Why I Love the Cimarron National Grasslands

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If you live for watching a dog chase the scent of prairie quail across those vast empty spaces, the Cimarron National Grasslands in far southwestern Kansas is a rite of passage, but one that isn’t easy or guaranteed.

By Chad Love

Rio de los Carneros Cimarron. The River of the Wild Sheep. Or as we know it today, the Cimarron. In any of its forms, the name rolls off the tongue like the sound of wind through sage in a way that evokes wildness, isolation, and stark, haunting beauty. If you live for watching a dog chase the scent of prairie quail across those vast empty spaces, the Cimarron National Grasslands in far southwestern Kansas is a rite of passage, but one that isn’t easy or guaranteed. 

Out here, way beyond the 100th Meridian on the northern edge of what once was Comancheria, surface water is fleeting, even in the best of times, and as it wends its way across this landscape, the Cimarron is a river in name only, a sandy footpath for quail and the ghosts of history, and those who pursue both. I first became enthralled with the Cimarron National Grasslands while writing a story about the river that once flowed through them, but it was the allure, and the fleeting, hard-won promise of wild quail that kept me coming back year after year.

These are lands borne of heartache, shattered dreams, and environmental disaster. Like all national grasslands, the Cimarron grasslands were originally individual homesteads; quarter and half-section dryland farms blown away and abandoned during the Dust Bowl years and subsequently repurchased by the federal government under the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act, a Department of Interior program designed to return some of the most severely eroded land back to its native state.

But these are also lands reborn of rejuvenation, restoration, and redemption. These grasslands – your grasslands – are now ecological islands, where the roots of native prairie grasses hold fast the bones of the land even as much of the plains surrounding them have been converted into ag production.  

Truth be told, there are better places to hunt bobwhites, and there are better places to hunt scaled quail. The grasslands’ location sits largely on the western edge of the former, and the eastern fringe of the latter. Quite frankly, you’re not going to shoot a helluva lot of quail out here. But numbers are not why you come to this place. You come here to experience the humbling power and beauty and solitude of the landscape itself through the conduit of bird hunting. And if there’s a better explanation than that for why we - or at least I - bird hunt, I’ll be damned if I know what it is. And the grasslands will give that to you in spades.  

This is a place where individual perspective is forced to conform to the endless horizontal primacy of grass and space, to follow the hard lines of the land from one end of a giant arc of sky and earth to the other – no escape, no shelter, no softness, no cradling comfort. This is landscape laid bare, parsed to basic elements of sky, grass, wind. 

It is an intimidating place for a bird hunter. It can swallow you, your dogs, and your spirit. Yet there is much beauty here. On the southern plains in fall and winter, as the harsh light of afternoon segues into the soft glow of evening, things change. It’s the quality of light on sage, grass and sky that eases the hardness of the land and gives it a beauty that I have found nowhere else in a lifetime of chasing many birds across many different landscapes. It is at these moments, after a hard day of hunting in which the grasslands may very well have given you nothing for your efforts but dusty lungs and aching legs, that I most love them.

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