Story and photos by Liz Lynch
Glunk! As the Tacoma rolls to a stop, my boyfriend Jared shuts the engine down, which allows me to hear the telltale sounds rising from the grassy flat in front of us. One of the American West’s most iconic annual events is underway.
Bloop? Bloop. If I couldn’t see the dozen or so distinctly gallinaceous heads, adorned with luxuriant white cowl scarves, variously rising like anxious little periscopes out of the sagebrush, it might be easy to miss them. We maintain a healthy distance from the birds, and in the dim first light of the day, their muted grey and brown tones are difficult by design to espy.
Zweep! Zweeoop! Glunk. I feel like a little kid on Christmas morning. With binoculars pressed too firmly and unsteadily against my face, I watch the male sage grouse dart back and forth on the lek. There are a handful of hens watching them; we featherless bipeds outnumber the birds, even midweek. Jared remarks that their numbers aren’t particularly good this year. He would know: not only was he born and raised here, but he’s also the son of a now-retired Wyoming Game & Fish non-game coordinator, who studied sage grouse as a graduate student at the University of Nevada – Reno. That statement will ring in my ears later, but for now, I’m lost in the elation of witnessing my first sage grouse lek, and daydreams of pursuing these curious living fossils, these animate works of art, in the fall.
Wyoming sage grouse season is short. Truth be told, it’s a minor miracle we’re able to hunt them at all. Sage grouse are sagebrush obligates, meaning they’re dependent on the Artemisia species that fall under the Tridentatae section, although they also require a diversity of native forbs and grasses. They’re not faring well, numbers-wise; the Audubon Society cites habitat loss from oil & gas development, real estate development, and the double-edged sword of increasing frequency and severity of wildfires and the spread of invasive cheatgrass as the key issue. A 2015 habitat management plan spared the greater sage grouse from Endangered Species listing, which also spared policymakers from their concerns about potential major economic losses spurred by restrictions on the extractive industry, land development, and ranching – all of which impact sagebrush directly – that would follow. The hope is that avoiding further impacts to key breeding and nesting areas will prevent further dips in population numbers.
September only comes once a year, but archery elk season is relatively short, too. Jared and his English setter, Rhiza – named for Balsamorhiza sagittata, a critical food for mule deer surfing the Green Wave in springtime – are my default hunting companions. But with Jared gone in the Bighorns, seeking elk, I’m on my own. Fortunately, this is not my first dog-free, solo upland pursuit rodeo, so I’m looking forward to some “me time” taking my shotgun for a walk in the wee, small, crepuscular hours during the next week.
The first area I try hunting is a longer drive, but it’s beautiful country, full of history, and we’ve been there before for birds. I make the mistake of going in the evening; the drive home, empty-handed, feels like I’m playing an ungulate version of Frogger. My white knuckles tell me I should try hunting in the morning instead.
Morning pursuits, of course, must be juggled with regular working hours, so I go to a second spot, which is less than half an hour away. During the last archery deer season, we’d see “sage bombers” buzzing the tops of the brush there, en route to a glassing spot. It’s a patchwork of private land, made accessible for through-travel, that eventually opens into some Bureau of Land Management acreage. Fences make navigating private/public boundaries easy enough.
The first morning, I’m a mess. I’ve left my turkey choke in my shotgun, and only brought 3-inch shells with relatively large shot, so I’d better hope my aim is dead-on. Naturally, when a small covey of Hungarian partridge floats up in a gloriously slow rise, I have trigger panic: what’s the bag limit? I can shoot these and still shoot sage grouse, right? These are huns, right? By the time my brain fog clears, the birds have soared down the drainage to private property. Shortly thereafter, a pair of short-eared owls float by in silence, and one sage grouse hastily rockets itself from the ridgeline, some 200 yards to my right, into the great green yonder. I selfishly hope the owls will leave the gamebirds alone, but I wouldn’t hold a grudge if they proved the better predator today. I go home empty-handed, save for a few photos of a glorious, blood-red fire season sunrise.
The next few mornings pass in roughly the same fashion, but with fewer birds of any species every time. By the last day, even the owls are gone. I should feel discouraged— and yet, I feel happier each time I’m out. The early autumn air is crisp; the light, beautiful; the drive, pleasant; the walks, serene and unhurried. This is one of the great joys of upland hunting: it’s always a calorie-negative endeavor, and the quarry is wily (and far smarter than you are, despite having a brain the size of a walnut), so you’d do well to learn to love the pursuit as soon as you’re able. It’s hard to have a bad day when it starts like this.
After making my way down one fruitless drainage, I amble down the fenceline and notice a pronghorn buck raking a sagebrush on the hillslope opposite mine. I should be skittering down into the draw, where the Huns flew that first day and where sage grouse ought to be, but there’s too much quiet magic, so I pull the binoculars out of my pack and sit. I watch the buck rake, nibble, rake again, move to the next bush, nibble, rake until he suddenly “sneezes” and bolts. My eyes catch a flurry of motion to the right: a coyote. I stand up, and the other predator trots off, too. Sit still in the sage long enough, and you’re bound to see a veritable free-range menagerie.
As I work my way up the drainage for my final loop of the day, I keep my breath and footsteps hushed. I’m fortunate to have better hearing than I do eyesight; moving slow and listening closely are important to how I hunt. It pays off.
Perperp, perperperp? If you’ve spent time around domestic chickens, you’re likely familiar with the almost-imperceptible vocalizations they make if they’re uneasy: not quite a cluck, and certainly not a honk or a purr, but something like a turkey’s putt. Anecdotally, I’ve heard smaller gamebirds make these types of vocalizations, too, and I’m fairly certain this means I’m not the only being in this cobbly draw.
It’s not long before I hear something shuffling through the sagebrush. The perperperperrrrperperp is faster, now: almost frantic. I’m close. I take a step forward, and a rugby ball-sized mass of feathers explodes upward in another mercifully slow, easy rise. I raise my shotgun and pull the trigger. The bird crumples and drops, stray feathers drifting down behind it.
I pick up my bird: it’s a hen. As I look her over, I begin to cry: because I’m happy about shooting my first sage grouse; because sage grouse are beautiful, and otherwise masterful at surviving in this equally-beautiful niche environment; because being an omnivore who’s intimately acquainted with my dinners is complicated, even ugly at times. I’m unable to soundly judge a sage grouse’s sex on the wing, so in the interest of keeping the population here afloat, I decide this one sage hen will be it for me this year.
My sage grouse becomes several meals of curry sage grouse roti, a wing in the freezer, a fan preserved with borax, and feathers for earrings. She becomes the cause of celebration: for me, for Jared, for Rhiza, and for sagebrush. Within hours of plucking and freezing the meat, I’m looking into which conservation groups are working on preserving and restoring the habitat these birds are dependent on: I’m thrilled to find several, including the Sagebrush in Prisons Project, a local collaborative effort that centers on incarcerated adults applying what they’ve learned about gardening and sustainability by growing sagebrush from seed, to be used in future habitat restoration efforts. I also learned about the Sage Grouse Initiative, a part of the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Working Lands for Wildlife, established in 2010. The SGI is a partnership-based effort doing work throughout sage grouse country, and Pheasants Forever is one of the partner organizations, with their role centering around helping to manage funding – including donations – and contracts.
Over my first roti, I make a mental note to donate time, money, or both to these organizations in the future, because that’s the least I owe this hen. In hunting, gratitude and reciprocity are a must. Sage grouse seem to have a knack for nourishing the human body, mind, and soul, and there are hundreds of ways to say thank you to these special birds and their glorious, Artemisian fields.
Liz Lynch is an archaeologist in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. She's a "late to the party" hunter, starting in her mid-20s after deciding she wanted a closer connection to slower food and the woods around her. She enjoys the many over-the-counter gun hunting opportunities her Rocky Mountain home affords her, including a wide array of upland species that she enjoys pursuing with her better half, Jared, and his English setter, Rhiza.