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The New West: A wildlife photographer went stalking sage-grouse and found the West

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CREDIT: David J Swift

CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

In 2015, on the eve of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announcing its decision not to list the greater sage-grouse as a protected bird under the federal Endangered Species Act, photographer David Showalter was publishing a new book, “Sage Spirit,” that celebrates the importance of the native avian in the West.

I recently interviewed Showalter on what he’s learned as he has toured the country speaking about sage-grouse and the government’s controversial decision not to list a species dramatically reduced in number and today inhabiting only a small percentage of its historic range. Showalter, who makes his home in Colorado, spends a lot of time in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The two states which together provide the last best habitat for sage-grouse in the interior West are Wyoming and Montana.

TODD WILKINSON: You worked with Braided River Press and devoted years of your life to compiling a portfolio of images about the vast inner West where sage-grouse live. And the book, “Sage Spirit,” was released at around the same time the federal government decided not to list the bird under Endangered Species Act protections. What is important for people to know about the plight of the bird and where we are today?

DAVID SHOWALTER: In a sense, nothing has really changed—greater sage-grouse have been in steep decline for decades and we’re still seeking solutions to help stabilize populations. The exhaustive 11-state, 165-million-acre study identified Priority Areas For Conservation (PAC’s) and all of the state and agency plans roll up into the PAC’s. It’s imperfect, collaborative, inclusive, heavily criticized, and probably offers the best chance of survival for sage-grouse and a host of other species.

Sage-grouse live their entire life cycle in sage and need large, unbroken expanses of sage for survival. They are a bellwether for the entire ecosystem and we’ve failed the sagebrush ecosystem. I never really wanted my book to be a grouse book; it’s far more important that we view this sagebrush sea as the fabric that holds the West together. Sage-grouse are an umbrella species for 300-plus western wildlife species that rely on sagebrush for survival and sage-grouse offer a window into this remarkable, singular sagebrush ecosystem. Maybe it doesn’t matter if sage-grouse are listed—we already knew they’re endangered. What matters is where we go from here, that we work together, use our voices, seek new solutions, and fiercely protect habitat for greater sage-grouse and all of the creatures under the greater sage-grouse umbrella.

T.W.: Some government agencies, both federal and state, came under withering criticism when the bird wasn’t listed. You met a lot of people—land managers, biologists, policy makers— while working on the book. What’s your take on those who claim the sage-grouse’s prospects for survival were sold short?

D.S.: We need to take a step back to consider how complicated the West has become, and just how collaborative the process to reach an agreement that includes a new review in five years (four from now) was. Greater sage-grouse could still get listed if we fail. We watched the Endangered Species Act become a tool for assessing ecosystem health and adaptive management, rather than a line in the sand. We saw the major land management agencies—the BLM and USFS—work closely with a broad spectrum of stakeholders as the USFWS moved towards an inclusive, transparent ESA process. Anyone working on sage-grouse conservation, including me, would like to see more habitat protected and I hope that we can get there by simply letting science guide conservation efforts. We know, for instance, where large numbers of greater sage-grouse gather in winter outside of the PACs. Sage-grouse, who share winter habitat with mule deer, need protections of critical winter habitat and room to roam throughout their range in all seasons.

T.W.: In your book, you celebrate not only the charismatic nature of sage-grouse but the terrain they inhabit. How does your artistic eye inform your perspective as a conservationist?

D.S.: I’m generally building a storyline one image at a time and I think each image needs to stand on its own artistically and for its conservation message. For every image that succeeds, there are many that will never see the light of day. My approach is to begin with an idea and make a few images, then think about creative options and stay until those options are pretty well exhausted.

In Yellowstone, where everything is happening at once, I began using a mantra: stay until you learn something. It’s served me well and keeps me from flying off like a little bird. There’s also something inside that attracts me to overlooked and distressed areas. I want people to see the sagebrush differently, on a deeper level, to be surprised and delighted by the beauty and diversity.

T.W.: What’s your greatest fear about sage-grouse going forward?

D.S.: I’m most concerned about the pervasive, insidious threat to our public lands. When I started the project, I foolishly thought the sagebrush rebellion was just background noise, not really part of any serious discussion. But take a hard look at Utah Congressman Rob Bishop’s land-swap plans that choose developers as winners, or the Bundy takeover at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon, and countless bills for “states’ rights,” and what you see is an open hatred for lands that belong to you and me.

Our public lands are one of the best ideas we’ve ever had. From a pure ecological perspective, our western wildlife can’t survive in national parks and wilderness areas alone, they need room to roam that BLM and Forest Service (and private) lands provide. These public lands threats aren’t going away and underscore the need for all of us to be engaged in the issues, be part of the conversation, and be making our voices heard. How arrogant of a species are we when we fail to see the connection of human health to functioning ecosystems?

T.W.: What are the reasons for your optimism?

D.S.: I’ve seen people come together for greater sage-grouse, and their priority habitat is defined and better protected. Clearly, folks of disparate backgrounds are going to have very different reasons for saving our iconic western bird; but westerners are setting a good example for the rest of the country by working together.

Recent reports of increased sage-grouse lek counts (ways of measuring sage-grouse populations) are very nice to see, but more time and data is needed. To save a species that’s been here for 25 million years, we’ll need to stay the course and adjust habitat management strategies over time. I hope we have the courage and stamina to see the big picture, conserve more habitat, especially where landscapes function as wild refuge, and save something for future generations. As you know, any time spent in wild sagebrush country can be transformative.

Todd Wilkinson has been a journalist for 30 years. He writes his New West column every week, and it’s published on on EBS off weeks. Wilkinson authored the recent award-winning book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek: An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone,” featuring 150 astounding images by renowned American nature photographer Thomas Mangelsen. His new article on climate change, “2067: The Clock Struck Thirteen,” appears in the winter 2017 edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine, on stands now.

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