NPR reported today that the Grunnion Sage Grouse, a bird species living in Colorado and Utah, is now protected under the federal ‘Endangered Species Act.’ This would make a significant impact on the ongoing oil and gas development efforts in these two states. Naturally this news provoked ire among the developers and even the State conservation groups. Apparently the State conservation groups have been working to protect and conserve this species but this new federal decision deemed overly restrictive than their version.
I thought about how the general public may perceive this news. Viewed as necessary conservation effort or unnecessary tree hugger’s approach? Many people may think it would be silly to hamper the oil and gas development ‘just’ to protect this one species of bird, adversely impacting the state economy. Protecting a bird from extinction is good, but with that price tag, people may wonder.
I couldn’t help recollecting the ‘Silent Spring’ by Rachel Carson. She mentioned about the very problem with Sage Grouse and Sage brush in the Western plain of the Rocky in her legendary 1962 book. At that time, people thought Sage brush in the plain was worthless and wanted to expand grass land instead to feed cattle. They did not realize the true role and contribution of this unglamorous looking brush. They sprayed herbicides to kill off the Sage and planted grass, which wouldn’t survive the harsh winter. Without Sage brush, the plain became a food desert for the resident animals in the winter. That is not surprising that people didn’t realize the values of ecosystem functions and services back then. People destroyed the wetlands and marshes too, thinking them as wastelands, for development justifying it with higher economic return. They didn’t know what they were missing.
Carson explains that there is a reason in the first place why Sage presents in that harsh environment and that is an outcome of natural balance in evolution over many millennia. On the western side of the Rocky, the climate is harsh. Little rain and severely cold winter. Ordinary plants wouldn’t survive, hence not much permanent herbivores (followed by carnivores). Sage brush, however, can endure this harsh climate condition and provides a shelter for smaller plants and animals and food for few tough animals relying on the sage brush. Sage Grouse and some deers can survive and thrive in this environment. It is their niche. The Sage stabilizes and sustains a delicate balance in this ecosystem from the bottom of the food web.
The problem with the perishing Sage Grouse is not due to their health or predators, but due to disappearance of their habitat (Sage brush) in the name of development (whether that is for cattle or for oil and gas). Ailing and disappearing population of these small species is just a symptom of more serious problem lying below the surface of people’s awareness and understanding. Again, it is us, human, who is to blame for this loss for being ignorant and destructive about the nature’s harmony.