Catching up with Brian Rutledge, Champion of the Sagebrush Sea

It's been two years since an unprecedented partnership kept the Greater Sage-Grouse from being listed as endangered. Here, Rutledge, who played a vital role, reflects on the future of the bird and the effort's success.

Two years ago today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the Greater Sage-Grouse did not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. The decision was widely hailed as a model of collaborative conservation. "A major factor in the determination was the cooperative efforts of federal agencies, states, private landowners, industry, and green groups to safeguard the chubby, chicken-sized bird," Audubon reported at the time.

Among the key figures in the partnership to protect the sage-grouse is Brian Rutledge, Audubon Vice President and director of the Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative. This weekend, the Wyoming Outdoor Council will recognize Rutledge with its Conservation Leadership Award during the organization’s 50th anniversary celebration. “We work with countless partners throughout the state and nation, and as our staff considered the first ever recipient of this award we couldn’t think of anyone more deserving than Brian,” Chris Merrill, the group’s associate director, says.

While the award celebrates the sage-grouse protection work, it comes at a difficult time. In June, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced he would review the federal plan that kept sage-grouse off the endangered species list and, in August, he announced recommendations that could erode the conservation plan.

Rutledge looks and sounds every bit the cowboy, and comes by it honestly—he and his wife, Kathleen, raise cattle and horses on their ranch in the Colorado foothills. Audubon caught up with Rutledge to discuss the latest on sage-grouse protection and the roots of his passion for conservation.

Audubon: What’s changed in the two years since we learned Greater Sage-Grouse would stay off the endangered species list? 

Brian Rutledge: The last few months have been the big change. Now the few [people] who would not sit down at the table—largely oil and gas trade groups—are driving the review of a set of plans that were achieved by the American West and its populace. A broad range of people in a collaborative set of meetings—hundreds of people, literally, who represent the whole strata of western lifestyle in the sagebrush—developed these plans. And now someone in D.C. is going to redo them. I see it as a broader effort to dispense with federal lands.

A: Aside from politics, what are the biggest threats to sage-grouse?

BR: Fragmentation is the primary threat to the sagebrush ecosystem. It was a sea of sage when we got here, and we have broken it into islands of sage.

What we forgot was the importance of sagebrush. Sagebrush holds water on the land, quite literally. If you go out on the sagebrush ecosystem in the springtime, every bush has a berm of snow gathered against it. And because the bush holds the wind from taking the snow away, that snow melts into the landscape and feeds every living thing on the sagebrush ecosystem.

A: What’s your philosophy of conservation work?

BR: To me, conservation work done right is relationship work. I’ve created a network of relationships across the sagebrush West. It gives me access to the governors I need access to. The thought leaders who run the game and fish divisions of several of these states I count now amongst my better friends. I have terrific relationships with individuals in the Department of the Interior. It’s just the administration that has changed.

We have to recognize the humanity of even those with whom we have the greatest differences. That’s what makes a difference when you reach out to people—if your hand is open, and not a fist.

A: Before you joined Audubon, your work included running zoos and leading eco-tours. What made you pursue a career focused on wildlife and conservation?

BR: My dad was a big motivating factor behind the way I turned out, there’s no doubt about that. He was Native American [Cherokee], and a naturalist at heart. He was a professor, so we had our summers free, and we spent every summer in some wilderness area. I don’t know if you know who Euell Gibbons was, but Dad could have taught Euell Gibbons a thing or two about living off the land.

A: This award is quite an honor, but I get the sense you’re not slowing down.

BR: I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of resting on my laurels, if that’s what you’re suggesting. We have to keep this rolling. This is the most important conservation work I’ve ever been engaged in. As far as lasting impact, I don’t know how I’d find anything more important to do with my life. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.