Across the West, politicians and oil and gas industry representatives 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 Colorado's Mesa County, Commissioner Rose Pugliese said stringent federal management of the greater sage grouse "will kill us" economically. Commissioner Chuck Grobe in nearby Moffat County worries that $1.1 billion worth of minerals are at risk.
Things sound different in one part of the state's southwest. "San Miguel County wants to have 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, however, San Juan County residents are voicing their opinions in letters to the editor and at public meetings, and some people say the issue is really all about a government conspiracy. As 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."
No, it's not. If we can step back long enough from the rhetoric and the handwringing, 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. Pulitzer Prize-winning scientist Edward O. 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."
This alarming and continuing story about extinction is all about our domination of nature and loss of habitat for all species. 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.
How ironic it is 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, Conservation Reserve Program payments since 1995 have exceeded $23 million. How much has been paid out across the West 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't we take the long view? When we've pumped the natural resources dry and oil and gas are gone, what kind of world will we have left for our children's children?
Ranching has never been easy, and oil and gas revenues have financially 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."
Who speaks for the sage grouse? That is something every one of us has an obligation to do.
Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo.