by Abigail Wang
The debate over the fate of the sage grouse, a bird known for its elaborate mating display, has been ongoing for over 15 years. Due to the species’ alarming population decline in the United States, the development of green energy in the West has slowed considerably. Environmental groups have thus become divided in answering the difficult question of wind and solar energy expansion versus wildlife protection.
The sage grouse has experienced a 45-80% decline in population since the 1800’s and are currently found on federally owned lands in only 11 western states including Wyoming, Utah, California, Idaho, and Colorado. As the birds’ habitats continue to shrink, the United States Fish and Wildlife Services has received numerous petitions since 1999 to list the bird as a threatened or endangered species. A 2010 settlement agreement decreed that the FWS must determine whether or not it would list the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) or remove it from the candidate list by September 2015.
Due to political pressure, the FWS recently declared that the sage grouse would be listed as ‘threatened’ and not ‘endangered’. This caused an outcry among several conservationist and environmentalist groups who argue adamantly that the sage grouse should be listed as endangered. Listed as ‘threatened’, the sage grouse will not receive protections including the prohibition of killing, harassing, or destroying the birds’ habitat. In fact, three environmentalist groups—WildEarth Guardians, Center for Biological Diversity, and Western Watersheds Projects—filed suits against the federal government for not doing enough to protect the bird.
Wind energy facilities like turbines are likely to negatively impact sage-grouse population as well. The birds tend to avoid areas near the structures, so building turbines too close to their breeding sites would drive them away. This doesn’t factor in the roads and maintenance facilities that would also be built over habitat areas to run the facilities.
Nonetheless, the current ‘threatened’ listing of the sage grouse could further inhibit the development and progress of green energy in the West. Even prior to the decision, state protection programs like the Wyoming Core Area Strategy, limited development in the main sage-grouse areas to 5% disturbance. Programs like these have taken a toll on state economies, delaying and preventing energy projects.
The economic impact is a major concern because the Western states that make up the sage grouse’s habitats account for 27% of the total energy produced in the United States. Other environmental organizations have attempted to take the middle road between green industries and sage-grouse enthusiasts, insisting that green energy facilities can successfully coexist with the bird as long as they are built farther away from breeding sites. Whether or not the development of green energy suffers at the wings of the sage grouse remains to be seen.
Stoellinger, Temple. “Implications of a Greater Sage-Grouse Listing on Western Energy Development.” National Agricultural and Rural Development Policy Center. June 2014. http://www.nardep.info/uploads/Brief33_ImplicationsListingSageGrouse.pdf
LeBeau, Chad, Jeff Fruhwirth, and J.R. Boehrs. “Analysis of the Overlap between Priority Greater Sage-Grouse Habitats and Existing and Potential Energy Development Across the West.” Western Values Project. October 2014: 1-26. http://westernvaluesproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Greater-Sage-Grouse-Priority-Habitats-and-Energy-Development.pdf
Brown, Matthew and Mead Gruver. “Fat of The Struggling Greater Sage Grouse Shaping Energy Development In U.S. West.” Huffington Post: 9 December 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/04/greater-sage-grouse-us-energy_n_6269806.html
Robertson, Erin. 2014. “Sage-Grouse and Wind Energy: The West is Where the Wind Blows.” http://rockymountainwild.org/_site/wp-content/uploads/Sage-Grouse-and-Wind-Energy.pdf
“Environmentalists ask court for more protection on sage grouse, found only in Colorado, Utah.” Fox Business 20 January 2015. http://www.foxbusiness.com/markets/2015/01/20/environmentalists-ask-court-for-more-protection-on-sage-grouse-found-only-in/