Refuge

Mule-Deer-Buck-in-Rut

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.

Frosty Meadowlark

frosty-meadowlark

A frosty western meadowlark on a February morning at Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, CO

This year’s backyard bird count has begun and is the inspiration for this meadowlark image pulled from the vault and dusted off. In my first winter of photographing at Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, I was surprised to see small flocks of western meadowlarks picking for seeds in a world covered with hoar frost. It was about -10F when I made this image, which doesn’t phase meadowlarks – as long as they can forage. Lately, the number of wintering bald eagles has dropped as they’ve begun their northern migration, their void filled by sweet melodies of meadowlarks. It’s been an unusually warm winter (who knows what spring has in store?) but meadowlarks would be returning to Colorado’s shortgrass prairie anyway – they’re on schedule. Back then I was shooting with a Nikon F5 and absolutely in love with that film camera. You could pound nails with one of those things and I even told Marla that I thought I was all set for gear – who could’ve predicted the digital revolution of the last decade?

Prairie Merlin

Female Prairie Merlin, Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife

Prairie merlin hunting from a brush perch on a chilly winter morning. Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, CO

These small falcons look like tiny missiles while hunting. Preying mostly on small birds, the powerful merlin is fast and muscular; able to turn at very high speed in mid-air. The prairie (Richardson’s) merlin is 10″ tall and weighs about 6 ounces.