The sage grouse, a gray and brown bird the size of a large chicken, is diminishing in number and may end up on the U.S. "endangered species" list. If so, the economic impact on the gas, oil, and ranching industries would be tremendous.
The impact would stem from precautions those industries would have to take to protect an endangered species.
The vice president of Wyoming's Petroleum Association, Dru Bowers, estimates oil drilling and exploration would be severely curtailed on three quarters of all state land.
Ms. Bower says this would be an intensifying of current restrictions to protect the sage grouse, and are costing her industry a lot of money. "We have a 'no surface occupancy' designation around sage grouse strutting grounds, for the males, where the females come to breed. We have to be careful about certain noise levels because [the male sage grouse] goes there and he pounds on his chest, which drives the hens there so they can breed. Any time you have to go around a designated area, that creates more cost," she said.
The sage grouse population of Wyoming has fallen to seven percent of its highest recorded levels. Because the sage grouse is completely dependent on the grasses and flowers of the local terrain, environmental activist Linda Baker says its decline has broader consequences.
"Its health really indicates the health of the sage brush ecosystem, and the sage brush ecosystem is the habitat used by other mammals and birds, the mule deer and the antelope and the moose. So if we do not have grouse, that indicates we have reason to be concerned about many more species than grouse," she said.
Linda Baker says the high grasses and wildflowers that once filled the terrain are diminishing, replaced by grazing cattle, oil drills, power lines and housing development. Watching this happen, she says, is what made her decide to take a stand.
"I have seen this progression of impacts from human sources that seem to come not only to the grouse, but to the landscape as a whole. It touched me in a way that I could not ignore. I live here primarily because this is a beautiful part of the world. And it just seems like it is a place that is worth preserving," Linda Baker said.
Environmentalists like Linda Baker believe placing the sage grouse on the endangered species list is a first step to preserving an irreplaceable natural resource. The oil, gas, and ranching industries say it would do so at great human and economic cost.
Both sides will present their views to the state government later this year.