The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Western sagebrush is a backdrop in every epic cowboy movie. Can it be saved?

A big sagebrush-bunchgrass community at Horse Heaven Hills in Washington state (Credit: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Staff)

It was never a star.

The vast sagebrush that sprawls across 11 Western states is featured in nearly every epic cowboy movie ever filmed, but few people notice. Its tumbleweed rolled dramatically through scenes. Its rough terrain made phony cattle drives look real. Its moonscape is why campfires appear so lonely. But the land was only a backdrop; it never stood out.

Even now, the 165 million-acre sagebrush — so big that some call it a sea — is being overshadowed by attention focused on the greater sage grouse, a chicken-like bird that dances and shouts in mating rituals across the West.

But a new effort by the federal government, Western states, environmental groups and ranchers to revive the dwindling sage grouse population is, in reality, a determined push to save the ranging sagebrush. This consortium of strange bedfellows is finally giving sagebrush its due, throwing movie money at it — hundreds of millions of dollars — in a bid to restore the ecology in large chunks of one of the largest ecosystems in the United States so that 350 species of animals living there can survive.

In less than two weeks, the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service, which own more than half of the land covered by sagebrush, are expected to finalize a plan that will change how mining operations, cattle ranchers and developers have operated on the territory for decades.

[There are only 400,000 sage grouse left. Here’s the government’s plan to save an American bird]

The plan aims to steer millions of cattle and sheep from grazing in sensitive parts of the brush, keep noisy mining, oil and gas excavation, and building development away from areas where skittish sage grouse congregate. In short, the plan aims to stop fragmenting the land, causing sage grouse and other animals to scatter, and in many cases, perish, conservationists say.

Although the land isn’t as animated as its animals, it also suffered. WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit environmental group, estimates that only half the original range is left.

Critics say it’s about time that the BLM put more limits on ranchers with armies of grazing cattle and drilling operations that tear apart the land, causing animal populations to decline.

“If you look back 100 years, we’ve lost more than half of the sagebrush habitat across the inland west,” said Ken Rait, director of the U.S. public lands program at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “It’s been lost by essentially the development of the West — housing, oil development, gas development.” Development brought invasive species that cause natural wildfires to burn out of control, he said.

“We got to this place by the fact that the BLM simply proceeded with an aggressive development posture for decades. Only in recent years has the agency taken notice that we need to step back and be proactive in the way we manage.”

The BLM was contacted for this report but did not respond. The bureau’s final plan will inform one of the most anticipated environmental decisions of the year, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s final determination on whether to list the most iconic species of the bunch, the greater sage grouse, as threatened or endangered.

A threatened or endangered listing would trigger a suite of federal regulations that would put a chill on ranchers, miners and drillers, and anger state officials from Idaho to New Mexico who strongly oppose it.

When the Fish and Wildlife Service determined in 2010 that sage grouse warranted protection because its habitat was being destroyed, each state launched an effort to restore their patch of the brush. Three years later, when the service named specific conservation goals that could help avoid a listing, the states doubled down on their efforts to identify where sage grouse were being harmed and better protect them from the effects of industry, housing development and ranching.

Why go through all this trouble over a big chicken?

[Sage grouse won’t get protection at the Nevada-California border]

The greater sage grouse is more American than the bald eagle. Aside from small patches of Canada, it lives only in the United States. It’s also what environmentalist call an umbrella species — its health reflects the health of everything around it.

And the greater sage grouse is in bad health. An April study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that its population decreased 56 percent between 2007 and 2013. The BLM said its historical numbers “were likely in the millions” but have dwindled to 200,000 to 500,000.

The bird’s habitat, the sagebrush, is “a highly imperiled ecosystem,” according to the Pacific Northwest Research Station, a division of the Forest Service. In a 2007 report, it said the range “is suffering a death by a thousand cuts. Everything that relies on the slightly toxic bush, from pygmy rabbits to elk, are suffering, too.

“You almost are missing the forest for the trees in one sense,” said Len Barson, a senior policy adviser for the Nature Conservancy in Seattle. “It’s much more than just the sage grouse we’re talking about. We’re talking about an entire system.

“The sagebrush is really a part of Americana and a part of history that people in the West are living. You take a look at history — and sagebrush is there,” he said. “You have the railroad, you have the Oregon trail, ranches and cattle drives, the tumbleweed going across the road, the old cowboy movies. It’s sort of ingrained in our soul a little bit, this image of the wild West and what that meant to America.”

But the developed West is key, too. Wyoming has the region’s largest sage grouse population, more than 50 percent of the remaining 400,000 birds, and is second in the nation in energy production. Utah estimated that it would lose more than $40 billion in economic production from oil and gas if the sage grouse is listed.

Two years ago in April, the BLM listed 130 projects that “were delayed, denied, altered, or deferred” by the agency for sage grouse conservation, according to a policy brief prepared by the National Agricultural and Rural Development Policy Center.  “There is no doubt that these impacts pale in comparison to the impacts associated with compliance with the Endangered Species Act if the sage grouse is in fact listed,” the brief said.

Fearing that an endangered species listing for the sage grouse would bring a firestorm of resistance from states, ranchers and industry, environmental groups such as the Nature Conservancy joined an effort that aims to stop it. States, agriculture, industry and the environmentalists implemented protections in a bid to increase the sage grouse population so that the Fish and Wildlife Service would have no choice but to decline federal protections.

“If you can protect the species through incentives, why not try that, as opposed to a tool that will create concern and difficulty and resistance,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose agency works closely with ranchers. Vilsack recently announced that his department will provide $211 million for sagebrush restoration, allocating funds to clear brush that feeds wildfires, protect sage grouse from barbed-wire fencing and shield private land from being sold for future development.

“We think we can do what’s right for these critters,” Vilsack said.

Travis Bruner, executive director of Western Watersheds Project, said he wishes that were true. Bruner said the state and federal plans are not specific about how the sagebrush will be restored and does not include a timetable for success.

[Why the sage grouse could become the next spotted owl]

“Unfortunately, I do think when the threat of listing goes away they’ll turn to what they did before, ignoring the habitat,” he said. Bruner said he believes the Fish and Wildlife Service, like other federal agencies, opposes listing greater sage grouse as endangered. The agency has declined to list an isolated group of sage grouse on the border between California and Nevada as endangered.

“Everybody had an opportunity to protect habitat through some pretty simple measures,” Bruner said. “Unfortunately, none of the plans provide hard, strict rules that say this is what sage grouse need and this is how they’re going to get it.”