An awkward bird symbolizes the fight over America's West

The plight of the goofy, not-so-smart sage grouse is a reflection of the tense debate about how to balance land use and preservation.

Well before dawn, near the Little Snake River in southern Wyoming, Pat and Sharon O’Toole’s pickup bounces up a broad, sage-covered valley, where the family has run livestock for five generations.

Pat turns off the headlights and rolls toward a clearing. Under a moon that’s just past full, we make out dozens of white dots, hopping up and down on the dark plain. The sage grouse have been dancing all night.

As the morning light grows over the eastern mountains, the outlandish mating ritual comes into view. The knee-high males strut around, puffing their white-feathered chests and splaying their tails. They chase one another and spar in a flurry of beating wings, heaving chests, and loud thunking. Meanwhile the females—smaller birds with brindled gray feathers that blend with sage and soil—stand around looking bored. It’s a ridiculous spectacle, and the human analogies are inescapable: singles bar, Venice Beach boardwalk, Senate hearing.

Read This Next

Battle to control America’s ‘most destructive’ species: feral pigs

How coffee can help forests grow faster

The forgotten fossil hunter who transformed Britain’s Jurassic Coast

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet