“I’ve shot probably half a dozen, or maybe as many as ten, sage grouse in my life. I’m likely among a small group of North Dakotans alive today who can say that. And that group is not going to get any bigger. Ever. Because there’s an awfully good chance we’ll never have another sage grouse season in North Dakota. In fact, I’ve had a wildlife biologist tell me flat out this spring that he thinks within the next three years the sage grouse will be gone from the prairie in North Dakota.”
I first wrote those words almost eight years ago, after taking a trip to Bowman County to follow some North Dakota Game and Fish Department biologists around as they conducted their annual survey of bird numbers. That year they counted 31 male grouse on their dancing grounds.
And one of the biologists told me that spring of 2014, barring some kind of miracle or extraordinary effort by Game and Fish, “Within three years, we’ll see the last dance of the sage grouse in North Dakota.”
Now, let me stop here for a moment and correct some nomenclature I’ve been using about these birds. All my life I’ve just called them sage grouse. Small “s” and small “g.” You’ll see that I’ve changed that in the rest of this article. Apparently, I’ve learned, they were just sage grouse until the year 2000, when a new species, now called the Gunnison Sage-Grouse, was discovered. At that point, the name of OUR grouse was changed from just sage grouse to “Greater Sage-Grouse,” adding the word Greater, inserting a dash between Sage and Grouse, and capitalizing all three words.
I don’t know who gets to make those kinds of decisions but I’m in awe of that kind of power—to officially name a species of living things. So I’m going with it in the rest of this article.
Back to matters at hand. The Game and Fish Department took those extraordinary efforts to save these big birds, and for a few years we saw a comeback in bird numbers, but never much higher than 50. Among those efforts, for a few years they imported adult birds from Wyoming, but the habitat here just wasn’t what they had back home, and the survival rate was low.
Game and Fish biologist Jesse Kolar told me this fall there were few successful nests, due to predators. The Department also tried bringing in older chicks, and that worked a little better, but it only succeeded in stabilizing the population for a few years. The survey this past spring turned up only 22 male Greater Sage-Grouse on the known leks—fewer than before the transplanting program started.
Interestingly, at the beginning of the Greater Sage-Grouse decline a dozen or so years ago, the problem was mostly West Nile Virus. But then came the oil and gas industry. The fragmentation of the birds’ habitat by oil and gas exploration pretty much sealed the fate of the birds.
“West Nile comes and goes, but the population recovers from that,” one biologist told me back in 2014. “But when you destroy the habitat, they can’t recover from that.”
He used the example of cutting your arm versus cutting your arm off. If you cut your arm, it will eventually heal, but if you cut your arm off, it’s gone forever.
The other interesting phenomenon underway in southwest North Dakota right now is the comeback of the Golden Eagles, a fierce predator of the grouse. And also a healthy coyote population. So with diminished habitat due to energy development and an increasing number of predators, the deck is stacked against the big birds.
And so the Game and Fish Department has ended its transplant program. It’s expensive, and it’s not working. The Department gets an “A” for effort, but now, the biologists say, it’s up to the birds that are here.
And now there’s the possibility of another new threat to the few remaining Greater Sage-Grouse: wind farms.
A well-intentioned company that wants to produce clean electricity from wind instead of burning fossil fuels proposes to put 74 giant wind towers out on the prairie in southern Bowman County, where the wind blows pretty much all the time. They’ve mapped out the area they want to place the towers in, and it looks like some of those towers could impact the Grater Sage-Grouse nesting areas.
Apex Clean Energy, the company proposing the Bowman Wind Farm, has applied for permits to begin construction as early as next spring. The project could produce 200 megawatts of electricity, enough to power pretty much every home in western North Dakota.
The first step is local zoning changes. They’ll need to get the county zoning changed from agricultural to industrial at the site of each of the 74 proposed towers. Bowman county officials are considering that now, although I couldn’t get a firm timeline on when they might finish that process.
Then the permits need to come from the North Dakota Public Service Commission. Commissioner Brian Kroshus says they’ve heard the input from the company, from state agencies, and local residents, and the PSC is now waiting for Bowman County officials to take action on zoning.
The PSC has generally cast a favorable eye towards the energy industry, although they’ve often expressed some skepticism about wind energy (mostly when they get an elbow in the ribs from the oil boys). A couple of years ago they rejected an application for a similar-sized wind farm a couple hundred miles north of this one, in Burke County along the Canadian border, when state and federal wildlife officials expressed concerns about ducks and eagles. But they approved the project a year later when the company wishing to build the project, NextEra, substantially changed the layout of the towers to avoid some sensitive wildlife areas.
But it’s the state’s Game and Fish Department which has to dance a careful dance around projects like these. Game and Fish personnel work for a Governor who’s generally shown he’s more interested in industry and the money it creates than wildlife or other natural resource issues. Game and Fish has been studying this project for almost two years. They’ve asked, in letters to the PSC, that at a minimum, six of the proposed 74 towers be moved away from critical Sage-Grouse areas, and that a number of others be moved off of what they call “unbroken grasslands,” which are areas of critical habitat for other species of wildlife, such as sharp-tailed grouse.
In its most recent letter to the PSC, in July of this year, the Department complained that Apex has generally been uncooperative in addressing the wildlife agency’s concerns about the project.
“The Department’s primary concern is that the project overlaps with the Greater Sage-Grouse Priority Conservation Area (PCA), an area the Department has recommended no further energy development take place,” said the letter, on Department letterhead. I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ve always gotten a kick out of the Department’s stationary, because across the bottom it has three names and titles–the Department’s Director and Deputy Director, and Governor Doug Burgum—leaving the impressions that the letter carries the imprimatur of the state’s Governor. That’s a pretty powerful endorsement to any casual reader of the correspondence. I’ve often wondered how the Governor feels about that.
The letter goes on to say “The Department acknowledges that even without additional habitat fragmentation from wind development in North Dakota, it may be impossible to reverse the declining population trend of Greater Sage-Grouse in North Dakota. However, the Department continues to strive for protections for Sage-Grouse because they are a charismatic native species in North Dakota, and adequate remnants of the unique big sagebrush (Artemesia tridentata) habitat persist on our state’s landscape. The Department believes it would be irresponsible to abandon efforts to protect what little remaining Sage-Grouse habitat we have in North Dakota.”
Well, good for them. And we’ll see. There’ll be at least one more spring dancing/mating/nesting season before work begins on the towers if the PSC says “Go.” Will we be seeing the Last Dance of the Greater Sage-Grouse in North Dakota next spring?
(This artricle first appeared in the January 2022 issue of Dakota Country magazine.)