By Jeff Ball
Aquarter-century ago, a fight over the fate of a nocturnal bird came to symbolize the standoff between environmentalism and industry. In 1990, the federal government declared the northern spotted owl a threatened species, thwarting timber operations on millions of acres in California and the Pacific Northwest where the bird nests in trees. Conservationists cheered. The timber industry jeered. A cultural icon with feathers was born, and a culture war over ecology erupted.
Sometime in the next two weeks—likely on November 12, a legal deadline that happens to fall a week after the midterm elections—the Obama administration is scheduled to announce whether it will put another imperiled critter on the Endangered Species List. The Gunnison sage grouse, a chicken-like bird, roams the range of Colorado and Utah. Its numbers have dwindled over the years due, scientists say, to many factors, from wilder wildfires to increased development. A move by the government to put the bird on the Endangered Species List would, in turn, threaten many other things in the grouse’s habitat: among them, surging oil and gas production.