The Grouse Gripes Continue As Conservationists Take On Feds About A Bird

May 1, 2018

In a flurry of lawsuits stretching across the West, conservation groups are accusing the federal government of failing to protect a rare bird: the sage grouse. This week, the groups involved in one of those lawsuits came to a legal truce.

When mating season hits, the Gunnison sage grouse sounds like a pot of bubbling soup and looks like a miniature turkey that tried to dress up for a Mardis Gras parade. But Todd Tucci says an animal doesn’t have to look or sound serious to earn federal protections.

“The endangered species act doesn’t say, ‘It is the policy of this government that we are going to protect the most beautiful, dynamic species out there,’” says Tucci.

It also protects the funny-looking ones.

Tucci is a lawyer with Advocates for the West, a public interest law firm that represents conservationists in the West pro bono. It’s one of four groups suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for labeling the Gunnison sage grouse “threatened” rather than “endangered.”

“There’s somewhere around 4,000 birds total. This bird is literally on the precipice of extinction,” says Tucci.

Across the region, oil and gas drilling, urban sprawl and overgrazing are encroaching on the bird’s habitat.

Both sides agree the bird is important. This week, they came to a sort of legal truce.

“The sage grouse — whether it’s Gunnison sage grouse or greater sage grouse — is an endemic, iconic species that’s reflective of a western way of life,” says Mike Thabault, the assistant regional director for ecological services with the Fish & Wildlife Service. “What we just announced is a settlement with the environmental community to develop a recovery plan. That’s essentially a roadmap for what to do to bring the species to recovery.”

The lawsuit is now on hold. Conservation groups will settle for the “threatened” label and Fish & Wildlife has 30 months to come up with a plan for how to protect the bird going forward.

The other lawsuits, however, will continue. Those have to do with the Trump administration's sale of oil and gas leases on large areas of public land that host the greater sage grouse.

One lawsuit, filed in Montana, accuses the Bureau of Land Management of violating conservation laws by leasing sage grouse habitat in Montana and Wyoming for oil and gas development. The other lawsuit filed this week takes a similar stance but focuses on 2 million acres of land in states including Utah, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.