Despite its potential extinction, the Greater-Sage Grouse is not listed under the endangered species act. Nick Walsh, our fellow Conservation Science student, highlighted this at the mid-term conference to a shocked audience. He presented his poster under the title “The five billion dollar question; should the Greater Sage-Grouse be listed on the Endangered Species Act?” ‘Why of course!’ you may shout ‘this is absurd’, but…… you may then ponder ‘why is it a $5 billion dollar question?’ This is soon set out by Nick. And the answer is………..Oil.
The Great Sage Grouse is threatened with extinction. Image by Bob Wick / U.S. Bureau of Land Management via nbcnews
The Greater-Sage Grouse is under threat.
The Greater-Sage Grouse inhabits areas of sagebrush-steppe in Midwestern and western USA and Canada. The species entirely depends on these habitats to survive. However, this habitat is being fragmented and shrinking rapidly due to urbanisation, agriculture, drought, invasive plants and exploitation by oil and gas companies.
As a result, they have suffered major declines in numbers and reductions in distribution. Historical estimates of population abundance were as much as 1,600,000 to 16,000,000 birds. They now just number 100, 000 to 500, 000 birds. A study found that breeding males fell by 56% between 2007 and 2013. If nothing is done, these trends in population decline represent a very real possibility of extinction for the species in the near future.
The Great Sage Grouse has seen dramatic declines in distribution, occupying just over half their historical range. Image Source .
Conservation of the Greater-Sage Grouse is therefore imperative for its status. In addition, conserving the species would involve conserving the habitat, thus bringing about benefits to a whole host of other species associated with the sagebrush-steppe such as the mule deer and the Pronghorn.
Despite all of this, just last year in 2015, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service reclassified the Greater Sage-Grouse as a species for which conservation efforts are no longer warranted.
The sage-brush steppe provides huge potential for companies such as the Western Energy Alliance to exploit oil and gas. Strict measures that would have to be implemented to conserve the Greater-sage grouse would therefore cost the 12 oil producing states $5.6 and 31,000 jobs.
Status of the Greater-Sage Grouse is under threat from financial benefits of oil and gas exploitation. Image Source.
Nick argues that economic and political factors should not be considered in deciding whether a species is listed under the endangered species act. But concludes that given there is so much at stake, legislation to conserve the species is highly improbable, therefore a compromise must be made instead. This could involve the continuation of exploiting oil in some states whilst reducing efforts in others, relocation of populations, and the introduction of financial incentives.
Perhaps, with these compromises, the Greater-sage grouse might be saved. But this all begs the question, does it not set a precedent for oil companies to continue on their destructive way?