RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Listen to this.
(SOUNDBITE OF GREATER SAGE GROUSE CHIRPING)
MARTIN: That is the sound of a bird many feel could determine the future of the West.
(SOUNDBITE OF GREATER SAGE GROUSE CHIRPING)
MARTIN: The greater sage grouse is a peculiar and uniquely American bird. It lives in 11 Western states, and at the end of this month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has to decide whether to propose protections for the bird under the Endangered Species Act, a move that many Western industries are against. NPR's Nathan Rott takes us to a county in Wyoming where this debate is playing out.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: To get you caught up, we're in Sublette County, Wyo. It's about the size of Delaware with about one one-hundredth of the people - 10,000 give or take - some of whom proudly boast that they live in one of the only counties in America that doesn't have a stop light. Though, that doesn't mean you won't have to stop.
This is cattle country, oil and gas country and sage grouse country - the rolling hills and wide valleys you think of when you imagine some cowboy riding off into the sunset toward some snowcapped mountain peaks. Well, here in Sublette County, those mountains are the Wind River Range, and that cowboy may well be Joel Bousman.
JOEL BOUSMAN: Yeah, trying to get the cows in off desert. Getting ready to go to the mountain.
ROTT: Though we're not catching him on his horse, he's still wearing a dusty kerchief around his neck and a pair of boots on his feet. But at the county courthouse here in Pinedale, he's Sublette County Commissioner Bousman. And Commissioner Bousman is concerned about sage grouse and the potential for it to be listed as an endangered species.
BOUSMAN: When they listed the spotted owl in the Northwest, it literally devastated the counties and communities that - that their living was from timber. Our fear here is it would have a similar impact on gas, grazing - livestock grazing.
ROTT: Which is what almost all of Sublette County and this state's economy depends on. Two of the top 10 most productive gas fields in the country are here in this county, Bousman says, and sage grouse don't like well pads or traffic any more than they like a golden eagle flying overhead. That's why Bousman says a listing, with its red tape, would cripple the county. As for Pinedale...
BOUSMAN: It would become a ghost town.
ROTT: That fear has prompted action here and across the West...
AMY DAVIDSON: Thank you, everybody, for coming. I'll start with introductions. I'm Amy Davidson.
ROTT: ...Action that involves all of the different players in this part of the country - the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, Wyoming Game and Fish and conservation groups, oil and gas companies and cattle associations. They're all at this meeting to try to come up with ways to preserve sage grouse habitat and to limit any impacts they might have on the bird with the hope that their work will be enough to keep the sage grouse from being listed.
Tom Christiansen speaks for the group as a state of Wyoming Sage Grouse Program coordinator.
TOM CHRISTIANSEN: Certainly the Endangered Species Act is a huge hammer that's motivated a lot of people to come to the table.
ROTT: States have spent millions of dollars, federal agencies, millions more. Just last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture promised more than $200 million in additional money for sage grouse conservation efforts.
CHRISTIANSEN: This sage grouse conservation effort, on a range-wide scale, is the largest conservation effort ever undertaken for a single species, period.
TRAVIS BRUNER: I'm not sure it's fair to characterize this as the largest conservation effort ever to save a species.
ROTT: Travis Bruner is with Western Watersheds Project, an environmental group that's not a part of the working group.
BRUNER: I think it could have been that, but up to this point it has not been that, and here's why - you can sum up all the plans to protect sage grouse that have occurred over the last year and a half as planning to plan.
ROTT: Nothing is concrete. And Bruner says even the plans don't go far enough to protect sage grouse habitat, which is why he and some other environmental groups think that the bird should be listed and are threatening to sue if it's not. Other conservation groups though, like Brian Rutledge's Audubon Society, support the collaborative efforts. Rutledge, who's Audubon's vice president, says no, the plans aren't perfect, but they beat the alternative.
BRIAN RUTLEDGE: Instead of having five federal employees responsible for 160 million acres of habitat, we have 11 states responsible for that habitat.
ROTT: And people in those states like Albert Sommers.
ALBERT SOMMERS: Two and a half grazed...
ROTT: Albert Sommers is a Republican lawmaker on the state legislature and an electrical engineer by training who fell back into the family business after college...
SOMMERS: The land really - it really grabs you. It just really gets a hold of you.
ROTT: ...And he's very interested in saving the bird. On most days, like this one, you'd confuse him for a biologist if it wasn't for his baseball cap which proudly reads, Sommers Herefords - grizzly tested, wolf approved.
Makes me laugh, Albert - if I told people I was hanging out with a rancher in Wyoming, I don't think they'd imagine us walking through a field with a ruler.
SOMMERS: No, that's probably true.
ROTT: Sommers is out measuring different bunch grass between sagebrush to see what's been grazed and what hasn't. Sage grouse need bunch grass too, which has given rise to the saying, what's good for the bird is good for the herd, so Sommers wants to make sure that his cattle aren't overrunning the hill.
SOMMERS: What it really is, is, if you take care of the land, it'll take care of you. In this industry we're in, we're multigenerational. We are sustainability. We cannot abuse the landscape we're in.
ROTT: And he says the sage grouse issue has made that abundantly clear. The West is changing, Sommers says, more ranches are going under, more subdivisions are popping up. And he thinks a listing of the bird would speed that up, which would eventually be bad for the bird.
SOMMERS: If we can preserve and conserve these working landscapes, these economies of the West...
ROTT: The ranches, oil and gas fields, recreation areas.
SOMMERS: ...We can preserve and conserve the ability for a lot of native species to exist out here.
ROTT: The idea being that Sublette County is never going to be a national park. It's going to have humans on it. It's going to have development. So it's better for sage grouse, a bird that needs wide-open spaces, to have that development be ranches like his instead of 20-acre plots. And he'd argue it's better for the country overall.
SOMMERS: If we fail to do that and this land just becomes home sites for the next - for the next generation of American suburbanites, you know, we'll lose the custom and culture of the West and we'll lose the wildlife of the West.
ROTT: Do you think that might happen?
SOMMERS: It won't happen without a fight. (Laughter). I guarantee you.
ROTT: Whether that fight is a lawsuit, defiance of the new rules or just rhetoric, Sommers would prefer it not come to that, after the decision at the end of the month. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Pinedale, Wyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.