The Sharptail Caucus

As a young man I once stood on a mountain ridge so beautiful that I now find it impossible to describe. It was summer and a bird dog was at my side when I first discovered the place that would change my life. It came to be part of my very being.  Like a military boot camp it broke me and then built me back up. Wild, remote, harsh, and unspoiled by the hand of man. Owned equally by all citizens of the country. Many of my best days on the planet have been spent there.

Soon after I adopted this place as my spirit home it came into the sights of energy companies. Just another place for them to profit from one fossil fuel or another.  And of course those big companies had guys in very nice suits to infiltrate the highest halls of government.  And between those fellas with the Italian ties and the former energy bigwigs in the executive branch they cooked up schemes to roll dozers and derricks into my sacred spot.  I came to find out that my story was one of many.  The only things that changed from the other tales were the actors who played my role and the location of the wild land.  The rest of the script was the same.  The sequels are playing out in the sagebrush steppe and the canyon country still today.

I became a fighter, and student of the fine print. A purveyor of press conferences and pithy quotes in national newspapers. A lobbyist. A student of Ed Abbey. A political animal. I sharpened my existence and my tongue. I assessed what mattered pressed my shoulders into saving it. Of course politics were involved. I figured out how to engage in battles and win wars. I committed never to shy from either.

Those were the days that wiped the crust of naiveté from my eyes. From that time on, politics and policies have never left my consideration because their impacts never exit my days.  I’ve known people who say politics don’t matter or that they are overplayed or that people like me care too much.  I don’t buy a bit of that drivel. I say your politics is a window to your soul.  What you care about and how much you care about it can be seen through your political window like an old gas lamp on a pitch black night.

I care about wild places and losing myself within them. That’s probably why I love bird hunting so much. My politics and life are one in the same and nowhere is this more evident than during bird season. In other words if you wanted to do a political profile on me, just follow me around for a couple days in October.

On an average day you’ll find me hitting the road early in the morning before anyone else is up. And if I don’t ditch the tail you’ll follow me to a remote chunk of public land. I’ll drop the dogs and we’ll be gone for hours, maybe all day. I rack up ten miles or more and dogs will do thirty.  I like big tracts of wide open country.  Unspoiled. The less human intrusion the better. I feel alive in the vastness. I am an explorer on my own land. I like going where others won’t.  I imagine people in far off farm houses looking at me through binocs muttering at my stupidity before they go back to watching the news and drinking coffee.  I imagine some of them voting for people who want to sell these places and the anger at this drives me up the incline.

You might note that I stop to examine grasses or flowers. I watch deer and elk.  I hope to see a badger or a northern harrier falcon.  When I am not admiring the place I am laser focused on my dogs and the terrain. We hunt wild birds first and always and they require tenacity.  My dogs have never even smelled a bird from a pen. I hope to keep it that way.  I tell myself that if I depend on wild places I am more likely to fight for them.

I might stand and watch as a sharptail rises from a point. I pass on the shot and just watch him flap a time or two then hear him cluck as he starts to glide. I watch him in earnest as he gets up to speed. A marvel of aerodynamics. I’ll stand there until he is only a dot in the distance and then gone from my sight but still in flight. I think how far he flew on this one small journey and how much grassy country he requires to exist. Its fall, nearly election day, and I’ll dream of that sharptail voting his self-interests in the booth. I think I know which ovals he would blacken. If you could document my thoughts you’d note that I am thinking of gathering up the sharpies into a great caucus so that we might vote together en masse.

If I see a BLM, USFS or game warden truck I will stop and chat with them. Sometimes for an hour or more.  I always thank them for the work they are doing and note that I understand they have a tough and largely thankless job.  I want them to know I appreciate what they do. I know this place and opportunity did not happen by accident nor will it continue to exist if we are apathetic.

Somedays you might find me hunting in the CRP. If you were in my head, you’d see memories of my father planting thousands upon thousands of acres of native grass in Kansas during the heyday of CRP.  A disciple of Aldo Leopold on a 4230 John deer and a 12 foot grass drill trying to restore his corner of the Great Plains.  And you’d see the resulting pheasants I chased, seemingly everywhere as if mosquitoes in Alaska. Even a mediocre dog could find a limit in short order. A kid with a Model 42 Winchester could fill a vest in a couple hours. I was that kid. You might note that I count the acres that are being removed from this federal program now. I glaze over, staring at a newly tilled field as I remember where a covey once lived.  You might hear me gritting my teeth.

I like to stop by a local bar when the bird day is done. I figure those big national corporatized chains have figured out how to make plenty of profit without me providing too much aid. I want to eat and drink where the locals are. I like authenticity and dirt under fingernails.  I want to know how things are going for these folks and what beer they drink.  And if the waitress grew up on a big ranch up north that just happens to have a bunch of birds, all the better.  “What’s your dad’s name again and you think I could call him?” I might ask.  When she hollers her dad’s name in an affirmative tone, I’ll respond, “That’s awesome, I appreciate it, and Yeh, I’ll have another beer” And then I’ll mutter under my breath with a slight grin, “I sure hope he don’t care that I am a redneck hippie.”  As I take my first drink from the beer I’ll wonder if maybe he will vote with the sharptail caucus too.


Author: Ryan Busse

Funhaver. Chaser of wild birddogs and wild fish. Lover of wild country. Cooker of wild food

16 thoughts on “The Sharptail Caucus”

  1. I’m curious about the ‘redneck hippie.” An interesting contradiction, perhaps. I’m not a hunter, don’t like guns, let’s start there. But, I have a nephew who introduced me to this site, who has a bird dog, and more than anything I want to go our with him and watch his dog work, watch him work, and just be quiet wth him. I adore this young man, and have the deepest respect for his relationship with his dog, and his relationship with hunting. I spent many summers and part of a winter in Wyoming, in the mountains, in a wildness that has informed everything I feel about the natural world. I am desperate to have it preserved. I am a liberal/progressive and will vote progressive because I believe that is perhaps where the preservation will occur, at least now. I am also a married lesbian (is that more information that you need?), so I have a lot at stake right now. And that part of me probably puts off a whole lot of people. But, our country’s wildness. God, I hope all sorts of voices rise to preserve that, as much as we might differ on other things. I know what it feels like to wander/wonder alone in the wild, no other voices, the particular stillness of wide open space.. It is a treasure I wish more people experienced, understood. Perhaps then they would realize how great the stake is.

    1. Sara, Appreciate your note. You hit on some of what I am trying to convey. First, these wild places are part of the most egalitarian experiment ever embarked upon. No other county has incorporated an idea like this into its very being; the idea that we all own these public places and this public wildlife. IMO, if we cannot fight to preserve and enhance this most basic of American ideals, then we cannot fight for anything. Second, my point with the odd description of myself is that I fall into no particular categorization. I am very proud to join arms with a married lesbian who does not hunt but wishes to save our wild places. I am a proud hunter and a gun owner. I greatly value thought, philosophy, facts, achievement and rationality. I feel at home with farmers and truck drivers or with college professors and authors. I haul my dogs around in a chevy truck. I figure folks will call me what they want. They’ll pick one attribute or another and try to paint me with that particular hue. I contend none of us should be foolish enough to be painted one color by other people. So, I might as well beat them to the punch and give them a label covers it all.

      1. Then you chose an excellent name!!! Covers all the bases indeed. I suspect there are so many people far more complicated than one might assume on first impression. That’s probably an understatement; I know there are. I wish we could find ways of talking with one another, of finding our common humanity instead of always always fixating on the differences. And I wish more people valued our country’s magnificence, its wild places, its public lands. I wish more people could get there, just be in it for a day or two. Hard to think they wouldn’t understand then. So this east-coaster is happy indeed to join arms with a redneck hippie and work to preserve and fight for our wildness.

  2. Excellent essay. After 50 years of trying to fight the good fight, and almost always losing, I’m proud to learn I’m a member of the grouse caucus and that there are more of us than I realized. At a time when I fear we are on the brink of losing it all, this will lift my spirits for a while.

  3. Writing such as this comes can only come from a place of love & passion. Thank you for sharing it with us, & Hooray for the grouse caucus!

  4. I moved from Washington, D.C. west to the grasslands 30 years ago because I needed the space, the solitude, the common decency of the people who live here, and it was the birds that led me here. The tenor of the discussion between Mr. Busse and Ms. Ford encourages me that despite the often strident nature of the public discourse that surrounds just about any issue right now it is still possible for people from different parts of our country, from different personal perspectives, and different experiences with hunting (or not) to find common ground and understanding. We may still be able to build the coalition needed to ensure the survival of these spaces and the native prairie grouse that inhabit them that so many of us need to follow our dogs to the solitude that keeps us centered.
    And if I may be permitted a bit of an advertisement, there is an organization that is dedicated to working to ensure the survival of prairie grouse species and their habitat. The North American Grouse Partnership is an advocate for all prairie grouse species. If Mr. Johnson, or anyone else in the sharptail caucus, is interested in learning more or lending their “shoulder” to the effort to preserve the open spaces these birds need, their website is

  5. “I want to potentially provide hundreds of jobs and make America less dependent on foreign energy. Yes, I want to make money doing it, but this is an opportunity to revitalize communities, bolster the economy, put people back to work. It’s not just about me.”

    “No, you can’t! It’s not fair! I go down there for a week in October with my dogs! Forget the jobs, forget everything as long as I can lose myself in a field and shoot some game,; but it’s not about me. It’s about the three other guys who use this same spot. Well, technically, I have no idea if anyone else uses it. But that doesn’t matter. I guess I really am that damn important.”

    1. Before I reply, some introduction for context. I have friends who have jobs in the extractive mineral industries, half of my graduate education was funded by a grant from the oil industry, I’ve done work for them as a consultant, I drive a SUV that doesn’t get anywhere near the mileage that my wife’s car does, and my house is heated occasionally by natural gas.

      While it’s probably a post for a different blog, it is not at all clear how continuing to emphasize dependence on a dwindling energy resource relative to what we know is in the ground in Russia, the Middle East, and other parts of the world that are not always friendly to this country ensures our energy independence or security. It seems to me that what it is really doing is ensuring that we are going to be more dependent on them as our reserves continue to dwindle. If we are really serious about energy independence and energy security then we should be turning our attention to the sun and the wind which are essentially unlimited instead of fossilized organic matter.

      It’s important to provide jobs out here because they are always in short supply. But let’s be honest, these are “boom and bust” jobs that will end. They have upfront costs and costs at the back end. In order to accommodate the people and their families who will come to fill them we will have to invest in schools, roads, housing, waste treatment facilities, and all the other infrastructure needed to accommodate that kind of growth. And when the play ends, the people go and the cities and counties are left with an infrastructure they can’t sustain. Check out western North Dakota over the last couple of years, or Rifle, CO after the oil shale boom and bust.

      What rankles many of us is that it is public land that Mr. Busse is referring to. It is collectively ours – yours, mine, Mr. Busse’s, Ms. Ford’s, Mr. Johnson’s, Wyo Setters, our families, our neighbors – all of ours. The jobs justification would carry a lot more weight If the extractive energy industry was sustainably developing the resource: paying a lease fee that actually reflects the value of what they are extracting, assumed the costs of the infrastructure that their development requires to be built and maintained, and leaving a viable ecosystem equivalent to what it is was rather than tornadoing into a region and then out again leaving behind a vacuum that our communities have to figure out how to fill.

      And it would definitely carry more weight if you acknowledged that Mr. Busse’s ridge has its own intrinsic value that is just as worthy of consideration as the energy that might be underneath it. It is public land and it is ours. That means there has to be an honest, rational and even passionate conversation about whether development will really serve the greater good. Dismissing this perspective -this reality – doesn’t further anyone’s goals.

      As I said in my earlier post, I’ve lived out here for 30 years. This is what I’ve come to understand.

  6. The first voice sounds like the bottom line motivation (hopefully) is community and others, jobs. The second voice sounds pretty darn selfish. But to me, it takes an extreme position and contains an assumption that those who long for some time in a wild place don’t care about those who are struggling to find work, to make a living, don’t care about others. I think there has to be a middle ground, one that both respects and offers help to communities and those seeking employment and also respects and safeguards our public lands and wild spaces.

    I believe that we choose to sacrifice these places in order to provide jobs and energy access because it’s easier than figuring out how to deal with the crisis of work in another way. The little island of Curacao, one of the ABC islands, has no natural water; they have, however, a massive desalination plant that provides some of the best and safest water I have ever had. There are other countries who are already employing wind and solar power. Why aren’t we allocating resources to explore wind and solar power, alternative ways of providing energy, and therefore providing work for people? Surely our country is full of bright minds who have the capacity to imagine solutions to our energy issues, our work issues without having to encroach on the places here that still remain open and wild and, thankfully, available to all. What about job training, helping those battered communities by teaching the new skills that will serve them in the future, for whether we like it or not, that future is coming?

    I believe that the problems suggested by the first voice will not be solved by taking away our wild places, our public lands. And I fear that the lure of money is actually far stronger than the altruism suggested as the main motive. If there were a true effort to revitalize communities, bolster the economy, put people back to work, that effort would be centered on the new world that is so technologically powered, helping people prepare for it, enter it, be part of it. Once we take away these wild spaces, they will never come back, while the energy and jobs they may provide will be temporary in comparison. Our children will never get to experience a central part of what makes our country so extraordinary in its very diversity, a country between two vast oceans, a country that has huge cities, and smaller ones, and suburbs and farms and towns, and…wild spaces that remind us we are only a small part of something far grander and so help us avoid the pitfalls of hubris.

  7. Such difficult topics, where I often catch myself being a hypocrite.

    We dislike taxes, welfare, but we love CRP and access to private land programs.
    We embrace firearms, but detest guns in the wrong hands.
    We distrust corporations, but we watch our 401Ks like hawks.
    We shudder at the sight of Wyoming energy expansion or the Butte mines, but we all use earth’s resources daily.

    It is a shame we are forced into only Red or Blue. It corners us into becoming one-issue voters while we ignore the rest of the bad behavior.

    Meanwhile, let’s see how things work out for this loudmouth in Utah. There are a lot of outdoor companies in Salt Lake City that can surely find other homes.

    1. Whew, you nailed so much in a few really well chosen words. I’d like to think we’re not so much hypocrites, perhaps because I’m a chicken, as complicated. I don’t dislike all taxes (here in DE, where we pay hardly any, I wish to hell we could raise them so we could have more and better services in the state. And I speak as someone who came here from NY, where we paid plenty.). Nor do I take a negative stance on welfare, though I do understand there the dislike comes from. (This one would be a much longer conversation.) I don’t embrace firearms, but I have a deep respect for those who safely and thoughtfully use them, as in hunters. I don’t begin to understand the need for hunters to have assault weapons. Seems to me, there’s no respect there. I’m right with you on the distrust of corporations and the intense concern about our savings. I don’t think there’s a contradiction between the shudder at some energy expansion and using earth’s resources, because we have yet to tap into different resources tha may allow us to protect some of these wild places.

      And yes, the Red and Blue is terrible. I wish we could talk to one another.

      And, I might add, it feels sometimes very strange and awkard to be the only woman writing here, and one who is neither a hunter nor gun enthusiast. But I am struck by much of the poetry in the writing, in the beauty of the experiences described, and in the thoughtfulness and intelligence of so many of these comments.

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