As protected areas and wildlife come under threat through lessening of restrictions on invasive oil and gas exploration, the importance of proving the economic value of conservation tourism become more and more evident.
Evan Obercian says it is the highlight of his Colorado birding tours every spring, even though he has to wake his clients up before 5 a.m. to be in the sagebrush flats before the sun comes up. And there they wait in Mr. Obercian’s van, listening to strange whoops and popping sounds that float magically from the predawn darkness.
The first rays of a new day’s sun reveal what is making the noise: large brown birds more than twice the size of a barnyard chicken, strutting and shaking while thrusting bulbous yellow air sacs out of their chests, and fanning a fantastic spread of pointy tail feathers. The bird is the greater sage grouse, and the sight is their spring mating ritual on their dancing grounds, called leks.
“It’s profoundly moving for me, and my clients,” said Mr. Obercian, “watching this ancient nuptial dance that’s been performed since way before there were any people on this land. It’s something way beyond just checking another bird off a list.”
The van acts like a blind, so the sage grouse do not notice that people are nearby, watching. Sometimes the grouse will dance right up to the tires. Birders are under strict orders not to get out, because as Mr. Obercian says, sage grouse “are very sensitive.”
That sensitivity means sage grouse are easily spooked — by people, or by oil and gas drilling operations. A revision to the wildlife management plans for sage grouse in the West recently announced by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke may mean more oil and gas drilling near sage grouse leks soon — and a new round of industry-versus-conservationist skirmishes over an issue that many thought had been settled.
The greater sage grouse was almost listed under the Endangered Species Act two years ago. The bird has lost almost half of its sagebrush habitat across 11 western states, and its population has declined from many millions to a few hundred thousand. Audubon Rockies says the greater sage grouse population has declined by 95 percent.
But on Sept. 22, 2015, then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced that the sage grouse would not be listed, because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was confident that threats to the bird were being effectively mitigated by a package of federal and state plans across the West that protected habitat while still allowing for energy development and livestock grazing.
“We had settled on the biggest landscape conservation deal ever made,” said Brian Rutledge, director of Audubon’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative. Mr. Rutledge sat alongside energy industry representatives, ranchers and government officials to hammer out what he calls a compromise among all interests. For example, Mr. Rutledge points out that the deal still allowed for oil and gas drilling, just not in ways that would excessively disturb sage grouse breeding areas.
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