When the Mormon pioneers crossed the prairie en route to the Salt Lake Valley, there were an estimated 16 million greater sage grouse in the West — a source of sustenance which they no doubt relied on. In the intervening decades, we have reduced the sage grouse population to about 10 percent of its original size by land use practices that have steadily degraded sagebrush steppe ecosystems.
The good news is that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is keeping a careful eye on the sage grouse and will decide whether to put it on the endangered species list by the end of 2015. This has caused Western states to devise sage grouse conservation plans and put into practice conservation measures they hope will make federal protection for the grouse unnecessary.
The unfortunate news is that our governor and legislature might choose economic development over protecting this species. Recently, the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee inserted a $2 million line item into our state's 2014 and 2015 budget to forestall sage grouse listing by means of a "political solution to the sage grouse problem." The solution: hire lobbyists to work against listing and to "lawyer up" for a lawsuit.
By shifting funding from sage grouse conservation efforts to litigation and lobbying, the legislature is essentially admitting that Utah's plan, which relies heavily on voluntary compliance, is not strong enough to deliver the needed protections and management.
The course the state has chosen is regrettable. The best available science and management practices tell us there are other options, such as simple changes to livestock grazing practices that can ensure greater, denser and taller coverage of the essential grasses and wildflower species that sage grouse, especially chicks, need for food and cover.
They also inform us that protective buffers, free from roads, loud machinery, oil and gas rigs and wells, are needed in a certain radius around leks, the critical breeding grounds where male grouse display for females for mating. Sometimes these buffers need to be as much as 4 miles wide to ensure that the leks do not "wink out." Sage grouse are one of the most studied species in the ecological literature, and these buffer figures are not disputed.
With directional drilling from more distant well pads, drillers can access the same fossil fuels stored under the lek compared to a pad on top of the lek, at an increase in cost to the energy company of as little as 10 to 15 percent. Using this technology also saves money by creating fewer well pads and fewer roads, which also helps protect leks and other vital wildlife habitats. This modest increase in drilling costs is a trifle compared to the massive profits of the oil and gas industry. This is about businesses being good stewards, and the oil companies should step up and be the model for that.
There is every reason to believe that if Utah will only make good on its stewardship promises to adequately protect sage grouse habitat, it will not only benefit the sage grouse and remove the need for listing, but will benefit Utah citizens as well.
Protecting the sage grouse will help Utahns by providing adequate forage for livestock and continued energy extraction, while also protecting invaluable wildlife habitats for numerous native species as well as the functionality of our precious watersheds. In one of our favorite quotes from Utah's Department of Agriculture, "what is good for the sage grouse is good for the rancher" — and, we would argue, all Utahns.
Allison Jones is executive director of the Wild Utah Project. Kirk Robinson is executive director of the Western Wildlife Conservancy.