“The best way to protect the sage grouse or the prairie chickens is to sell it to someone.” “Is there a shortage of cows in our country? No, because someone owns cows.”
Senator and presidential (R) candidate Rand Paul speaking in Elko, Nevada
Greater Sage-grouse need habitat, sagebrush habitat, large unbroken expanses of good habitat with grasses, forbs, insects; a landscape free of disturbance. They are hard-wired to the sagebrush ecosystem and simply can’t survive without sage. Captive breeding programs haven’t been very successful – and relocating has mixed results – Sage-grouse and 350 other western species still need sagebrush habitat. The only way ranchers can “raise” sage-grouse is by protecting their habitat and we have a government program for those ranchers. It’s called the Sage Grouse Initiative and it’s a very successful government program. This noble bird of the American West has been here for 25 million years and we have a plan to recover the species. Deal with it.
Longs Peak (14,255′) and Mount Meeker (13,911′) catch morning light from Estes Cone, casting a long shadow on Longs’ flank. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Alarm and coffee pot spring to life at 1:30 a.m., an uncivil time of day by any measure. Grumbling and light-headedness aside, backpacks are tossed in the car for a drive amongst folks just trying to get home. It’s exhilarating to reach the trailhead a few hours before dawn, before birds wake, and set out to follow a cone of light through a black forest. Our destination is Estes Cone, an 11,002′ bump on the Estes Park skyline with a commanding view of Longs and Meeker. A nearly full moon barely penetrated the dense forest as we trekked on good trail that split from Longs’ standard climbing route. The finishing ascent rose 1,000 feet to lichen-covered stone just above the forest canopy, revealing Longs’ eastern face. Rising above a low cloud bank, the sun graced Longs and Meeker in warm light, showing features of the main climbing route, The Trough still clogged with deep snow, guarding the highest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. First climbed by John Wesley Powell’s group in an 1868 expedition, Longs is a sentinel in stone that can be viewed from many angles and worthy of a photographic study – and an alpine start or two.
Just a week after the last post, we spent an evening at 13,000 feet on the high ridge that towers over Loveland past on the east side. We trekked to Mount Sniktau (13,234′) for the first time and hoped for golden light to break beneath a thick cloud bank, lingering after a passing storm. With temps hovering in the 50s, the sun dipped and the landscape took on a new glow, with forms and layers of mountains in all directions. A small group of climbers set up tents on the edge of the ridgeline, later telling us of their plan to climb Grizzly Peak and two fourteener’s – Torreys and Grays the next day. Camping close to 13k is often a very bad idea, but not on this evening. I liked this image best for the snowfield clinging to the ridgeline, and together with our trail, leading the eye to an unending vista of the Rocky Mountains at sunset. It seems winter will depart at last.
Patterns of snow fill every couloir while stoney ridges protrude like ribs on (L to R) Torreys Peak (14,267′), Grays Peak (14,270′), and Grizzly Peak (13,428′). Colorado’s wet spring raised the late winter snowpack on the Front Range from around 50% in April to 300% in some areas. We hope it predicts an amazing wildflower season.
We have so much snow! The south and east facing slopes are holding deep snowpack that supplies all of thirsty Denver’s water supply for the season. This view is to the northwest across Loveland Pass to Mount of The Holy Cross (14,009′) named for the cross couloir on the rock face. Will Denver residents become complacent and forget the recent decade of drought? My brief prediction is an unfortunate yes.
Loveland Sunrise – warm morning light paints the high ridge above Loveland Pass from Point 12,915′ where a lingering snow cornice leads to Lenawee Mountain (13,204′). Marla says the mountains will “officially open on July 4 ~ just like they always do”.
“Elk Antler Over Hellroaring Creek” Yellowstone National Park, WY
When the high mountains are still locked in winter’s icy grip, Yellowstone’s sagebrush hillsides, meadows, and ponderosa forests are buzzing with life. To move through Yellowstone is life-giving, so many powerful forces in motion in this dynamic landscape, new fawn, calf, owlet, cub; a time of renewal. We backpacked around the Hellroaring Creek drainage, then went to Bozeman, before finishing up with a week of (mostly video) photography. Yellowstone gives up her secrets in brief, astonishing moments. A wolf running full speed across the sage, grizzly sow with three cubs of the year, golden eagle gliding over the Lamar River, the SLAP of a beaver tail on Slough Creek. Some moments get photographed, most don’t, and that’s just fine. Time in Yellowstone is guaranteed to inspire. My photo essay follows Continue reading “To Yellowstone”
Sunrise on Big Dominguez Creek, Dominguez Canyon Wilderness, Colorado
Whatcha gonna do on the planet today? New Riders Of The Purple Sage
We found ourselves kicking off the backpacking season during Earth Day week, a three day trip that felt just right. Dominguez Canyon Wilderness Area was just designated wilderness in the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 and is within the larger Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area. We accessed at the Bridgeport trailhead, south of Grand Junction and a few miles of gravel road west of Highway 50. “Untrammeled” is written into the Wilderness Act of 1964: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The idea of wilderness is one of the mast brilliant things our country has ever done, yet Dominguez Canyon is largely defined by its importance to man. Human history is quite literally written in stone. From the BLM brochure: “Red-rock canyons and bluffs hold geological and paleontological resources spanning 600 million years. Rock art on the canyon walls and archaeological sites on the mesas are evidence of thousands of years of Native American use, including hunting and travel from the Gunnison River Valley to the Uncompahgre Plateau. The wilderness also contains historic features left by the early miners and settlers who lived and worked throughout the area.” Today, its archeological treasures are protected, along with the resident desert bighorn sheep herd, collared lizards, mountain lion, black bear, mule deer – too many flora and fauna species to list here. As you ascend along Big Dominguez Creek pouring cold water off of the Uncompahgre Plateau, it’s easy to see why humans and wildlife have thrived here for thousands of years. It’s a magical place to explore and revel in the tranquility, to soak in the idea of wilderness. Continue reading “Earth Day(s) Walk in Dominguez Canyon Wilderness”
Camera Shy – a Greater Sage-grouse male displays on the wrong side of my camera. Sublette County, WY
A lighter side outtake from my Sage Spirit project: In 2010, I set up a DSLR camera with a Pocket Wizard remote trigger and wrapped the whole thing in sagebrush and camo on a lek (mating ground) south of Pinedale, Wyoming. The Sage-grouse were very active that morning and this particular male didn’t mind the camera, he was just on the wrong side. The idea here was to make a wide angle view of grouse on a lek, and although it didn’t work out…yet, there will be another try with a different setup next season. Greater Sage-grouse are a candidate species for protection under the Endangered Species Act, with a listing decision scheduled for September 30, 2015. With all the misinformation and ill-informed media attempts to divide, it would be easy to overlook great collaborative work happening in the West – folks from all sides are coming together to conserve habitat for Greater Sage-grouse and the suite of species who rely on unbroken sagebrush landscapes to thrive. It’s a central part of our story. In partnership with Audubon Rockies, The Wilderness Society, and The Sierra Club, Sage Spirit, The American West At A Crossroads will be published by Braided River in July of this year.
Greater prairie-chicken male booming during mating display. Switzer Ranch, with Calamus Outfitters. Nebraska Sandhills.
Foot drumming, flutter jumps, fights between males punctuated by sky walking leaps, and booming displays with puffed out bright orange air sacs are just a few of the antics of Greater prairie-chickens on a grassland lek in spring. I’d been on a Greater prairie-chicken (actually a grouse species) lek nine years ago when I was working on Prairie Thunder (book), so I was ready for the otherworldly blowing across the top of a pop bottle sound males make when they arrive on the lek in near darkness. Yet, no matter how many early mornings you spend in a blind for lekking birds, it’s always a rare and special experience to be witness to such an awe-inspiring display. With friends and clients Buddy and Mitch Jacoby – who love to freeze in a blind as much as me even though they’re from the south – we were guests of Calamus Outfitters on the Switzer Ranch in the eastern Nebraska Sandhills. The Switzers run cattle near Calamus Reservoir and Gracie Creek in this magical tallgrass prairie about two hours north of Kearney, Nebraska; known as the sandhill crane capitol of the world. Greater prairie-chickens and sharptail grouse are a big draw for Calamus Outfitters, the hospitality side of the business that caters to photographers, birdwatchers, turkey and deer hunters, and folks that float the Calamus River in stock tanks on hot summer days. The Switzers have a great story and are doing important work to conserve the Sandhills, vulnerable to crop conversion when the price of corn rises, a nearby transmission line, and the Keystone XL pipeline. Prairie-chickens need unbroken prairie to thrive, and the Nebraska Sandhills are the Greater prairie-chicken’s last remaining stronghold. These Sandhills are good fuel for the human spirit as well. A must watch video about the Switzer Ranch is at the bottom of this post. Continue reading “Prairie Dance”