King of the Big Empty: Our generation’s Heath Hen

Consider the sage chicken. Take your time at it. He is a mighty bird, his pointed tail, his black-feathered breast, his mottled and muted yet beautiful hues, his huge feet. Many writers, attempting to describe his flight have penned imagery of Air Force bombers, kites, sails. Indeed, the pet name for the big ones, the old ones, is “bomber.” Others have sneered at the big grouse as a game bird, shuddered at the thought of eating his dark breast, laughed when talking about the sporting dog aspect of hunting “chickens.”

Yet I submit that those who turn their noses up at Mr. Chicken might in fact be deeply saddened if those big beautiful birds no longer dotted our sagebrush steppe, no longer flew our wide Western skies.

There are those among us who have grown up hunting chickens. Here, on the broad ocean that is the sagebrush sea, are a few of us whose first shotgunning experience was sage grouse, whose family reunions were on the high prairies of states like Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Nevada, Montana. I love how the names of those states sound on the tongue, and when I think of sage grouse and of those places, I think of old Willys jeeps and Ford Broncos covered in alkali dust, of big heavy Labs panting in the shade of a September wall tent, of Winchester pump guns, of windy Labor Days in the middle of nowhere, of grape soda in a tub of ice–and when I was deemed old enough–Hamm’s, Oly and Coors. I remember listening to the Wyoming Cowboys or the Colorado Buffaloes or the Denver Broncos on AM radio, and I remember those big birds taking wing and my shotgun on my shoulder and that huge, huge target, and I remember missing. They were deceptively fast and the shotgun sometimes swung as if it were twenty feet long. Sometimes, I remember hitting. Always, sage chicken season was about family and laughter and the music of loved ones.

Not too many people have family reunions around sage chicken season any more. Perhaps it is a function of a fattening society, of lard-assed kids who would rather play video games or text-message their pals. But the real reason, I think, is because we’ve failed as a society to appreciate this bird, failed as a people to treasure the wide open sagebrush flanks of our land–the very openness that defines the West–and failed, ultimately to be good stewards. Lyrical ground like Sweetwater, Oregon Buttes, Vinegar Hill, Horse Prairie, Choke-A-Man Draw . . . I can’t even think of those places without sage grouse. Without them, they are truly empty.

Six dogs and one wife ago, I was the cocky young editor of a small town western Colorado newspaper. Back then, I hunted with a beat-up Remington autoloader that  jammed often, and a mutt named after my favorite beverage at the time. JD had been born under a house in Carbondale the year I dropped out of college to spend a season ski bumming in Aspen. The bastard child of a Springer mother and a Lab father, she was black and white, just like the Jack Daniels’ label.

Eventually, I went back to college, finished up that degree, put a few years of Arizona quail hunting and Colorado pheasant hunting in front of JD’s eager nose, and then found myself in the Gunnison Basin. I was editing a newspaper with an absentee owner and given free reign over the editorial pages. The pay was light, but the benefits were fantastic. The newspaper’s owner also had claim to a few miles of the Taylor River to which I had access, and there was wild country right out the door.

JD and the chickens

And there were chickens. The high country held blue grouse, but if you were a serious bird hunter (and with JD, I thought I was a terror to the game birds of the basin), you had to be a chicken hunter. They were everywhere. You could hunt chickens on the sage-blanketed sweep of the rising mountains and have a staggering Colorado mountain view as a backdrop.

It was pretty tall cotton then and I didn’t even know it. I must have killed dozens in my time in Gunnison and I cooked their meat to medium rare over aspen coals and savored every bit of it. Cooked beyond medium rare and their flesh was as palatable as an old shoe, but medium-rare and you were in business. A friend would gather a large group of us–a banker, a professor at the local college, a PR man, a county assessor, a county manager, and the young punk newspaper editor with his mutt and clunker gun–and we’d head out to Flattop and hunt for a day behind his Brits and my Splab. We’d laugh and drink beer at the end and admire our chicken harvest. The hunts were about friendships, about sharing a passion and were an annual ritual.

No one has killed a Gunnison sage chicken in a decade. The season clamped shut in 2000 and those kinds of hunts on the sagebrush shoulders of a big mountain, that music of laughter and mutual joy is a thing of the past. Just like those family reunions. In those ten years of no hunting, the population of Gunnison chickens has not rebounded and it remains a species in trouble. Hunting was not the cause, not the problem and sadly, hunters do not have the solution.

Everywhere, in every Western state, the story is the same. South Dakota has a silly two-day season with a one bird limit. Why even have it? Eastern Oregon has a permit draw system much like we have with big game. Nevada–with its mighty, tossing ocean of sage–has a two week season and most of the state is closed to nonresidents. And Wyoming–Wyoming, the state that defines sagebrush, the state that is antelope and sage chickens and wide open–has a two-week season with a two-bird limit, four in possession. It used to run a month and you could sack up three birds a day with nine in possession. Sad times. While we have built our Pheasants Forevers and our Quail Unlimiteds, and our Ruffed Grouse Societys, the very symbol of the West for the upland gunner has dwindled, lost ground and died.

Oil and gas development, predation, range fire, intentional sagebrush eradication funded by the feds and states, the looming shadow of renewable energy and its transmission lines, livestock grazing, “wild” horses, even West Nile virus . . . the sage chicken is in trouble. It is teetering close to being put on the endangered species list and if it ends up there, we hunter-conservationists should be deeply ashamed of ourselves. Sick. And it happened in finger-snap time; unless you are younger than 8, this has happened in your lifetime.

In my living room, mounted in a place of honor, is a big old bomber chicken. Whenever I look at him, I am back on the Big Empty. The memory of a girlfriend after the broken marriage, of a beautiful September Wyoming day, of golden aspen leaves and soft breezes scented by sage, of a talented dog on solid point, of swing and trigger pull, and retrieve to hand all come back to me. But there’s more. There’s a symbol. Of the West. Of families that got together in the outdoors and walked hallowed ground. Of simpler times? Perhaps. But we had problems back then. We just knew how to stick together, how to laugh, what family felt like, how to appreciate nature without motors and batteries and games . . . Our people seem to have lost those things.

Consider the sage chicken.                  –TR

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11 Comments

Filed under Conservation and legacy, Open country

11 responses to “King of the Big Empty: Our generation’s Heath Hen

  1. Well, look on the bright side: At least the sage grouse is getting some notice out of it, a little notoriety, a little national press and at least a little short-lived hand-wringing.

    That’s marginally more than the lesser prairie chicken got.

    Back in 1998, yep…1998, when the lesser prairie chicken was tagged with its own “warranted but precluded” status there was a collective yawn from the hook-and-bullet press. In fact there was a collective yawn from virtually eveyone outside the LPC’s range (or what was left of it at the time. It’s even smaller now.)

    Why? Because the LPC has the misfortune to occupy the southern plains, which is a place even fewer people give a shit about than the sagebrush west. It also has the added misfortune of having its range occupy virtually all private land. Some of it is managed beautifully. Much of it is not. Not enought, anyway, to instill any kind of hope for a viable, range-wide recovery.

    You can take your blog post (and it’s a helluva good post, really. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bitching about that at all), replace the words “sage grouse” with “lesser prairie chicken” and it will read like both litany and requiem for what has happened to the LPC over the past 50-100 years, and, unfortunately, where it’s inexorably headed.

    From literally the most populous gamebird species on the southern plains to ghost in the space of a lifetime. Poof.

    I recently pitched a story on the LPC to an editor at a large magazine. His response? “Can you tie it in somehow with pheasants? No one really knows or cares about a prairie chicken, but they care about pheasants.”

    My chosen profession, in a nutshell.

    I hope the sage grouse gets the attention it deserves. I really do. And maybe it will. I mean, at least you can sometimes see mountains from where you can find sage grouse.

    Because if you can attach some pretty scenery to an animal’s plight, even if it’s in the background, then, their sense of aesthetic outrage thusly tweaked, people give a shit more than they do about a bunch of over-grazed, center-pivoted, cowstomped, corn-growing, pig-farm stinkin’, windfarm-studded private wasteland.

    I would love to hunt sage grouse some day. That was on my list. Of course, I used to think the same about prairie chickens, and look where that got me.

    I think of “Heath Hen of Our Generation” as really more of a traveling pageant than any permanent crown. Attwater’s prairie chicken, the LPC, sage grouse, greater prairie chickens…I think they’re all going to get their time under the tiara.

  2. Drahtguy

    Excellent piece.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful essay, Tom… and the equally thoughtful reply, Chad.

      Our family reunions used to be in a grove of trees next to a dove field. I miss that… ~BobWhite

  3. Being a southerner I’ve spent precious little time out west. During my season in Aspen I was interested in exactly 3 things and none of them had feathers. Looking back I can’t believe some of the opportunities I missed.

    I look on as whitetail and turkey multiply like frogs in the summer and I just can’t get excited about it. The stuff I want to hunt grows more scarce every year. I’d be happy to take one for the team and serve a stint as Sec of the Interior if anyone can figure out how to get me appointed.

  4. aaron otto

    great read

  5. Not much I can add to this well written piece. It is very difficult to punch through the apathy with facts. A few people are enraged, a number are ‘concerned’, more say “tsk, tsk.” but most just don’t care. Maybe ditch chickens do have more appeal, but it is just flash.

    I feel that, after more than 50 years in the West, I am in mourning on a permanent basis. Maybe we could save just one bit of what we’ve had. Maybe.

  6. Tom Reed

    Great thoughts here . . . our prairie grouse are troubled and it makes my heart heavy.

  7. jim

    Very well said by all.

  8. clay palmer

    Some of the first hunting trips I can remember is with you, Dave, and my dad chasing sage grouse.

  9. Tom Reed

    Clay, good to hear from you. Keep on huntin’! Glad I could be a small part of it.

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