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Know the West

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.