Editor’s note: This story originally aired on June 19, 2015
In the small town of Pinedale, people have a lot of opinions about sage grouse. That’s because Pinedale just happens to sit in the middle of some of the best sage grouse habitat in the state. It’s also in the middle of some of the best oil and gas fields in the country. So when a Pinedale math teacher joined forces with a sage grouse conservation project, it started a community conversation.
On the mesa south of Pinedale, kids climb off a bus all decked out in work gloves, eye protection, and bug spray. These Pinedale sophomores are here today to hang reflectors on barbed wire fences around sage grouse breeding grounds. They form groups and start walking the fence, clipping tags to the top wire.
Believe it or not, this is a math project and they’ve been working on it all semester. Why take a math class out into the middle of the sagebrush? Pinedale math teacher Cami Dudrey says, “Kids don’t see the application of math ever. The most common question I get is when are we ever going to use this? Math’s everywhere,” she says, even in wildlife conservation.
Dudrey says all semester her Algebra I class has been studying mathematical concepts like rates and inequalities to plan for today’s fence tagging project. They calculated how many tags they’d need if they clipped one tag every three feet of barbed wire. 15-year-old Steven Metz says a lot of real numbers went into the project. Like, “how many miles we’d have to walk and how many people per group.”
He says they also learned a heck of a lot about sage grouse, like how putting reflectors on the top wire is kind of like providing a blinking airport tower for low flying planes.
“They have very poor eyesight so when they fly at a certain level, they’re max flight level is at the height of the fence,” says 15-year-old Dallon Cox. “They basically get clotheslined by it and then die. By tagging the fence they see a reflector and know whether to go higher or lower.”
Cox knows something about grouse from personal experience. Out hunting with his dad once, they stumbled on a lek—that’s a grouse breeding ground.
“We heard the noise, the whole water drop noise, clucking and flapping of feathers and we saw a rustle in one of the bushes and there was two of them fighting. We knew that there were not a lot of population so we kind of took an alternative route and kept hunting.”
Cox’s father is an oilfield worker. But he says, even though lots of energy jobs could be lost, he thinks the bird should be listed this fall when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife makes its decision. He says his dad agrees.
“Having them as low as they are now,” Cox says, “I think they definitely should have already been put on. And by doing that we’ll help regulate the population more.”
But not everyone in the class felt the same way. Math teacher Dudrey says they had some pretty wild conversations.
“Some of them were, like, I like to eat sage grouse! I’m like, if they’re all gone, you can’t eat them, so we’ve got to go save them.”
Dudrey had help on the math project from project coordinator Nic Rogers with the Wyoming Wildlife Foundation. He says the reason protecting sage grouse is such a controversial topic here is because, unlike birds elsewhere, the birds here don’t stick around their leks in the winter: they migrate.
“In the winter, they can’t be up top here. There’s too much snow load. So they’ll go down to lower elevations,” he says and adds, “I’ve never heard of another group of leks that does that.
The problem is winter habitats aren’t protected from drilling the way breeding grounds are. And when these Pinedale sage grouse move in the winter, they’re crossing into some pretty contested property, what some in the energy industry call the Golden Triangle.
“There’s kind of a triangle up here which is the Pinedale anticline. You go further west, it’s the Jonah field. South and east it’s the Normally Pressurized Lance.”
“So that’s just a lot of energy potential in this small space?” I asked him.
“Exactly. The formation under us is huge amounts of energy potential.”
And it’s this Pinedale winter range question that’s been a huge challenge for Governor Mead. That’s despite the fact that his sage grouse plan, known as the Core Area Strategy, is mostly well-regarded by conservationists, energy companies, and the feds on all sides.
“Based on what we know today, I would say that most of our birds are wintering in Core Area,” says Mead’s Sage Grouse Team Leader Bob Budd. “This one’s unique because it’s out. Why was it not put in? We didn’t know that we had large numbers of birds wintering there.”
Budd says Mead is currently deciding whether to add the Pinedale grouse’s winter habitat to the core area or develop a whole new program that protects birds that leave the core area in winter time.
But for Pinedale Algebra I kids, like Steven Metz, it’s all in the numbers. “Populations keep going, like, down. So by just saving one we’re saving whole populations.”
In Pinedale, the math project has raised awareness about just how unique the sage grouse are here. Many of residents have asked to help out with the conservation efforts. There’s a plan to host a community-wide fence tagging day sometime in coming months.