Searching For The Sage


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.


Jen Syrowitz of Audubon Washington surveys Moses Coulee above The Nature Conservancy’s Whisper Lake Field Station.

We were spoiled early in the trip, with three nights in Moses Coulee, an area carved by ancestral floods that shaped the entire region. Our field station looked out over shallow Whisper Lake, with a wall of lichen-covered basalt rising vertically above. When fitful weather cleared, I hiked above the lake to a wonderland of sagebrush and birdsong, flushing a pair of Greater Sage-grouse, and marveling at meadowlarks, canyon wrens, a golden eagle, red-tailed hawks, and ravens soaring on thermals. Jen joined me on our last morning to take explore and soak in the wild beauty of Moses Coulee. I could’ve spent a week here, making a study of stone and sage.


Seeing Greater Sage-grouse through the eyes of others. Waterville Plateau.

Dr. Michael Schroeder (Mike) led us on a snowy tour of mixed farm lands, partially recovered CRP land, and enough sagebrush to hold Sage-grouse. Through spotting scopes and binoculars, we viewed distant grouse, displaying on the edge of wheat and sage. Sage-grouse lek differently here, often using wheat fields for leks (mating grounds). Their population is currently stable at around 1,000 birds in the state, with this Waterville Plateau as a stronghold. All of this ag land looks almost hopeless to my eye, but Mike is overseeing a recovery plan for sustaining grouse long-term.


Young Santiago studied the grouse and turned to me, saying “I just love Sage-grouse.” Hope lives in Santiago’s love for our western bird.


Owl feather on sagebrush, Sagebrush Flats, near Moses Coulee.

While walking Sagebrush Flats and listening for newly-arriving sagebrush sparrows, this feather left behind, perhaps by a short-eared owl, fluttered in the wind.


Fences marked with tags like these help prevent avian mortalities, particularly Sage-grouse flying to leks in darkness.


Basalt in Moses Coulee was built up over time by flowing lava, and carved by the biggest floods in history, now covered in beautiful lichen.


A perfect orchard and brilliant green field contrast against the wild sagebrush backdrop near Richland, WA.


Burned homesite from the catastrophic 2015 Chelan wildfires – Lake Chelan and the North Cascade mountain range are the backdrop.


Burned sagebrush – over one million acres burned in the Okanagan fires last year. The sagebrush ecosystem is highly vulnerable to fire and massive fires have become the new normal.


Team Audubon Washington – Christi Norman, Gail Gatton, and Jen Syrowitz, each holding their favorite sagebrush songbird at Columbia National Wildlife Refuge.


Rolling sagebrush hills at Columbia National Wildlife Refuge near Othello.


Rattlesnake Mountain is a sacred place to Native Americans that rises 3,000 feet above the base at Hanford Reach National Monument. In spite of, and in large part due to its nuclear history, Hanford represents a tremendous conservation opportunity – much of the land here has been untouched since WW2. The Dept. Of Energy (DOE) is managing a lengthy cleanup while the USFWS manages the natural resources, outreach, and education. Conservationists are supportive of a plan to move reclaimed DOE lands over to the National Monument, expanding the conservation footprint at Hanford Reach N.M.

This tour of eastern Washington felt very different from Colorado and Wyoming for the scale of agriculture, but ecologically agriculture is just another way to fragment and remove habitat from an imperiled ecosystem. There’s no changing our love of wine, potatoes, and wheat. It would be easy to give up on a state population of 1,000 Sage-grouse, maybe call them a museum species, but where would that leave us? I’ve long pondered the question of which species warrant protection when viewed through our human lens, a form of animal elitism. The challenges here are many, but I’m hopeful after meeting so many kind folks who came out to see a sagebrush presentation and spend time with their state Audubon people; people who are currently engaged in sagebrush conservation, others learning how to get involved. I’m grateful for this opportunity that will stay with me for some time, and honored to work alongside regular folks making an extraordinary effort to save some of the enduring wild in eastern Washington’s sagebrush ecosystem. Up next for Audubon WA is a sagebrush songbird study, visionary in its approach, and enthusiastically supported by more than 100 volunteers.

6 thoughts on “Searching For The Sage

  1. Dave,
    great coverage o fhe whole trip and what fab photos- the sage enveloped by the wheat fields is the best ag/sage photo ever! your landscapes photos re what we have been yearning for since the start of this work. THANK YOU!

    1. You’re so kind Christi…and I saw first-hand how the folks in E. WA love you – best of luck with the songbird study and I look forward to joining you all in the field again.

  2. Dave,
    We keep crossing paths. I taught at Columbia Basin College, and at Wenatchee Valley College, in the “80s. I worked with Audubon, and on the Hanford Reservation, while at both places.
    You are doing good work. You ask good questions. Thank you.

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