Where the West Still Lives

These last six months were a whirlwind. After returning from Asia in the wake of the emerging pandemic, I moved to the tiny western town of Cedarville, California to work a 6 month field season. Situated in Modoc County, one of the most rural areas in California, Cedarville sits in the far northeastern corner of the state, seemingly cut off from civilization by the mighty Warner Mountains to the west and the vast Great Basin Desert to the east. It is a town of mainly cattle ranchers and farmers, and just outside of town lies an endless range where deer and antelope roam. It is here where the West still lives. 

I came to Cedarville as an Americorps volunteer hired by the Great Basin Institute to work in direct collaboration with the Bureau of Land Management on their wildlife and ecological monitoring projects. One of our main tasks was to aide in the long-term conservation efforts of the greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus). These birds are some of the most iconic species in the American West and are known for their bizarre mating displays in which males strut about, puffing out their chest to expose two bright yellow vocal sacs that emit an other-worldly sound. These mating displays occur on sites called leks where multiple males congregate to display and try to attract females. For thousands of years the western prairies and scablands across North America have hosted these incredible rituals, but unfortunately the rapid development of the land by American settlers throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries has caused the sage grouse population to decline drastically. This has created the need for an effective large-scale conservation initiative spanning their entire remaining range.

The habitat of the greater sage grouse.

Because sage grouse range over such a huge area of land, much of which is valuable to ranchers, farmers, and miners, their conservation program has been managed in a slightly different way than other endangered species in the U.S. There are a large number of state, federal, and nonprofit agencies that work closely with private landholders and mining companies to conserve the species through sustainable land management practices that benefit both wildlife and people. This massive collaboration of organizations has kept the sage grouse off the U.S. Endangered Species List, with the understanding that limited disturbance of non-critical sage grouse habitat will be allowed while the most important habitat areas will be strictly off-limits to development. This is a novel conservation method that reduces the amount of blanket federal regulations and places the responsibility on smaller entities. But as you can imagine, with so many different stakeholders there is a large level of controversy surrounding the sage grouse conservation effort and the management models are still heavily debated. For more information about some of these programs, please visit the following websites:

BLM: https://www.blm.gov/programs/fish-and-wildlife/sage-grouse

USFWS: https://www.blm.gov/programs/fish-and-wildlife/sage-grouse

Sage Grouse Initiative: https://www.sagegrouseinitiative.com/

In order to conserve a population of animals, you need to get an idea of how many individuals there are. Counting birds at leks in the springtime is the main way we can get an estimate of how many sage grouse there are in a given area. Our job was to wake up at 3 in the morning and drive out to these lek sites, hike up to a mile in freezing temperatures before the sun rose, and set up the spotting scope in preparation for observing the grouse lek activity. Often times we were too far away to see the sage grouse with the naked eye, but with the spotting scope we could make out their unusual antics and count the number of males present. This truly is one of the most bizarre species I have ever worked with. While watching these birds in action, one can’t help but feel like they are watching a creature from a different planet. The strutting display is elegant, ridiculous, and grotesque all at the same time.

File:Greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus).jpg
The otherworldly strutting display of a male sage grouse. Bureau  of Land Management / Public domain
Capturing a sage grouse to fit with a tracking device.

Sage grouse are also radio-tagged and tracked throughout select locations of their range as part of a spatial ecology study to examine their movements and habitat preferences. For three nights we got to assist a researcher in trapping and tagging sage grouse. Capturing sage grouse is just like an alien abduction, at least on the birds’ end. You go out in the pitch-black night with a spotlight and a net. Once you locate a bird on the ground (and they are very camouflaged so it’s hard to see them) you play white noise from a small speaker hooked to your belt to mask the sound of your footsteps. The person with the spotlight strobes the bird into a kind of hypnotized state while the netter quickly approaches and brings the net down over the stunned bird. Sage grouse can put up quite the fight so to prevent them from popping the net up and escaping, the netter must pounce on the bird to safely secure its wings. Once the bird is in hand, a researcher can place a VHF transmitter device on the bird which fits almost like a backpack, with straps that go around the wings and legs in a fashion that does not hinder the bird’s movement. Wing measurements and the grouse’s weight are recorded, and metal bands with a unique ID number are placed on the leg before setting the bird free. The grouse can then be tracked by researchers through the use of radiotelemetry equipment.

Unfortunately due to the COVID-19 pandemic that brought the world to a standstill in late March, we temporarily suspended all field activities and opted to work remotely from home, cutting the sage grouse lek count season short. I was lucky enough to stay with family in northern California during this difficult time as the pandemic surged and countries fought to flatten the curve. Thankfully I was able to still get outside and visit a few local natural wonders while practicing social distancing on the trails. It would be over two months before we were allowed to return to Modoc County and resume our ecological monitoring.

The diversity of plants found throughout the Modoc Plateau.

Returning to Cedarville in late Spring well after the sage grouse lekking season had ended, we switched gears completely to conduct vegetation surveys on select plots throughout the Modoc plateau. These surveys assess the quality of the land by means of collecting data on plant species, the amount of ground cover present, and soil characterization. These surveys are part of a nation-wide standard protocol carried out across the entire American West and the data gathered can be used to make management decisions about the land and wildlife at both the regional and national levels. The data inform officials and ranchers about which cattle grazing regimes to use, which areas are critical habitat for sage grouse, where active plant restoration programs should focus their efforts, and even which regions are most prone to wildfire. Ultimately these ecological surveys are among the best tools we have to accurately assess and take inventory of the natural resources in the West.

A transect line for vegetation surveys.

The main part of these surveys consisted of setting up three 25 meter transects each at a specific compass bearing, and then sampling the plant species and plant heights at every 2 ½ meters. Since my background in plants is not particularly strong, I had to study extensively and teach myself a crash course in botany. But with the help of my knowledgeable coworkers, a few good field guides, and Google (of course!) I learned a huge amount about plant identification. The second big part of these surveys involved digging a 70 centimeter soil pit to examine soil horizons. I spent many days kneeling in the dirt digging through very stony ground under the hot sun with no shade. Mind you, this was not prison labor but science! Although this could be laborious, it was important to dig deep enough to make sure we could characterize and record each distinct soil horizon, a critical piece of information when analyzing and predicting which plots can support certain plants.

Wild mustangs on the sagebrush prairie, an icon of the West.

The Modoc Plateau is a wild and wonderful place. The small ranch towns tucked away within the rugged terrain, and the vast expanses of sagebrush stretching to the horizon are truly reminiscent of the Wild West. Many of our field sites were along the same routes that the first Gold Rush settlers took to reach California, a fact confirmed by an old canyon wall inscribed “49” written in wagon axle grease. We commonly found old arrowheads hidden on the ground, a reminder of the tribes of people who thrived in these wild and beautiful lands long before us. This is a region where people’s livelihoods are often directly tied to the land and it is important to meet the needs of both humans and wildlife. With collaborative conservation efforts geared to preserve not only wild lands but also the livelihoods of farmers, ranchers, and Native Americans, I hope to see that this special remnant of the American Wild West can live on.

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