Conservation photographer Dave Showalter captured this image as part of his Sage Spirit Conservation Project. The greater sage grouse mating season generally peaks around mid-April, the time when this male was displaying for a nearby female as wet snow fell. Sublette County, Wyo. (Dave Showalter)

(Guest column) — When I started the Sage Spirit Conservation Project, a friend told me that the largest natural gas deposits just happen to lie directly under high-density sage grouse habitat, which is a pretty accurate oversimplification. Sage grouse were already in decline and occupying 56 percent of their historic range at the start of the fracking boom, while Gunnison sage grouse were paying a price for 150 years of bad grazing practices, excessive hunting, development and sagebrush eradication.

The mission of the International League of Conservation Photographers is to “further environmental and cultural conservation through ethical photography.” It’s a storytelling approach to merge photography with advocacy for a conservation outcome. There’s no conservation project formula, and there are all sorts of projects around the globe.

Pronghorn spring across open sage beneath the mighty Wind River Range. Sublette County, Wyo. (Dave Showalter)

My Sage Spirit project happens to be in my backyard, the Intermountain West. Any conservation photography project depends on partnerships to inform and build a story and an outreach campaign, often building on local, grassroots conservation efforts. In 2008, with a plan for a Sage Spirit conservation project, I reached out to just about every conservation group doing good work in our part of the West. Sierra Club Wyoming Chapter, Audubon Rockies and The Wilderness Society became outreach partners, and many others informed my work and helped me make connections to tell our western story.

Just west of Bondurant, below the Hoback River headwaters in the Wyoming Range, sits a mountain basin with beaver ponds and creeks, mixed sagebrush and aspen, and conifer forest rimming the edges. It’s a wildlife superhighway, a stronghold for moose; summer range for calving and fawning elk, deer, and pronghorn; and home to all the toothy predators of Greater Yellowstone including grizzly and black bears, gray wolves and mountain lions. The 150-mile Red Desert mule deer migration path leads to the Hoback — just the Hoback. On North America’s longest mule deer migration, these deer cross highways, fences, lakes, rivers and energy developments to reach the verdant slopes beneath the Wyoming Range, where they fawn and graze through the summer months.

Two mule deer bucks in velvet graze in the Hoback River Basin in western Wyoming. (Dave Showalter)

In 2010, I flew with Chris Boyer, a Bozeman LightHawk pilot, over the Upper Hoback River Basin west of Bondurant. We flew the Jonah and Pinedale Anticline natural gas fields, Trapper’s Point near Pinedale, the Green River as it pours from the Winds, and the Upper Hoback in Wyoming’s namesake mountain range.

The Upper Green River curls back on itself before making a sweeping turn. Evening light paints the surrounding hillsides in warm light. Sublette County, Wyo. (Dave Showalter)

From a bright red Cessna 172 Taildragger, door removed for photography, the crumpled land stretched to the Teton Range, much of it roadless and intact. With a queasy stomach, I made images that would be used to advocate for protection when the land was already leased for a 136-well industrial gas field. Conservation groups, including a group called Citizens For The Wyoming Range, were bringing folks from all walks together, turning out for public meetings and writing 60,000 old-fashioned letters. When The Trust For Public Land bought the leases and gave the land back to the American people, it showed us what’s possible: People can galvanize and stand for a common purpose. There is no better example of grassroots collaboration for conservation than the Upper Hoback.

Full scale industrial development in the La Barge oil and gas fields. This fragmented landscape, complete with chemical waste ponds, is only suitable for energy development. (Dave Showalter)

Steely gray predawn reveals silhouettes of strutting, fighting male sage grouse chasing one another. I can see the birds displaying as their wings brush against inflated air sacs that impress females. Males square up chest to chest and sometimes fight, the rapid wing slaps of a territorial conflict lasting less than a second. A pale magenta sunrise is followed by a warm glow in the short grasses on the mating ground, or lek, cinnamon light for birds and photographer.

The agonizing buildup to the greater sage grouse listing decision was marked by political maneuvering in Washington, which continues today. But something else was happening here in the West: Folks collaborated, figured out how to avoid an Endangered Species listing and made room for grouse and energy. When Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced greater sage grouse were “not warranted” protection under the Endangered Species Act in Denver last month, she cited collaboration as the key to avoid a listing. Westerners know how to work together.

Matt Holloran, PhD, leads a study of energy impacts on greater sage grouse. This female has been fitted with a telemetry collar and will be released after data is recorded. Trapping, collaring, and release all happen at night near leks, or mating grounds. This grouse will be back on the lek before dawn. Sublette County, on the Pinedale Anticline. (Dave Showalter)

With that same spirit of collaboration, and in partnership with Sierra Club Wyoming Chapter, I look forward to presenting Sage Spirit -The American West At A Crossroads to college students and fellow stakeholders at three Wyoming events this month. The future of the only sagebrush sea is up to us.

Laramie: 7 p.m. October 21
Berry Biodiversity Center Auditorium, on the corner of 10th and Lewis streets

Casper: 7 p.m. October 22
Zimmerman Lecture Series
Casper College Wheeler Auditorium, Wold Physical Science Center

Rock Springs: 7 p.m. October 27
Western Wyoming Community College Rock Springs Campus, Room 1302

— Conservation photographer and author Dave Showalter is based in Colorado and focused on the American West.  He has published two books — Sage Spirit, The American West at a Crossroads by Braided River (2015); and the award-winning Prairie Thunder by Skyline Press (2007). His photographs and articles have appeared in numerous publications, including Outside, Outdoor Photographer, National Parks Magazine, High Country News, Wilderness, Colorado Life, the Colorado Fourteener Calendar and elsewhere. He can be reached at dave@daveshowalter.com. Visit his webpage www.daveshowalter.com, or check out his blog, www.westernwild.org.

— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at dustin@wyofile.com.

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  1. There is No room for energy And wildlife, at least not oil, coal, and giant wind or solar farms. We need small community fields of wind and solar to save our state. Heck, to save our country. That wind farm they are putting in prime grouse breeding grounds isn’t even for Wyoming homes and businesses. It’s all going to Las Vegas and other points west. So very saddening to me.

    Nadine Girouard