Last summer I visited Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge to find the controversial sage grouse. We arrived about a month before the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) was due to decide whether to put the greater sage grouse on the Endangered Species List. I traveled with my husband and the co-founders of Sustain Music and Nature. Betsy has been one of my best friends since the first week I moved to Colorado nine years ago, and I’m on the board of her nonprofit Sustain.
Sustain at Seedskadee
Sustain is all about collaborating to green the music industry. With our Songscapes project we connect musicians with public lands. The musicians spend a week exploring a partner public land and then write a song about their experience. We hope to reach new audiences to support land conservation through music. The four of us traveled to Seedskadee NWR to meet with Tom the Refuge manager to see if it would be a good fit for the Songscapes project, and I hoped to see the elusive bird I’d been hearing so much debate about the uncertainty of its continued existence.
After a brief introduction to the Refuge’s history, Tom drove us around the Refuge, confident that we would find sage grouse along the way. A few short minutes filled with anticipation and doubt went by as we crawled along the dirt road at five miles per hour, when Tom stopped his truck and we all held our breath. As if on cue, four sage grouse crossed the road. With one window open, we could hear them clucking softly as they meandered through the sagebrush up the hill next to the road, completely unfazed by our presence. We watched in silence as they strutted through the brush, eating leaves and flower heads.
There are at least two sage grouse in this photo, can you find them?
During our tour we spooked a great horned owl from its roost, and spotted a family of marsh hawks flying low over the wetland near the river. A pronghorn fled from the truck’s motor, momentarily pausing as a silhouette on the hill top before disappearing out of sight. I lost count after seeing the fifteenth sage grouse as we continued our trek through Refuge. Seedskadee NWR is a haven for these birds, and we saw many small groups traversing the road. These elusive birds could easily be seen on the dirt, but once they crossed the road they would disappear within few feet of sagebrush, completely camouflaged with the landscape.
A month after our visit to Seedskadee NWR, the USFWS ultimately decided not to list the greater sage grouse thanks to the proactive measures taken by collaborative groups of diverse stakeholders. In an unprecedented effort, communities across the West worked together with the USFWS and nonprofit organizations in order to place protections on nearly 70 million acres of important sage grouse habitat – you can read about it here! This impressive effort of collaboration, and the decision to keep the sage-grouse off the Endangered Species List, shares a success story to promote collaborative and proactive efforts to conserve an entire landscape. Here’s another perspective a few months after the USFWS decision.
Now a year after our first visit, Sustain matched River Whyless with Seedskadee NWR and the band is spending a week there for inspiration and you can follow their experience through social media. I hope that they get to see a sage grouse, and appreciate the beauty of our western sage brush landscape.