The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Dancing Birds and Eco-Justice
It is a good thing that a bird of the western United States has a spectacular mating dance, because otherwise it might be on the fast track to extinction.
The Greater Sage Grouse is found (not surprisingly) in the sagebrush-covered open spaces of states like Wyoming, Idaho, Utah and Nevada. My home state of Colorado is on the fringe of current grouse areas. The once-abundant bird is declining rapidly in numbers and geographic range as its habitat is destroyed and transformed.
Across the eleven states with sage grouse populations, negotiations are underway between state governments and the US Environmental Protection Agency, trying to find ways to protect the grouse without a formal declaration of endangered species status.
That spring mating dance -- where males strut their stuff in elaborate displays -- boosts the sage grouse into the "charismatic" category that makes ordinary folk care about an endangered creature. If it were not for that dance, many folk might think that the grouse deserve to die out.
This dynamic makes the greater sage grouse an interesting case study in the religious ethics of endangered species.
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Rachel Carson, in her 1962 ecological classic, Silent Spring, wrote of sage grouse as creatures "perfectly adjusted to their habitat." "The sage and the grouse seem made for each other," she said. Even in the 1960s, though, "the sagelands have been reduced, so the populations of grouse have dwindled."
The ongoing reduction in the bird's range and numbers has been dramatic because, to be honest, the sage grouse is not an adaptable species. Through eons of evolution, they have meshed themselves with a very specific habitat, and they don't do well at all when those sage lands are disturbed.
A road, a stock watering tank, or a few too many trees are enough to upset them. If visitors intrude too closely on their stunningly beautiful mating dance, they won't dance. The oil and gas boom of recent years has planted around-the-clock drilling operations in the midst of the finicky bird's territory, with substantial negative impacts on the grouse.
Sage grouse are utterly dependent on their critical habitat across the Sagebrush Sea of the western U.S., and intact stretches of that habitat are increasingly rare. Grouse simply will not flourish if their lands are fragmented or transformed. Any viable plan for protection for sage grouse requires protection of big chunks of its sagebrush homeland. There is no way that they can be transplanted to some other setting.
Preserving the sagebrush in a way that protects grouse creates conflict. The oil and gas industry doesn't want restrictions on where and how they can drill. Some ranchers have objected to guidelines about where cattle can graze. (Other ranchers have discovered that managing the sage for grouse habitat improves the land for their cattle, too.) Land developers are upset with possible limits on 35-acre "ranchettes" with roads, homes, barns and fields sprawling across the sage.
If the bird didn't charm us with the springtime dances -- which, by the way, bring lots of paying tourists to small towns -- the movement to protect grouse would be nowhere near as strong. An otherwise drab bird, one that can't adapt to changing situations, would probably disappear in the face of so many powerful interests.
That's the political reality. Cute makes a big difference. But ethically, there are many reasons to work for the preservation of all species, whether or not they are charismatic or useful to us.
The Endangered Species Act aligns well with all these religious principles. The ESA holds us accountable for the survival of all parts of the Earth community, especially "the least of them" who are most endangered. The ESA, theoretically, doesn't give preference to the charming and the productive species.
The greater sage grouse makes headlines and has passionate advocates, in part, because it has a beautiful and unique mating display. The high-profile debate about protection for the grouse gives us an opportunity to dig deeper into our values and motivations.
Grouse are a difficult species to preserve. They're not at all adaptable, and restoring their habitat creates conflicts with politically and economically powerful interests. But even so, an eco-justice reading of religious ethics insists that their preservation is necessary.
May our ethics be clarified and strengthened by these beautiful and quirky birds, so that we might fight just as hard in the future for some other creature that isn't so cute.
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On a somewhat different topic -- last fall I wrote in favor of a proposed rule from the EPA to clarify definitions of the Clean Water Act. This week, the EPA finalized that rule to protects small and seasonal streams and wetlands that connect to larger bodies of water -- which is what The Waters of Garden Gulch requested. Thanks to all of you who wrote to the EPA in support of the rule!
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