Each spring, in many western states, the magnificent Greater Sage Grouse executes a spectacular mating dance. In areas of sage brush called “leks”, the males expand their throats and do a magnificent dance step, accompanied by a series of fantastic sounds. The females are very impressed.
These birds should be on the endangered species list, but they are not. Sadly, their native territory has been drastically reduced due to competition from all sorts of human economic interests – mining, ranching, farming, development. Their population has fallen 98% in recent years.
A group of property owners who hold about 3,000 acres of land in Morgan County, Utah, have been trying to sell their land to developers who plan to build resorts and condos on land where a sage grouse lek is located. There is another lek nearby. This land has never been designated by Morgan County as land open for development. It has always been designated as off limits to development.
The people of Morgan County have spoken up in a series of Morgan County Council meetings, insisting that they do not want the bustling highways, the destruction of natural land, the damage to wildlife and the harm to their own way of life, that would follow changing the designation and the zoning of this 3,000 acre plot of land. They are against developing this land.
The most recent County Council meeting was held last March and the board members, in a victory for the sage grouse and for local residents, voted 4 to 2 to refuse to re-designate the land, thereby closing the door to the future development of the land.
Rahul Mukherjee, a Utah resident and one of the most active voices speaking out for the preservation of Utah’s wildlands and wildlife, sprang into action as soon as he heard that there would be another Morgan County Council meeting to bring up the issue of re-designating the land. There have been several previous such meetings, including one last fall, and the County has remained firm in its refusal to re-designate the land for development.
Rahul, who has just graduated from high school, does not allow his youth to hold him back; he was at the forefront of last year’s fight, along with other Utah wildlife advocates, to protect wild lands and the sage grouse. Around the time of the meeting last fall, he was spending up to six hours a day on the phone trying to arrange a buyer for the land who would preserve its natural character and save the Sage Grouse.
When he heard of the upcoming meeting in March of this year, and another attempt by the landowners, he reached out to Morgan County residents he knew to let them know what was happening.
When, on his calls to local newspapers and TV channels, he was dismissed as just a young fellow, he persuaded more senior, more recognizable, voices to contact them and make sure the story was told.
During the hearing last fall, public comments were allowed, but this spring the meeting was organized differently. It was originally the idea of the landowners to hold a workshop meeting, where both sides could sit down together and hammer out an agreement. They hoped that some kind of a compromise could be reached, so that the land sale could go ahead. Compromise sounds like a good thing, but wildlife cannot always adapt or modify their basic needs. In the case of the Sage Grouse, their survival requires a three-mile buffer zone around their lek, so any compromise would mean the end to the Sage Grouse in this part of Utah. Their hauntingly beautiful dance would be no more.
During this workshop meeting, held just before the full county council meeting, the County Council members attended, along with the media. The workshop participants sat around a long table, with one spokesperson delegated to represent each of the main issues. Rahul spoke for the sage grouse, but, aware that sage grouse are not everyone’s top priority, he took the time to identify the basic interests of the people of Morgan County.
The people of Morgan County had a number of concerns related to the concept of re-designating the land. What would all this development do to the Mule Deer population? How would massive construction projects with a huge influx of construction workers, and later on, tourists, vacationers and new residents, affect their way of life, their peace of mind, and their budget? The bottom line came down to “What would it cost Morgan County?” No one had approached it from precisely this point of view previously.
Last fall, the potential purchaser and developer of the land had not provided clear details on his plans for development. This past March, the land owners had found a new developer who wished to buy the 3,000 acres. He had very definite plans. There would be condos, residences, vacation homes, restaurants, resorts – a huge bustling area, all built on what had been natural, wild land. There would be major road construction and a big influx of people.
Where there are people, there have to be services. Even the most minimal services would be fire response, water, and sewage. The participants around the table scribbled some notes and calculated that these could easily run up to two million dollars for the county budget. A very conservative price tag would be one million dollars – all paid for by Morgan County.
This practical, economic view cast an entirely fresh light on the plans for massive development. That and the basic realization that exchanging the beautiful countryside of Morgan County – blessed with trees, prairies, lakes, wildlife, and birds — for a built-up area of busy roadways, buildings, and a lot of traffic didn’t, in the end, look like such a good deal.
During the County Council meeting that followed, with 80 members of the general public present, a big crowd for such meetings in rural Utah, the vote of the County Council was 4 to 2 against re-designating the land. The public present, overwhelmingly opposed to granting a re-designation of the land, were relieved. The Sage Grouse had won another round.
Nationally, the Sage Grouse population has plummeted from 16 million to 200,000. In September, the USFWS will make a determination about their listing on the Endangered Species Act. There is no doubt that they are endangered; however, they are up against powerful oil, gas, windpower, and other industries.
Rahul says, “In my mind, this is our moral responsibility. It’s our fault they’re declining.”
There is an age-old quality to this battle – human economic interests versus the survival of nature and her animals and plants. However, as humans, we are part of nature and we dependent on nature. In a world without trees or birds, without rivers, prairies, deer or honeybees, without the Sage Grouse or their beautiful dance, we would not only be much poorer, we would not be at all.
In Rahul’s estimation, the Morgan County Sage Grouse has won for the next few years at least. For now, they will live, dance, and enjoy their natural lives.
Rahul Mukherjee is the Youth Advisor for the Coalition for American Wildbirds.
Photos: Rahul Muhkerjee