« Return to this article

Know the West

Of hawks and hope

In a climate collapse, a wildlife biologist turns from sadness to action.

 

No matter how many times I do this, time slows when I climb into a ferruginous hawk’s nest.

It’s a perfect morning: The temperature is mild, and there’s no wind. But I know that will change rapidly. Temperatures will rise faster than the butterflies in my stomach, so I need to be quick. I place my ladder at the base of the nest and climb up. My breath catches in my throat as my head crests over the edge of the nest’s stick wall. Four nestlings stare back at me, their mouths agape.

Juhlin’s perspective looking into a ferruginous hawk nest.
Ellis Juhlin

I am a graduate student in ecology studying the parasites of ferruginous hawk nestlings. I have worked studying birds and promoting their conservation since I graduated college in 2017. I watch the diversity of birds that migrates through Cache Valley, Utah, keeping my outdoor lights off to diminish the light pollution they struggle to navigate through. Birds are a great unifier, the most accessible wildlife we have. No matter where you are, you can almost always spot a bird nearby. But now, as someone who works with wildlife in the West, I am scared for my hawks, and the rest of the wildlife that calls this place home.

What I am observing in the lives of these birds, and experiencing in my own life, surpasses the emotionless term “climate change.” Maybe it’s the record-breaking wildfire season, which is still not over, or the increasingly severe Western droughts. Maybe it’s my terror watching the birds I study panting from the heat in May as they incubate their eggs, knowing that the temperatures could double by the time they hatch. The climate change that I learned about in college pales in comparison to this new normal. 

In an online discussion in November between Terry Tempest Williams and Pam Houston, two authors I admire, the term “climate change” was not used. We were discussing Williams’ book, Erosion, where the changing climate is a central theme. However, these two authors referred only to climate collapse. The moment Houston said “climate collapse,” the buzzer in my head went off, as if we were in a game show. I immediately knew what she meant. I am living through a climate collapse.

I love the place I call home, and the mountains I get to see from my porch. This summer, I breathed in the smoke that enveloped those mountains, making them invisible.

Grief is a form of love. My love for what I do defines who I am. This love hurts.

I love the birds I have the honor of observing during their breeding season. My stomach soars with them when I return to my field sites and see them gliding above me. When windstorms knocked nestlings out of their nests — and out of their lives — this summer, I cradled them in my arms and sobbed. Grief is a form of love. My love for what I do defines who I am. This love hurts. And this love holds hands tightly with grief. I am grieving a changing planet. I am grieving the species this planet has lost, and the species fighting to hang on, as painfully as I grieved the death of my fallen nestlings.

How do I stand, with all of my grief? How do I walk with my grief in my right hand and my love in my left, and not fall off balance? I am scared. I am uncomfortable. But discomfort indicates growth. With my fear and my grief holding me tight, I also feel the pull of the potential of this time. A voice of hope whispers that maybe this is all moving me toward meaningful change. I think the world around me is calling out for help. If I can pause long enough to sit with my grief, and listen to that call, I can get back up, shoulder my burdens and think about the next step.

I spend my summers hiking through gorgeous red-rock deserts, celebrating the arrival of new life. My joy accompanies my sorrow when I see oil pads pumping like a robot heart across this landscape. I know my hawks need a healthy ecosystem to survive, but the clearing of sagebrush for building oil pads harms their ecosystem. Ferruginous hawks are a considered a “sensitive species” by the state of Utah, but drilling leases continue as though this is inconsequential. Reaching into the nests to band the nestlings draw blood samples, I sometimes wonder if I am just quantifying destruction, watching my birds fight to survive while the human world closes in around them.

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/issues/49.12/essay-climate-change-confronting-despair-in-the-age-of-ecocide]

I finish collecting my samples, carefully place each nestling back into its nest, and thank them for letting me gather this information. I ask them to try their hardest to be safe out here, to please hunker down in windstorms. I tell them that I hope I see them again one day, as adults with their own nests. I will return every few weeks to check on them from afar, until they fly off.

As a researcher, I know that data collection informs management decisions, and the data I collect is important. But as someone who loves these birds, I want so much more for them than survival and management.  So I keep climbing into nests, and collecting data to tell the nestlings’ stories. Because what is my grief even worth, if I don’t use it to make change? 

Ellis Juhlin is a graduate student at Utah State and a fervent advocate for the cultivation of responsible relationships between humans and our natural world, something she is constantly working on. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

Runner up of the 2020 Bell Prize
The Bell Prize for young essayists honors the spirit of our founder, Tom Bell. At a time when there was little coverage of environmental issues in the American West, Bell founded HCN in 1970 and was a strong voice for conservation. The Bell Prize is awarded to emerging writers, aged 18 to 25, who can carry on that legacy.
 The prize is supported by Mountainsmith. Read the winning essay.