Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Dancing Birds and Eco-Justice
distributed 5/29/15 - ©2015

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Eileen Abbattista of Denver, Colorado,in honor and in memory of Carol Valera Jacobson. Eileen's generous support helps make this publication possible.

It is a good thing that a bird of the western United States has a spectacular mating dance, because otherwise it might be on the fast track to extinction.

The Greater Sage Grouse is found (not surprisingly) in the sagebrush-covered open spaces of states like Wyoming, Idaho, Utah and Nevada. My home state of Colorado is on the fringe of current grouse areas. The once-abundant bird is declining rapidly in numbers and geographic range as its habitat is destroyed and transformed.

Across the eleven states with sage grouse populations, negotiations are underway between state governments and the US Environmental Protection Agency, trying to find ways to protect the grouse without a formal declaration of endangered species status.

That spring mating dance -- where males strut their stuff in elaborate displays -- boosts the sage grouse into the "charismatic" category that makes ordinary folk care about an endangered creature. If it were not for that dance, many folk might think that the grouse deserve to die out.

This dynamic makes the greater sage grouse an interesting case study in the religious ethics of endangered species.

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Rachel Carson, in her 1962 ecological classic, Silent Spring, wrote of sage grouse as creatures "perfectly adjusted to their habitat." "The sage and the grouse seem made for each other," she said. Even in the 1960s, though, "the sagelands have been reduced, so the populations of grouse have dwindled."

The ongoing reduction in the bird's range and numbers has been dramatic because, to be honest, the sage grouse is not an adaptable species. Through eons of evolution, they have meshed themselves with a very specific habitat, and they don't do well at all when those sage lands are disturbed.

A road, a stock watering tank, or a few too many trees are enough to upset them. If visitors intrude too closely on their stunningly beautiful mating dance, they won't dance. The oil and gas boom of recent years has planted around-the-clock drilling operations in the midst of the finicky bird's territory, with substantial negative impacts on the grouse.

Sage grouse are utterly dependent on their critical habitat across the Sagebrush Sea of the western U.S., and intact stretches of that habitat are increasingly rare. Grouse simply will not flourish if their lands are fragmented or transformed. Any viable plan for protection for sage grouse requires protection of big chunks of its sagebrush homeland. There is no way that they can be transplanted to some other setting.

Preserving the sagebrush in a way that protects grouse creates conflict. The oil and gas industry doesn't want restrictions on where and how they can drill. Some ranchers have objected to guidelines about where cattle can graze. (Other ranchers have discovered that managing the sage for grouse habitat improves the land for their cattle, too.) Land developers are upset with possible limits on 35-acre "ranchettes" with roads, homes, barns and fields sprawling across the sage.

If the bird didn't charm us with the springtime dances -- which, by the way, bring lots of paying tourists to small towns -- the movement to protect grouse would be nowhere near as strong. An otherwise drab bird, one that can't adapt to changing situations, would probably disappear in the face of so many powerful interests.

That's the political reality. Cute makes a big difference. But ethically, there are many reasons to work for the preservation of all species, whether or not they are charismatic or useful to us.

  • Foundationally, there's a religious principle called "the integrity of creation" which reminds us that each creature, each kind of plant or animal, has worth and value simply because it is a beloved and treasured creation of God. Just as our best ethics says about people -- that each human is deserving of respect and rights -- so, too, with each species. Their value isn't measured by our economics, but only God's inclusive and expansive love. (See God's response to Job, with a long list of "worthless" lands and creatures that give God great delight!)

  • Our ethics are also informed by the ecological reality of God's inherently relational creation. All creatures are woven into the complex and sometimes fragile web of life. The declining numbers of the far-from-flexible grouse is an indicator of ecological changes that also are impacting many other plants and animals. Grouse are called an "umbrella species" because preservation of their habitat provides protective shelter for 350 other species of sagebrush-associated flora and fauna. Protections for easily-disrupted species guide us toward healthier and more vibrant ecological relationships -- and that leads toward a more robust and sustainable world for us all.

  • The old traditions of Judeo-Christian ethics don't talk about endangered species. (That really isn't what Noah was doing with the Ark!) Extinction wasn't a problem thousands of years ago. But our ethical tradition does talk repeatedly about the obligation to care for "the least of these". Scripture is explicit about caring for livestock and wildlife, as well as people. We are instructed that life within God's community protects and supports those who are threatened and powerless. Those people and creatures on the margins deserve respect and justice, even if we don't see how their presence provides us with any benefits.

The Endangered Species Act aligns well with all these religious principles. The ESA holds us accountable for the survival of all parts of the Earth community, especially "the least of them" who are most endangered. The ESA, theoretically, doesn't give preference to the charming and the productive species.

The greater sage grouse makes headlines and has passionate advocates, in part, because it has a beautiful and unique mating display. The high-profile debate about protection for the grouse gives us an opportunity to dig deeper into our values and motivations.

Grouse are a difficult species to preserve. They're not at all adaptable, and restoring their habitat creates conflicts with politically and economically powerful interests. But even so, an eco-justice reading of religious ethics insists that their preservation is necessary.

May our ethics be clarified and strengthened by these beautiful and quirky birds, so that we might fight just as hard in the future for some other creature that isn't so cute.

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On a somewhat different topic -- last fall I wrote in favor of a proposed rule from the EPA to clarify definitions of the Clean Water Act. This week, the EPA finalized that rule to protects small and seasonal streams and wetlands that connect to larger bodies of water -- which is what The Waters of Garden Gulch requested. Thanks to all of you who wrote to the EPA in support of the rule!


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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