I wrote this article two years ago when Secretary Salazar announced that Greater Sage-grouse are “warranted, but precluded” from protection under the Endangered Species Act. Greater and Gunnison Sage-grouse mate on leks in the sagebrush ecosystem from late March into early May.
“The only good place for a Sage Grouse to be listed is on the menu of a French bistro. It does not deserve federal protection, period.” Congressman Jason Chaffetz (UT-03).
Sitting in a cold, drafty blind on a moonless April morning, it’s so dark that I can’t see the walls that will keep me hidden from Greater sage grouse. The stillness and quiet are pure, the stars like diamonds. I woke at 2:30 for the privilege of a few hours with these iconic western birds – birds that are getting a lot of attention these days.
During the wait for grouse and light I quiet my body, but my mind doesn’t follow. My fatigue-addled state yields a stream of consciousness like a sleepless night with senses alert and thoughts shifting rapidly – “my toes are cold, there’s a breeze – I hope it doesn’t get windy, coffee would be nice.” I think about the buildup to the listing decision and the tin badge politicians carrying on about jobs and energy, what the bird means to so many people and to Western wildlife with their need for expanses of unbroken sage. I reflect on the migrating pronghorn heading back to Grand Teton National Park, the notion that a National Park means the animals are protected inside an imaginary border, yesterday’s gray wolf stalking 1,000 elk stacked up for migration, and my new friends, Buddy and Rick, who traveled all the way from Florida to see and photograph this special bird. I chuckle because I still can’t see a damn thing.
The birds arrive with a few wing flaps. One, then another, then more start displaying until my piece of sage country, hard against the Wind Rivers, sounds like an off-kilter popcorn popper. The Jonah Field natural gas industrial zone is just a couple of ridges and a dozen miles away, but this place, at this moment, is as wild as the 1800’s and I have a front row seat.
Steely-grey dawn reveals silhouettes strutting, fighting, males chasing one another. I can see the birds making the bah-looping, popping, swishing like polyester pants sounds. The rapid wing slaps of a fight between males that lasts less than a second. A pale magenta sunrise is followed by a warm glow in the short grasses on the lek, cinnamon light for birds and photographer. No golden eagle will visit today and I make images, and watch, and smile, and two hours passes like a thought. The grouse leave the lek a few at a time until just a few males are displaying for the sage.
When they’re gone, I step into the sunlight and laugh alone, like a madman because Secretary Salazar’s common sense decision means everyone who has a stake in this place we call the West will need to work together to save Greater sage grouse – even the sound byte Congressman in Utah. I wonder how things might be less complicated if everyone could see the grouse.