Millions of oil and gas dollars at stake in sage grouse controversy

The question of whether to list the sage grouse — a chicken-sized bird that roams the sagebrush plains of the U.S. West — as threatened is shaping up as an epic conflict, with millions of dollars in revenue from oil and natural-gas drilling on the line. There were once some 2 million sage grouse ranging over the 270 million acres of “sagebrush sea” in the West; that land has since been carved up by grazing, agriculture, urban development, mining, and energy exploration, and fewer than 200,000 sage grouse remain. Problem is, if the bird is listed under the Endangered Species Act, severe federal restrictions go into place and could threaten efforts to get at the estimated $1.3 trillion worth of natural gas hidden under the Rocky Mountain range. As a result, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, other federal agencies, and private landowners are scrambling to show that private and state-level conservation programs can save the bird. Enviros, however, say that only federal ESA protections are sufficiently strong to protect the bird.