- Albert Dickman photo www.kaleidoscopeidaho.com
by Jeff Cole
Most people never see sage grouse. They are elusive, endangered and you have to get up at ungodly hours to see them. The 23 groggy observers I led from a dim Boise, Idaho parking lot at 4:45 a.m. on a Saturday morning would testify that it’s mostly timing that keeps the sage grouse a relative secret.
Early enough that even the sun was hitting its snooze button, our caravan crept and finally rested on a dusty road cut through a sea of sagebrush in remote Owyhee County. It’s a country so isolated and inaccessible that directions to its treasured landscapes exist only by word of mouth, not in guidebooks or on the internet. As recently as 1981 notorious criminal Claude Dallas ranged freely on thousands of acres before his capture for murdering two Fish & Game wardens not 20 miles from our position.
A group comprising two professional photographers, a videographer from Idaho Public Television, Idaho Fish and Game biologist Michelle Commons-Kemner, and several eager observers, sneaked out of our packed carpool into the freezing darkness. Parked near one of their mating arenas—known as a lek—we were careful not to slam any car doors, and stood in the last minutes of night waiting to see grouse. We could hear the bird’s bizarre call and the occasional scratching of feet and scuttle of wings. The cold slowly penetrated my down coat, gloves and hat. Breath steam and darkness thwarted my vision as I squinted and tried to imagine that some of the dark blobs of sagebrush were actually rare upland birds.
Light gradually illuminated the sagebrush prairie and revealed an epic sage grouse mating dance. Male sage grouse jumped and strutted while filling air sacks on their chests and blurting pick-up lines to females in a well rehearsed avian flirting ritual. The men competed for attention in the center of the lek, trying to garner interest from a female.
The fanned tail feathers, stylish strut and unusual call of the large birds made me feel humble. Humans are only a small part of the natural diversity of even this seemingly barren ecosystem. After watching the sage grouse spectacle, it seemed that the unique birds had no less right to the land than developers that threatened their home. In fact, they were there long before the first human immigrants.
For sage grouse the problem is simple: less land to live on equals smaller populations. Habitat fragmentation and destruction has led to significant declines in sage grouse populations over the last century. In fact the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service recently announced that Greater Sage Grouse warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act but were precluded because other species were in greater need of protection. The Idaho Fish & Game biologist on the trip, Michelle Commons-Kemner, told us that Owyhee County in southeast Idaho held some of the best potential for sage grouse survival in the future.
My organization, Idaho Rivers United, hosts trips to the arid Owyhee uplands each year to develop interest in protecting its rugged landscape and diverse species. This year we are celebrating the passage of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009. The act protected 316 miles of wild and scenic river corridors and 517,000 acres of wilderness in the Owyhee, and vast tracts of land in eight other states. Sage grouse are one of the many species in Idaho that benefited from the Omnibus bill and they are definitely one of the most unique. Sage grouse still need support if they are to survive future threats, and I will be one among many who are fighting ardently for their protection. Snooze button be damned, I’ll even get up at 4:00 a.m. to see them again.