Who will speak on behalf of the beleaguered sage grouse?

Across the West politicians and oil and gas industry spokesmen are wringing their hands, shaking their heads and saying “no” to Bureau of Land Management proposals to set aside large swaths of land for the greater sage grouse, and for federal plans to list the separate Gunnison sage grouse as an endangered species.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper wants the BLM to “look at the public-private partnerships that have been so successful in Colorado as a model on how to get things done.”

Perhaps. But who speaks for the sage grouse?

What is at stake are thousands of square miles of the inter-mountain West because prime habitat for both species of grouse is also prime turf for oil and gas rigs and cattle.

In Mesa County, Commissioner Rose Pugliese said stringent federal management of the greater sage grouse “will kill us” economically. Commissioner Chuck Grobe in Moffat County worries that $1.1 billion worth of minerals are at risk.

But things are different to the southwest. “San Miguel County wants to have the U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists make a determination based on science, not politics, as to whether the (Gunnison sage grouse) is threatened or endangered,” said Commissioner Art Goodtimes. He added, “Losing another iconic Western species to extinction is a threat to the web of life, and the repercussions could have lasting consequences that we are not even aware of today.”

In Utah, San Juan County residents are voicing their opinions in letters to the editor and at public meetings about the Gunnison sage grouse. Eric George complained, “The Gunnison sage grouse isn’t the real issue here; no matter what the feds’ PowerPoint presented. This is about corruption and usurpation of power, plain and simple.”

Bob Turri wrote, “We have been informed by the Department of Interior that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to list the Gunnison sage grouse on the rare and endangered species list. That is bad enough, but they also propose to list 145,500 acres (in Utah) as critical habitat. Ninety-five percent of those acres are privately owned lands. Although the Fish and Wildlife Service claims that this is not a taking of private property, there will certainly be negative impacts to those land owners.”

Welcome to the 21st century. We are one species, Homo sapiens, “the serial killer of the biosphere,” according to Pulitzer Prize-winning scientist Edward O. Wilson.

If we can step back long enough from the rhetoric and the hand-wringing, we see that we are now in the third great age of extinction on this planet. Not since the dinosaurs disappeared have species been dying with such overwhelming speed. Wilson explains, “The causes of extinction intensified throughout the 20th century. They are now the highest ever, and still rising. Almost one in four of Earth’s mammal species and one in eight of the bird species are at some degree of risk.”

It’s about habitat. But it’s also about restraint. The Endangered Species Act of 1973, signed into law by President Richard Nixon, was one of our finest hours as Americans because the legislation represents humility. The law posits that we are only one species on this continent, and that it is our moral responsibility to protect and preserve the diverse life forms our forefathers knew in abundance and bequeathed to us.

Conservationist Aldo Leopold said it simply, “The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts.” Now there are believed to be fewer than 5,000 Gunnison sage-grouse.

As westerners, we have moved into their habitat with our oil and gas rigs and our cows. Yes, we have 62,000 acres of protected sage fields and a hopeful rise in the number of males in core habitat breeding grounds in the Gunnison River valley, but is that enough?

How ironic is it that across the West, the same ranchers who have been eager to pocket federal subsidies for not growing crops and for protecting habitat by joining the Conservation Reserve Program are now demanding the federal government get out of their lives? In San Juan County, Utah, CRP payments since 1995 have exceeded $23 million. How much has been paid out in Garfield, Mesa, Moffat, Montrose and Rio Blanco Counties for the same purposes?

The sage-grouse controversy is just beginning. A federal listing of the Gunnison sage grouse as an endangered species may change the way the rural West does business, but what’s wrong with that? Can we take the long view? When we’ve pumped the natural resources dry and oil and gas are gone, what kind of world do we want to leave for our children’s children?

I grew up on a ranch in southeast Colorado, and I still own half the mineral rights. One year we lost deeply on cattle because they spent too much time in the feedlot while beef prices plummeted.

Ranching has never been easy, and oil and gas revenues have indeed propped up counties across the West. But as my hero, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, said, “We’re not building this country of ours for a day or even a year. It is to last through the ages.”

At his inaugural Teddy proclaimed, “There is no good reason why we should fear the future, but there is every reason why we should face it seriously, neither hiding from ourselves the gravity of the problems before us nor fearing to approach these problems with the unbending, unflinching purpose to solve them aright.”

Who speaks for the sage grouse? We all must.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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