Reid Wilson – The Washington Post
In the frozen chill of a high-desert morning, Tony Wasley, the director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife, peers through a range finder down a dirt path and points out a group of birds strutting and preening among a low scrub brush. It’s mating season for the sage grouse, and dozens of males are descending upon breeding grounds, called leks, to show off their plumage to the hens.
The 40 or so grouse at this lek near the Nevada-California border look ridiculous. They waddle around, occasionally heaving their bodies into flight, sometimes chasing off younger males and always trying to one-up each other. They are the avian equivalent of a club-goer showing off his shiny new coat.
They are also at the center of a years-long battle that pits environmentalists who want the sage grouse protected under the Endangered Species Act against ranchers, gold miners, energy producers and Western state governments that stand to lose billions of dollars in tax revenue and economic activity if tens of millions of acres are blocked off from development, exploration or use.
The tension between the federal government and Westerners who want to use government-owned land garnered new attention last month, when the Bureau of Land Management moved to round up cattle owned by Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy over more than $1 million in unpaid grazing fees. Some state officials fear a decision to list the sage grouse, which would severely limit everything from grazing to energy development on a huge swath of land, could create a slew of new Bundys all over the rural West. (…)