Bosque and Monte – Twin Refuges

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Sandhill cranes wade in shallow water before taking flight from roost. Bosque Del Apache NWR, New Mexico

refuge |ˈrefˌyo͞oj, -ˌyo͞oZH|
noun
a condition of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger, or trouble

Bosque Del Apache national Wildlife Refuge is known as one of our top birding locations for the thousands of sandhill cranes, ducks, snow geese and other waterfowl that winter here. The Rio Grande flows through it, riparian refuge in a parched landscape on the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. Long before it was designated by Congress, the Rio Grande ran wild, spilling over its banks during the summer monsoon, creating marshes and tall grasses that were refuge for migrating waterfowl. Today, the river is controlled and developed to its banks for much of its length, so we have to help the birds by recreating the flooded marshes that give waterfowl a place to roost and protection from predators. I remember my first morning standing on the observation deck that overlooks the wetlands; it was about 8 degrees fahrenheit with a slight breeze and folks were pouring in to the refuge for a spot on the observation deck and lining the banks, whispering in hushed, excited tones. It was freezing cold and exhilarating and I was completely unprepared for the explosion of tens of thousands of snow geese against a backdrop of a brilliant orange and blue sunrise. Each time I came back I was stunned, somehow not completely ready. Continue reading “Bosque and Monte – Twin Refuges”

Refuge

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Rutting Mule Deer Buck, Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, Colorado

I’ve become obsessed with this occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon. Sagebrush Rebel terrorists decided to take a stand at a remote wildlife refuge to protest ranchers sent to prison for covering up mule deer poaching with arson, and are somehow trying to take back an 1800’s way of life that entitles them to use our western lands however they wish for free, because dammit, the Federal government has overreached and there is too much government, and they say this isn’t terrorism, but they’re heavily armed and willing to die. Or some such myopic nonsense. They have signs protesting the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), even though the land they’re occupying is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). American flags are draped all over the refuge, even though they’re protesting the Federal government. None of what they’re doing is constitutionally defensible or upheld in any way by the Supreme Court. It is simply domestic terrorism and these yahoos playing army give sustainable ranching a bad name.

The National Wildlife Refuge System is made up of over 500 refuges that offer unique and rare opportunities to view wildlife, recreate, and celebrate our natural heritage. The refuge system is part of a public lands network managed by the USFWS, the BLM, The US Forest Service, and the National Park Service. Roughly half of the land in the American West is public, millions of acres that every American owns the same deed of ownership to. As I watch this news cycle unfold, I see politicians posture to defend this sagebrush rebel idea that folks are somehow being persecuted by a system that won’t allow them to graze cattle, drill, and mine wherever they want. Here’s an idea: choose a different way of life. After prison.

Our public lands system is one of the best ideas we’ve ever had and is rare in the world. It’s too easy, simple-minded, and lazy to marginalize a place because of its remoteness – the very quality that makes it extraordinary. I’ve not been to Malheur, but most of my work is on public lands that won’t grace glossy calendars, places without the aura of our celebrated national parks. Places like Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, Siskadee NWR, Jack Morrow Hills, Adobe Town, Arapaho NWR, Cochetopa SWA, and so many other largely unknown lands in the west are refuge for the wildlife that we celebrate – it’s where we go for inspiration and solitude, to get lost in the grunt of rut, melody of meadowlark, call of the eagle, crane, and loon. This sagebrush rebellion won’t likely go away anytime soon; hell, Ronald Reagan called himself a sagebrush rebel; but this thuggery aimed at stealing our natural inheritance, robbing us of a chance to be inspired will not stand. We carry cameras and binoculars, support western communities, and we like our public lands just fine. Large unbroken expanses of western lands are the present and the future; our defense against climate change, extinction, and ignorance.

Autumn Coming On

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Aspen Sunstar : Prints Available

Just before dipping behind Gothic Mountain, the setting sun illuminates a stand of red-tipped autumn aspen. Aspen trees are colonial and colors vary greatly, from typical gold to oranges, reds, even purple. The range of color and contrast is on full display in Colorado’s high country, beginning in mid-September, with the transition moving south into early October. 

Hiking with my friend/web guru/mountain photographer Jack Brauer, Jack asks “what do you think it is that makes aspens so brilliant in fall?” Jack has studied aspens as much as anyone I know, so I figured his query was rhetorical. But we launched into a discussion about leaves, mountain light, and complimentary colors that lasted about a half mile, everything leading to the same place – translucence holds light while letting it pass through, giving aspens a luminescence unlike anything else in our part of the natural world. Autumn is an ephemeral miracle. While we’re still gobbling up the last of Palisade peaches, aspen trees are changing to gold, orange, and deep red. Some aspen colonies (aspens are a colonial species sprouting from the same source) are withering with fungus, their leaves dropping early by our human calendar, adding a smell of pungent loam to forest walks. Songbirds are gone and we await the arrival of winter raptors and diving ducks. I look up each day, hoping for a glimpse of sandhill cranes headed south on a migration course, riding thermals to their southern home at Bosque Del Apache NWR in New Mexico. It’s a remarkable time of year alright; so predictable, yet each day holds a promise to awaken our senses, all of them. Continue reading “Autumn Coming On”

Using Our Voice, For Greater Sage-grouse

Great Sage Grouse Strut

Greater Sage-grouse Strut, Sublette County, Wyoming

By now, nearly every one if us has heard something about Greater Sage-grouse and the pending listing decision for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The listing decision is scheduled for September 30 and while we’ve been waiting to find out what the US Fish and Wildlife Service will do, some in Congress have been seeking ways to undermine the process. Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado has added a rider to the Senate Appropriations Bill that would essentially stall any meaningful conservation actions on behalf of Greater Sage-grouse for six years. If that were to happen, we would lose all of the progress, the goodwill, the great collaboration that’s been steadily increasing in the buildup to a listing decision. The Endangered Species Act is under attack, that’s been going on for years. The Sage-grouse decision is bigger than anything we’ve seen before, with eleven states and 165 million acres of Sage-grouse habitat staked out as Priority Areas For Conservation (PAC). If you’ve read this blog before, or followed the Sage Spirit project, you know that grouse are imperiled because of habitat fragmentation, loss, and the collapse of an ecosystem that impacts 350 species. Failure to take serious actions on behalf of Greater Sage-grouse is an ecosystem failure. There is only one sagebrush sea. What can we do? Write a letter, a real letter to your senators and tell them that Greater Sage-grouse are in trouble and don’t belong in an appropriations bill. Let science determine the next steps. Make sure to tell your senator what the American West means to you – the personal aspect is so important. Audubon has made it easy for you with a letter that you can e-sign, but it’s even better if you use some of the language and add your personal connection. I’ve sent letters to Senators Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet (CO) and it feels great. Thanks for writing, the Audubon letter follows: Continue reading “Using Our Voice, For Greater Sage-grouse”

North Cascades – Turf and Surf

Sahale Arm, Sahale Glacier
Sahale Cloudscape : Prints Available

After a long night of heavy rain battering our Sahale Glacier camp, a brief sun break pierces layers of clouds and ridgelines from Sahale Arm. The tarn in the foreground is catching runoff from the glacier above. Our stormy experience was an anomoly this season, a parched summer of little rain and fire.

After a wonderful evening of presenting Sage Spirit to an enthusiastic Braided RiverMountaineers audience, we set out for the North Cascades, winding up our trip on Orcas Island, in the San Juan Islands off Washington’s northwest coast. More than half of the glaciers in the Lower 48 are in the North Cascades and North Cascades glaciers are retreating subjects of intense study. The Cascades aren’t as tall as the Rockies, but the vertical uplift from the Pacific Ocean is dizzying – Mount Baker rises over 10,000 feet and accumulates a deep snowpack from Pacific flows in winter (except last winter, when it barely snowed at all). And you feel all of that vertical in your legs. The trek to Sahale Glacier camp was a 4,000 foot ascent from deep Douglas fir/western cedar forest to the land of rock and ice. Unfortunately, we saw little of the Sahale area, as a pretty rough storm pinned us in our tent for 18 hours or so. Happy to see the earth quenched for the first time this parched summer, we descended and sought solitude in the Mount Baker Wilderness, then the San Juan Islands just off the coast. There’s so much here! Want to read a great book about the North Cascades? Check out The North Cascades – Finding Beauty and Renewal In The Wild Nearby by Braided River. The images that follow are but a quick glimpse, just enough to whet our appetite for a more in depth study. Continue reading “North Cascades – Turf and Surf”

Western Fire and States Rights?

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Smoky Sunrise, Summer of 2012 in North Park, Colorado

With the west at Fire Preparedness Level 5, 65 major fires currently burning on 7.5 million acres, fought by 27,000 firefighters, 3 of whom perished in the last week, it seems like a good time to talk about who’s battling these annual catastrophic summer blazes. Everyone. The Federal government coordinates, and battles western fires alongside state, tribal, and local agencies. In these drier, hotter, more drought stricken times, fire is inextricably linked to water and climate change, particularly on vulnerable western lands covered with millions of acres of invasive, highly flammable cheatgrass. The image attached here was made on a memorable August morning, the day after several large fires blew up in Idaho, but I didn’t know it at the time. The smoke was so thick, acrid, and lung-choking that I thought there must be a major fire in the nearby Zirkel Range. But, as we’re seeing right now, smoke, particulates, and all the nasty haze float on the jet stream and will visit you wherever you live in the west. The states rights folks who “want to take the country back” don’t seem to understand that their state, any state doesn’t have the resources to fight these ever expanding annual fire events that last for weeks or months before first snows clear the air – termination dust used to mean the end of the season. I’m grateful to Secretary Jewell for the hard work of our Department of Interior to battle fire at its highest, most dangerous level. States rights? They’re not up to the task.

Released!

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The Sage Spirit book has been released and is officially available from Braided River, daveshowalter.com, and at retail and online stores. When I started working with Braided River, Helen Cherullo described what we were about to do as “a process.” Helen knows because she and her staff have created ten books since she visualized Braided River as an imprint of Mountaineers Books. Braided River came about after Senator Barbara Boxer held up Sunhankar Banarshee’s book Seasons Of Life And Land on the Senate floor while making a passionate plea to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from drilling. From that moment, Helen visualized two conservation photography books per year that would serve as a foundation for an advocacy campaign, a brand for important conservation issues. I’m proud to be a Braided River photographer and author and proud of what we’ve accomplished so far. The process of creating this book has taken over a year of intensive work with the amazingly talented Braided River staff, a stretch that I now view more as an education than work. With our partners Audubon Rockies, The Wilderness Society, and Sierra Club Wyoming Chapter, we aim to build a solid campaign with media, presentations, exhibits, and whatever else it takes to change the conversation and change direction in the Sagebrush Sea of the American West. Words can’t express my heartfelt thanks to Helen and wonderful folks at Braided River for working so hard to bring this story to life. Now, as Helen has reminded me, the real work begins.

Wildflower Walk

wildflowers, Capitol Peak
Wildflower Walk : Prints Available

Our path to Silver Creek Pass leads through a verdant green alpine meadow of blooming Indian paintbrush and cinquefoil wildflowers. The pass is the patch of snow in the low point between the mountains (a 1,500′ climb), where a staggering view of (14,130′) Capitol Peak awaits.

The pass ahead is a window to a new world, one of the great gifts of exploring on foot. We ascended 1,500′ to a low point on the flank of Meadow Mountain, where Capitol Peak shone in afternoon light while clouds swirled ominously around the basin. Runoff from both sides of the pass feed the Crystal River, a tributary of the mighty Colorado. Snowfall from the spring monsoon is finally melting off, opening the mountains for a few short months of exploration, before the cycle of seasons starts anew. The brilliant green tundra and blooming wildflowers are almost an illusion, a fleeting moment of alpine rhythm.

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Spotlight on Capitol Peak (14,130′) as a storm builds in the Elk Mountains. Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area, Colorado

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