Above the corral’s wrought-iron gate hung a weathered sign that simply read “Donner Spring.” Inside the corral, a stand of lush green grass punctuated by a single tree stood in stark contrast to the rest of the arid terrain. Travelers making their way through Utah’s dry landscape in the 1800s would have sought out such an oasis. And as the name suggests, it was this exact spring that the doomed Donner Party stopped at for fresh water and rest before continuing its fateful journey across Utah’s Great Salt Lake Desert and into California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, never to see the other side.
We didn’t plan on having that kind of trip. No, instead of Conestoga wagons, our group showed up to the TL Bar Ranch in a collection of trucks and a fleet of white Ford passenger vans stocked with snacks and coolers of drinks. And instead of heading west, our plan was to wend our way back east on a field trip. But before beginning our journey, we’d assembled here, at the base of Pilot Mountain in northwest Utah, for introductions. Jay Tanner, a rancher in Box Elder County, bought the TL Bar and Donner Spring four years ago. Tanner’s family manages roughly a million acres of private and public land across Box Elder, and for years he and his wife, Diane, have been at the forefront of a community-led effort to manage ranch land for better cattle grazing while also preserving and restoring sagebrush habitat, thereby helping the Greater Sage-Grouse and the more than 350 other species that depend on the ecosystem.
It’s work like this that helped keep the Greater Sage-Grouse off of the Endangered Species list in 2015—the culmination of an unprecedented, bi-partisan, multi-state and multi-organization conservation effort called the Sage Grouse Initiative. Tanner knows better than anyone what’s required to do such landscape-scale work across the complicated patchwork of private and public lands in the West, and working closely with a range of government agencies is a big part of it. “We have a really good relationship with the Bureau of Land Management,” Tanner told everyone as he kicked off the day with some local history and his thoughts on the importance of respecting private landowners while working to protect sagebrush.
The group gathered on this May day was a diverse lot—ranchers, cowboys, conservationists, scientists, researchers, state and federal agency employees, nonprofit staffers, university professors, and even oil executives—from all over Utah and neighboring states. And despite their varied backgrounds, varied personal interests, and most assuredly, varied voting preferences this past November, they had all come together today for a common cause: to share and discuss progress, methods, and research when it came to protecting sagebrush habitat and the Greater Sage-Grouse. The tour itself was put together by Intermountain West Joint Venture (IWJV), an organization that connects and collaborates with various parties for conservation causes. IWJV is supported by the Fish & Wildlife Service and assortment of state agencies, NGOs, and private landowners.
This year’s tour was the biggest IWJV had assembled yet, and as an editor at Audubon I had been invited to see what was actually happening on the ground out here in western Utah. Another newcomer on the trip was Marshall Critchfield, the former head of President Trump’s Iowa presidential election campaign and now an advisor to Ryan Zinke, the Secretary of the Department of the Interior. Critchfield had been tasked with attending the Box Elder County tour and reporting back to Zinke with his observations.
If you’ve never visited sagebrush country, you need to. Often called the sagebrush sea for its undulating expanse of waist-high, frosty-green shrubbery, the terrain is like no other in America. And much like the Arctic tundra, what appears to be a big empty space is, in fact, an elegant and fragile ecosystem that supports a diversity of plant and wildlife. The sheer size of it almost belies its need for protection, but nothing is more valuable to the Greater Sage-Grouse than space, and we have already lost half of the original sagebrush habitat in this country to development. Now the remaining 173 million acres that span across 11 Western states need continued protection to preserve the ecosystem and keep the bird from being listed under the Endangered Species Act. But today the sagebrush sea and the Greater Sage-Grouse face a multitude of threats.
One of these threats is cheatgrass, an invasive plant from Europe that has flourished in the West. It's so plentiful that we can spot it from our vans as we bounce down a gravel road to our next tour stop, pronghorn bounding alongside us. What makes cheatgrass a double threat to the sagebrush ecosystem is that sage-grouse don’t eat the plant, and yet it thrives on wildfires (which, it’s worth noting, have increased thanks to droughts linked to climate change). Meanwhile, burns can decimate thousands of acres of centuries-old sagebrush, which the birds do feed on and take at least a decade to begin growing back. “You can see where the fire has been,” says my van companion Alan Smith, pointing to yellowish patch of cheatgrass on a nearby mountainside. “The cheatgrass has moved in there.” Smith is a local to the area and is vice president of the Utah Chukar & Wildlife Foundation. Chukar are a popular introduced game bird in these parts, and the foundation works with public and private land owners to maintain sagebrush habitat and ensure healthy hunting populations. But the artificial watering holes, called guzzlers, that people install for these birds and other thirsty wildlife have also aided in a Common Raven boom. Raven predation of Greater Sage-Grouse nests is just one more threat the birds face. Consider all this another strand in a very complex web out here.
By the time we arrived at Badger Flat, an 11,000-acre expanse of prime sagebrush, the weather had turned dark and dreary. Reassembled, we stood in a cold drizzle, ringed by snow-capped peaks and standing amid twisted clumps of sagebrush, and looked at the juniper trees marching downward from the slopes, encroaching into the sagebrush steppe below. Keeping the tenacious trees at bay is another major sagebrush conservation project throughout the West, and more juniper eradication has happened in Box Elder County than anywhere in the U.S. It’s expensive and hard work paid for and performed by local landowners in conjunuction with government agencies, but it’s also vital. Junipers serve as perches for raptors amid the low-lying sagebrush, so just four percent encroachment is enough to scare off skittish grouse. And because the long-rooted trees can consume 30-50 gallons of water a day, they are water hogs that push out native flora such as bunchgrass and drain natural water sources, both vital to wildlife and grazing cattle. A common saying you’ll here in sagebrush country is, “What’s good for the bird is good for the herd,” and the removal of junipers is one example why.
During lunch, a suitably casual affair that took place inside one of Tanner’s barns in the small community of Grouse Creek, a series of presenters continued the briefs that had been taking place at each stop throughout the day. Clint Evans with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which helps support much of the work in Box Elder, reiterated the importance of private landowners and reminded that the Greater Sage-Grouse is an umbrella species for the entire sagebrush ecosystem. “We may have chosen to use the sage-grouse as the target species, but really we’re just using them as a barometer,” he said. And Abbie Jossie, who works for the BLM’s Natural Cultural Resources Department, was floored by what she’d seen that day. “I was doing lek counts back in the 80s,” she told the group, referencing the breeding grounds of the quirky Greater Sage-Grouse. “The attitude here is the one we’ve been seeking for the past 30 years.”
This attitude was pervasive the whole trip. And by the end of the day, when the tour group gathered together for one final session in a firehouse on some backroad with nothing else around but an especially vocal Western Meadowlark, the positive energy was palpable. The space pulsed with a shared sense of mission and accomplishment—and for good reason. All of the work we saw in Box Elder and going on throughout Utah was showing positive results. According to the IWJV, the bird’s overall populations, which can fluctuate from year to year, have cycled up for the past three years in Utah, and 1.2 million acres of sagebrush habitat has been restored on private and public lands, with 500,000 of that directly affecting the sage-grouse. Considering that one-third of sagebrush habitat and 55 percent of Utah’s leks are on private land, this shows that conservation and private business cannot only work together, but they can also be mutually beneficial.
Addressing the group for the last time that day, Tanner shared his thoughts on what still needed to be done and the community’s success so far. “The whole face of this mountain has been changed through the [Sage Grouse Initiative] since 2010,” Tanner said referencing the juniper work. “In this part of the country, we can grow sagebrush. We might not be able to grow much else, but we can grow that if given the chance to.”
Then, unexpectedly, Duane Coombs, the Sagebrush Collaborative Conservation Specialist for IWJV, raised the mic to his impressive handlebar mustache, turned directly to Critchfield, and asked him to take a message back to Zinke, who had already made clear during his appointment testimony that he planned to review the federal government’s current Greater Sage-Grouse conservation program.
“As a western guy growing up in a very conservative society and a very conservative part of the world, this is how we want to do business,” Coombs told Critchfield. “This is government working with communities so that we can collectively work to do good with the land. And that way we can leave things better than we found it. And honestly, that’s why I’m in the job I’m in right now instead of being a cowboy like I always thought I’d need to be. Because this is an opportunity to change how we do business in the West, and not only for the conservation of wildlife, but for these small rural communities. And so that’s my pitch.”
Everyone nodded in agreement.
“It’s a good one,” Critchfield responded. “I’ll take it back to D.C.”
On June 8, 2017, Zinke officially announced an executive order to review the current federal plan for sage-grouse conservation. While it is technically separate from the Sage Grouse Initiative, the federal plan is based on much of the same underlying science and includes 98 amendments to BLM and U.S. Forest Service land use plans across the 11 Western states the Greater Sage-Grouse calls home. The review ends on Friday, August 4, and depending on what Zinke decides, he could drastically change how the federal government and the states approach the issue. To do that would not just risk imperiling the bird once more, but it would undermine the more than two decades’ worth of research and conservation efforts that culminated in the Greater Sage-Grouse being kept off of the endangered species list two years ago.
Before getting into what a revision of current Greater Sage-Grouse plans could bring, it’s important to understand what listing the bird would have meant in 2015 and what it would mean if the current, successful plan is revised and fails—finally landing the bird on the endangered species list. Any time an animal gets listed, onerous regulations to protect the species go into effect. In the case of the sage-grouse, for ranchers that might mean restrictions on how they can work their land and the number of cattle they can run. For energy or mining industries, it likely means shutting down any operations on private or public lands that are deemed important to the bird’s preservation. There are plenty of other stakeholders that would be affected, but there are a lot of agricultural operations and energy interests throughout the interior West. Keeping the bird off the ESA really is in everyone’s best interest.
To help prevent the bird from being listed and therefore becoming an avatar of Big Government Oppression, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) created the Sage Grouse Initiative in 2010. The initiative was a formal adoption of conservation work already being done, and was meant to provide a incentive-driven, science-based strategy for ranchers, agencies, universities, businesses, and other nonprofit groups, including the National Audubon Society, to preserve sagebrush landscape and bolster the bird's populations. As can be seen in Box Elder County and throughout the West, the Sage Grouse Initiative and the various other efforts it has spawned has already been fruitful. It’s true that some ranchers still have their concerns over what they see as extraneous government oversight, but many others have fully bought into the plan.
The sort of preventative action that came out of the Sage Grouse Initiative is exactly what the Endangered Species Act should spur. The act is meant to be a safety net in case states and the federal government fail to protect a species, but the ramifications of a listing should seem so burdensome that keeping an animal from becoming endangered becomes a top priority. In this sense, the Greater Sage-Grouse and the efforts to keep it from being listed are an example to be followed. “The Greater Sage-Grouse is the greatest living example of how the ESA is supposed to work,” said Brian Rutledge, an IMJV board member and Audubon’s Central Flyway conservation strategy and policy advisor, who was also on the tour.
One of the many groups affiliated with the Sage Grouse Initative is the Sagebrush Ecosystem Alliance of Northwest Utah, which is deeply involved in much of the work I saw on my Box Elder County tour. There are a dizzying amount of names and acronyms involved in this grand effort to preserve the sagebrush steppe, but on the ground in Utah, watching the way the people representing these myriad organizations worked together was inspiring and refreshing. There were clearly disagreements, and communication between parties can always be better, but that’s to be expected on any project—much less one with dozens of different groups with varying needs and interests. More importantly, this level of close collaboration, fueled by a shared sense of purpose and funding from an array of federal and state agencies, was producing real, tangible results.
So, if the current federal sage-grouse plans working in tandem with the Sage Grouse Initiative have largely resulted in success so far, why did Zinke bother with the review?
It might not come as a surprise, but while many trumpet the collaborative efforts that kept the Greater Sage-Grouse off of the Endangered Species List as one of the landmark conservation achievements in American history, plenty of people still find the federal plans too intrusive, especially a portion of the 11 Western states that feel the government shouldn’t have as much say in how they use their lands. And let’s not forget oil and gas companies who see lost profits.
On our tour around Box Elder County, I talked with Carey Farmer, who works for the energy behemoth ConocoPhillips Company and works with IWJV on their sagebrush conservation efforts. Although Farmer sees value in environmental conservation on its own, he says it behooves all oil and gas companies doing business in the West to make sure the Greater Sage-Grouse doesn’t get listed. “The Sage Grouse Initiative was a real priority for ConocoPhillips,” he said. “[Oil] is a vital industry for our country, and there’s nothing that could shut it down quicker than a series of listings.”
When he formally announced the review, Zinke put an emphasis on the federal government needing to be a better partner to the states while also giving them more power to make their own decisions regarding sagebrush conservation, saying “one-size doesn’t fit all.” How far he’ll go in allowing more freedom on a state-by-state basis is unclear, but it’s worth noting that to deviate from the current plans and give states more leeway would be risky—and possibly even counterproductive. If the modified plans don’t work and the bird’s numbers dip low enough to trigger an ESA listing, more government will be the result.
During the announcement, Zinke also said that the review will look at new ways to monitor and increase sage-grouse populations. “There are a lot of innovative ideas out there, I don’t want to take anything out of the plans.” One of these ideas is to use drones to count bird populations, but he is also considering captive-breeding programs, which have been shown to not be productive with sage-grouse and run a high risk of disrupting the birds’ breeding behavior. “To date, efforts to raise sage-grouse in captivity have been done at small scales and have not been especially successful, as the species has a complicated reproductive lifestyle that doesn’t easily translate to human care,” Audubon reported in February.
The most concerning possible change, though, is pivoting from the landscape-scale conservation approach to one based on population numbers by state. As we’ve also previously reported, managing by population is especially difficult with the Greater Sage-Grouse because they can go through drastic boom and bust cycles, and attempts at maintaining a fixed population could end up making the entire thing collapse. Creating suitable habitat and protecting as much of it as possible is considered by many conservationists to be the best approach for protecting the Greater Sage-Grouse. In other words, the current sage-grouse strategy is the best method for protecting the Greater Sage-Grouse. This is why both Governor Hickenlooper (D) of Colorado and Governor Mead (R) of Wyoming, both members of the Western Governors’ sage-grouse task force, sent a joint letter to Zinke specifically expressing their concerns over the possible switch.
Soon enough we’ll know Zinke’s decision for the revised sage-grouse conservation plans. But after personally seeing the work that is already being done in Box Elder County, hearing what the folks there and others around the country have achieved, considering the decades of science and research backing up the Sage Grouse Initative and current federal plan, and hearing Coombs’s impassioned speech that day, it seems to me that what’s happening in northwest Utah is a pretty good blueprint for what should be happening everywhere—and that the current plan is best left alone. Yes, it’s complex, occasionally messy, and incredibly hard to grasp, but it’s also working. And in the end, that all sounds a lot better than potentially losing the Geater Sage-Grouse while upending countless American lives across the interior West.
Audubon is a nonprofit, and stories like this are supported by readers like you. To support our journalism, please make a donation today.