Canary of the West

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Joel Dyer | Boulder Weekly

I’ve always had a soft spot for the canary in the coal mine. The way it sings its tune to announce all is well and then falls over dead when the poison gas appears, just to give miners a few precious minutes to save themselves from the same fate. It seems a lot to ask of a bird that didn’t have a choice in the matter. Out here in the West, the sage-grouse is our canary and its well-documented demise is a warning that we better act fast if our beloved way of life is to avoid the same fate.

No, I’m not exaggerating. You see, the sage-grouse is what they call an umbrella species and its habitat is found all over the Western United States including Colorado and ten other states.

I guess the best way to describe an umbrella species is to say that as the sage-grouse goes, so goes every other species that shares its habitat. It turns out that sage-grouse are sensitive birds. They return to mate in the same place each year. They move along the same corridors through their territory eating the same things. As a result of this behavioral predictability, they are easily stressed to the point of not reproducing by noise, construction and most of all, territory fragmentation, which most often occurs these days as the result of building a checkerboard of roads and pipelines to connect dozens, hundreds or even thousands of dirt pads full of metal tanks that spew a few tons of volatile organic compounds into the air every year.

That’s right. For our canary of the West it is primarily the unprecedented intrusion of the oil and gas industry into sage-grouse country that is causing the birds numbers to decline to the point that most sane people not in the pocket of the oil and gas industry are recommending that the sage-grouse be added to the Endangered Species List.

What all this means is the decline in sage-grouse numbers is a warning that other species in its Western habitat are in trouble as well, including everything from mule deer and to rare plants.

The bad news is that if we lose the sage-grouse to oil and gas extraction, we lose the West as we know it forever and that doesn’t bode well for our species either. The good news, on the other hand, is if we list the sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act, we will be saving our Western places by protecting all 350 species that fall under the grouse’s umbrella. So why are we still talking about a listing instead of just doing it?

As you could have guessed as soon as you read the words “oil” and “gas,” one of the biggest obstacles in Colorado to listing the sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act is powerful oil and gas industry lobbyist John Hickenlooper who, as you know, moonlights as governor of our state in his spare time. Hickenlooper, and not surprisingly his industry pals, support alternative plans to listing the grouse as endangered that include a “voluntary” recovery plan on private land and a cap on the quantity of land that could be disturbed on BLM lands, a “cap” that would actually allow the oil industry to more than double its presence in some places even though the current level of intrusion is already threatening the grouse’s entire eco-system.

Yes, it’s crazy, but what else should we have expected from the man who traded us a meaningless oil and gas task force in exchange for killing our vote on fracking last year? One thing about Hickenlooper, he is consistent: he’ll deceive Congress; he’ll deceive voters; he’ll deceive anybody about anything so long as it pushes the oil and gas industry’s agenda, which includes keeping the sage-grouse off the endangered species list.

So that’s why this bird matters so much — the environment of the West hangs in the balance. And if we drill up all the oil and gas reserves in the massive shale zones underlying grouse habitat, the future of our planet is hanging alongside it. So please take the time to read this week’s thorough piece on the importance of the current sage-grouse debate. And if Hickenlooper tries to tell you the Canary is only sleeping, don’t believe it. You know what’s at stake.