Illustration: Kima Lenaghan

The Greater Sage-Grouse has, to put it mildly, a long and complicated history. The chicken-size birds range across 11 states in the American West, nesting on the ground amid 165 million acres of sagebrush that provides them with food, shelter, and even a name. But all that land, as big as it sounds, is drastically reduced from the bird's historic range, and the sage-grouse's numbers have likewise plummeted in recent decades as it has had to compete with human development, oil and gas drilling, ranching operations, and even invasive plants.

Ten years ago, the bird’s outlook had become so dire that it was even considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). But a landmark deal reached in 2015 promised to protect bird’s habitat from harmful development through a series of management plans while avoiding a listing by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or FWS. The management plans, FWS wrote in its decision, “ensure that high-quality sage-grouse lands with substantial populations are minimally disturbed and sage-grouse within this habitat remain protected.” It was the sort of deal that seemed, at the time, like a win for all parties involved: Greater Sage-Grouse would enjoy protected habitats, but landowners and industrial interests wouldn’t be subjected to the sorts of restrictions that usually come with a species being listed under the ESA.

But times—and, more importantly, administrations—have changed. Under President Trump’s “energy dominance” approach, the federal Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service scaled back protections on millions of acres of essential sage-grouse habitat, opening the door to industrial development that could prove catastrophic for the species. Meanwhile, new rule changes to the Endangered Species Act could make listing the bird harder than it would have been earlier.

Ashely Ahearn, a former radio journalist, was only vaguely aware of all this drama when she was an environmental reporter at KUOW, the local public radio station in Seattle. “Frankly, every time I would get a press release about this bird, I was kind of like ‘okay, how do I avoid covering this today?’”Ahearn says. “I was sort of apathetic about the issue. But after the 2016 election, Ahearn became disillusioned with journalism and the state of the world. So she quit her job and moved with her husband to a rural part of Washington State for a fresh start. There, she acquired a house, an uncooperative mare, and an unexpected appreciation for the Greater Sage-Grouse. “Once I moved to sagebrush country,” Ahearn says, “it became really clear to me that there was a lot more to this story.”

Over time, Ahearn became friends with the ranchers in her area and, even though she had no ranching aspirations herself, started helping them out with their cattle. As she got to know more of her new neighbors, says Ahearn, she realized the Greater Sage-Grouse occupied people’s minds in a way few other topics did. But, as she knew from her own experience, few people outside of sagebrush country knew just how big a deal the bird was. So despite her misgivings about journalism, she decided to make a podcast about it.

In Grouse, an eight-part series from BirdNote and Boise State Public Radio launching today, Ahearn—who hadn’t even seen one of the birds before she began working on the podcast—travels through the West to speak to conservationists, ranchers, Native American elders, and energy industry executives to explore the complicated relationship between humans and the Greater Sage-Grouse. “I purposely tried to place episodes in as many states where you find sage-grouse as possible,” Ahearn says.

Each episode of the podcast tackles a different aspect of the sage-grouse saga, from cattle ranching and native traditions to invasive cheatgrass and energy extraction. Ahearn says her goal was to present the story from every side possible, a goal she works toward by talking to conservationists and industry interests alike in order to answer the question of whether sage-grouse and humans can ever truly coexist. She begins in her home state of Washington, a place she calls “the ghost of Christmas future” because of how sage-grouse have fared there. “We have fewer than a thousand birds left in the state,” she says. “Looking at what’s happened here was really an opportunity to ask questions like ‘where are we headed?’ and ‘what are we going to do about this bird?’”

Reporting Grouse was challenging, says Ahearn. For starters, the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to cancel reporting plans, including a visit to the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon, where she intended to learn and report firsthand on the relationship between Native Americans and the sage-grouse. She did manage to interview a Northern Paiute elder remotely, but she still wasn't able to capture the sights and sounds that she would have been able to get if not for the pandemic.

Then there was the time she visited Wyoming’s Red Desert, where she climbed into a blind above a lek, or a Greater Sage-Grouse mating site, in the frigid darkness at 4 a.m. and waited for the birds to appear. “We sat in the cold for three hours, and I had my recording kit in my coat, pressed up against my body for warmth because it stops working if it gets too cold,” Ahearn says. Eventually the birds showed up, and she managed to stick her microphone out of the bottom of the blind to capture the popping and bubbling sounds of the males inflating and deflating their air sacs in the middle of their mating dance. “That was the best recording experience of my life” she says.

Ahearn, who previously hosted the podcasts Sound Escapes (also from BirdNote) and Terrestrial, says Grouse is her most personal work yet. In contrast to how she was expected to remain stoic when she reported environmental stories for KUOW and NPR, the sage-grouse became a vehicle for me now as an independent producer to really explore a lot of those themes of grief, loss, mourning, and change that are the backdrop to every environment story right now,” Ahearn says. “So this was my first foray into, like, what does my voice sound like when I'm wrestling with these things?”

Since she began working on Grouse, Ahearn says she managed to overcome the feelings of despair that drove her to move to Washington in the first place. “I think that the quest to understand sage-grouse parallels a quest to break through the numbness and the sadness that I was feeling,” Ahearn says. “It made it a really important personal journey back toward caring again. 

Grouse can be found on the BirdNote website or by searching for “BirdNote Presents” in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast app.

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