Heading west on Highway 12, the mountains give way to the gold-gray plains of sagebrush and native grasses. It is a dry, monotonous landscape and it hides its treasures like the sea.
Wyoming big sagebrush dominates the vista, splattered at random across the plains like coagulated paint. Its sparse foliage clings to gnarled limbs whipped day and night by hard winds. The first white naturalists who looked on this land saw in sagebrush a symbol of wilderness. They named the genus Artemisia after the Greek deity Artemis, who presides over hunters and all things wild. The bush's bitter pungency and tenacious existence are synonymous with the American West.
"Remember that the yield of a hard country is a love deeper than a fat and easy land inspires," wrote journalist and historian Bernard DeVoto. "Throughout the arid West the Americans have found a secret treasure ... a stern and desolate country, a high bare country, a country brimming with a beauty not to be found elsewhere."
Over the millennia the greater sage grouse evolved as the precise expression of this tough country. It is a sagebrush obligate, wholly dependent on the desiccated little bush. Maybe that's why the species is so damn fragile.
In March 2010, after years of legal wrangling and scientific research, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared that the greater sage grouse warranted federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. But the agency refrained from action. Other species were a priority for protection, it claimed, and the service placed the bird on a waiting list. Under direction from a federal court, it has until 2015 to decide if the West's most iconic grouse will receive the legal protection of the federal government.
The sage grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, is the storied hermit diva of the upland game bird world. It entered written history on March 2, 1806, when Meriwether Lewis described the species in his journal as the "cock of the plains." He observed that the bird needs wide-open spaces, and its habitat requirements are specific and nonnegotiable.
"The scale at which the birds perceive their environment is huge compared with most other species," says Dave Naugle, a wildlife biologist at the University of Montana who has studied the greater sage grouse for 13 years. "During the nesting season they use dry sagebrush upland. When it is time to raise their chicks they move to wetter lowland sites, and in the winter 98 percent of their food is sagebrush so they need large tall stands of it." They tolerate very little human disturbance, he adds. Barely a peep.
The sage grouse once made its home in 13 Western states and three Canadian provinces. Naugle estimates that their numbers were in the millions. Legends contend that their seasonal migrations could blot out the sun and fill the sky with a feathered moving mass.
Today the species is in precipitous decline across the West. Arizona, Nebraska, Saskatchewan and British Columbia no longer harbor the greater sage grouse. There are only marginal populations in Nevada and California, which prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to move forward with listing a subpopulation in those states. Sage grouse in the Dakotas are vulnerable to extirpation. Scientists estimate that the total population throughout the range is down to 200,000 birds.
"Loss and degradation of sagebrush habitat has resulted in at least a four decade-long sage-grouse population decline and extirpation of the species from [at least] 46 percent of its native range," Naugle wrote in a report prepared for the Bureau of Land Management.
Contemporary land uses conspire against the grouse.
"Scientists have identified at least 26 different land uses and related effects that negatively impact the sage grouse," says Mark Salvo, a federal lands policy analyst with Defenders of Wildlife. "Sod busting was historically the most important threat to sage grouse in the eastern part of their range, and now it's oil and gas development. In the western part of their range, it is mostly cheatgrass invasion and livestock grazing."
The decline of the species is due to years of habitat degradation—more than a century of ranching and row cropping, and decades of oil and gas drilling, subdivision development, invasive species encroachment, disease and depredation. The result makes it all but impossible for the grouse to survive on its native home range in the sagebrush steppe of the North American plains.
Now, the Endangered Species Act, or ESA, looms large. Oil and gas companies, coal corporations, row crop farmers, cattle ranchers, real estate developers and an array of other powerful interests are desperate to avoid an ESA listing because it will be bad for the bottom line. But how else do you protect a bird that has its beak in everybody's business?
The Lehfeldts, a ranching family in the small town of Lavina, population 187, run thousands of Rambouillet sheep on 12,000 acres of sagebrush plains. On a recent Friday, Ben Lehfeldt, stout, black-haired and boyish, sits at the family's dining room table talking about sage grouse. Ben's father, Bob, and mother, Marie, sit next to him. On the wall behind the table is a shrine to the Lehfeldt ancestors, black and white photos of the five preceding generations that called Lavina home. Ludwig Lehfeldt, Ben's great-great-grandfather, built this house in the 1890s. Out the window, the Musselshell River flows east along the crooked valley.
The Lehfeldt family ranch is part of a major effort to avert the need for ESA protections in sage grouse country. The effort is called the Sage Grouse Initiative, or SGI, and it began in Montana.
Launched in 2010, SGI is a multi-agency strategy to promote ranching as a way to protect and improve sage grouse habitat. The initiative, spearheaded by the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, works with ranchers to reduce overgrazing of the native grasses and forbs that are a crucial part of sage grouse habitat. The birds rely on these plants for cover and food.
"The whole premise of SGI is that what's good for ranching is good for sage grouse," says Mark Szczypinski, a wildlife research technician with Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks who works with SGI. "So if the range is healthy and productive for a rancher, it will more than likely be that way for sage grouse too."
According to state estimates, 65 percent of sage grouse habitat in Montana is privately owned. Much of that land is used for ranching, and so rancher cooperation is crucial for the bird's survival.
The Lehfeldts signed up with SGI in 2010. With the agency's financial assistance, they developed a grazing plan, fenced new pastures and built water tanks so they can rotate their sheep across the landscape more frequently. Additional rotation means less pressure on any one parcel of land.
They started lining their fences with shiny reflective markers to keep the grouse from flying into fatal strands of barbed wire. Szczypinski flagging fences reduces sage grouse collisions by an estimated 83 percent.
"We put 13 miles of flagging up, six miles of fencing and we added 13 water facilities," says Bob Lehfeldt in a barely audible voice. "Another 2,400 acres are going into the SGI soon."
"We couldn't have done that type of project in a five-year period without the help of NRCS," adds Ben, who speaks with authority. "Maybe we could have done it over the next 30 years."
The Lehfeldts are clearly pleased with the program.