High in the Desatoya Mountains east of Fallon, Nev., and just east of Route 50 — famously dubbed “The Loneliest Road in America” by Life Magazine in 1986 — a curious congregation gathers in the predawn light.
It is a congregation made up of two parts: one, of sage grouse, preparing to strut their stuff in the frost-nipped sagebrush; the other, of humans, huddled in or near their cars. The people have swaddled themselves in gloves and fleece against the early-morning cold. They peer intently through binoculars and spotting scopes, murmuring, counting birds. The two groups coexist, mainly because the humans stay way back, and the birds stay focused on their courtship revue.
The birds’ ritual has played out in the Great Basin since time immemorial. For the birds, known to science as Centrocercus urophasianus, or greater sage grouse, the gathering — called a lek — is instinctual. The white-ruffed, golden-browed males are obeying an innate drive to gather and flounce and puff up their chests. These communal displays occur out in the open, on clearings to which the birds return year after year. The males hope to attract a mate, passing along their genes for posterity.
For the biologists and volunteers — some of whom got up at 2 a.m. — being here is something more akin to stewardship, to conservation of a dying art. They gather to observe and document this springtime rite because it is, in the words of naturalist Fred A. Ryser Jr., “one of the most stirring and colorful natural history pageants in the Great Basin.”
The sun creeps up over the snow-capped range to the east, turning icy sagebrush limbs to glitter. A lone pronghorn pauses mid-chew, watching the humans watching the birds. Separated by hundreds of yards, the two groups quietly await the light’s liquid advance across the valley.
The warming effect is electrifying. Suddenly, the place comes alive; there is a sound like champagne corks popping in the distance, a flurry of activity at the scopes toward the lek.
Kim Toulouse, volunteer project coordinator for the Nevada Department of Wildlife, keeps the 20 or so humans ruly. “Shhh! Do you hear that?” He directs their ears to a far-off popping, the sound of the birds’ esophageal sacs being rapidly compressed as the males, stiff-backed with wings spread and tails splayed, puff out their chests.
“It’s like an old-school percolator going off: bloink, bloink, bloink,” he says.
Because they occur every spring, leks provide biologists with reliable, easily gathered data on sage grouse densities. A proposal to list certain populations of sage grouse as endangered has prompted renewed interest in its status and available habitat. However, there is considerable pressure against a listing from ranchers, miners, oil and natural gas developers; even Nevada’s Department of Wildlife is opposed.
This is high-stakes conservation, with economic implications. The bird’s current range spans 11 states and two Canadian provinces, covering more than 250,000 square miles. In Nevada alone, in 15 of the state’s 17 counties, there are more than 30,000 square miles of potential habitat: shrub steppe between 4,000 and 9,000 feet in elevation, covered in the necessary sagebrush and sufficiently undeveloped.
There's lots of sage here, and not an insignificant number of grouse. Nevadans still hunt them every fall. So it comes as little surprise that sage grouse numbers have been monitored in this state for some time now. State biologists have kept records since the 1940s, and over the last nine years, the agency and its partners (along with hundreds of volunteers) have surveyed more than 700 leks a year, 314 of which were active sites.
Their findings? Sage grouse populations in Nevada have been declining since 2001, largely as a result of increased fire activity. Fires from 1999 to 2007 burned 2.6 million acres of prime sage grouse habitat, affecting 40 percent of the active leks in the state.
Other stressors include residential expansion, encroachment by juniper and piñon (the birds don’t much like trees), and, dismayingly, energy development.
The grouse are sagebrush obligates, says Shawn Espinosa, wildlife staff specialist for the state, meaning that they cannot exist without it. So if you want to save the sage grouse, the West's latest embattled bird, you have to save the sagebrush. A whole lot of it, potentially: 250,000 square miles, a veritable ocean of sage.
But saving sagebrush is not likely to garner support -- not out West. Not when there are more profitable things to do with the land. That notion’s been losing traction since the early 19th century. It’s a tough battle for these stirring, colorful birds.
Peter Pearsall is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He splits his time between northern Nevada and Seattle.