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DESERT TIME -- A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST

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Chapter 28:  sage
Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon

There is a watery mirage between the hills, and in it there are shapes torn into globules by hot air. The shapes are copper with flashes of white and ebony; a herd of pronghorn antelopes looking as they did when Paiute hunters came toward them through the cover of the sage. Around them are wide felted plains and a mountain cone and bluffs with a few dark blots of trees. The sage covers the ground like a cloth, a ruffled green-silver, a color soft as silk in the distance. Close, it is rough and metallic and harsh.

The sage is hardly new. What is new is that here it seems to cover everything; Artemisia tridentata, three-fingered plant of the goddess of the hunt. It's known as basin sagebrush, common sagebrush, big sage, blue sage, black sage, wormwood; it's the Spaniards' chamiso hediondo (stinking chamisol, the Northern Paiutes' sawabi, the Shoshones' pohobi, the Washoes' daabal, Zane Grey's "Purple Sage," Twain's "fag end of vegetable creation." By any name it is the symptom of Great Basin and Colorado Plateau desert, the bush of dry steppe and coolish altitude, the blue-gray caulk between dryer hotter flats -- with their bunch grasses and saltbush shrubs -- and pinyon-juniper forest on cooler wetter slopes. It fingers into both, thigh to head high, even the size of a gnomish tree.

Sage is the most abundant shrub in North America, by some estimates. It does cover a lot of ground between Nebraska and California and on south to the borders of the hot deserts, where creosote bush takes over; too much ground for some people's tastes. It's the nemesis of ranchers, the horror of hay-fever sufferers. It's the state flower of Nevada, though its flower is gray nubbins carried in slender panicles, like asters without the blessing of rays of color. The pollen is wind-borne but the winds here have nothing much taller than sage to tangle with, and a big plant in a good year can make over a million seeds. The leaves are small, three-toed like fairy footprints, furred with white down against dry winds and intense light. They are born untidily pointing every which way along untidy brittle branches. The trunk is never vertical; on mountaintops it is even horizontal, and has the shape of a bundle of slats given a savage twist. The bark is the color and texture of frayed steel wire. It is not a thing of grace. After a rain and in the evening light I've seen the bark and twigs go black, and the leaves clearly silver, and the smell of it floats in the air then as if one had entered the herb gardens of the saints.

Here the midday light of June is reflected from miles of sage as if from a sheet of metal, and I screw my eyes against the blast. The tang of the sage is nose-wrinkling like whiffs of mentholatum; Vicks VapoRub, one thinks, or terpenes adrift in an artist's sunny loft. Somewhere back on the rise from Catlow Valley, on the curving dirt track along which I haul a rooster-tail of dust, was the border of Hart Mountain Refuge; two hundred and seventy-five thousand acres of southern Oregon set aside in 1936 for the use of pronghorns. Other things live here, too. But aside from the one herd of pronghorns I have seen nothing but the sage.

Hart Mountain is a vast fault block cracked loose and heaved thirty-six hundred feet above the Harney Basin. Punched upward to an altitude of more than eight thousand feet, it gets more rain than the basin does, between ten and eleven inches a year, on the average; an island only just jutting up, in terms of rainfall, above a desert sea.

Hart Mountain Refuge is a big place, and the veil of sage is a deception. There are seasonal streams here with water meadows and alder thickets. There are bony uplands scoured clean to the rock by wind, with fescue meadows in the cols and bluebunch wheatgrass on steep south slopes. Sheltered slopes hold thickets of mountain mahogany and bitterbrush. Coyotes, bobcats, and badgers live here, plus the usual big and the multiplicity of small mammals -- five species of shrew, pocket mice and K-rats, cottontails and jacks. There are old lake beds white with alkali and fringed with ricegrass, and a hot-spring saltmarsh with yellow-headed and red-winged blackbirds chanting in the reeds. Bald eagles, white-tailed ibis, owls breed here; ducks and geese and a scattering of sandhill cranes, plus stilts and avocets, visit the swatches of marshland; there are ravens, everywhere. Magpies -- elegant and sinister in sharp black and white, predatory in their way as any hawk, opportunistic as any crow float prettily in search of carrion. And there are sage grouse. Sage grouse are the story here. Their numbers are declining, and no one knows why.

Sage grouse have the bulk and point-tailed shape of pheasants, and are big birds, more than two feet long. They fly like pheasants with a burst-up followed by long low level-winged float, though they will go distances; some are even migratory, others are not. The undersides of their wings are white in flight, their bodies mottled brown and black with brindling cream, their bellies solid black as though they had been dipped in ink. Their heavy bills give them a kind of Roman nose and smooth jet-plane silhouette. In winter they eat sagebrush leaves, in spring they like big sage to nest beneath, and even when they're foraging in water meadows and on alpine slopes they loaf in the sage and sleep there and use it for cover. There are two varieties of big sage here -- mountain big sage and Wyoming big sage -- and then low sagebrush too, a different species, a dwarfish version rarely growing more than eighteen inches high. Grouse in spring and summer seem to like low sage; it covers them as they move or feed but they can poke their heads up to see around. Their dark smooth periscopes sprout from the sage if you come too close.

The people I talk to here are knowledgeable, mystified, and upset about the decline of the sage grouse. Everything grouse need for a good life seems to be here, abundant enough, even in the drought of the last three years, and predators are no more predatory than they've ever been; the grouse just seem to be ... sliding away. Nowadays the summer flocks of spinster hens are larger than anyone remembers. These are the hens that never bred or whose eggs didn't hatch or whose chicks died. These failures are rules nowadays, rather than exceptions.

Bill Pyle, Jenny Barnett, and Mike Gregg are all studying sage grouse at Hart Mountain. They live in trailers behind the main field station like construction workers living on site. They wear jeans, worn boots, and checkered shirts, even when they're working with their laptops. Radio-tracking collars hang bunched above their beds. They keep Ziploc bags full of the contents of sagebrush chicks' crops (pretty salads of yellow milk vetch flowers and black scarab beetles) in their freezers, along with the ice cream and cans of OJ. Bill Pyle is tall, the senior researcher, the authority. Jenny is slim, freckled, with straight-cut no-nonsense brown hair; she takes long-legged man-sized strides in her big boots and baggy jeans. Mike is squared off, dark, intense. This is his second year out here; it's Jenny's first. They do the bulk of field work, grunt work, the data-gathering perambulations with Ziplocs, binocs, string, notepads. They want to know where the hens nest and how many chicks hatch and how many hatchlings recruit into the flock come fall. Meanwhile they want to know what sage grouse chicks eat.

It turns out that chicks do not eat sagebrush. They do not eat seeds. Sage grouse, it turns out, never eat seeds. In spring and summer both adults and chicks eat insects -- ants and wasps, dung and darkling and scarab beetles -- crisp protein. What chicks eat most is flowers: milk vetch, foothill daisy, desert parsley, hawk's-beard, yarrow, mountain dandelion.

Early in spring Jenny and Mike go out after dark with a flashlight and a tape recorder and a pack of collaring gear. In March and early April the hens gather near the grounds, called leks, where the grouse cocks dance for their favors. Wading through the sagebrush there at night, one can easily find a hen resting from her daytime work as bon vivant. Once a hen is caught in the light the tape recorder is turned on high; it plays snow-machine noise, sheer motor roar, which covers the rustling of Mike and Jenny's approach. The sound-and-light-stunned hen is caught in a landing net, she is foot-tagged, and a collar of herculite cloth -- stretchy, light, tough, weather-resistant -- is strapped on her breast and back. The collar carries an antenna and solar cells to charge its nickel-cadmium battery. Last year, 71 percent of the radioed hens initiated nests, 60 percent of those broods were successful -- that is, chicks hatched -- and 11 percent of the radioed hens "recruited brood into the August population" (August meaning the month of the year; considering the esteem in which sage grouse are held here, one is tempted to think that it means something else). Eleven percent nesting success does not seem like a very large figure. Especially considering that 29 percent of the hens out there didn't even try.

There are twenty-four sage grouse leks at Hart Mountain, the dance and display grounds used year after year, and all but one of them lie in hollows of low sage. Some of them have been in use for more than a century, the evidence being a litter of Paiute arrowheads roundabout. The Paiutes prized this highland as a hunting ground, and then as now the grouse cocks' dance attracted more than hens.

Cocks come to the leks late in February and some stay well into May; the reason for the leks is for strut and display and sexual selection. The cocks do the former and the hens take care of the latter. The hens browse, lek to lek, before they'll make a choice. Each cock stakes a dance ground in a lek for himself and puffs his white breast feathers into a pouf -- his dark head all but disappears -- and in this pouf are two yellow naked patches of skin, like egg yolks. He fans his tail behind like a dark pointed star. He arcs his wings downward and riffles them, making himself enormous. Shuttling air in and out and amplifying the sound in his inflated breast, each strutting cock makes a loud plopping noise "like something dropping into a large barrel of water," according to Jenny. The noise of a lek full of dancing cock birds is uncanny, it sounds like what it is: an arcane ceremonial, traditional ritual, intimate, intense.

The hens find nesting places after they mate, and they're traditional in this as they seem to be in all things, nesting very close to where they nested the year before and raising their brood, too, in well-known territory. The hens may have traditions, but these vary from one to the next, and new traditions are pioneered all the time, and some of these are strange. For gatherers of data who need to quantify and find the meaningful average -- good clean elegant science, numbers to use in a management plan -- this is frustrating. For example: one hen brought her four-week-old chicks, still downy, for twenty-five miles across the country to reach her summer grounds. Another hen nested several hundred feet from her winter range and raised her chicks right there; in a year she ranged a total of less than a mile. A few hens brood high on mountain slopes -- a good thing in a drought year but sure disaster when there are spring storms. Other hens nest in the shade and shelter of close-woven sage, hunkering in speckled shadows. If the eggs are eaten by ravens, magpies, badgers, or ground squirrels, or if they turn out to be duds (over 40 percent of the eggs are duds) the hens walk away, join the spinster flocks, take the summer off.

In summertime the birds stay close to water and the chicks (when there are chicks) need their provender of flowers; small streams and water meadows are important then. Wildflowers are the staples of their summer diet -- the class of vegetation known as "forbs" and these grow best in damper hollows. Some also grow in the protective shade of sage. They grow most thick and rich if a range fire has killed sage off for a while.

It turns out that antelope are forb-eaters, too. They eat sage in winter as the grouse do, and fatten in summer and raise their young on forbs in the damper hollows where the sage is not. The irony is that antelope numbers here, now, are at an all-time high, higher than they've been since the turn of the century. There are antelope everywhere in coppery herds, fawns at their flanks; animals oddly slim and African in shape with goat-pupiled eyes and ebony horns, the prongs curving back, more colorful and delicate than any deer. Don't get me wrong; there are plenty of forbs to go around. The grouse are just ... declining. In some places now their nesting success is down to 2 percent, for no good reason anyone can see.

"Some hens just never seem to brood, or nest," Jenny says, with her eyes half-shut in the light of the sage, which comes from everywhere like wind. The wind is strong, too, blowing her hair across her face.

"Basically what I've been doing for the last two years is asking more questions." Mike says.

He squints, too, and looks away from Jenny over the folds of hills, but when I turn to write this down I see that they are holding hands.

Big Sage

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