STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A bird the size of a chicken may block a variety of business operations. The bird is the greater sage grouse.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It lives in the American West in dry, treeless countryside called the sagebrush steppe. Settlers once called it the big empty.
INSKEEP: Today, the sagebrush steppe is considered full of opportunity for oil and gas companies, cattle ranchers and others. That's why it's a big deal that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is deciding whether to protect the greater sage grouse.
MONTAGNE: By the end of the month, officials decide if the bird needs protection under the Endangered Species Act. NPR's Nathan Rott reports from Sublette County, Wyo.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Spotting greater sage grouse in the spring is relatively easy. The spiky-tailed males practically want to be found. They strut their stuff out in the open, puffing up mustard-colored air sacs in their chest before popping the air out in a dance that's equal parts cool and weird. Finding greater sage grouse in the summer is harder. They're bedded down for the most part, raising chicks and keeping cool under the gnarled knee-high cover of their namesake shrub, sagebrush. So in the summer when you're wanting to find sage grouse and you meet a guy at a bar who tugs at his beard and says, yeah, he knows where to find sage grouse, lots of them - well, you follow him out into a windswept field, and you watch your crotch on the barb wire fence.
TYLER WILSON: You want me to let you over or under, or you going to be able to...
This guy is Tyler Wilson, and at 6-foot-6, he can step over a barb wire fence without even coming close to his stained blue jeans. He'll be our guide for the day.
WILSON: There's chickens here, yeah.
ROTT: Oh, and one thing about Wilson, he doesn't call this bird by its proper name. To him, this icon of the West is the sage chicken.
WILSON: Chickens are funny. You could be out here now and not see him this evening. I'll guarantee you in the morning there will be chickens in here.
ROTT: We're lucky to have Wilson as a guide because he's a pretty good window into this place. He's a Sublette County local, one of about 10,000, born here, raised here, and worked here in just about every industry this part of Wyoming has to offer - fixing and constructing homes, branding cows, plowing fields, laboring out in the oil and gas fields. So he's got a pretty good idea of what's at stake with sage chickens. And it turns out he's good at finding them.
WILSON: There they are, right there.
ROTT: Whoa, yeah.
WILSON: Four roosters. Them are all rooster bombers we call them. And they don't shoot them because they're tough to eat.
ROTT: In fact, some locals say the best way to eat them is to bring a pot of water to a boil, throw in a bird and your boot, let both cook for a while, then dump out the water, toss the grouse, and just eat your boot, though that hasn't stopped us from trying. There are about 400,000 or so greater sage grouse left in the U.S., spread across 11 Western states from California to North Dakota. That's a fraction of their numbers just 100 years ago when they were described as blackening out the skies. Hunting and predators, drought and fire have all whittled their numbers down, but it's human development that's the main culprit. Dean Clause is a biologist with Wyoming Game and Fish.
DEAN CLAUSE: They need very large, vast expanses of sagebrush that are relatively quiet and undisturbed.
ROTT: Which is an increasingly scarce commodity.
CLAUSE: In this day and age, with more and more activity and more people on the landscape to try to minimize development disturbance, you know, it's not always feasible.
ROTT: Because disturbances can be anything - roads, transmission lines, windmills, cattle fences, oil pads. If humans built it, odds are sage grouse don't like it, which is why the region's key industries are so worried about a potential listing under the Endangered Species Act.
PAUL ULRICH: A listing would be devastating to our operations.
ROTT: Paul Ulrich is with Jonah Energy, one of the biggest oil and gas developers in the state.
ULRICH: It would add significant timelines to every aspect of what we do, from drilling to completions, to reclamation, to upfront staking - where we can go, where we can't.
ROTT: A widely-accepted study estimates that $5.6 billion of economic output would be lost if the bird was listed as endangered. So, needless to say, a lot of people here in Wyoming and around the West don't want to see the bird listed. Even the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which will make the determination this September, has said time and again that it doesn't want to list the bird. They'd rather see states, industry and federal agencies put plans in place that would protect the bird themselves, effectively taking away the need to list it. A lot of work has been done there, but a month out, not everyone thinks they've done off.
TRAVIS BRUNER: I feel the bird has to be listed.
ROTT: Travis Bruner is with Western Watersheds Project, an environmental group.
BRUNER: The Fish and Wildlife Service is mandated to make a science-based decision about whether the greater sage grouse should be listed.
ROTT: And he says the science is clear. Sage grouse don't like human development, and all of the plans that have been proposed by states, federal agencies and industry don't go far enough to curb it. So he says the best way to protect the bird is to list it.
BRUNER: And by protecting the sage grouse, they would tangentially protect many other wildlife species.
ROTT: Sage grouse are what's called an indicator species. They're essentially the canary in the coal mine for the greater sagebrush ecosystem, which is home to more than 350 other species. You see that walking around with our guide from earlier, Tyler Wilson. In the first 20 minutes of walking on his friend's property, just next to a field of sagebrush, we see sage grouse, antelope, lizards and a rabbit. Wilson says the owner of this land is a rancher and a farmer, what you'd call a land developer. But he's also a wildlife lover. And when it comes to hotly debated issues over endangered species and wildlife, people often think those two things are mutually exclusive. There are environmentalists and there are developers, and there's not much room in between. Wilson says that's not the case in Sublette County. It can't be. He tips his hat towards a few grazing pronghorns.
WILSON: See what they're doing? They're walking around here because that's where they belong. He's not environmentalist, but he is. I ain't environmentalist, but I am.
ROTT: In what way?
WILSON: Oh, you love to see the animals like this, but I like to kill them. I ain't going to go poach them. And they belong here for a reason. I mean, they belong here.
ROTT: So do people, Wilson says. And with them, the ranching, the farming and even the drilling rigs that dot a mesa to our south. It's the reality of the world we live in.
WILSON: I don't care who you are, and if you're back in the city, if you got to be heated, it's coming off that mesa. So you going to quit driving? You going to quit heating your house? No, we got to drill. That's just the way the world is. But I'll guarantee you that I can go through that mesa right by them drilling rigs and show you chickens, too, 'cause I know where they're at.
ROTT: So the idea is that they can all - it can all live in the same little world.
WILSON: They can all live in the same environment, but we just got to balance it out and take care of it, and they got to start listening to people that know what they're talking about.
ROTT: There's a real effort here by the state of Wyoming, industry, conservationists and the federal government to do just that. A listing decision is expected at the end of September. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Pinedale, Wyo.
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