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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK. What you're hearing here are some sounds from the Wild West. It's a bunch of male sage grouse advertising for a mate. As its name implies, the grouse live in sage brush country, the rolling hills of knee high scrub like you see in movie Westerns. But pristine sage brush is disappearing and so are the birds. NPR's Christopher Joyce recently visited a valley in Montana to see how biologists are trying to protect the bird.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: You might not think this bird is so unusual until you see a lek. A lek is a mating ritual. The males, chicken-sized, brown and white with spiky tail feathers, have big air sacs on their chests. It looks like they're wearing brassieres. They gather in groups and perform a song and dance to attract females.

In Montana, I snuck up on a lek in a valley of foot-high, yellow grass. OK. I'm about 50 yards from them right now. About two, three or four males bouncing up and down, puffing up their white chest. Their popping with their air sacks in this bizarre ritual. It's got to be one of the strangest things I've ever done in my life.

Ecologist Nathan Korb found this lek. He works for The Nature Conservancy. He says the birds don't do this just anywhere.

NATHAN KORB: Yeah, they're very picky. They're looking for flat bare places, where nothing gets in the way of showing off.

JOYCE: And where potential predators, like us, are easy to spot. They see us and fly off. The federal government may list the sage grouse as endangered within the next two years. That worries ranchers who fear they won't be able to graze cattle near endangered birds. And oil and gas companies fear they won't be able to drill. But, biologists argue, this isn't just about a bird. Tim Griffiths, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, explains.

TIM GRIFFITHS: Sage grouse is really the wild-land bird of the sagebrush steppe.

JOYCE: Sagebrush steppe is a huge part of the Western range, and the grouse is as much part of it as antelopes and cowboys. Griffiths says protecting the grouse also protects everything else on the land.

GRIFFITHS: It's really maintaining that habitat that all those critters and ranchers can continue to live on for generations to come.

JOYCE: But protecting this bird won't be easy.

DAVID NAUGLE: Everything out there eats sage grouse. They're like ice cream.

JOYCE: David Naugle is a biologist at the University of Montana. Besides the predators, there are the barbed wire fences. Grouse accidentally fly into them and die. These birds need open land.

NAUGLE: Vast, unbroken, intact rangelands, so that they can find enough secure places to make a living.

JOYCE: Naugle is with the Sage Grouse Initiative. Started by the federal agriculture department, it includes the Nature Conservancy and several states and universities. Its aim is to protect grouse now, so the federal government doesn't have to list the bird as endangered. That, they say, could start a long fight between landowners and the government.

The initiative pays ranchers not to develop land. It removes fences or marks them so grouse can see them. It cuts down invasive trees, like the juniper, trees that give hawks and other predators a roost to spot and kill sage grouse. You can see all this in play in southwestern Montana, in the Centennial Valley.

KYLE CUTTING: In the wintertime, this whole eastern part of the Centennial Valley is snowed in so this road is under several feet of snow.

JOYCE: I drove into Centennial with Kyle Cutting, a biologist with the U.S. Fish And Wildlife Service. Last year, he was one of three people who over-wintered here. It's a 60-mile-long valley with places like Nemesis Mountain and Hell Roaring Creek. Most visitors go east of here to Yellowstone. But the grouse like it here, and for good reason.

CUTTING: There's basin big sagebrush. We have mountain big sagebrush. We have three tip sagebrush.

JOYCE: Elsewhere, sage grouse habitat has been turned into ranches, farms and suburbs over the past century. The Nature Conservancy's Nathan Korb lives here most of the year. He's an affable, energetic guy who sometimes runs through sagebrush just for kicks. He walks me through a field of it, an endless plain of hip-high, pale green bushes.

KORB: All the dead grass under the sage brush, this is the kind of place where sage grouse might nest and this grass provides cover. Whereas, if it's all grazed off, they're a lot more exposed to predators.

JOYCE: In low grass, predators can easily pick off the sage grouse, but the real key to getting the initiative to work here are ranchers.

BRYAN ULRING: I'm Bryan Ulring and I manage the J Bar L Ranch.

JOYCE: Ulring is a sturdy 6-footer in boots and vest who ranches in the Centennial Valley and participates in the Initiative. That means grazing his cattle differently, in tighter groups. Actually, he says that's the way wild bison used to graze here, for protection.

ULRING: They always had the presence of predators, be it wolves, or grizzly bears or Indians.

JOYCE: Tighter grazing leaves bigger areas of grass free from grazing. There's more time to grow tall. And that's good for sage grouse. But it means moving cattle around a lot more. Each new grazing site needs water. Today, Ulring and his crew are putting in a water well before bringing a herd into the new paddock.

ULRING: We're going to have to pump it again.

JOYCE: Eureka. Then, they've got to have a fence, one that's portable and wildlife friendly.

ULRING: One strand of wire. Yeah, it's electric. All we have to do is contain the mother cows, and so a sage grouse can hit this and not have any problem.

JOYCE: Ulring says the Sage Grouse Initiative means thinking outside the barbed wire box. So far, in Centennial, two ranchers are participating, out of about a dozen in the valley. But the Initiative's David Naugle says, across the West, they have signed up about 700 ranchers. But they'll need a lot more.

NAUGLE: Sage grouse is probably the largest conservation experiment that's ever been conducted in the United States.

JOYCE: Bigger even than the effort to save the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest.

NAUGLE: Ten times the size of the area for spotted owls, are sage grouse.

JOYCE: Preserving owl habitat created a years-long battle between the timber industry and the government and environmentalists. Naugle says the stakes are high here, as well - ranching, farming and oil and gas reserves.

NAUGLE: At risk is our nation's energy security and the ability to produce food on these Western lands.

JOYCE: And this Initiative is their shot at avoiding a battle. The science of managing wildlife in a land full of people is new, and scientists know that if they're not careful helping one species could harm another. That's the subject of our next story from Centennial Valley. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

GREENE: Some of the sage grouse sounds we heard are from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and we should also mention that NPR photographer John Poole traveled with Christopher. His images of Montana sage brush country are at NPR.org.

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