Wild River – The Yampa

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The Yampa River curves right against a towering canyon wall, illuminated at sunrise. Mathers Hole Camp.

Wild River. What comes to mind? It’s a trick question because there aren’t many wild rivers. The Yampa River, which begins as a trickle from melting snow high in Colorado’s Flat Tops Wilderness is the only remaining wild river in the Colorado River watershed. The Yampa flows freely to the Green River, a major tributary of the Colorado River, so the Yampa has a big role if we’re ever to reach some measure of stream flow sustainability in a watershed that runs from Wyoming’s Wind River Range to the Gulf of California – it doesn’t make it that far today. Colorado’s thirsty Front Range cities that surround Denver are calling for transmountain diversions from the Colorado River watershed – importing 195,000 acre feet for growing cities and 260,000 acre feet for irrigation. I wonder, does irrigation include growing Kentucky Blue Grass to be installed and watered forever? An acre foot is as it sounds, one acre that is one foot deep. Drought is the new normal, rivers are over allocated, people are flooding in, and there’s this one wild river in northwest Colorado. Logically we must have the courage to let the Yampa run free. Continue reading “Wild River – The Yampa”

A Rant, Of Bison Selfies and Other Choices

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Bison cow with spring calf, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

As a little kid on my first trip to Yellowstone, my mom denied my sister and me the chance to feed the bears, which made my parents the worst parents in the world. After all, everyone else was doing it. Yep, people were reaching out of their car windows to feed full grown grizzly and black bears comically standing on hind legs for a treat. This stupid human behavior that habituated apex predators was sanctioned by the Park Service, cheap entertainment for those of us who drove all of those hot miles. Wild animals for our amusement. Of course, I’m pretty happy now to have both hands and thankful to my mom for making that choice not to feed the bears for us. Later, realizing bear dumps and hand feeding were getting bears in trouble and causing all sorts of problems, the activity was stopped and it took awhile for bears to learn how to find their own food again. Flash forward 50 years and record mobs are descending on Yellowstone, taking bison selfies, walking on fragile, sacred hot springs, putting a bison calf in a car because “it was cold” or some such nonsense. I’ve witnessed plenty and would need a very good reason to visit Yellowstone in peak season, unless it was to head straight into the backcountry. See a bear, shout BEAR! and the chase is on, a horde inching closer and closer for THE shot with a phone or tablet. The thing that is supposed to differentiate humans from primates is the ability to reason; we can make choices rather than simply react without regard for the animal or others. Last year, more people were killed by bison than bears. Why? Stupidity. The literature tells us they’re dangerous, and certainly one ton animals are large, and they can run 40 miles per hour, with horns. So how fast could they close on you from 10 yards? We only have two jobs while in Yellowstone – witness and be aware – then let the joy wash over us. The bison selfie comes with a choice. Study the animal, then choose to make the best image you can from a distance. Shoot a short video and share it when you get home. Those guys that stuck a bison calf in their minivan, however well-intentioned, are stupid people. Had mom been nearby, she would have rammed and likely totaled their van, and it wouldn’t be her fault… Learn about the animal ahead of time, observe that beautiful red calf and marvel at how different they look from adults. Look around to see where the mom is – give them some time and space. Bison have been on this landscape, birthing red calves for thousands of years. Animals do die of course, then something eats them, nothing goes to waste, and the biomass is nourished. I wish I could offer advice for the guys who walked out on Grand Prismatic hot spring, but I can’t because they knew better. Ban those bastards from the park, from all parks; we don’t want to see your permanent footprints or you myopic sons of bitches in the spring. Was this sacred natural place not amazing enough for you? While hiking, I roughly estimate that 25% of hikers carry bear spray. A typical family of four that will spend $150.00 on dinner won’t pony up $50.00 for bear spray. So, who leads the hike? Or rather, who can you do without if you run into a grizzly sow with cubs? Buy the bear spray and give it to a ranger when you leave, they’ll find a use for it. Hell, you may even save a grizzly from an untimely death. The Yellowstone experience is so much more grand when we bear witness and soak it all in, find a rhythm and leave our baggage behind. If you’re going, read the new National Geographic dedicated to Yellowstone cover to cover. It’s that good, and informative. All Americans are stakeholders, we own a deed to these lands and we’re a part of this ongoing experiment. That rectangle way up in northwest Wyoming is actually the center of an ecosystem that looks more like an ink blot on a map, a complex web of life that includes us, where every living thing is connected and all of the animals that belong here, are here. Natural processes play out for eons and each of our impacts are multiplied by the millions of others who come here to be inspired. Leave things as they are, and tell folks back home about this amazing ecosystem, pay it forward. End of rant. “Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.”
― Theodore Roosevelt

Searching For The Sage

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Strip of sagebrush in a sea of wheat, backed by Mount Adams. Near Richland, Washington.

Well into a ten day tour of eastern Washington with Audubon Washington, ED Gail Gatton and I set out at sunrise for agricultural lands, in search of a story-telling image. We climbed up a small rise on Badger Canyon road to a flat-topped plateau and into a sea of wheat. Gravel roads divide sections outfitted with center pivot sprinklers spraying water irrigated from the Columbia on wheat – much of it destined for China. I wanted to make an image of sagebrush in the ag lands, but could find none and our mission grew in futility. Then around a bend, a patch of sagebrush in a draw too steep to plow lay between wheat fields, with Mount Adams watching over this little piece of what once was all wild sagebrush. From here, a meadowlark sang a sweet melody – maybe there’s enough sage here for a meadowlark family. The trip was a combination of everything you could pack into conservation outreach – Greater Sage-grouse watching with Audubon supporters, planning for an upcoming songbird study, photography, presentations, all in eight towns over ten days. Continue reading “Searching For The Sage”

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.

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.

Appalling Ignorance

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“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.

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