Tag Archives: sagebrush

Sage Grouse: America’s Bird of Paradise P. 2

Greater Sage Grouse in early morning light

The greater sage grouse are unquestionably the American version of the bird of paradise – its mating displays are every bit as elaborate and extraordinary. Getting up close and personal with these birds like this demands the use of a blind set up on the edge of their ancestral leks. ISO 250 | f/4 | 1/5000 | D4 | 600mm | Tragopan Blind © Jared Lloyd Photography | all rights reserved

One hundred years ago there was an estimated 16 million greater sage grouse in the world. At least that is according to those who figure things out like that.  Theirs was a world of seemingly never ending high desert that once spanned from Alberta to Arizona, California to North Dakota. All of this has changed. Today, there is probably only around 300,000 of these birds left. They have gone extinct in 6 states and provinces. And of the 27 known viable populations of these birds, 20 of them are in steep decline.

All of this has brought the greater sage grouse to the doorstep of the Endangered Species List several times – not to mention to the doorstep of extinction itself. Yet when economic analysis’s reveal that listing this particular species as threatened or endangered could cost up to $5 billion dollars in economic output, the truth behind why this bird remains federally unprotected comes out. How exactly can this little big bird cost so much money to protect? Simple. Lost revenue from the oil and gas industry who also want access to much of that land. And if federal protection was to be granted to these birds, fossil fuel companies would be barred entrance from over 100 million acres of land they have their eyes on. So the results have been that the US Fish and Wildlife Service continues to churn out reports suggesting that sage grouse are doing just fine despite every other group of scientists on the planet looking at these birds argues otherwise.

One good thing has actually come from all of this for the greater sage grouse. If this bird were to find its way onto the endangered species list, states like Wyoming would suddenly find themselves losing control over vast swaths of their territories. This threat has scared the shit out of state governments all across the West, which has prompted them to try and get out ahead of this issue before the feds do. In other words, states like Wyoming are trying to lead the way in sage grouse conservation so that they don’t lose their say over the land inside of their borders. Fair enough. Whatever it takes to get the job done here.

Sage grouse depend on immense unbroken expanses of mature sagebrush for their survival. Remember, this is a desert we are talking about. Water is scarce. Available food changes from season to season and can force birds to travel up to 60 miles in order to find what they need to survive in this environment. But from the perspective of Western Civilization, sagebrush is useless. And so over the last 100 years we have burned, plowed, dug up, and destroyed millions of acres of sagebrush. Those areas that have not had its sagebrush completely eliminated have been chewed up by development, roads, and most importantly today, oil and gas development.

Unbroken is the key to the grouses survival. And in today’s high deserts, that can be a lot more difficult to find that you might think.

The last best place for the sage grouse happens to be Wyoming, which contains just shy of 40% of the entire population of these birds that once ranges across the entirety of western North America. Wyoming is the least populated state in the union – boasting only half a million people in a state the size of three or four eastern states put together. And it is for this reason that the majority of the viable habitat for sage grouse now resides in this state. All of this makes Wyoming, with the largest coal and natural gas productions in the country, the epicenter for sage grouse conservation right now.

 

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Sage Grouse: America’s Birds of Paradise p. 1

Greater Sage Grouse on lek at dawn

A male greater sage grouse strutting his stuff on a lek at dawn. One of the challenges in photographing sage grouse on their leks is simply mustering up the patience to wait until there is enough light around you to shoot. This is where full frame cameras really shine due to their larger pixel size, and therefore better light gathering capabilities. ISO 2000 | f/6.3 | 1/400th © Jared Lloyd Photography | all rights reserved.

Last week I was driving down a long wash board dirt road through a veritable sea of sagebrush. I had been here before a couple of years ago in this remote section of high desert to photograph the greater sage grouse. With a pair of binoculars resting on my lap as I drove, my cell phone range and on the other end was David from the Nature Conservancy. A state biologist had passed along my name to him and he wanted to know if I had any interest in photography the sage grouse on the leks at one of their sweeping private ranch preserves in the Snake River Plain.

The timing of this phone call could not have been better. Here I was, a few hundred miles from home, heading out into the high desert to set up a blind to shoot grouse from. Where was this ranch he was talking about? 30 miles west of me. Spinning my mud covered Land Cruiser around in the road – if you can call it a road – I plugged in the name of the road and headed west.

After Ron, the ranch manager, was gracious enough to take me around to inspect the various leks on the property, I chose a spot, got my blind together, and then headed off to find a hotel for the night. The whole trip had been something I kind of threw together in a moments notice, grabbing camera gear, blind, ghillie suit, and a change of clothes in a bit of a hurry. Normally I bring camping equipment with me when I know I will be this remote. I have a pretty sweet sleeping platform I built for my vehicle that I can then toss a Thermarest Dreamtime XL mattress ontop of and camp on location out the back of the Land Cruiser. I was about the time Dave called me up that I was realizing I had forgotten all of that stuff and would therefore have a nice 80 mile drive from a hotel at 3am to get to whatever lek I ended up setting up on.

The following morning, after 80 miles in the small hours of the morning, and several cans of Starbucks Double Shots, I turned onto the old dirt road the ranch set off of at the base of the mountains. By 5:30 am, I was zipped up in my blind and assembling my gear with an hour and a half of darkness left before sunrise. The greater sage grouse gets the party started pretty early. And so you need to find yourself in a blind at a bare minimum of an hour before first light – which is about 30 mins before sunrise. Otherwise, if the birds see you entering the blind, they will spook off the lek and may not return until the following morning.

Once in the blind though, the challenge becomes simply having the patience to wait for the light. Within minutes of settling down inside, I could hear the sound of the males all around me. The sound is unbelievable. Quite like nothing you’ve ever heard before if you have never spent time at a sage grouse lek. With some 30 birds already displaying and strutting within just feet of your lek, it can be difficult to resign yourself to just waiting when all you really want to do and shove your lens out the window and start shooting. Of course, this is totally futile an hour before sunrise. And so you settle in to the rythms of the grouse, listening, waiting, watching, as black becomes grey and then grey fades into subtle hints of blues, purples, and golds as dawn approaches, and the world around you comes alive.

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