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Era of the sage grouse is coming to an end

 

Sage grouse were an important part of this Wyoming ranch kid’s early life. My dad’s place included a range of sage-covered hills, and on those hills and many more between the ranch and foothills of the Wind River Mountain Range, there were thousands of sage grouse we sometimes called sage hens, or sage chickens.

The Mountain Range Ditch brought irrigation water to my dad’s fields, separating the near hills from the lush alfalfa fields and other hay meadows. As a boy of eight or nine years old, I quickly learned that most of the sage hens nested in that zone above the ditch and generally close to the water. Once in a while I would find a nest some 50 to 150 yards from water, but without exception, all of the hens and their nests above the ditch were hidden in a clump of sagebrush.

I learned to spot the hens without disturbing them, and on my dad’s place there’d be 50 to 100 nests located along a quarter-mile of ditch. Once my ranch chores were done, I was free to roam. I found the grouse fascinating, and I’d watch for signs of hatching. Seeing the chicks or hearing their cheeping alerted me and I would back off. But I often hid a short distance away.

I learned that healthy stands of a sagebrush community include a mix of plants. It is in those healthy stands that sage grouse chicks find the bugs (read protein), as well as green vegetation, that chicks need to thrive and grow. But sagebrush ecosystems are usually dry with sparse vegetation. Irrigated fields produce a wealth of insects and lush, green leaves. Sage grouse eat both, but until the ranchers and their fields came along, the birds did not have access to such wonderful food sources.

Sometimes I’d see things that dismayed me. I’d watch a hen lead her brood of six to eight or even nine fluffy little ones to the ditch. There she would jump across and cluck for the chicks to follow. The yawning chasm of a three-foot ditch struck fear into them, and they would cheep in distress. Her calls would finally overcome the fears of some of them, and they would try to flutter across.

Only the strong would make it; the rest floated off down the ditch, to land who knew where. Then she had a problem with chicks on either side.

I only saw that happen a few times and determined to do something about it. My folks’ ranch house and barnyard was about a quarter-mile away, so I went down, found some 8-to-10-inch boards long enough to bridge the ditch, hauled them to the site and put them across. Once I had the satisfaction of seeing one old biddy lead her brood safely to the other side, I knew the bridges would work.

It was the beginning of my lifelong love of wild things. There was one other incident that so impressed me I can picture it yet. One cold but sunny winter day, I was horseback riding and entered a wide draw. As I rode through snow that was almost 10 inches high, I noted a large, dark patch in the snowfield ahead. I was puzzled, and as I rode on and neared the patch, it suddenly lifted from the ground in a thunder of wings, and flew away.

It was a great flock of sage grouse cocks, which I estimated to number between 1,000 and 2,000 birds. Today, no sage grouse live on that ranch or in those hills where I rode 70 years ago. Encroaching civilization, housing developments, drought and disease have all had their impact. Now, a new disease is killing the birds — West Nile virus. What’s more, energy exploration and development in critical sage grouse areas all over Wyoming is helping to drive the grouse toward extinction.

That is already happening with a close relative called Attwater’s prairie chicken. An estimated million birds had been reduced to less than 9,000 birds by 1937. Now, only a few — 10 cocks and 20 hens — are left on one small island of prairie in Texas. The earliest colonists on the East Coast wondered at the booming of strange birds — the heath hens. The last heath hen cock died there in 1932. In the last 20 years, researchers say sage grouse numbers have dropped by half.

The moral is yours to draw.

Tom Bell is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org) which he founded in 1970. He lives and writes in Lander, Wyoming.