Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


A wide, triangular rise divides the Green and Big Sandy Rivers of western Wyoming, a great gray expanse of Big Sagebrush (Artemesia tridentata) rolling up toward the distant Wind River Mountains to the northeast. Much of this sage steppe has remained unchanged for centuries, and it harbors what is probably the world's largest population of North America's largest grouse species.

The Greater Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) is a spectacular creature. Dependent on sagebrush, it rarely strays far from the plants. Large numbers of the birds are diagnostic of a healthy sagebrush community. Despite their large size, they are powerful fliers that can reach speeds of 70 mph, with far more stamina than any other grouse species I've seen. The cocks, which can exceed eight pounds in weight, gather in communal leks beginning in March. Here they display for the hens for several hours each day, in the morning and evening. Spreading the pheasant-like tails which gave them their scientific name, they erect white neck feathers to form a huge ruff that nearly obscures their head. A pair of air sacs on the chest resemble bouncing apricots as the birds pass air in and out of them, making series of peculiar sounds that can be heard a mile away from a large lek. Early twentieth-century accounts speak of congregations of 500 cocks or more, and this area still has leks of well over 100.

Hiking through the shoulder-high sagebrush, one is hardly aware of the geology beneath one's feet, but the rise is formed by the Pinedale Anticline, a Cretaceous formation that holds one of the richest known oil and gas reserves in the lower 48. Toward its southern end, the anticline flattens into a wide valley known today as the Jonah Field. Fifteen years ago, this was the area's main wintering ground for Sage Grouse. Great flocks of thousands of the birds accumulated to forage in the low valley. Just over a decade ago, Fortune 500 company EnCana Oil & Gas began drilling here, and today the field has been largely taken over by a veritable city of extraction. EnCana has brought good jobs to the nearby towns of Farson and Pinedale, and the standard of living for the local human population has risen noticeably. But the Sage Grouse are all but gone from the Jonah Field, exiled to the surrounding steppes, where there is still plenty of good habitat—for now. As the Bush Administration increasingly turns its focus to domestic oil production, Sage Grouse habitat on the entire anticline is in peril; ninety-seven percent of it is currently under lease.
Last spring the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service assembled an advisory panel to investigate a possible listing for Sage Grouse under the Endangered Species Act. Before turning in the panel's review, Deputy Secretary of the Interior Julie MacDonald edited the document, removing numerous citations showing grouse decline, and adding such comments as, “all these data are badly flawed in some way...” and “they will eat other stuff if it is available.” Ms. MacDonald, a Bush appointee, is an attorney with strong property-rights and pro-industry beliefs, and no background in biology. She is the direct overseer of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Director Steve Williams had access to both the edited and unedited versions, and decided against the listing at the end of last year.

In the meantime, EnCana is putting its own mitigation plan into effect. The gas field at Jonah comprises but 3% of Sublette County, and the company's plan involves increasing the grouse population in the rest of the county. They have committed $28 million dollars toward this end, presumably so wintering grouse can buy sagebrush leaves at local restaurants.

The results of a five-year study on Sage Grouse population dynamics in the area, which was funded by EnCana and the BLM were released last week. Matt Holloran, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wyoming, found a 51% drop in cock Sage Grouse on breeding grounds within three miles of drilling activity, and a 21% decline in hens. This is hardly surprising; the “booming” sound produced by lekking roosters is an important aspect of the ritual, and the sound of the Jonah field machinery can be easily heard from three miles away, drowning out anything else from any closer. Holloran predicted localized extinctions in his study area within 19 years if drilling continues at its present rate. His study called for set-asides of 200 to 400 square miles. EnCana is withholding judgment on the study, pending a review of Holloran's methodology, but Julie MacDonald lost no time in charging that it was “not science.”

Two weeks ago, a news release from EnCana touted a Sage Grouse habitat enhancement program on their North Parachute Ranch in Colorado, which involved thinning of “too thick sagebrush” with heavy machinery. The release essentially said that Sage Grouse still exist on the 44,000 acre ranch, a year and a half after EnCana acquired the property.
upper: WINTER SAGE GROUSE (1988) Acrylic 17" x 17"
lower: LATE SEASON SAGES--GYRFALCON & SAGE GROUSE (2005) Acrylic 15" x 7"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think anybody in the present administration thinks about sage grouse at all, except perhaps as a recreational target. But then Ms MacDonald's "faith-based" science will make sure a few will always be there, right?

10:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very thorough review of the current disastrous situation. I wrote about this fiasco last year when the Sage Grouse was declined endangered status. The government defense that corporations would voluntarily enact costly conservation measures that don't have any bearing on their bottom lines is unrealistic at best and at worst dishonest.

12:43 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Thanks for your comments, Carl & Mike. It looks like we can look forward to three more years of federal conservation & game management policies being dominated by economic considerations. Pretty depressing. In my personal utopia the reverse would be true.

6:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Fairly accurate portrayal of the sage grouse situation here in the Upper Green River Valley, but the standard of living in Pinedale has definitely declined for those of us who have eked out a living here for years, are part of a real community, and live here because we love this place, not for the lucrative jobs in the gas patch.

Your work is exceptional!

Linda B., Pinedale, Wyoming

10:09 AM  

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