Greater Sage-grouse in Pinedale Mesa Gas Field, Sublette County, Wyoming
There have been times when I’ve felt I’m looking at the last Sage-grouse in the world. The image above was one of those times. Fortunately, these bleak scenes are offset by moments of restrained joy when witnessing thirty or forty male Sage-grouse strutting for a few females. I’ve been reading all of the rhetoric I can get my hands on since the CR-Omnibus rider prohibiting the USFWS from pursuing any ESA activities related to Greater Sage-grouse listing while blocking the recent “Threatened” ESA designation for the 4,000 or so Gunnison Sage-grouse that remain. I’ve been doing this work long enough to understand that these decisions generally have nothing to do with the affected species, but this decision is stunning on a number of levels. The media seems content to trot out the tired energy vs: “environmentalists” angle to many stories, describing Sage-grouse as “brownish, chicken-sized birds that live in sagebrush.” Further complicating the chaotic picture, Colorado Governor Hickenlooper has sued the Obama administration over the Gunnison Sage-grouse “Threatened” status “because the Gunnison Basin population, which comprises the vast majority of the species’ individuals and occupied range, is not in danger of extinction now or in the foreseeable future.” We can debate that – a drought year(s) or fire could wipe out many in a population that exists in one location – all the eggs are in one basket. But it doesn’t matter because the discussion has moved away from the welfare of two imperiled species – and how we can work together for their recovery – to bureaucrats pushing ideology over science. There’s no science in the CR-omnibus rider. If you’re new to the issue, you need to know this: Westerners are working together and finding common ground, and Sage-grouse are imperiled. Brian Rutledge VP and Policy Director for the National Audubon Society, who’s been leading Sage-grouse conservation efforts for over a decade said this: “The priority right now is to get science-based, state-level conservation plans in place that are effective enough to avoid a federal listing for the Greater Sage-Grouse in the first place. This rider will only complicate coordination between the BLM and statehouses and stems entirely from political maneuvering, ignoring scientific input and voices across the Mountain West that want strong plans in place.” Science-based. Avoid a listing. Work together. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said her department will continue to act “with urgency” to preserve Western sagebrush landscapes and will reach “a decision” this fiscal year on whether to list the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act, in spite of a legislative rider Congress passed as part of its 2015 spending bill that blocks formal listing actions.
I’m happy to hear Secretary Jewell speak of “Western sagebrush landscapes.” This question of sustainability is about so much more than “a brownish, chicken-sized bird that lives in sagebrush.”
A Greater Sage-grouse male displays on a Sublette County, Wyoming lek, or mating ground.
Congress has taken control of the endangered species process again. The new budget spending bill would block any federal funds going toward determining whether the Gunnison Sage-grouse or Greater Sage-grouse — two species of endemic, imperiled western birds — are eligible for listing under the Endangered Species Act. So, the whole business of collaboration to save the species and avoid a listing gets turned on its head, grouse get thrown under the bus – for what? You can fill in the blank here____ bowing to Big Energy? Greed? Here’s the thing, and you know this if you’ve visited this blog, the sagebrush ecosystem is the iconic landscape of the American West. The Greater and Gunnison Sage-grouse are the iconic species for the ecosystem, so they get the full attention of folks who like to write “chicken-sized birds that live in sagebrush.” Grouse are the bellwhether for the health of a massive ecosystem in collapse, and there are plenty of declining species worthy of habitat protection and a very close watch, each a canary in the coal mine. This budget process really stinks when politicians who claim they’re not scientists (when discussing climate change) usurp the role of dedicated professionals working hard for collaborative solutions. I’m not crying for a listing, just a process that affords species, every threatened species, a chance to recover. These are our lands, our wildlife. What will folks write when mule deer are endangered? “A brownish, medium-sized, hooved mammal that winters in sagebrush, except those that hang around the edges of western towns, browsing on lawns and gardens. Once plentiful, mulies were highly sought and coveted by hunters until their decline.”
Aerial view of the Roan Plateau surface on the wild side of the plateau, near Rifle, Colorado. Aerial support provided by LightHawk.
The Roan Plateau is such an extraordinary place, a jewel in Colorado and until now, one the most imperiled places in the West. It’s a big part of the reason that I started working in the sagebrush ecosytem when I was trying to reckon with the impact of energy development sweeping the West at the start of the fracking boom. Today, the wild side of the Roan is no longer imperiled. A compromise announced yesterday ended a protracted dispute, a triangle of energy developers, conservationists, and the Department of the Interior. For this moment, we can forget about mistakes that led to gas leases sold for development on the surface of this unique and special landscape and just celebrate the spirit of collaboration and resulting good outcome that keeps the West a little wilder. The Wilderness Society, Conservation Colorado, and others led the opposition to drilling the Roan, and many regular folks added their voices, reaching a pitch that couldn’t be ignored. It’s a great day for Colorado and the American West.
Autumn Bull Moose, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. Not smiling, just a glimpse of flehmen behavior during the fall rut.
The moose kind of looks like he has something to say, so I’ve posted him to announce that the Sage Spirit book is now on the Braided River Publishing website. The book and campaign are coming in early summer of 2015, well before the Greater Sage-grouse ESA listing decision in September, 2015. I’ve been working closely with the amazing Braided River staff all of this year, pulling the book together. We have several top author contributors, and have established partnerships with leading conservation groups. It’s a team effort to tell this western conservation story with one of the top publishers in the land. We have ambitious plans for the book and campaign and I’m really fortunate to be a Braided River photographer and author. Coming soon…
It’s Friday, follow your muse.
In a move that’s sure to rile up folks on all sides, today the US Fish and Wildlife Service designated the Gunnison Sage-grouse as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act. (by the way, that’s my image accompanying the article) Anyone close to the issue and knowledgeable of Gunnison Sage-grouse knows the bird is endangered – they are endangered on the IUCN Red List. But, before we go off and point fingers, claim injustice, and look for a villain, we should all take a collective deep breath. It’s true that we lack the funds to manage Endangered Species as intended when the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, and it’s true the bird is endangered, but what would a listing do to improve the situation? Gunnison is different. The entire extended community has pulled together to conserve habitat and save the species. Colorado Parks and Wildlife is leading a Rangewide Conservation Plan that has widespread community support and is the benchmark for western communities. The good people of Gunnison have seen this coming for two decades and have worked hard to recover their namesake bird. The new decision gives Gunnnison Sage-grouse some protection – let’s wait and see how the critical habitat piece affects ranching and recreation.
A September 29, 2014 report by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department says Greater Sage-grouse populations have increased by 10% in 2014 compared to 2013 lek counts. Great, but what does it mean? The report explains recent wet spring conditions: Game and Fish Sage Grouse Coordinator Tom Christiansen said the increased numbers of birds are largely due to the good moisture conditions.
“Green equals grouse,” he said. “We have found when we get good moisture in the spring, but not cold wet weather during the peak nesting period, the birds will have better nesting success.” The report goes on to describe the cyclical nature of Sage-grouse populations that rise and drop with favorable and harsh conditions. We can be hopeful about the recent trend, great science, and remarkable work on behalf of a species here in the West; but it’s important to recognize that turning around a century-long decline will take time. Sage grouse are still on the brink.
Oxbow Predawn, Mount Moran Reflected in the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, WY
Like all good things that don’t last long enough, the peak of autumn seemed to sneak up fast this year. I have a twisted fascination with Oxbow Bend in fall, typically a cluster of photographers packed in the sage lining the Snake River Bank. Tripods crossed, chattering away, tour buses parked, and million dollars in gear lining the river; I found myself in the photo mosh pit for two mornings – just trying to make my own image of this classic scene. The above photo captures purply predawn light and aspen below Mount Moran. I used a 3-stop neutral density filter to slow the shutter speed and smooth out ripples in the water. (more…)
Pronghorn buck chasing doe, Grand Teton National Park, WY
In the last warm light of the day, and while grazing with three does, this particular doe wandered a bit far and a chase ensued. I’ve seen it many times before, usually a straight line across the sage well into the distance. This time was different – she broke with the buck in pursuit, then led him in three or four fairly tight circles at high speed – pronghorn are North America’s fastest land mammal. During the autumn rut, the buck has to keep his harem together. The chase is serious business. These Teton pronghorn migrate on the Path Of The Pronghorn at the end of rut, a 120-160 mile journey through the Gros Ventre Mountains into the Green River Basin. Some travel as far as the Red Desert in one of North America’s longest land mammal migrations. May they continue to have freedom to roam.
« Previous Entries
Blood Red Sumac and Ponderosa Pine, Jefferson County Open Space, CO
We all need open spaces near home where we can touch nature and practice self expression – whether through a lens, exercise, or to just be. Fortunately, Jefferson County has an abundance of open spaces that are managed for multiple use. Coal Creek flows from a long canyon through the foothills onto ponderosa savannah shortgrass prairie. The intersect of prairie and Rocky Mountain foothills is biologically rich and a great place to explore. (more…)
Page 1 of 2512345...1020...»Last »