The moment of truth for sage grouse is coming later this month, and you might have more at stake in the outcome than you know.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide by Sept. 30 whether to keep the bird at its current status under the federal Endangered Species Act, which is “warranted” for listing but precluded by higher priorities for other species. This means federal land managers would have to give the bird more attention, but would not have to go through the often onerous process of consultation for every decision they make about development in the bird’s habitat.
That requirement would result from a decision to list the species as threatened or endangered, which Congress has prohibited the agency from doing. So Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe can keep the status quo or decide a listing is “not warranted.”
If the decision is “not warranted,” it will be because his scientists and the sophisticated models they use say all of the new habitat conservation measures put in place by federal and state agencies, private companies and regular people is enough to reverse the decline of sage grouse populations.
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The fate of the sage grouse and sagebrush is not just important to ranchers, utilities, energy companies, hunters and people who benefit directly by the health of the ecosystem. It might be important to your health.
Jennifer Forbey, the Boise State University biology professor who I interviewed for a story in June, reminded me of this in an email she sent from Scandinavia. She’s there translating work about a wildlife-directed drug discovery that grew out of her sagebrush research.
Forbey told me that sagebrush has a lot of diversity and up to 400 different chemical compounds. Scientists, including Carolyn Dadabay, an associate professor of chemistry at The College of Idaho in Caldwell, found that some of the chemicals it produces prevent sage grouse and pygmy rabbits from getting rid of the toxins they ingest when they eat it.
That might help cancer patients in chemotherapy. When cancer becomes more aggressive, cancer cells develop the ability to reject medications. The key is to keep the medicine in the cell.
“Our recent results demonstrate that we can really do this,” Forbey said in the email. “We are finding chemicals in sagebrush with anti-parasite activity and with ability to inhibit drug resistance — something that could help us deal with multidrug resistance of bacteria and cancer.”
This took me back 25 years, when I spent a year writing solely about the Endangered Species Act and its impact on our lives here in Idaho and the Pacific Northwest. I learned about the Pacific yew tree that lived in the same ancient forests as the threatened spotted owl.
A substance found in its bark, today marketed as Taxol and produced artificially, was found by scientists such as Forbey and Dadabay and approved for the treatment of ovarian, breast and lung cancer. If the yews had been clear-cut, perhaps the drug would never have been discovered.
And there are more interesting chemicals with possible health applications in the sagebrush, Forbey says. Then there are the other 300 species that are a part of its ecosystem. What promising foods, medicines or technologies might lie within one of them?
Aldo Leopold, the biologist and forester who wrote the environmental classic “Sand County Almanac,” made the utilitarian argument for protecting biodiversity with the simple statement that the first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save every cog and wheel. Climate change makes saving all the parts impossible, if it ever was.
But Forbey shows there is more at stake in the future of the sage grouse than simply our moral obligation to protect the life that shares this planet with us. We might be saving our own life or that of someone we love.