April 2013-Colorado Sage Grouse

Apr 5, 2013

­­Captain's Log 1XE, Day 1 in the month of April in the Earth Calendar in the New Year of 2013.


These days I usually begin the week looking at www.weather.com. This has become a daily habit in addition to the aviation weather products I subscribe to, as I invariably get a call from Janey stating weather.com is saying "the snow or rain will clear from 11 to 1, that is your flying window". I scratch my head, consult my charts and say "hogwash". But weather.com is often right, so checking this has now become a staple for me (weather.com please don't hesitate to donate to us for this free advertising).

On this day the mission is to meet a wildlife biologist who consults for High Lonesome Ranch, a wildlife mecca located near Rifle, Colorado. Accompanying me are a number of enthusiastic students from The Carbondale Community School. Young adults and bright students are so rewarding to fly, they are engaged, they are eager, they are excited and the aerial experience has proven to be life-long.

Weather.com had led me to believe that sunshine would be prevalent, and instead we had orographic snow showers. We flew IFR (I follow roads!) out of Aspen, along Highway 82 and up and over the ridge into the open and clear skies above Rifle. The High Lonesome Ranch is being proactive in discussions with BLM and the oil and gas companies in an effort to protect the vulnerable and valuable landscapes on and surrounding this remarkable ranch. The ridgelines remind me of what the Roan Plateau and much of the Piceance Basin used to look like before we all got caught asleep at the wheel, and much of the Roan and surrounding countryside in this area got leased many years ago.

Today we are looking for Greater Sage Grouse habitat and their tracks in the new snow, flying low and slow up and down these beautiful pristine ridges so that the ground crew will have an easier time locating these birds. The BLM is considering new sage grouse conservation plans and efforts are being made to protect their habitat from energy development. The males are known for their fascinating mating rituals, where they fan up the feathers in their tails, puff up their bright yellow sacs on their chests, and drape and drag their wings and generally strut their stuff to a nearby group of females who then select the most attractive males to mate with.

These mottled brown, black and white birds require good quality sagebrush to nest, and like to return to their previous nesting sites. If humans or oil and gas development disturb these areas, the birds will die: they do not simply find another place to nest. High Lonesome is spending a lot of time and money to ensure these fragile habitats are preserved, and are working with gas companies to compel them to use the least impactful drilling practices.

One of the best parts of this flight was that the accompanying students were a big help with their young eyes and their enthusiasm. Flying home with the weather finally living up to its bright forecast, I am again grateful for the ability to be able to show this unique land to people that care to be a part of the solution to a healthy and sustainable environment.

As an addendum to this flight, Janey and I recently participated in Conservation Colorado's Sagebrush Safari. This tour is open to the public. One arises pre-dawn and then proceeds to freeze their butt off watching 100 Greater Sage Grouse in an inexplicable and stirring mating display. The adventure was enhanced by a Golden Eagle swooping down at the testosterone fueled grouse, flushing them all in one magnificent 'take off'. The birds were not deterred for long, and slowly made their way back to the lek to resume their mating ritual. The Sagebrush Safari is remarkable and I highly recommend the experience.