When pronghorns are a memory and sage-grouse exist only in videos

 

So, the biology class is called "Life on Earth." Hilarious, right? Let's learn about all the extinct animals! After weeks with the boring creepy-crawlies (they're not extinct! You should see the mosquitoes here, big as birds), we finally got to a great white shark and a bluefin tuna. Did you know the last tuna sold for over $5 million back in 2032? Now we're on to mammals, and the message? It sucks to be big. Elephants – bzzt! Rhinos – bzzt! Polar bears, gorillas, tigers – bzzt, bzzt, bzzt! But, hey, rats and raccoons are doing just fine.

Anyway, Ms. Washington was out sick -- so emotional, she actually cried telling us about the helicopter attack on the last elephant herd in Africa -- so we watched a video. It was an old National Geographic about this bird called a sage grouse. Turns out they used to live here in Wyoming. And they were totally weird and cool. This whole state used to be covered with this scraggly bush called sagebrush. It's still around in some places; I've touched it. The leaves have this really strong smell, stinky, but I kind of like it. Anyway, the birds ate these stinky leaves and lived out there in the snow (there used to be snow here, big time) and had to fight off coyotes and eagles and everything.

They kind of looked like big mutant chickens. The hens were pretty normal – all speckled brown and white, really good for hiding. But the males (called "cocks," snicker, snicker) were really big, had long spiky tails they'd spread like a fan, and a big white bib in front, like they were wearing a fat shawl or something. Also, crazy crest feathers standing up from the back of their head, kind of like old Mr. Corbett when he'd come in with bedhead, remember?

But the really cool thing was that these cocks would get together in groups to dance for the hens, and then the hens would choose which one was the best, and then mate with him. And the dance was insane! They'd fan that spiky tail and then do this pumping thing with their head and body, making this funny popping sound. And right when they did that, these two yellow – well, they called them "air sacs" in the video, but they looked like big yellow boobs – come bouncing out. I'm not making this up! And the hens think it's totally sexy. Somehow they'd decide that one of the cocks was a super stud, and he'd get almost all the hens.

So this weekend I was complaining about being bored (news flash!), and my dad made me come with him out to one of the old gas wells he works on. We drove for miles through the gas field, all old and rusted, with dirt roads running all over the place. Finally we get there and my dad spends like an hour banging on the well, trying to get it to suck out a last liter or two, and then he says he's got a treat for me. Right.

So we drive some more, and then come out on the edge of a cliff and we can see for miles, out over all the thousands of old wells and all the wind turbines turning and turning, all the way to the mountains on the horizon, with a little snow on top. Way down below there were a couple of mean-looking old cows wandering around, which was amazing, the first animals bigger than a dog I've seen since we moved here.

For some reason I asked my dad if he'd ever heard of sage grouse. Nope. But then he starts talking about animals that used to live here. Grizzly bears and buffalo, and elk and wolves and something called pronghorns. (I looked them up – kind of like deer, with funny horns shaped like bottle openers.) It was weird -- he'd never seen any of those for real either, but up there, just us, we could squint our eyes and pretend we could see them. How can you feel sad missing something you'd never ever had? But I kind of did.

That sage grouse video started and ended the same, with a picture taken pretty far away of one grouse all by himself, on a snowy ridge in front of a mountain. He's doing his dance, but it's too far away to hear the sound. Just that lonely bird. Maybe he was the last one.

As we got back in the truck, my dad took one last look out over the deserted gas field, and said, "This used to be a crazy, beautiful world. Now it's just crazy." But I couldn't even roll my eyes because I was sort of crying.

Clair Voyant, a budding writer very much assisted by the Oregon naturalist Pepper Trail, is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the column service of High Country News.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -