In one swath of the American West, a dispute over land use rages. The debate involves endangered animals and how people and governments manage natural habitats. As with most issues, there are two sides. And smack in the middle is the greater sage-grouse.
Greater sage-grouse are large, ground-dwelling birds. They are best known for strange and colorful courtship displays. The birds nest and live in a desert area of about 270,000 square miles—a little larger than the state of West Virginia.
Many other fish and wildlife species live there. As part of God’s plan, the animals depend on each other and plentiful vegetation. Miles of sagebrush grasslands and healthy water systems are vital to the greater sage-grouse for feeding and mating. In turn, sage-grouse are an important food source for coyotes, bobcats, badgers, hawks, and eagles.
The great sage-grouse once numbered in the millions. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now estimates there are fewer than half a million left. They believe energy development, disease, and other causes destroyed some populations.
In 2015, federal officials adopted a sweeping set of land use restrictions. Land use involves the kinds of buildings, parks, or other features allowed in an area. Limits in sage-grouse territory were supposed to stop the steady decline in their numbers.
But the oil and gas industry chafed at the rules, and the energy industry saw the protections as barriers to development. When President Donald Trump took office, the industries lobbied his administration. They wanted the government to understand that drilling practices have changed—and that their improved methods reduce problems. In other words, they wanted access to grouse country.
As a result, the government re-examined land use rules. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke vowed to reverse or modify land use protections in Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, California, Idaho, and Oregon. The government will allow companies to begin using the sage-grouse’s habitat again.
Utah Governor Gary Herbert welcomes the changes. “This is a great example of federal leaders listening to state leaders, valuing their expertise, and changing their plans based on that input,” he says.
Conservation groups and wildlife advocates disagree. They warn drilling might disrupt breeding grounds and wipe out grouse colonies. Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto believes the government is “[putting] the interests of the oil and gas industry ahead of the best interests of Nevadans.”
Some folks have another perspective. Kathleen Sgamma represents more than 300 oil and gas companies. She says, “We can do both—protect sage-grouse and move forward with responsible energy development.”