Terry Tempest Williams

Author, Naturalist, Conservationist

“Who is the most powerful individual in the American West right now?” a journalist friend from Washington, D.C., asked me.

“Sage grouse, “I answered.

“I’m serious.” He said.

“So am I,” I replied.

In the Interior West, where sagebrush covers the landscape like a sea-blue haze, sage grouse are driving the conversation around oil and gas development. The Bureau of Land Management projections show that nearly 96,000 new oil and gas wells will be drilled over the next twenty years in six states: Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. Oil wells could fragment 11.8 million acres of sagebrush, shrub, and grassland habitat, an area larger than the state of New Hampshire. Development, as planned, could affect the greater sage grouse populations by 19 percent.

Historic populations of sage grouse once numbered 16 million. Today, the population may be half a million, and many populations in the vicinity of oil fields are being drawn down to extinction. Fifty-four percent of the world’s remaining sage grouse reside in Wyoming. In 2008, Former Wyoming Governor David Freudenthal issued an executive order on behalf of sage grouse that implemented a proactive “core area strategy” designed to both protect the bird and allow energy development. Quite simply, this state action was “aimed to protect the bird to prevent an Endangered Species listing while offering opportunities for resource development.” Over 14 million acres were mapped. The most sensitive grouse habitat areas were identified and set aside for the bird; oil companies were steered elsewhere.

Wyoming took the lead and inspired other states to follow. Necessity became the mother of invention, with sage grouse stimulating creative and collaborative solutions addressing competing interests: Drilling for fossil fuels versus preserving the home ground of North America’s largest gallinaceous bird.

One male sage grouse standing his ground on his ancestral lek against Shell Oil is akin to the lone man facing down a tank in Tiananmen Square unless alternatives to destroying the bird’s habitat are found.

Sage grouse are among the most immediate bellwether species sounding the call for restraint on America’s public lands. Environmentalists are sitting down at the table with federal agencies, local elected officials, and oil and gas executives to locate common ground—ground that protects the birds and supports the nation’s vision for energy development in the West.

This is the totemic power of the sage grouse, which joins the ranks other species that are changing the chemistry and power structure of communities—both human and wild—that they inhabit. Consider the spotted owl and salmon in the Pacific Northwest, who saved million acres of ancient forests from being felled. Add the timber wolf and the grizzly bear as species who are defining the Greater Yellowstone; the Peregrine falcon who showed us the negative effects of DDT; the black-footed ferret and its role in vibrant grasslands; and the woundfin minnow as a measure of the health of the Colorado River—and so many more—animals who have all had an impact on how we understand the interconnectedness and integrity of fragile ecosystems.

And behind these heroic species—species that are holding us accountable—is the Mother Act whose gleaming teeth still have a moral and legal bite that puts legitimate fears in the heart of any developer, oil tycoon, corporation, or skank who dares to wage an attack against her threatened and vulnerable children, lest they be fined, jailed, and shamed for abusing the 1973 Endangered Species Act, the mother of all environmental legislation.

Bless this Act.

Bless those who authored it, championed it, and who continue to fight for its life.

And bless all of the species who have yet to gain full protection under the Mother Act—the sage grouse, Utah prairie dogs, yellow-billed loons—and myriad plants, animals, and insects whose lives and habitats remain threatened.

The beauty of the Endangered Species Act is that it is a federal act of empathy, put into writing and upheld by law. It is an elegant act of mind and heart that is both visionary and inclusive. It proceeds our Declaration of Independence and portends a Declaration of Interdependence. The Endangered Species Act creates a precedent for peace, allowing us, as a society, to exercise our conscience and consciousness on behalf of all species.

The great consequence of the Endangered Species Act, over time, is that it ensures that we, as a species, will not be alone. We will remain part of a living, breathing, thriving community of vibrant beings with feathers, fins and fur; roots, petals and spines; and trunks, branches and leaves. It promises that creatures that walk with four legs or scurry on six or crawl with eight will move alongside us as we Homo sapiens continue to walk with two. Wild beauty will be maintained.

Each time I hear the driving drumbeat of the sage-grouse’s ancient courtship dance among the aromatic splendor of sage, I remember that we are the heirs of the wonder that they hold—along with every other species on this beautiful, blue planet we call Earth. And with a strong Endangered Species Act in place, we can stand in awe and reverence among them.

What the plant and animal worlds ask of us is respect and restraint. What the Endangered Species Act designed forty years ago promises them is that we will try.

The Endangered Species Act is an evolved document from an evolving nation.

When my friend from Washington, D.C. asks me another question about where power resides in the American West, I will ask him to accompany me to Wyoming in the spring to smell the sweet fragrance of sage after rain. And in that moment of reverie, just maybe we will hear the drumbeat of the strutting grouse rising above the oil rigs on the horizon.

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