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  • These people are on a pilgrimage.

  • They're in one of the most remote parts of the United States, to see something spectacular that happens every year.

  • An icon of the American West.

  • This is a sage grouse.

  • And this is its mating dance.

  • The sage grouse once numbered in the millions across this entire region.

  • But today, they are on the verge of endangerment.

  • And the area they live on has shrunk by half.

  • That's a problem.

  • And not just because it's fun to look at.

  • It's because the sage grouse is actually really important.

  • And to understand why, you have to understand its dance.

  • This is a female sage grouse.

  • And this is a male sage grouse.

  • During mating season, it's big and flamboyant looking, all so that it can attract mates.

  • It's sort of like a peacock in that way.

  • The spiky tail, the puffed out chest - they don't serve a clear function except to be attractive.

  • These white feathers on its chest are rough and spiky.

  • And for the first step of its dance, the sage-grouse takes a deep breath, and it swishes its wings against those spiky feathers.

  • It sounds like this this.

  • These yellow things are its vocal sac.

  • It's actually one esophagus with a strong muscle in the center.

  • When the sage grouse takes in a gulp of air, it contracts.

  • When it breathes out, the vocal sac pops.

  • That sounds like this.

  • Female sage grouse can hear these sounds from up to two miles away.

  • And then it's a competition.

  • The strongest male dancers crowd out the weaker ones.

  • The winner gets to mate with most of the females.

  • After they mate, the females go up to ten miles away to nest.

  • But this arena, where the competition goes down, that place stays the same every year.

  • Sage grouse live across this whole vast area.

  • But year after year, they each come back to do the courtship ritual in the same exact spot - one of these blue dots.

  • It's why sage-grouse watchers always know where to find them.

  • That mating area is called a lek.

  • And it's a big part of why sage grouse matter so much.

  • Coming back to the same place every year means that sage grouse are really easy to keep track of.

  • Some leks have been monitored by researchers for more than 75 years.

  • They're so easy to count that conservationists consider them an indicator species.

  • That means they use the number of sage grouse as a sort of proxy for how healthy the entire sagebrush ecosystem is.

  • If sage grouse are doing well, there's a good chance that elk, and pygmy rabbits, and the 350 plant and animal species in the region are doing okay too.

  • That also means that if you want to protect wildlife in the American West, figuring out how to protect the sage grouse is a good strategy.

  • In 2008, Wyoming implemented a new policy aimed at protecting the bird.

  • It ended up also having major benefits for another animal - the mule deer.

  • But because sage grouse are so easy to count, we also know that they are in trouble.

  • The lek is where the sage grouse mates, but it's just the epicenter of a much larger range where they live.

  • And in order for them to keep coming back to the lek to reproduce, sage grouse need the entire range to be undisturbed.

  • That means if human activity alters this range, they tend to not return to the lek - they don't reproduce.

  • Montana started keeping track of sage grouse leks in 2002.

  • Since then, their population in the state has fallen by nearly half.

  • There are a lot of reasons for this decline: invasive plant species, wildfires, but a big one is drilling and mining.

  • Western states have increased production dramatically in recent years.

  • A huge amount of new oil.

  • Oil, coal, and natural gas dominates the landscape and the economy.

  • Wyoming has the most sage grouse of any state.

  • Here's a map of leks in Wyoming.

  • And these are oil and gas fields.

  • In 2015, governors from four states announced a plan with the federal government to protect the sage grouse.

  • It banned mineral mining across ten million acres of sage grouse habitat.

  • And it restricted oil and gas leasing in 13,000 square miles of the most critical habitat areas.

  • It was hailed as the largest conservation effort in U.S. history.

  • But today, Donald Trump's administration isn't enforcing the restrictions on oil and gas leasing.

  • And it canceled the ban on mining here.

  • And the numbers reflect that: since he took office, oil and gas leasing on public land in the U.S. has skyrocketed.

  • And on land the 2015 plan was supposed to protect, leasing has gone up tenfold.

  • Today, officials predict that sage grouse numbers will keep falling.

  • The sage grouse is an indicator species.

  • It means that the sage grouse can tell you a lot about the health of the entire sagebrush ecosystem across the American West.

  • But they can also indicate something about American policy.

  • About the power that fossil fuel and mining companies have over government.

  • About what we choose to protect.

  • And what we don't.

These people are on a pilgrimage.

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This goofy bird vs. the fossil fuel industry

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    Mackenzie posted on 2020/02/01
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