnviroNews fooled by his backdoor attempt to kill the Service’s ability to even make a decision on the sage grouse at all. That all happened earlier in 2015 by way of a backdoor rider, slipped deep into the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
Excerpt #1 From Congressional Committee Meeting:
Bishop: Let’s throw something on the wall and see what sticks. It’s gooey, but nothing is really sticking here. Should this be in the NDAA? You’re darn right it should be. The Army has said: Will the listing of this bird have an impact? Yeah.
Urry (narrating): So just what does the sage grouse have to do with military spending anyway, one might ask? — a pertinent question to say the least. Well, according to Representative Bishop, the mostly passive bird should be a national security matter of the highest priority.
Excerpt #2 From Congressional Committee Meeting:
Bishop: If we don’t do it, it will have a negative impact on military readiness, even to the point of closing down some of our ranges and some of our gunnery aspects that are there.
They’ve said on Yakima, yes; on Hawthorne in Nevada, yes; on the Wyoming National Guard, probably; Tooele, yes; on Dugway, probably; for the Navy, Fallon, yes; for the Air Force, on Mountain Home, yes; Nellis, yes, Uder, yes, for the Marines – some place in California – the Bridgeport Training Center – the answer once again is, yes.
I think it is interesting to note that both Defense and Interior, which come from the same administration and like everything to be on the same page; the Defense official position is they do not object to the amendment in the base bill. And the Army has said they do object to the Tsongas amendment to remove it out of the mark, and hopefully in the base bill.
Urry (narrating): In actuality the Department of Defense (DOD) has made no such statement nor taken any such position on the sage grouse listing. Bishop recruited a few scallywag base commanders to endorse his ploy and insinuated the army was taking such a stance.
The Interior is also on record stating DOD has shared no concerns whatsoever with the Department regarding the sage grouse listing.
Excerpt #3 From Congressional Committee Meeting:
Bishop: The biggest threat to this bird is not human activity, it is wildfire on federal land, the second one is invasive species on federal land, and the third one is other species. So, in my home county, the biggest predator that hurts the sage grouse population is another bird, which attacks its eggs and its young, and that bird is also on the endangered list. So, you have an endangered bird eating an endangered bird, and the way the Interior wants to solve that: let’s control more land. And now you wonder why I have premature gray hair sitting on the Resource Committee? The language should stay in the bill. This is a military issue. It is a readiness issue.
Urry (narrating): Bishop’s argument crumbles further when one learns that DOD lands already have a codified exemption from the Endangered Species Act to begin with, when it comes to matters of national defense and homeland security.
The Obama Administration also strongly opposed the off-the-wall defense spending provision. In the end, Bishop’s sage grouse rider died, but many other assaults on the Endangered Species Act are still alive and festering. Of the many ESA political attacks we examined in 2015, all were schemed and fostered by Republican lawmakers – none by Democrats or Independents.
A relative of Centrocercus, the lesser prairie chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus), is already harbored under the Endangered Species Act – but it nearly had its endangered head lopped clean off by a provision in the NDAA as well. Section 2865 aimed to delisted the lesser prairie chicken entirely and tried to block U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from making any future decision on this bird for at least six years.
Excerpt from KAKE News (ABC) Report:
KAKE News Anchor: Kansas Congressional Delegation getting an earful from members of the Kansas oil and gas industry over federal regulations – new at five. KAKE’s Mike Iuen tells us, many of the complaints are concerns over the protection of the lesser prairie chicken.
Iuen: About 1,000 members of the Kansas Independent Oil and Gas Producers [Association] meeting over a two-day period here, to talk to the Kansas Congressional Delegation about some issues they are concerned about.
One of those rules is the federal government’s decision to designate the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species. Kansas is joining a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the listing. Tom Casey with Express Well Service says the rules would prevent activity in certain months between 3 and 9 a.m.
Casey: It creates a problem for people who want to drill wells in where the drilling rigs operate 24-hours-a-day.
Iuen: Five states, including Kansas, have a special exemption to proceed with state conservation plans for the bird whose numbers dropped 84 percent.
Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS): Leave it to states. We have a good plan. Most of it’s praying for rain.
Member, Kansas Independent Oil and Gas Producers: Prairie chicken is a dumb bird. That’s all they know.
Iuen: But it’s no laughing matter for Casey, even though U.S. Fish and Wildlife praised the state plan to save the prairie chicken, Casey says federal regulations are problematic.
Casey: So, I think it’s impeding drilling in western Kansas and that means less money for farmers that get money from DOL.
Urry (narrating): Another species of sage grouse called the Gunnison sage grouse (Centrocercus minimus) exists exclusively in Utah and Colorado, and its numbers are in serious trouble as well. But you guessed it — the GOP was at it again with this bird in the Interior and Environment Appropriations bill, also attempting to block a listing for this species.
Slithering slippery backdoor riders hundreds or even thousands of pages deep into massive, often convoluted, annual, must-pass spending bills has become the Republican Party’s technique of choice when it comes to attacking environmental regulations and wildlife protections they don’t like.
An article was published in EnviroNews World News in July of 2015 – a piece highlighting the GOP’s myriad efforts to stop, stifle, and stymie the country’s environment and climate rules, while attempting squash, quash or outright kill wildlife protections across the board – all by way of seemingly irrelevant riders, attached to unrelated, yet mandatory spending bills.
The sneaky backdoor rider technique, though not new, is ever growing in popularity these days. Oftentimes, the proposed riders have been attempted as standalone legislation in the past. After lawmakers fail to get their way, they frequently fall back to this legislative technique — a method widely chastised for being a dishonest, disingenuous, and downright dastardly abuse of the American democracy. This type of move essentially equates to politicians throwing temper tantrums and stamping their feet after the political system says “no” – in an attempt to ramrod their agendas down the throat of the American people.
Sadly, the influencing factors affecting some lawmakers in Washington these days represent only a grain of sand, on a beach of political pressures in the voluminous sage grouse story.
Excerpt #10 From DOI Sage Grouse Listing Announcement:
Jewell: So, in the coming days, you’re going to hear critics on both sides. Some people are going to say: The bird should have been listed, these plans don’t go far enough for the sage grouse. And others will say: The plans are worse than a listing, you’re going to lock up development forever.
Urry (narrating): With its announcement to not list the greater sage grouse, DOI, via its ancillary Bureau of Land Management (BLM), also rolled out a massive land-use plan, containing rules and guideposts intended to help protect grouse habitat.
Fite to Urry: Oh, I guess, well, it’s over a year ago now, and the final EISs, which are going to be the BLM sage grouse plans – and the Forest Service has signed onto them too – to cover oil and gas and grazing and everything. They basically allow a whole lot of negative impacts to continue in a whole lot of country, and they cut back on the habitat that’s considered of the highest importance. And there are also many loose phrases and much weasel wording I guess, in order to allow all this kind of crap to continue. So, it’s just like, until BLM starts saying, “no, hell no,” and starts rolling back some of the disturbances that are going on out here, the birds don’t have a chance.
Urry (narrating): While Governor Otter and likeminded-company say the federal plan is too restrictive, and amounts to a listing without a listing, Erik Molvar, biologist and sage grouse expert with WildEarth Guardians says the plan is riddled with giveaways for industry – exceptions handed out to the states, creating loopholes that favor the largest habitat harmers in those respective areas.
Urry to Molvar: Going into what they call these “conservation successes” like we saw about a week-and-a-half ago, jumping over to Nevada and California into the bi-state population, as it’s referred to of the greater sage grouse — Secretary Jewell came out — it was pumped up as this massive “conservation success.” They decided to not list that population to the ESA. How do you read into that? What’s your takeaway? Is that actually a conservation success, or is it all smoke and mirrors?
Molvar: That’s basically window dressing. You know, the reality is, is that they’ve treated 46,000 acres with their 40-plus million dollars, and there’s 1.8 million acres of proposed critical habitat for the bi-state population. So, all these victory stories and these victory dances around these voluntary conservation agreements and these millions of dollars that are spent, are just affecting a tiny fraction of sage grouse habitat, while meanwhile on the rest of sage grouse habitat, you lack the kinds of hard required protections that are going to prevent continued habitat degradation and continued population collapse.
Urry: So, how do we get from there in late 2014 to where we are now with DOI not listing it? What does the population actually look like there, and again just how do we go from the highest priority for listing to not even threatened?
Molvar: You know, the biggest populations in the bi-state area only have a few hundred breeding males, and so we’re talking about less than a thousand total grouse in the largest populations. The smallest population has one lek with one breeding male in 2014. And so, there are six of these populations. Some of the populations seem to be stable. Most of the populations seem to be declining. The threats remain. There aren’t regulations in place. We’re going to see continued declines, and basically this is a big PR stunt to call this population a success story, and to call this a stable population. This population is just as small, and just as close to the brink of extinction as it was ten years ago when everybody was calling it an emergency situation.
Excerpt from Utah Wildlife Resources Video, Spring Dance on Parker Mountain:
Narrator: One of the most fascinating of all wildlife events has to be the annual mating behavior of the greater sage grouse. Each year in late March and April the males of the species gather in open, usually flat areas, to perform an elaborate mating dance that is guaranteed to drive the ladies wild. The gathering places are called “leks” – that’s l-e-k – and the same plot of ground is used every spring, sometimes for many, many years.
Urry (narrating): While the bi-state and greater sage grouse showdowns could get pretty ugly, in another place in Utah, visited by EnviroNews a couple weeks before Jewell’s announcement, birds were lekking hard, in what is referred to as the “hub” of sage grouse in the Beehive State — Sage Hen Hollow.
One of the most unique, and quite frankly, coolest things about Sage Hen Hollow, is its close proximity to Bryce Canyon National Park — unarguably one of America’s great treasures. Bryce provides what [are] surely some of the most breathtaking and unusual landscapes on the face of the planet.
As many as 160 flamboyant male birds have been counted here in a single morning session, and this year was no different, as dozens of displaying male birds were seen strutting thief stuff in the bustling lek, just outside Utah’s infamous park — and when we say the bird struts, we really mean it.
The lek is basically like a bar for birds. Males drop in by the hoards with one thing, and one thing only on their minds — impressing the ladies of course! The term “barhopping” has been used to describe the adventurous human that jumps around from club to club looking for a great time, but in recent years it’s been discovered that, just like people, grouse actually “lek hop” if they’re not finding what they’re looking for in a particular scene.
Nicki Frey to Urry: The majority of these locations are within the last year, and we have roughly 7,000 locations.
Urry: And you were saying too, that birds actually; they go barhopping. Maybe we should call it “lek-hopping.” There we go.
Frey: Lek-hopping. They’re lek-hopping. So, this great app called “Track Analyst” actually will say where the birds move from one location to the next. Because we have the time information and the date information on these satellite transmissions, we can actually say that: at 6 a.m. was here, and at 12 noon, the bird was over here.
Urry: So basically, he partied all night here, and he didn’t get lucky, he got tiered of the scene…
Frey: He’s going to go somewhere else.
Urry (narrating): Nicki Frey is a specialist in human-wildlife conflicts with the Utah State University Land Extension Program, and has been part of an ongoing study wherein birds are trapped, radio-collared and tracked in an effort to understand their movements, patterns and behaviors.
Frey to Urry: So, here you can see Sage Hen Hollow where we were, and you can see every color is a different bird, and you can see how the birds lekked at Sage Hen Hollow, and then moved down here to what we call “Hatch,” and then here is a new lek called, “Hatch Bench,” that we didn’t confirm until we got these locations.
Urry: New meaning it actually is a new lek, or new meaning that it’s newly discovered?
Frey: Newly discovered by us. So, the [Utah] Division [of Wildlife Resources] is now counting it as a lek where it wasn’t five years ago.
Urry (narrating): Frey took an EnviroNews 4K night-shot camera along for the ride on one of her outings – allowing us an inside look at one of the countless efforts underway on the ground – programs aimed at saving a species.
Frey for EnviroNews: We are back at Sage Hen Hollow. We’re going to do some sage grouse trapping tonight. So, we’ve got an ATV; we’ve got some nets over here; and we’ve got some spotlighters, and we’re basically going to walk along the trails until we find sage grouse.
Frey to Team Member: No, we’ll get the male.
Team Member: Do you want to take it?
Frey: Yeah. All right. We’ve got a male, and we’re going to put the transmitter on it. So, what I want you to do is put its head against you like that.
Team Member: Okay.
Urry (narrating): Frey and her team are ahead of the curve compared to other research groups we’ve observed – at least when it comes to the technology they deploy. For example, the tiny backpack-style GPS collars seen here are on the cutting edge and offer an alternative to the old-school, around-the-neck-style systems. These collars create less bother for birds, while reducing the risk of them getting hung up, and possibly killed, by the collar itself.
Frey to Team Members: [I] found your knee joint, so thank you. I would check to see if he’s an adult male, but I’m guessing by his size he’s an adult male. Almost done buddy, hang in there. Hang in there. You can stop recording. We got the transmitter on. All right, there’s your bird. Okay, you can just go ahead and put him down in the brush, and then we’ll let him do his thing. And there he goes!
Team Member: Thanks.
Urry (narrating): The data is collected and analyzed through a sophisticated, real-time, interactive, multi-filtered software that gives Frey’s team up-to-the-minute information on their collared birds.
Frey to Urry: And then the software… then each company that deals with the satellites has what’s called parsing software, so it makes the satellite transmissions readable to our GIS. So, I have an Excel spreadsheet with all these locations and I can upload it directly into the software package. And so, then from here, I can figure out distance; I can figure out habitat; I can figure out the home-range sizes. So, here’s the distribution of all the birds. You know, here’s one lek area, and then, this would be one lek, you can tell ‘cause there’s a cluster of locations. And then we go all the way down to South of Alton into a little place called Ft. Pasture.
Urry: And what happens with this data that you’re gathering? I know you put trackers on some of the birds, correct, and follow those?
Frey: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Urry: But in general, what happens with it? Is it used on these environmental impact reports?
Frey: Absolutely. Yeah. So, our data, the data that I’m collecting down here, is really the only data we have in the southern region of Utah on sage grouse. So, all the data that I have, before I even publish it or anything else, once I quality control it and I analyze it, I send it to the BLM and the Division of Wildlife Resources.
Urry (narrating): In Sage Hen Hollow, birds start lekking as early as February, and competition can be fierce. Unlike many avian species who are monogamous and mate for life, oftentimes on a large and contentious lek like Sage Hen Hollow, one or two dominant males will breed all the females, leaving youngsters and birds with less mojo to wonder about things that might have been.
What we were filming here in April is known as the “round of second chances.” Most females are bred early in the lekking season and wonder off in the brush to make their nests on the ground — sitting and incubating their precious eggs almost around-the-clock. But life in the Sagebrush Sea can be rough for a nesting grouse. With much less ground cover than in decades past, often females must abandon their nests after they are raided by predators, trampled by cattle, or run over by vehicles.
Excerpt from Dirt Bike Channel Video:
Kyle Brotherson of Dirt Bike Channel: Hey guys, Kyle with Dirt Bike Channel here. Thanks for tuning in. We basically went out and did the same run over a single-track trail here, through some sagebrush. And I’m going to start these videos at the same time. I’ve synced them up so that as soon as I let go of the clutch on the first bike, I will let go of the clutch on the second bike, as you can see. Boom, we’re off! And basically just wanted to see if I was faster on one bike versus the other. Now, this isn’t to say that one bike is inherently faster than the other. I just kind of wanted to see what would happen if I went out and tried to run them at as fast as I dared go. Now, I’m going to stop right here.
Urry (narrating): When it comes to predators, there’s quite a few out there that like to enjoy a scrumptious meal of either grouse eggs or grouse flesh for that matter – and humans are no exception, as grouse hunting is still allowed in eight of the 11 states harboring the bird – despite very low population numbers in many of those places.
Excerpt From Online Sage Grouse Hunting Video #1:
Sage Grouse Hunter #1: Good boy Murph.
Sage Grouse Hunter #2: Let go. Let go.
Sage Grouse Hunter #1: Just say, “give.”
Sage Grouse Hunter #2: Give, give, give.
Sage Grouse Hunter #1: Right on! Father-son here. Dave and Joe. Got on the bombers – had to put ‘em up a couple times.
Sage Grouse Hunter #2: The top guns here though…
Sage Grouse Hunter #1: The top guns here (laughs)…
Sage Grouse Hunter #2: We worked pretty hard for the birds – [a] lotta walking. Awesome time.
Sage Grouse Hunter #3: Great hunt.
Sage Grouse Hunter #2: Great guide.
Sage Grouse Hunter #3: A lotta birds.
Sage Grouse Hunter #2: Put up a lotta birds. The dog did a tremendous job. It’s been a fun three days we’ve had here.
Sage Grouse Hunter #1: Sweet!
Sage Grouse Hunter #2: Perfect!
Excerpt From Online Sage Grouse Hunting Video #2:
Sage Grouse Hunter #4: Okay, we’re out here in northwestern Utah. We’re out here on the first leg of our grouse hunt. We’re out here hunting sage grouse. We’ve got a few of them spotted out here off in the brush a couple hundreds yards out, and we’re deciding the best approach to get Erik and Neil and Jimmy in on, hopefully, a bunch of sage grouse. But, they’re all interested in sleeping in the truck this morning. We got them up early; they’ve been complaining the whole way up here.
Sage Grouse Hunter #5: Good boy. Watch where these go.
Sage Grouse Hunter #6: Do you know why gorillas have such big nostrils? ‘Cause their fingers are so big. (laughter)
Sage Grouse Hunter #4: We got a couple sage grouse this morning; probably a little more difficult than what we anticipated. They were getting up several hundred yards in front of us this morning, and what do you think was attributing to that David?
Sage Grouse Hunger #7 (David): A lot of coyotes maybe, but these birds are having a study being done on ‘em too, so the guys out here [who are] trying to capture these birds may have them flushing early, but they just weren’t dumb. They were uh… you actually had to hunt these birds and get shots at it.
Sage Grouse Hunter #4: Beautiful bird. Well sir, I’m going to let you take the Alaskan knife, all right, and we’re going to get these boys cleaned out.
Sage Grouse Hunter #7: All I’m going to do is make a quick incision.
Excerpt From Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Video:
Winston Greely (Narrator): This fall sage grouse hunters will face a very different season.
Quentin Kujala – Wildlife Management Section Chief, FWP: Fish and Wildlife Commission ultimately adopted a shorter season to just the month of September. The Commission did leave the bag-limit as is, at two birds, the daily bag. And then the Commission also closed some parts of Montana to sage grouse hunting that were open last year.
Greely: The closed areas are in southeastern, south-central, and northern Montana. Sage grouse hunting will still be allowed in central and southwest Montana. This season change comes at a time when sage grouse, in large parts of the state, are rapidly declining.
Research has shown hunting is not a major threat to sage grouse populations, but Fish, Wildlife and Parks through its management plan, realizes the importance of the bird’s decline.
Excerpt From Online Sage Grouse Hunting Video #3:
Sage Grouse Hunter #8: There’s one. (Takes three shots) Ah! That was a huge one too. (Shoots again and kills bird) All right!
Urry (narrating): Males put themselves in grave danger to remain in the openness of the lek — a risk they are willing to take, even for the remote opportunity a female might roll back into the bird bar in need of a second chance.
Urry to Frey: So, just a second ago, you were telling me about the very real threat to these birds from golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) down here in these parts.
Frey: Yes. This is one of the places where eagles migrate through, and so we have a lot of problems with eagles taking [birds] off the lek. We have seen that. And, we’ve also seen situations where ravens harass the grouse; they can’t actually kill the grouse, but they’ll harass them off of the lek. And, when we were studying before with VHF; we just had to be careful to look around the area before we flush anything for fear that the eagle would swoop down and take any of the birds that flush out. We definitely had a couple occasions where we flushed out one of our study birds, the bird went to fly off, and an eagle that we hadn’t seen came down and snatched it. So, that is definitely one of the threats that we have with our sage grouse down here.
Urry: Danger from the sky!
Urry (narrating): In the lek, male birds start very early, but in this case, they’re not out to catch any worms at all. Rather, they’re here in hopes of catching a date, and picking up on a chick (pun intended). That’s their sole modus operandi.
They try their very darnedest to out-impress their male counterparts and so they strut — and strut — and then strut some more.
Most creatures in the bird kingdom have a meager 12 feathers in their tail, but not greater sage grouse — they’ve got a massive tail-fan harboring anywhere from 18-23 feathers.
The big yellow bouncing balls the male displays on his breast aren’t really balls at all — or breasts for that matter. They’re actually large air sacs that the bird puffs up in an effort to attract a girlfriend — not an easy task in a highly competitive lekking bar like this.
We observed at times that the birds would all hunker in and become like rocks, simultaneously camouflaging themselves as if all telepathically sensing danger like herd animals. Then, within a few minutes, feeling content that whatever danger they collectively sensed had passed, they’d pop up, puff up, and start strutting about again — looking to impress — looking to become that suitable mate for that dream of a foxy sage hen. But where is she? She’s just got to be out there in the brush somewhere.
Like in other leks we’ve observed, it would seem that here at Sage Hen Hollow, antelope enjoy congregating at the ritual mating dance party as well. Typically the grouse don’t seem to mind, allowing the pronghorns to hangout and enjoy the party.
The pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) is said by many to be the second fastest land animal on planet earth, eating only the African cheetah’s dust. It has been theorized the animal’s blistering speed developed as a mechanism of escape from the American cheetah – another blazing fast cat, now long gone and extinct.
In Wyoming, a state containing nearly 40 percent of remaining sage grouse, we saw thousands of antelope painted across the expansive terrain – demonstrating the close relationship between these two iconic animals.
While Utah’s crowded and competitive Sage Hen Hollow is a fun-filled blast to observe, it should be noted that not all areas are blessed with such an abundance of bustling birds. In Idaho’s Jarbrige National Forest for example, we filmed and documented several leks this year – the largest of which had only 13 competing males, while other known lekking locations were lucky to have a male there at all.
Fite to Urry: And we can go where the cows are grazing; I saw some when we were driving in here, just the next pasture over, stumbling around, flushing the birds. So, you know, ravens are very sharp.
Urry: And how does that contribute to their endangerment when they’re flushed up like this all the time?
Fite: Well, then any raven, or any other predator worth its predator stripes, will essentially say: Huh! That bird got up there. Gee, when that’s happened in the past, something’s flushed a sage grouse, there’s been a nest there and I’ve been able to go in and eat the eggs. Gee, I better go check it out.
Excerpt From Online Sage Grouse Video:
Sage Grouse Researcher #1: I’m sure they’re aware of our presence. It’s not unusual to track a radio-collared bird and end of flushing up 100 or so birds at a time.
Urry (narrating): Sage grouse can by skittish and easily spooked — one of many factors contributing to its decline in recent years – and an issue that has made for very tricky wildlife filming on our part. This topic brings us back yet again to the myriad threats facing the bird.
It’s not only exploitation from the ranching, energy and real estate sectors that threaten the home of Centrocercus – it’s myriad other issues as well. Climate-driven fires, excessive fencing, invasive plant species and West Niles virus all do their part to hinder and harm the imperiled bird as well.
Excerpt #11 From DOI Sage Grouse Listing Announcement:
Jewell: To restore habitat, particularly that lost to fire and invasive species, like the nemesis of the American West: cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum). If you don’t know what it is, I’ll show you some.
Excerpt From Wyoming Game and Fish Video:
Narrator: Cheatgrass is an extremely invasive annual plant with mostly nonexistent forage quality, whose root systems drain moisture from more palatable plant species for wildlife and livestock.
Imazapic is a soil-activated herbicide that gets into the soil preventing cheatgrass seed from germinating in the fall. The application lasts for two full growing seasons, after which it’s believed the native perennial plants can outcompete the cheatgrass.
Subject #1: This herbicide is showing promise. Our results have been a little bit hit or miss, but we can’t give up the fight. It’s invading some really critical habitats that we need to try and keep intact the best that we can. Cheatgrass is going to affect our ability to manage those habitats going forward. Doing things like prescribed burning would not be possible if we can’t control cheatgrass.
Narrator: Such treatments are expensive, about 30 dollars an acre, but a necessary tool to improve critical habitats and provide sportsmen a quality hunting experience.
Fite to Urry: What cheatgrass does is it creates continuous fine fuel that burns really well in fire. And it’s called “cheatgrass” because it cheats; it starts growing in the fall, and then germinates and greens up a little bit. So, it’s there ready to take advantage of any kind of soil moisture or precipitation in spring – so, it basically cheats and gets ahead of the native plants. So, it has a real competitive advantage.
After you get dense patches of cheatgrass, what happens is, the native plants can’t grow again because the cheatgrass, there’s so much of it, it uses up all the water, and it chokes the soil surface. So, you get, basically, these cheatgrass wastelands, which is increasingly characterizing a whole lot of the Great Basin.
Urry (narrating): In many areas, cheatgrass invasion has destroyed native understory vegetation – and with it, the groundcover and hiding place for grouse – all while creating more tinder for a landscape already plagued by an increasingly long fire season.
Fite to Urry: The only bunchgrass that is left out here that’s native, in any quality, is the very small native bluegrass. And in the inner-spaces, the soils have been intensively trampled; we’re getting weed invasion – bur buttercups (Ceratocephala testiculata); some other places we’re getting cheatgrass invasion, because the micro-biotic crusts have been disturbed, and there’s hardly any understory grasses.
[It’s a] small native bluegrass — it’s a Poa. This has been a very dry year; winter, and it’s very short. It never does get very tall. But basically, what happens is, all the larger size bunchgrasses have been grazed out from the harmful levels and periods of livestock use. So, all we have left now is this native Poa – and look how thin and sparse that it.
Urry (narrating): A recent analysis of areas in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, once one of the greatest territorial strongholds of the greater sage grouse, calculated a 98.7 percent chance of total extinction in the region if drastic changes are not implemented — and soon.
Urry to Molvar: So, we’re over here in Douglas, Wyoming, and you’ve been over in a meeting where they are looking at redrawing these core areas for the sage grouse in the state of Wyoming. What can you tell us about that?
Molvar: Well, for years the state of Wyoming has had a core-area strategy where it’s designated some of the areas that have the highest grouse concentrations for protection. But, the problem is that in the very begging they gerrymandered out a lot of the places that were the prime oil and gas drilling places, so that the oil and gas industry wouldn’t have to abide by the sage grouse protections. And then as years went by, they continued to carve away at the map and take some of the core areas and make them smaller, often in response to industry proposals.
Urry: And so, there was a report that came out, I think it was about a week-and-a-half ago, that demonstrates according to the report, that there is basically a 98 percent chance that the bird is going to blink out in some of these areas in the Powder River Basin correct? What can you tell us about that?
Molvar: The report basically says that there’s a 98.7 percent chance that there’ll be less than 50 sage grouse left in the entire Powder River Basin, and 50 sage grouse is deep in the extinction vortex. Once you get that few birds, the population is basically done.
Urry (narrating): All by its lonesome, the Powder River Basin produces over 40 percent of the coal burned for power in America, and in addition boasts thousands of oil, gas and coalbed methane wells – all while being one of the greatest historic hubs for sage grouse. But it’s not only the energy sector that threatens Centrocercus in the Cowboy State – it’s grazing as well.
While it’s been stated that chronic, relentless habitat degradation and fragmentation, perpetrated by the livestock industry, may be the biggest culprit where sage grouse habitat destruction is concerned, it cannot be stated that all ranchers play an equal role in that equation.
When on tour in this area we frequently asked which ranchers had “done the most” on behalf of grouse preservation? And one man’s name came up over and over in those discussions: Don Spellman.
Spellman’s family has inhabited a 10,000-acre ranch in the Basin for a century, and recalled to EnviroNews the days when this one-of-a-kind avian creature did indeed blacken the sky.
Spellman to Urry: There used to be thousands of sage grouse here when I was pretty young – 65 years ago at least — or plus that even, 70. We lived on them. They were very plentiful, and dang good eatin’ about three-quarters grown.
Spellman: And they were just thick – they really were.
Urry (narrating): The elderly but still vibrant rancher has been implementing a multitude of measures on his place to help reduce bird deaths, and he invited us on a tour to show us what he’d been doing.
Spellman: Okay, on the fence here, if you notice as we go by, we’ve got little flags on there.
Spellman: And that’s for the sage grouse so they don’t run into the wires.
Urry: Those little, like reflector things?
Spellman: Mm-hmm. I think we’ve put them on about seven miles of fence so far.
Urry: They say that sage grouse are pretty prone to crashing into fences and killing themselves. Is that true?
Spellman: That’s what I understand.
Urry: Tell me more about how that rotational grazing works.
Spellman: Well, it’s worked to me. The lady that works with me, Lindsay Wood, she thinks it’s fun, because she loves to work with livestock and she moves them all the time. But I can tell you, I don’t know if our grass is any better; we have a lot more diversity and more variety of forbs and grasses now that’s come. We try to leave a pasture when it’s probably 50 percent gone – ate out – and leave the other 50 percent. And then I can also tell you, we’re running almost 150 percent more livestock on the same amount of ground and our ground is a lot better than it was.
Okay. This draw here now, you can see all the banks how there’s nothing growing on them and the water’s cut them down. And it’s swampy in the bottom – and boggy – and we’ve fenced this off, through the help of the Conservation District. And the wildlife’s been pretty heavy down in there as far as birds, ducks, things like that. But we’ve also done this, what, a year-and-a-half ago I think, and we’ve already got a lot of growth coming on the banks now.
Urry (narrating): But despite all the effort expended and dollars utilized by the lifelong rancher to help the grouse, all is not well. Spellman’s place and surrounding areas used to be amongst the largest mega-hubs for sage grouse — but not anymore.
Urry to Spellman: How long’s it been since you’ve seen a grouse here on this ranch?
Spellman: It’s been three years since I’ve seen any. 25 years ago I guess, I had probably three leks, and they just little by little deteriorated and left. But they were kind of fun to watch. I’d stop feeding cows and just watch them out there drumming and so forth.
Now, this crick I’m coming up on right here, this is called “Chicken Crick.”
Urry: Over here?
Spellman: Yeah, this whole one meandering down through here. And this is the one where, you know 60, 70 years ago, was just solid sage chickens.
Urry: And not a one of them left now?
Spellman: Not a one left. Nuh-uh.
Urry (narrating): The deeper back we got onto this ranch, the more I realized that if this place was a poster-child for grouse-habitat conservation programs being run by ranchers, it was also a poster-child for the perfect storm of sage grouse habitat destruction. But much of the damage here was not of Spellman’s own choosing – it was crammed down his throat by Big Oil, in concert with the state of Wyoming.
You see, Spellman’s ranch is a split-estate. While he owns the surface, he doesn’t own the minerals underneath. Those belong to the state — and it leased those minerals rights to coalbed methane extractors many years ago.
Spellman to Urry: One of the big problems for landowners is, most landowners, or I shouldn’t say “most;” a lot of landowners, don’t have mineral rights. You own the surface, but you don’t own the minerals, and mineral rights take precedence over surface rights. So, you really don’t have much choice when a company comes to you and wants to drill, if they’ve got the mineral rights [and] they’ve leased them, they pretty much got the upper hand.
Urry: Do they force-pool people up here?
Spellman: They have forced people, uh-huh. They’ve condemned, or what they do from what I understand is, if you don’t go along with them, or if you own part of the mineral rights, and let’s say other people own other parts of them, and you don’t lease yours and they lease theirs, and they come in and drill, you become a working partner — whether you want to be or not.
Urry: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Urry (narrating): To be clear, Spellman didn’t resist the drilling effort to the point of having to be force-pooled into it like some recalcitrant landowners. He negotiated what he sees as a pretty good agreement, wherein he gets paid by the operators to perform surface work and maintenance. Still, this rancher’s not too happy about many of the messes industry made.
Urry to Spellman: Now, we saw some infrastructure actually as we were coming through. What’s that stuff up there? Do you have some gas wells here on the property?
Spellman: [We] do have gas wells, it’s starting to taper off pretty good now. Some of the companies are shutting some down; some are still keeping some a goin’. I think a lot of it is for leases; probably a lot of it’s price; and probably the cheapest place to store it’s right there in the ground.
Spellman: And then some of the companies, like the one we’re pulling up here on, they’ve went broke. And the state will probably end up coming in and plugging the wells, and then we’ll probably be left to clean up what’s left on top of the ground.
Urry: Right. And is it actual coaldbed methane that’s here, or [are] these just kind of conventional gas wells?
Spellman: No, that’s coalbed methane.
Urry: Mm-hmm. So, how many wells do you have here on this ranch?
Spellman: Oh golly, I don’t know. There must probably be close to a hundred.
Urry: Wow! I was not expecting that.
Spellman: Yeah. That’s one of them that’s left right there.
Urry: And when you say, “one of them that’s left,” elaborate on that.
Spellman: Well, that’s one of the pits they had they put water in, and then the company went defunct, and there’s your pit left there.
Spellman: What water was in there before, there’s no place for it to run off or anything like that. So, it’s just pretty….
Urry: So, is that production water [that] is what we’re looking at there?
Spellman: Yes. Uh-huh.
Urry: So, how do you keep the cattle away from that? Or do you? Or should you? Or what…
Spellman: You don’t, and they drink it. It’s probably all right, I don’t know. It’s no more than probably like well water. Maybe it’s got a little more salts and stuff in it, I don’t know.
Urry (narrating): Despite all Spellman’s good efforts on behalf of the imperiled grouse, here was the state of Wyoming, hand-in-hand with industry, essentially strong-arming this landowner to harbor dozens of gas wells, and even wastewater pits, for a coalbed methane experiment that, for the most part, has now gone bust in the region.
Spellman to Urry: Now, that’s another abandoned one there.
Urry (narrating): As a result of the Basin’s coalbed methane flop, toxic, briny wastewater pits, like the ones on Spellman’s place, litter the Powder River Basin landscape by the thousands, and it’s these same unnatural, stagnant water sources that create perfect breeding grounds for mosquitos carrying West Nile Virus – a deadly disease that ultimately led to the collapse of many bird populations.
Spellman to Urry: Some other folks came down and stayed with us and done some studies on them, and West Nile got three-fourths of them that year.
Spellman: They radio-collared them and [it] got three-fourths of them.
Urry: What year was that?
Spellman: You know, I don’t know, but that would have been about 10 years ago probably.
Urry: Uh-huh. And then so, between that and the gas drilling picking up at the same time, they pretty much just disappeared?
Spellman: Yeah. The drilling came in and there was a lot of activity, and I just don’t know what it was; I don’t know what was the silver bullet at all that uh… they went down hill on us. But they sure have disappeared anyway. Now, this year, I’ve talked to some neighbors that said they’ve saw quite an increase they thought. I have not yet.
Urry: Huh. So, I’m guessing you’re hopeful that they’ll return some time in the near future?
Spellman: Well, it’s one of those things you know — you build it and hope they’ll come, and that’s kind of what we’ve done. We’ve done some things, and we haven’t done them necessarily for the sage grouse, we’ve done them for our own benefit, but what benefits our livestock we’re finding out, benefits the wildlife.
Urry: When you boil down the story of the disappearing grouse on Don Spellman’s place, many efforts have been made, and quite a few dollars spent — still, the ranch remains completely devoid of the iconic bird, in a place that had once been sage grouse heaven.
SGI Campaign Video Excerpt #2:
Tim Griffiths, SGI Coordinator (Narrator): SGI is generating positive outcomes, creating more birds through habitat improvements. In one year SGI implemented grazing systems on 1,000 square-miles of ranch lands. Grazing systems increase hiding-cover for nesting birds, leading to increased nest success on the magnitude of eight to 10 percent.
Dennis Mercer, Montana Rancher: It’s not all for sage grouse recovery; it’s for grass management and livestock production. Folks can look at it and there’ll be no doubt in their mind; it’s probably working.
Urry (narrating): Interestingly, SGI’s campaign video points the finger at multiple sectors – chastising them for being the pillagers of the sagebrush steppe ecosystem, while mentioning none of the damage caused by livestock grazing at all.
SGI Campaign Video Excerpt #3:
Dave Naugle, NRCS SGI Science Advisor: From conversion of native rangeland, energy development and subdivision in the eastern range, to invasive cheatgrass and conifer encroachment further west.
Urry (narrating): At least Spellman had the standup honesty to acknowledge ranching’s impact on the home of Centrocercus.
Spellman to Urry: Probably what we do is part of it.
Excerpt From: Bi-State Local Area Working Group Campaign Video, A Conservation Partnership Takes Flight:
Narrator: On the Nevada-California state line, a geographically distinct population of sage grouse once faced a precarious future. Today, that’s changed. A forward-thinking group of people representing ranchers, agencies, conservation groups, private citizens and universities came together in 2002 to form the Bi-State Local Area Working Group. They agreed to work across borders of land and values for the common good of sage grouse. In 2012, they released the Bi-State Action Plan, a document that represents on-the-ground successes from the past decade and guidance for the future. Conifer removal is one of the top conservation actions identified in the plan.
Urry to Frey: So, we’re over here at a treatment, and over here, you can see the junipers (Juniperus osteosperma) [are] thick, and over here, they used to be thick. So, I was just asking you, how do they definitively know that these trees are not supposed to be here due to lack of fire?
Frey: Well, I don’t think that you can definitively say, but there are a couple things that we’ve done, and this is a really huge collaborative effort. It’s not just the BLM, or not just the Forest Service doing this. One way is they can look at the U.S. Geological Survey’s soil descriptions, and those soil descriptions describe the soil type, the water, and what plant communities best exist in that area. And so, you can go to an area; there’s an app that will actually say: this is the soil type — this is what it’s supposed to be. And if you’re standing in something that the USGS has said should be grassland and it’s a forest of trees, then you know that there used to be burning there and that they’ve invaded.
Excerpt From Sage Grouse Video #2:
Joan Suther — Sage Grouse Project Manager, BLM, Oregon Sub Region: The juniper has taken over and encroached upon tens-of-thousands if not hundreds-of-thousands of acres. But it is a treatment that we can do, we can see the impacts immediately, and birds really are responsive to that. They start moving in and using those areas that they historically used, but have been unavailable to them.
SGI Campaign Video Excerpt #4:
Griffiths (Narrator): SGI has quickly become one of the largest conservation success stories in the West. The true conservation heroes in this story are western ranchers, who voluntarily implement conservation measures designed to benefit sage grouse.
Urry (narrating): While Sally Jewell and the working partner groups pump up a “conservation success story,” others are asking if many of the voluntary conservation efforts are working at all.
Urry to Molvar: Going to some of these treatment programs, and some of these “restoration” programs that are out there under the Sage Grouse Initiative and so forth, and back to the ranching — I mean, are there any of these voluntary efforts that are going on by the ranching industry that are actually helpful? Is any of it making a difference in conserving any of the habitat, or is it just all essentially trading one ecosystem for another? Or, how do you see that in the larger picture?
Molvar: Well, for these voluntary sage grouse habitat enhancement programs, there have been millions of dollars spent here in Wyoming on these various and sundry different habitat treatments. Not one of these programs have ever shown an increase in sage grouse populations. So, there’s no proof that they can actually compensate for the habitat that gets lost when you have something like oil and gas development or range degradation from livestock grazing. The one possibility where there is some hope there, is for conservation easements, because in areas unlike Wyoming where there is a lot of threat for subdivision and rural sprawl, you can have the potential to lock those lands up, and maintain them in an undeveloped state, at least as agriculture lands, which is better than having them go to industrial development or subdivisions.
Urry (narrating): Around three-quarters of a billion dollars of federal money has been spent or allocated to various partners, working groups and coalitions – groups like the Sage Grouse Initiative – an organization composed largely of ranchers and other industry. Participating partners are able to dip their paws into the massive federal cookie jar and essentially pay themselves to execute “conservation” programs such as “treatments.”
Video Excerpt From USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS):
Katrina Krause – Wildlife Biologist, NRCS: Since 2010 the NRCS has contracted, in this area, the Pinenut-Buckskin area, for over half-a-million dollars for sage grouse habitat improvement projects. We’ve contracted with the grazing permittees on BLM lands, and so far, we’ve cut over 2,000 acres of pinyon (Pinus monophylla) and juniper trees, and we have another 1,300-plus planned in the near-future to be cut.
Pinyon and juniper trees have historically been in the upper, higher elevation rocky areas; true woodlands — and they’ve over the years have been encroaching down into the sagebrush steppe habitats, which is what the sage grouse use.
Okay. So, this area is looking at Fred Fulstone’s allotment. This has not been treated yet. What we’re looking at is what we would call “phase two” pinyon-juniper encroachment. And what that means is basically the trees and the shrubs are like co-dominant with each other, and as this starts to transition into phase three you’ll start really losing the shrub-layer and the other understory. And so, this is ideal for treatment. We try to focus on the like phase one and phase two before it gets to phase three so that you can avoid losing that understory, and then when you cut these trees out you’ll still have a nice understory that can then come back and kind of revive.
SGI Campaign Video Excerpt #5:
Griffiths (Narrator): SGI removed encroached conifers in excess of 100,000 acres, located in sage grouse high abundance centers or core areas, allowing birds to recolonize suitable habitat.
John O’Keeffe, Oregon Rancher: It allows you to do good things for the grouse, but at the same time to reclaim your ranch from this juniper invasion that’s going on.
Urry (narrating): The problem with this model say critics, is it allows the biggest culprits guilty of sage grouse habitat destruction, to wet their own beaks with federal funds while simultaneously perpetuating the problem – all in a system that offers very little transparency regarding where the funds are going, and how they are being used.
These habitat treatment programs frequently consist of ranchers, again, basically paying themselves with federal dollars, to hack out stretches of old-growth juniper or pinyon trees, and plant a blend of sagebrush-containing seed mix there instead. Several biologists have iterated to EnviroNews that this strategy simply trades one ecosystem for another, while creating even more fire-prone, yet graze-able land for ranchers – the same livestock-keepers already lining their pockets to carry out the treatment programs in the first place.
Entire groups of Native Americans, opposed to this type of ecosystem micromanagement, have arisen on Facebook – outraged by what they see as a haphazard decimation of not only one, but two sacred food forces: the pine nut, and the sage grouse. Who in the media has given these groups any coverage?
Excerpt From USDA/USFWS Video:
USFWS Official: We are working with four of the tribes in the area – mostly Paiute. They’re very interested in pinyon, it’s part of their religion. We have talked about the ecological balance and that they would start to see more of the species that they’re now missing: antelope, desert bighorn; some of the birds; sage grouse. When we see these outlying populations no longer winking in and winking out, but being stable and robust, then we’ll call it success.
Urry to Frey: You were telling us that it’s myriad infringements that are occurring into the bird’s habitat. Is that correct?
Frey: That’s true. We don’t have any one cause that could be causing the decline in sage grouse. A lot of it is just habitat modification from maybe bad management decisions from the 1950s and 60s. Some of it is a little bit of development that’s coming in that’s taking out sage grouse habitat; changes in land practices and things like that. But there’s not one major thing that you can say: okay, if we solve that problem, sage grouse will be great.
Urry: And how’s the population holding up down here in southern Utah in comparison with other places that you’re familiar with?
Frey: Well, southern Utah is actually holding steady or increasing in all of the leks in the southern region. So, it’s doing really well. I know some places in other states are declining continually. We’ve been holding strong. So, we’ve been doing really good.
Urry: Are there those out there that would argue even that this kind of research is invasive on the bird’s habitat and patterns.
Frey: Absolutely, absolutely. Whenever you research an animal, you are slightly invasive to that animal – there’s no way to say that you’re not. However, on this type of research, especially with the backpacks that I showed; there’s actually biologists in Wyoming and Colorado that have actually tested how much effect we could possibly be having by looking at one method versus another method, and seeing if there was a difference in survival, or a difference in movement patterns.
Urry: Studying the different research methods in essence?
Frey: Studying the different research methods and seeing if there is a marked improvement in longevity – or, do all the females die in a year? If all the females die in a year, something’s wrong because that’s not the natural mortality [rate] of that bird.
Urry: Not the kind of research you want to be doing.
Frey: Well, yeah exactly. So, what we’ve done, is we’ve had enough years worth of data collection on these satellite PTTs that we can actually say that: yeah, you know, it may decrease survival by a couple percentage – mortality increases by two percent. But we feel that that increase in mortality is justifiable.
Urry to Molvar: I want to go to these programs, these voluntary efforts that are going on as part of the Sage Grouse Initiative. We hear a lot about what ranchers are doing to try to mitigate some of the damage. Whether that’s actually working or not is a different story. What does the energy industry actually do in those regards? I mean, do we have oil companies out there on the prairie sprinkling around sagebrush seeds, or what do we actually see in regards to the energy industry in those efforts?
Molvar: Well, the energy industry would love to have sage grouse conservation turn into a pay-to-play kind of a proposition, because they would find it much more profitable to go in and destroy the key sage grouse habitats in a rush for oil and gas, and then throw a few million dollars on the side for habitat mitigation, knowing that the sage grouse populations would decline in the end, but they’d get the PR value out of spending the money. That’s really not a viable solution. That’s something that we’re seeing in this area of Wyoming in particular, and it’s a real threat to sage grouse.
Excerpt From S.M. Stoller Corporation Video:
Narrator: The funding comes from DOE to Stoller and then we subcontract to the Wildlife Conservation Society and Idaho State University, so it’s a teamwork there of multiple organizations.
Data currently being collected through the environmental surveillance, education and research program, will be used with historical data to prepare a candidate conservation agreement for DOE with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This agreement will enable DOE to continue to develop and deliver cost-effective solutions to challenges in nuclear energy, and other energy resources, national security, and environmental management.
Urry (narrating): Oil, gas, coal, mining, grazing and real estate are all ripping into the western U.S. landscape at break-neck speed at present, and the greater sage grouse listing could have cost industry billions in profit. To be clear, the bird has by its sheer existence, threatened to stand directly in the path to profit where industry is concerned — a looming monkeywrench that could’ve slowed down development plans across the board.
Ranchers have been pillaging the land with cattle in the name of hamburgers since settlements began, and have not slowed down one bit. Hamburgers, though liked by Americans, are not necessary for Americans – a costly choice the country continues to make, comprising ecosystems, the climate, and water supplies as a result. And make no mistake about it, the sage grouse, just by peacefully existing, threatened to put the brakes on many western grazing outfits.
SGI Campaign Video Excerpt #5:
Griffiths (Narrator): …our ultimate goal is to negate the need to list sage grouse as “threatened” or “endangered” under the federal Endangered Species Act. Such as designation would have a profound negative impact to ranching operations and rural communities throughout the West.
Dennis Mercer, Montana Rancher: The listing, we don’t want it. If there’s anything we can do to avoid it, we’ll do it. I can’t imagine trying to operate with it.
Urry: The deeper question here, and the one we’ve been asking many different people is: can ranching and the sage grouse harmoniously coexist at all? Not everyone agrees.
Spellman to Urry: Everything you do creates them a little bit of a problem. There’s no silver bullet to any of [it] I don’t think. Probably the cheatgrass is part of it; probably what we do is part of it; probably the industries is part of it; and maybe part of it’s just nature too. I don’t know.
Urry: Mm-hmm. And speaking of, you said, “what we do is part of it” — meaning, the ranching. I can say there’s probably more controversy over that than almost any other part of it that we have looked at. Like for instance, out in Idaho, they don’t have a lot of energy development over there; they do have a lot of ranching and grazing; people are pretty up in arms about it. What’s your thoughts on that? I mean, can they coexist? Can the two things coexist, and what’s the future look like there?
Spellman: Oh yeah, they can coexist I think, as far as that goes, because well, it’s pretty basic from a landowner or a rancher or a farmer [point of view]: if you don’t take care of the ground, the ground is not going to take care of you, you know. That’s your future, and your next generation’s future. So, the more you can take care of, the better off you are. Can they coexist? Yes, they have for years and years – thousands of years probably. They did with the buffalo; they did with livestock before my time even. So yeah, I think they can coexist, I really do. Now, I also realize too that some things become extinct for different reasons – reasons that I can’t answer why, but we no longer have the saber-toothed tiger or the T-rex and that kind of thing you know. So, things do pass their time for different reasons.
Fite to Urry: It just increases the whole disturbance footprint, and you’re putting all this livestock infrastructure, like this water tank, and then the water tank drains out into this disgusting trampled pond that draws in the predators.
Urry: Should we go over there and have a look?
Fite: Yeah. Because again, this should be a big block of undisturbed sagebrush. And here in the middle of what should all be sagebrush, we have a cow feedlot operation essentially being run. And, the whole reason for the roading in so much of this country is the immense livestock facility footprint. The pipeline’s are ripped in, this trough is here because there has been a pipeline ripped in. Well, when the pipeline gets ripped in, a road grows up along it — because the soils are disturbed when the pipeline’s going in; the rancher drives the pipeline to look for leaks, to come out to fiddle around with the water levels in the troughs, etc. etc. So, roads just creep out across the landscape, incrementally.
Urry (narrating): And what about real estate? Should anyone really believe that developers would just willing roll over and give up on prime locations just because there’s a lek nearby used by twenty birds, three months out of the year? Let’s get real.
In early October, only about a week after Jewell’s announcement, the Union of Concerned Scientists came out with some pretty concerning numbers indeed, after surveying U.S. Fish and Wildlife Scientists. 74 percent of those interviewed said political considerations were influencing the Service’s judgment.
Miscellaneous “Science” Highlights From Jewell’s Two Sage Grouse Announcements:
Jewell: It’s a conservation success story. It’s got sound science behind it, that’s the only way we can make these decisions. It’s got strong conservation plans at every level of government and the private sector.
And finally, something I’m incredibly proud of, and the state should take great pride in this to, and that has been the science that has been the foundation of every decision throughout the conservation effort. From understanding the bird and its habitat, to identifying the threats, to determining effective responses, scientists and wildlife biologists from every corner, state and federal agencies, NGOs, academia, have driven this conservation strategy in an unprecedented way.
Guided by sound science.
But today, we’ve proven that we can take smart, science-based, forward-looking steps…
And we need to incorporate science into our decisions in the future – just as we have getting to this point.
It’s got sound science behind it, that’s the only way we can make these decisions.
Urry (narrating): When it comes to decisions concerning the Endangered Species Act, biology and sound science are supposed to be the only determining factors. Was science the sole determining factor in the case of this flamboyant dancing bird? – or, were other elements involved?
Correspondents on the inside track with this issue for years told us the grouse never stood a chance of being listed – no matter what science said. A crushing lobby from industry and relentless political pressure made that next to impossible, they say.
Where the wellbeing of the grouse population is concerned, something slightly disturbing to us in the making of this film was the stark difference of opinion we observed between biologists and experts in danger of losing research or program dollars, and those not in danger of losing money. One side almost uniformly says conservation efforts are working, while the other side says they are not.
In the wake of Secretary Jewell’s history announcement of DOI’s final decision to not protect the greater sage grouse, environmentalist, activists, biologists, and wildlife lovers alike are now left to wonder how a lawsuit on this matter will end up playing out – a near-certain, looming legal battle that will undoubtedly go on for years. What will be the future hold for the dancing ground-bird in the meanwhile?
Now that the survival of the sage grouse is in the hands of 11 western states and the voluntary program efforts carried out within their boarders, we are left to wonder weather we will still have the splendid opportunity to sit quietly on the sagebrush prairie, shooting at the expressive feathered creature — in 10, 20, or even 30 years — not with a gun of course, but with our 4K cinema cams.
Reporting for EnviroNews — Emerson Urry.
FILM AND ARTICLE CREDITS
- Emerson Urry - Director, Producer, Narrator, Journalist, Author, Transcript, Director of Photography, Video Editor, Sound Editor, Interviewer, 3D Animator
- Dakota Otero - Set Lighting, Camera Operator, Gaffer
- Jennifer Ekstrom - Videojournalist
- Ken Kruckenberg - Soundtrack Composer
- Devin Moroney - VideoJournalist
- Alan Krakaur - Additional Wildlife Photography