Thursday, May 07, 2015
A Fine Spring Morning in the Owyhees
By Bas Hargrove, senior policy representative
“How many birds do you count?” asked Alan Sands, former Nature Conservancy biologist. I scanned the lek, trying not to double count the sage grouse. “Forty-one males and two females,” I answer as Alan scribbled in a pocket notebook. Even though we’re only on a casual field trip and Alan retired a couple of years ago, he was determined to collect and report the data back to Idaho Fish and Game.
More important to me was the opportunity to share this amazing natural spectacle with my wife, kids, and mentor. For my family, it was the first time to see sage grouse dancing; for Alan, no telling, but dozens of times at least. Regardless, he cheerfully agreed to lead us on our quest, leaving Boise at 4:30 a.m. With me driving, Alan riding shotgun, and everyone else sleeping in the back, we set off south to the Owyhee Desert in search of sage grouse.
In 2000, Alan hired me to work in the Conservancy’s office. Back then, sage grouse conservation was on the radar, but not in the headlines like today. The onslaught of weeds like cheatgrass and massive wildfires have decimated sage grouse habitat and sent land managers scrambling to avoid a listing under the Endangered Species Act.
Although Boise is surrounded by wide open spaces that were once home to sage grouse, now you have to drive a couple of hours into the Owyhees to find the birds and the habitat that supports them. Unfortunately our local situation is typical across the range where habitat has shrunk and sage grouse populations have declined significantly.
After taking a jog off the Mud Flat Road, we wound up just about dawn at a lek – or sage grouse strutting ground – just outside the Little Jacks Creek Wilderness Area. This reminded me again of my early days working with Alan, before the wilderness designation. We were part of a small Conservancy team working on what became known as the Owyhee Initiative. We jokingly called ourselves the “Sage Heads”, and spent a lot of time poring over maps in the Nature Conservancy conference room. Alan was our go-to expert, versed in the science and well-traveled in the Owyhee country.
We had high hopes, but no idea that this collaborative effort- crafted by Owyhee County, ranchers, conservationists and others- would result in a half million acres of new wilderness, more than three hundred miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers, and improved management of millions of acres of public land in southwest Idaho. After eight years, way too many meetings, and innumerable fits and starts, the Owyhee Initiative culminated in legislation that helped meet the needs of all the human stakeholders, and wildlife like sage grouse.
In the dawn quiet we were careful to whisper. It was easy to hear the two booming pops of the males. As we quieted down, a complex sequence of swishes, coos, and whistles also emerged from the stillness, joining the clear booms. Combined with the sight of puffed up yellow air sacs, flourish of tail feathers, and macho strutting, the sage grouse put on a show that is somehow goofy and majestic at the same time.
Will sage grouse be able to survive into the 22nd Century? Or will a maelstrom of fire, weeds, and climate change sweep them into oblivion? As Alan adjusted the spotting scope for my daughter Grace, I couldn’t help but feel a surge of hope as this natural wonder came into focus. With the wisdom of leaders like Alan and the energy of Grace’s generation, we can make sure the sage grouse continue their dance indefinitely. It will take lots of hard work on the ground and plenty more meetings I’m sure. But if my own energy flags, I know I can use the spotting scope of my mind’s eye to find inspiration from this fine spring day in the Owyhees.