I’m well aware of the many disasters delivered due to lack of sleep. I’m also aware of the rare potential that putters around in the darkness. Such potential pulls me from my bed long before the rest of the world opens its sleep-crusted eyes. It’s the possibility of witnessing the wild at its finest. It’s the promise of seeing the dance in the desert before it disappears. That’s why I get up for grouse.
I’ve watched sage grouse strut for years. Since long before the bird became the vanishing symbol of the West. I even woke up early to watch sage grouse the year I was pregnant with my first son. I crawled around in the sagebrush with Idaho Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist Daryl Meints. We spied on grouse doing their spring thing and quietly captured it all on camera until I looked at my pants. The silent stalk quickly ended when I saw bird poop smeared across my knees in the first light of day. Daryl laughed. I puked. Daryl laughed harder.
“Wow, Millgate,” he’d said. “I didn’t know you were such a girl.”
And I didn’t know he’d be the first person I’d confess my pregnancy to, but that’s how it turned out. I explained my sudden squeamish side as morning sickness and Daryl knew I was having a baby before my own mother knew. That’s what I get for choosing to make my way in life as an outdoor journalist. Puke in bushes and announce pending motherhood to a bachelor.
I think of that morning with Daryl every time I go looking for sage grouse. Puking in sagebrush was a one-time deal. Watching sage grouse is an annual affair, and this year I’ve upped the ante.
I’m driving to a ranch near Dubois, Idaho. The ranch hosts one of the largest leks in Idaho. Leks are open strips of land chosen by male sage grouse wanting to strut for females without anything getting in their way. The Nature Conservancy owns the undeveloped ranch. Ron Laird manages it.
I wouldn’t say he’s a rancher, but rather, he is ranch. From his faded, dusty denim to the peppered pattern of his hair, he is sturdy and rugged and, like I said, ranch.
Rustling cattle seems more his nature, but regardless of roundups, Ron starts every spring day contently tucked inside a camo-colored tent watching birds dance in front of a long lens that he points through one of the blind’s small windows. I’m right there with him. It won’t be me, or morning sickness, ending this show today.
“It’s just like waking up to a dream every morning,” Ron says. “We get a lot of morning wake-up calls from the birds banging around here.”
That wake-up call comes just as the sky is on the verge of turning from cold blue to warm orange. It’s a male sage grouse putting his audible vibe out. The silky sound is similar to the slow slide of legs wrapped in satin sheets. I bet the thin sweep of clouds swirling around the nearby peaks of the Centennial range make the same smooth sound.
The long shadows sweeping across the stubbled grain field, however, have a roughness to them. Like a beard’s late-day shadow growing beyond the boundaries of a man’s clean-shaven cheekbones. The open stubble field is cut close to the cover of a shallow, sagebrush canopy. A seven-pound bird struts out from the brush into the clearing with its chest puffed, the source of the sliding satin sound. It’s time to perform on the stage. This bird is looking for a dance partner.
“The males are trying to impress the females,” Ron whispers with a gravely chuckle. “Females come walking in and walk by a male and he’ll immediately start to display and try to get her attention and walk along beside her and she just ignores him. Typical man-woman relationship.”
We watch a female grouse roll by glorious displays of fanned feathers and popping chests with little interest. Just like girls do to guys at bars. The rejection on repeat isn’t mine so it’s a show worth waking up early for. It’s also a show that’s getting harder and harder to see.
“It’s pretty simple. Sage grouse need sagebrush,” says Paul Atwood, Idaho Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. “If the sagebrush goes away, there won’t be any sage grouse.”
Paul has a team of scientists and volunteers counting leks and number of birds on leks annually. The count isn’t growing. The population is down from an average of 60 males on a lek in 1959 to 15 in 2009. Rumbles of Endangered Species List are bobbing in the Western wind like tumbleweeds.
“If the bird is listed, it will not be business as usual on our pubic lands,” says Sarah Wheeler, Bureau of Land Management public affairs.
Sage grouse need sagebrush year round and through all stages of life. From mating and nesting, to food and cover. The sagebrush canopy in the West is shrinking. In Idaho, the main cause of sagebrush loss is wildfire. The brush is fast to burn and slow to grow.
“Wild land fire is our number one threat to sage grouse because it wipes out so much territory,” Sarah says. “Sagebrush takes a long time to come back. You’re looking at 25 to75 years before it goes back to its pre-fire existence.”
Wildfires that used to spark every 25 years now light up every two to five years. That’s not nearly enough time for sagebrush to recover. Seedlings in a ten-year-old burn are only a foot tall. There’s not enough food. There’s not enough cover. There’s not enough birds.
And yet, we can’t force the future. I know this as I watch another female sage grouse avoid another male and listen to Laird laugh quietly next to me. They really ought to mate for population’s sake, but for some reason well beyond my simple sense, they’re not.
The male birds, desperate for a date, a second look, attention of any kind, expand their air bags again. Again with the sound of legs sliding along satin, this time followed by the pop of a champagne cork. That’s the quick, airbag deflate for repeat.
Another sound enters stage left. The beating of a drum. Two males are fighting. The drumming is their wings flapping frantically as they confront each other. Bar brawl with feathers instead of fists. They’re fighting over who gets the girl, but she’s not watching. No one gets lucky.
I’m still thinking about what a possible listing would mean for ranching and recreation when the birds near our blind start to retreat. Early morning is turning late and they’re seeking the safety of sagebrush. They’ll wait out daylight and return to the lek’s open area at sunset for a repeat performance. Ron will be here. So will I.
“It’s something everyone should have an opportunity to look at some time in their life, because one day they won’t be here,” Ron remarks while we pack up my gear and leave the birds to their business. “It’s part of life. The good part of life.”
Behind the scenes:
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognized the sage grouse struggle as warranted, but didn’t officially put the bird on the Endangered Species list in 2015. The son who caused Kris’ morning sickness years ago now visits leks with her. So does his little brother.