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How the West Was Won

greater sage grouseGreater sage grouse photo credit: Tom Reichner, Shutterstock

I have always been drawn to the empty spaces on the map. Traveling throughout the American West, the lonely expanses of desert spoke quietly to me, and I was drawn to their shy and reclusive native animals.

As a wildlife biologist, I’ve had my fascination with ‘charismatic megafauna’ to be sure, studying moose ecology in Alaska. But I have always been a fan of the underdog. The little things run the world, from an ecological perspective, and protecting small and little-known animals, like the sage grouse that is a primary focus of my Guardians' efforts, can make the difference for whole ecosystems that span hundreds or even thousands of square miles.

My love affair with the American West and its native wildlife began when I became an author of guidebooks to national parks and wilderness areas, describing the wonders of backcountry trails through treasured and permanently protected landscapes. But my travels also took me to many beautiful unprotected lands, lands that faced impending destruction at the hands of extractive industries.

With the arrival of my firstborn in 2000, I started thinking more seriously about a career, and I chose conservation work. My Montana surroundings had been well protected over the years. But the nation’s hottest conservation battle was brewing in neighboring Wyoming, where the fossil fuels industry and ranching interests had dominated the political landscape for decades.

The promise of a compelling struggle against impossible odds was irresistible.

My work to protect western lands and wildlife began during the onset of the Bush administration, and I cut my conservation teeth fighting oil and gas drilling projects with thousands of wells in Wyoming. Nobody knew how to successfully challenge oil and gas drilling back then. Conservation groups had historically concentrated their efforts on fighting clear-cutting on our national forests and protecting roadless areas. So we pioneered new legal strategies to defeat Big Oil as we went along.

Nobody had heard of the sage grouse at that point, but it quickly became obvious that these iconic birds, with their spectacular mating dance, were fast disappearing in the face of a drilling onslaught. Fresh from a victory protecting the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse under the Endangered Species Act, I got right to work.

Early in the first term of the Obama administration, I traveled to Washington to propose a novel concept. Federal agencies had just completed a series of far-reaching land use plan decisions across multiple states throughout the West to guide various industrial uses—oil shale leasing, wind power development, solar energy, transmission lines for the utility industry. Why couldn’t the federal government do a similar effort focused on sage grouse conservation?

Today, this idea has taken flight, and WildEarth Guardians is leading the charge to ensure that priority sage grouse habitats—totaling tens of millions of acres of sagebrush—get protection from fossil fuel development and livestock grazing.

These wild and untamed sagebrush basins stretch for mile after mile, between chains of jagged mountain peaks, and are the defining character of the American West.

Unspoiled western lands have been a source of inspiration and solace for thousands of Guardians' members and supporters, and millions more Americans and visitors from around the world. I want to make sure that these lands are here for us, together with every species of native plant and wildlife, for future generations to enjoy and sustain.

As the tiny sage grouse faces off against the wealthiest and most powerful industry in the history of the world, WildEarth Guardians will be tipping the scales in the favor of native wildlife. If we win, the result will be the Obama administration’s Roadless Rule, a lasting legacy of high desert conservation to protect an amazing diversity of wildlife, great and small, and safeguard the future of one of the world’s most endangered ecosystems.

We all have a role to play in this pivotal effort, and as a member of WildEarth Guardians, I hope you are proud of investing in a chance for one of the great conservation victories of our time.

And when your grandchildren ask you how the West was won, you call tell them how the sage grouse went from one of the West’s best-kept secrets to the pivotal player that turned the tide against Big Oil.

For the wild,

Eric Molvar

Erik Molvar Staff photo 2013

Erik Molvar
Sagebrush Sea Campaign Director
WildEarth Guardians

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