A Bird and a Baby: Confessions of a Sage Grouse Conservationist

Why are the things that leave us shaking and wide-eyed with fear or adrenaline the very things that define us and that we often love with a vengeance? Oddly, this describes my relationship with greater sage-grouse.

My first experience with that chicken-like resident of sage brush country left my husband and I curled in the broken glass and twisted metal of my Bronco II, bloody, bruised, and wondering how the hell we were going to get help in the land of stray cows and few people. After spending the night north of the Black Rock Desert, Nevada, amid coyote calls and crystalline stars, we decided we had no choice but to hike the 20 miles back to the nearest ranch house, and hope we made it before the gunmetal clouds overhead dumped their load of snow. We got lucky. If you’d told me in that moment that 10 years later that damn bird would define my life, I’d have screamed in your face.

Yet one year later, there we were again, with Hubbie volunteering to spotlight-trap grouse with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, and me again offering to count male sage grouse on their flat strutting grounds, or lek. I said I needed to do this, to prove that I belong in that backcountry again without getting hurt. More than one person told us we were masochists.

Another year passed and Hubbie decided to accept a Masters position studying the effects of a power transmission line on greater sage-grouse in Eastern Nevada. More grouse, more remote. What’s not to love?

Basin and range became a road we travelled regularly over jagged aspen-tipped mountains into flat expanses of sage and rabbit brush. Trapping, banding, radio tracking, and following sage hens with chicks became as commonplace as doing dishes and checking email. In spite of my teaching load in the English department at the university in Reno, I still found myself driving to the field site most weekends. I said it was because I missed being with my other half, but that was only partly true. I craved the warm, pungent smell of sage that permeated my Levis; I found the adrenaline rush of walking through the midnight brush to slap a net over another grouse addictive. It was a challenge, and the adverse conditions brought out a side of myself I wanted to get to know better. Then, in the land of little water and many pit toilets, we found out we were pregnant.

Photo by Crystal Atamian.
Photo: Crystal Atamian

At first, we joked about naming our daughter Artemesia or Sage. Then panic set in. Was this the point where I stayed home as a single mom while Hubbie finished his field work? Or did he give up the project and come home? Could we support three on graduate student income and my small salary? Finally, what happened to the adventurous, sage-loving heart developing inside me?

So, we made a choice. With more help from family than we’ll ever be able to reciprocate, we created a village that cared for me and a baby girl for that fourth trimester while I taught and Hubbie trapped more grouse. Then, at four months old, we drove deep into the sagebrush basins and jagged mountains. We traversed across the aspen and phlox, barbed wire, gold mines, and lonely highways that had come to define those years before her birth, and we did so with no regrets.

Did I mention the few faces that watched me go, wondering if they should call Child Protective Services? I didn’t think of them much on the drive, to be honest.

I did think about the knowing smiles I had received from several older moms. They told me to trust myself. They didn’t say much more except to give tips about what to use to keep the bugs away, or how to keep the baby cool in the heat. But their eyes hinted at what I soon found out. Being with a baby in the wilderness, while challenging, is one of the most liberating and confidence-building things you can do as a new mom.

I will never forget walking up to a sage grouse hen and watching her brood her chicks, protecting them in a clump of sage brush while I settled quietly on a nearby rock to nurse my small girl. Sometimes the things that scare you, the limits you push, and those places you didn’t think you could go are the very things you find you love most deeply. //


Crystal lives with her husband and two children in Spokane, where she works as a copyeditor for several academic journals.

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