The Greater sage grouse — a chubby, high-altitude chicken with an elaborate mating ritual — might be headed to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species List despite 10 years of efforts by Western states to bolster the fowl’s population.
The federal wildlife agency will re-evaluate the bird’s survival prospects this year. Listing the bird as endangered could have the same polarizing effect that the 1990s listing of the northern spotted owl had on public lands logging in the Pacific Northwest, experts worry.
If the species is found to be in critical danger, livestock and energy extraction might be severely restricted on more than 170 million acres of public lands in 11 states from North Dakota to Washington.
“The biggest fear of an [endangered] listing would be instead of 11 states and agriculture, energy and mining commissions all working to protect the bird, it would be down to half a dozen federal employees,” said Brian Rutledge, director of the National Audubon Society’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative.
The greater sage grouse is a ground-nesting chicken with round wings and a flashy fan of distinctive pointy tail feathers. Birds can grow up to 30 inches long and can weigh up to 7 pounds.
Strutting males attract females during mating season by expanding balloon-like sacs on their chests and prancing in clearings called leks. The showoff birds make a whooping sound that carries across the prairie.
“It’s like hearing a wolf howl in the wild. There’s a sense of comfort to know that they’re there,” said Boise, Idaho-based nature writer Niels Sparre Nokkentved. “And [the sound] also makes me chuckle a bit.”
As federal agencies prepared to reassess the sage grouse’s situation, the Bureau of Land Management proposed a 2019 revision of sage grouse management plans in seven states. Conservation groups sued, arguing that new rules weakened or eliminated sage grouse protections in favor of oil and gas drilling.
The Trump administration last month appealed a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill of Idaho in favor of conservation groups, which successfully claimed that the federal agency didn’t correctly follow processes for public input and environmental assessments.