Save the sage-grouse, save the West

Charismatic ambassadors of the American West, greater sage-grouse remain birds on the brink as a debate rages across the region and in Congress: Will conservation planning be enough or should the speices receive federal protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

A recent poll conducted by Tulchin Research for Defenders of Wildlife found that a majority of registered voters across Colorado, Montana, Nevada and Wyoming not only overwhelmingly support sage-grouse conservation, they would support ESA listing if current conservation-planning efforts fail to protect the bird from possible extinction.

Once ranging across nearly 300 million acres in North America and numbering as many as 16 million birds, today greater sage-grouse populations have declined by up to 90 percent. Less than 3 percent of their remaining range is currently protected.

The birds require large expanses of healthy sagebrush steppe—increasingly rare habitat in the West. Millions of acres have been lost to agriculture and development over the past 200 years. What remains is fragmented and degraded by poorly managed oil and gas drilling, livestock grazing, mining, unnatural fire, invasive weeds, off-road vehicles, roads, fences, pipelines and utility corridors.

In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined greater sage-grouse warranted ESA protection and committed to consider the bird for listing by September 2015. This prompted federal agencies, states and counties to begin developing plans for conserving sage-grouse on millions of acres with the hope of averting the need to list the species.

But if current conservation plans do not adequately protect the species, polling found that 67 percent of voters across the region and 75 percent in Colorado, in particular, support ESA listing. Residents also want their political leaders to take sage-grouse conservation seriously. A majority 
of voters said that they would be more likely to support politicians who favor protecting sage-grouse 
and their habitat.

The poll also found that support for sage-grouse conservation extends across states, party lines, age and other demographics. For example, 70 percent of self-identifying “moderate Republicans” and more than 50 percent of self-identifying outdoorspeople support sage-grouse protection.

“The conservation ethic is stronger than ever in the West,” says Mark Salvo, Defenders’ director of federal lands conservation. “Westerners value wildlife and wildlands, understand their responsibility to future generations and support doing all that is required to conserve our natural resources.” 

–Courtney Sexton

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