Grazing cattle deep into a landscape of sagebrush and native pines, Jim Bauman remembers the days when native sage hens were so abundant they darkened the sky.
"When I was a young boy - say 15 or 18 years old - the sage grouse was thick as flies in this county because of the ranchers," Bauman said.
Supported by a federal program, ranchers regularly killed off predators that fed on cattle and the birds, allowing both to flourish.
Now, that same bird is threatening to extinguish Bauman's way of life in rural Nevada.
Many in the state fear a national petition recently filed to list the grouse as an endangered species across its entire range, including Nevada, could devastate ranching, mining and recreation sectors of the state's economy.
Bauman fears it could do to Nevada what the spotted owl listing did to the Pacific Northwest, where timber towns collapsed in the 1990s.
"I am concerned," Bauman said. "It could wipe the ranching plumb out of the county."
Sage grouse, also known as sage hen, lives and feeds off sagebrush that covers a third of the state's landscape. Many sports enthusiasts continue to hunt the bird that shares the open range with hikers, bikers, miners and industry from Lake Tahoe to Ely and all across the state.
Numbers of sage grouse have declined over the years in the West, likely due to development on sage grouse land. The decline has sparked protection efforts to save the free-roaming bird from extinction. But biologists say the sage grouse population - conservatively estimated at 43,000 - may be growing in Nevada.
Out-of-state environmentalists blame grazing on public lands as one major impact on sage grouse and sagebrush habitat. By using the native bird as a "poster child," all species who live in sagebrush territory will be protected under federal restrictions on sagebrush territory, said Mark Salvo, grasslands and deserts advocate for the American Lands Alliance.
"Livestock grazing has a major impact on the sage grouse," Salvo said. "If we protect the sage grouse and its habitat, we also protect complementary species."
For Bauman and ranchers in Nevada, that could mean shutting down the family business. Bauman grazes on nearly 30,000 acres of federal land in the high-desert county.
"For the mines, they're wealthy. They can buy themselves out of it," Bauman said. "But for the ranchers, we kind of take what we get. It costs us part of our livelihood, but we're at their mercy."
Restrictions could be placed on federal land in all states with sage grouse habitat, including Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon, Washington and Colorado. In Oregon, half the state is federally owned, for instance. In Washington where 28 percent of the land is under federal management, only two areas with small populations of sage grouse would be affected.
In Nevada, implications could be far-reaching. Eighty-five percent of Nevada land is owned by the federal government and almost all sagebrush habitat is under federal management. Sage grouse roam through 15 of the state's 17 counties and an exact count is hard to achieve.
"Any time any species is put on the Endangered Species List, it grinds everything to a halt," said Greg Bortolin, press secretary to Gov. Kenny Guinn. "It ends up costing the states, in this case, a lot of money."
Nevada state and federal agencies are working on a conservation plan specific to the state in partnership with miners, ranchers, hunters and environmental groups. In June 2000, Guinn appointed a team of approximately 25 people from diverse backgrounds and interests to his Sage Grouse Conservation Team.
A federal listing within two years could effect several sectors of Nevada's economy. For instance, paving roads and erecting power poles and lines provide perches for raptors who kill the birds. Mine drilling is noisy and intrusive and off-road vehicles spread invasive weeds and disturb sagebrush meadows, environmentalists assert.
"They're a really fascinating bird," Salvo said. "They are affected by all these many uses."
Dr. Randy Webb, based in Oregon, has co-authored all but one of eight petitions made to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, asking for a federal endangered species designation. Webb's scientific-based organization is working to see the grouse population not only restored to safe levels but to levels that would allow hunting to continue.
"One thing in Nevada, it's not the state's fault. The range is fragmented," Webb said. "The institute doesn't care if they graze on public lands or not as long as it doesn't harm public lands. It needs to return to a more vegetative state. It looks like they're starving out on the range; they can't reproduce."
Fourth-generation Ely rancher Bruce Eldridge sometimes sees the odd-looking birds while out on the open range. The sage grouse still roams through the 250,000 acres where Bruce Eldridge grazes his family's 1,000 cows.
He has spent several nights in the past few years working with a local group to put together a conservation plan for the county to protect the ranch his great-grandfather started in 1917.
"It's been frustrating and time-consuming," Eldridge said. "We just are trying to get some science basis behind it and not just an anti-livestock, wildlife basis in the plan."
Nearly all federal lands in White Pine County in eastern Nevada are used for grazing cattle. Since a copper mine shut down about four years ago, after a drop in copper prices, the economy has suffered, said Brent Eldridge. Many residents left town and the area has suffered high unemployment.
"Right now, we look at public lands as the future of any county like ours," Brent Eldridge said. "Any impediment put out there on federal lands that impacts economically the traditional uses will have a negative impact."
Nevada's efforts, supported by Guinn, are being directed by the state Department of Wildlife. Agency director Terry Crawforth was unavailable for comment about the program, but a spokesman said the agency has spent the past few years learning about sagebrush ecosystem in Nevada and putting together a state conservation plan.
Spokesman Chris Healy said it's a complicated, political process and no one person has a "yes or no hammer."
U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Kevin Kritz in Reno said several state and federal agencies are funding a range-wide assessment of sage grouse habitat.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is about two years away from making a final decision about the listing, said Pat Deibert, service biologist in Wyoming. The agency is required to respond to the petitions. If the agency thinks petitioners have made good arguments, the service will take the next nine months to perform a status review. The first finding is expected at the end of March, Deibert said.
Within an hour's drive of Carson City, biologists have found at least 12 breeding grounds where the male grouse return each year in March to perform a unique breeding dance to woo female mates. Native birds return to the same breeding grounds or "leks" each year. Some have been located in the Virginia Range and Pine Nut Mountains.
Contact Jill Lufrano at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1217.