Luke Schafer: Saving a Western icon

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The sagebrush sea is one of America’s wonders, a vast and expansive ecosystem that stretches across counties, watersheds and state lines.

However, most Americans view this landscape as a place to be avoided, so empty and seemingly devoid of attraction that it rarely is a blip on the nation’s collective radar, which is unfortunate.

The reality is that the sagebrush ecosystem supports more than 350 species, many of which are completely dependent upon the unique habitat that sagebrush provides.

One of those species is the greater sage grouse.

The greater sage grouse is a chicken-sized bird that most folks in Moffat County are fairly familiar with. It’s a part of the local culture.

For some of us, it’s a spring ritual to tromp out under starlit skies to stare in anticipation at frost covered patches of sagebrush, all in the hopes of getting a glimpse of male sage grouse strutting to attract potential mates.

For others, it is the tradition of heading out with family members to do some old-fashioned wing shooting and putting some bird on the table for dinner.

However, regardless if one partakes in those activities, I don’t know of anyone who wants less sage grouse around to enjoy.

Nonetheless, that is what has happened for the past 30 or so years and what will continue to happen if management of the sage grouse isn’t changed and changed soon.

In the past 30 years, the population of males has plummeted 82 percent in Moffat County, to the present estimated population of roughly 6,000.

Even more problematic, that phenomenon isn’t unique to just Moffat County; in fact it is far worse in other areas.

For instance, the grouse population around Meeker is estimated to be just 15 male birds now, and according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the population across the 13 states that are home to sage grouse has declined between 69 and 99 percent from historical levels.

For the past 15 years, resear­chers have been attempting to understand why this decline is occurring and they have found one simple answer: habitat.

Habitat has been lost and fragmented at an alarming rate, with research showing that just 45 percent of the sagebrush habitat identified in 1970, now even has sagebrush in it. There are a litany of causes for the loss; oil and gas development, housing sprawl, general destruction of sagebrush through sagebrush modification practices and invasive species introduction.

Unfortunately, this trend will continue unless changes are made.

Scientists estimate that some 9.1 million acres of sagebrush habitat will be lost to oil and gas drilling in coming years. This is largely because of the sensitive nature of the bird, as development operations can affect sage grouse out to 4 miles and oil and densities of more than 1 well pad per square mile cause birds to abandon their breeding grounds at double the rate of undrilled areas.

The number of oil and gas wells in sage grouse habitat in the Rocky Mountain states already has tripled in the [ast 20 years and even more is forecasted for the future. There also are numerous proposals for large scale wind farms and electricity transmission corridors throughout the sage grouse’s range that need to be done properly to avoid and mitigate adverse impacts.

Beyond the impacts to the bird itself, there also is the impact that the sage grouse decline has had on us.

While it’s far before my time, I’ve read about the “Sage Hen Days” that occurred here in Craig around the early 1900s, when thousands of the birds were shot, making it necessary to transport the harvested birds by the wagonload.

I’ve even heard about how in the 1970s Game Management Unit 301, just north of Craig, had the highest harvest of birds of anywhere in the state. It all seems somewhat hard to believe now that there were such large populations at one time. There is no longer even an open hunting season for GMU 301 and it’d doubtful we’ll ever again see populations large enough to harvest birds by the thousands.

Recently, much has been made during the past year or so about regulations.

Some have said that new rules on drilling have led to a downturn in oil and gas development here in Colorado.

However, it has been shown that despite these new safeguards being implemented to protect our air, water and wildlife, Colorado still drilled more wells than any other state in the Rocky Mountains, drilling 1,487 wells with Wyoming next at a distant 896.

It’s plain to see that development and conservation can co-exist.

Next week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will announce its decision about whether to list the greater sage grouse for protections under the Endangered Species Act. Regardless of the decision, I think we have an opportunity to forge a new future for the grouse if we work together.

The bottom line is that the threats to sage grouse are well documented, and the research has shown us what we have to do in terms of land management.

We’re all in this together — from the small rancher to the largest oil company — and if we all do our fair share, we can succeed in creating a common-sense solution that is based on science and not politics.

Perhaps more importantly, we will succeed in conserving our Western heritage and a Western icon.

For more information on recent greater sage grouse research, visit http://sagemap.wr.usgs.gov/monograph.aspx

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