Sage Grouse Lekking and Canyon Fiction.

Green river 3
Green River at Green River City, where John Wesley Powell’s Grand Canyon expedition was launched.

The grey-green sagebrush steppe and yellow and red rock canyons are two of the most contrastive, distinctive, colorful environments of the North American West. Arid and ancient, each supports its own vulnerable ecosystems. Over the last week or so, I’ve tried to further my understanding of these places in which it would be all too easy to become lost; firstly through a field trip onto the steppe and secondly through reading John Vernon’s excellent novel about John Wesley Powell’s first journey down the Green and Colorado rivers to the Grand Canyon, The Last Canyon (Mariner, 2001).

There’s something thrilling about going out onto the Wyoming sagebrush prairie before dawn to see a greater sage grouse lek. I left Laramie on such a journey in freezing temperatures, at 4:40 one morning about a week ago with a small group of friends from the Berry Biodiversity Institute and other University of Wyoming departments. As we drove northwards, Venus shone low, larger and more brightly than I’ve ever seen on the eastern horizon. The skies outside of towns in Wyoming are dark, because there is relatively little light pollution in this sparsely populated, high elevation state. Laramie is 7,165 feet above sea level. The highest point in the state is Gannett Peak, in the Wind River Range, at 13,809 and the lowest is 3,099 along the Belle Fourche River, Cheyenne. We neared our destination as the first hints of daylight were turning blackness into a deep blue, with a long, silver gash marking the distant point where the hills met the sky. The grouse were already visible, the males performing their elaborate ritual of strutting around with puffed-out chests and fanned, spiky, starred tails. Like Kings of the Night. Their constant inflating and deflating of the two yellow, balloon-like skin pouches on their white-feathered chests produces a strange, low quobble sound. I am unsure whether the lek provides protection on the basis that there is more safety in numbers, or whether it draws predators’ attention. The birds certainly became increasingly visible as the daylight came. We counted 35 males, each trying to attract a mate although almost every one of them will fail (a dominant male in the middle of the group mates with more than 80% of the females).

Sage grouse are iconic birds of the high sagebrush environment, and might be regarded as a high-profile species because of the attraction of their display. As I watched their extravagant behaviour, I wondered about the many, less noticeable species that fail to renew themselves and are lost without – or almost without – notice. The grouse are a valuable indicator of changes in biodiversity, with numbers declining because of a continuing reduction in suitable habitat. Wyoming has the world’s largest greater sage grouse population, with around 54% of the total number. The winter 2014 issue of Western Confluence (a new magazine published by the Ruckelshaus Institute in the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, UWYO) includes a compelling article in which Michael J. Brennan discusses the birds’ decline along with the various measures and incentives that have been introduced to protect them. The Federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide in September 2015 whether to list the greater sage grouse as an endangered species. Michael Brennan assesses the evidence as it stands, exploring the case for and against listing. The Bureau of Land Management provides a map with commentary on breeding density that draws attention to the Wyoming grouse population. In Colorado, the slightly smaller Gunnison sage grouse are also the subject of protection strategies. I feel humbled and privileged to have seen this group of birds.

Dawn on the Prairie

A brilliant, fiery dawn added to the spectacle, and we saw pintail ducks, countless meadowlarks as well as plenty of pronghorn before returning for the most sociable of breakfasts at the Laramie Chuckwagon. I’m indebted to my UWYO hosts for this experience. Carlos Martinez del Rio (Director of the Berry Institute) is an expert guide, and his telescope was a welcome supplement to my Nikkon Monarch binoculars (8 x 40s, good in low light, and I’m glad that I bought them). Eric Sandeen, a good friend, Professor of American Studies at UW, and Founding Director of the Wyoming Institute for Humanities Research came with us. I was not able to take pictures of the grouse as I would have needed a specialist camera, but Western Confluence contains some stunning photos. Other reading that I particularly recommend in this number includes a fascinating account of the effects of different grazing policies on plant species diversity in ‘Cattle as Ecosystem Engineers’ (Justin Derner, David Augustine, and Emily Kachergis) and Emilene Ostlind’s ‘The Ecology Of Fear,’ which considers how to map the effect of Yellowstone wolves in a behaviorally mediated tropic cascade down the food chain (from elk to beavers, and other small animals, through insects to microbes and plants). I’d heard the story — Ostlind presents evidence to suggest that it is just a story verging on myth – of wolves reducing elk damage to aspens, bringing back beavers and their ponds, etc. Romantic, wishful thinking? Jessica Clement’s ‘Humans: The Wildest Animal in the forest’ is a short, thoughtful essay on social science and forestry in the Tetons, while in ‘Notes from the Field’ Anne Jakle looks at Carbon County’s Chokecherry / Sierra Madre project and wind farms. Indy Burke, editor of the magazine, provides an ecologist’s retrospective on the 2012 wildfires (‘Regen’) and Chad Baldwin addresses concerns over ground-level ozone problems and smog in ‘Collaborative problem solving in the gas fields.’ Alex Latchininsky and Scott Schell are co-authors of a short, informative article on the songs of Wyoming’s cicadas. Rancher, Haub School Advisory Board Member and former Director of the FWS, John Turner rounds off with an essay on the value of environmental stewardship as good business and good practice.


So on to literature and the romance of adventure. The Last Canyon was the final book that I discussed with my UW graduate student group. John Vernon fictionally treats the 1869 first voyage of John Wesley Powell and his entourage of explorers by boat from Green River City in Wyoming, through Utah and Arizona to the Grand Canyon. Yet he does far more. The narrative of Powell’s journey is carried by his evocation of western explorer grit and white-water, river-running vigor, mounting human tensions, a diminishing supply of food, fear of encounters with Native Americans and a mood of almost unbearable nervous suspense to match the sublimity of the terrain. Even though he eventually finds his canyon, Powell is confounded in his attempts at the impossible: to give one instance, he tries to give names to all the landscape features as he and his men descend deeper and deeper into the eroded landscape (he already had more than a hunch that John Muir’s glaciation hypothesis was correct: see my last blog post for more on Muir). Faced with the seemingly endless devastation of buttes, stacks and mesas that comprise what we now know as Canyonlands, near Moab, his taxonomic capacity fails. Measuring the journey in terms of decreasing elevation rather than linear miles, the narrative resembles a journey into the underworld. In keeping with that ancient and appropriate literary trope, Powell’s was a journey of self-discovery and disturbing encounter, as well as an exploration of the wild American landscape.

Canyon lands

There is a neat structural twist. The chapters relating to Powell’s voyage are interleaved with a parallel story about a small group of Shivwits Paiute Americans who live around the rim of the Grand Canyon. Their story is given equal coverage. Common experiences emerge, connecting the two groups in devastating ways. Powell lost an arm after being shot in the Civil War at Shiloh, and he recalls in detail the amputation; meanwhile, one of the Shivwits women has been shot in the arm by gold miners. Her wound festers, as her companions use the only medicine that they know. Toab, leader of the Shivwits shares a common character trait with Powell, described aptly by Verlyn Klinkenborg in his review of the novel for the New York Times as ‘disbelief in the same things’ (November 11, 2001). Perhaps Toab’s most tragic disbelief is that people could not (or at least, would not) come down the river. Both parties are searching for something: Powell for the ultimate discovery of the Canyon, but also for a more spiritual experience that eludes him, and Toab’s Shivwits for some lost children. Just as the landscape is a worn away creation of material absence, so loss is an overwhelming motif of the entire story. To say much more would involve spoilers. Let’s just say that a story involving these rivers and canyons is bound to be concerned with confluences. This is a fabulous novel. John Vernon’s conclusion is devastating. The students and I loved it, and it generated some of the best conversations of our time together.

I’ll conclude by concurring with the New York Times review: The Last Canyon is just ‘too good a piece of fiction to be called a novelization of that summer when a short, one-armed Union veteran of Shiloh — tainted more than guided by his father’s orthodox Methodism — plummeted into that great seam of rock and river.’

I have not yet seen the Grand Canyon. On my way to Boise, Idaho, at the end of last week I visited Green River City and stood on the spot where John Wesley Powell launched his expedition. That was a special moment. I’ve also stood on the rocks by Lake Powell and Hite City.

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