Sasha Nelson: Circle of life needs life support
November 15, 2013
The blaze orange and camo contingent have been out in numbers across town. I find myself rubbernecking at every pickup to see who's bringing in game. I find myself looking longingly at my bow, recalling hunts of years gone by and deciding which friends might be sweet-talked out of a little venison (thanks, Allan). It's hunting season in Northwest Colorado!
This time of year is a dance around the circle of life; everyone works a little harder getting fat off the bounty of the land. Ranchers, farmers, guides, outfitters, other business owners and state and federal agencies create partnerships opening our vast landscape to the business side of wildlife management. The efforts to ranch for wildlife, manage our public lands and overall stewardship are rewarded or not during this intense period of activity. During hunting season, the vast lands at our doorstep have more than intrinsic value; they, and the wildlife they support, bring in millions of dollars.
Hunting is part of my heritage and part of the heritage of many here in Northwest Colorado. That heritage is under pressure as we see increased impact to wildlife habitat from human development. What's worse is that the political conversation often pits land preservation and wildlife conservation against economic development — as if there were a choice to be made between the two. Jobs versus wildlife is a false notion when wildlife bring jobs!
It is true that to have thriving wildlife, we have to have healthy habitat, and that means being clever in how we manage the many demands placed on all our natural resources. Natural resources are more than the minerals in the ground. Great management of natural resources accounts for the entire support system that cares for the web of life. It means working collectively to balance competing needs. And we are not doing such a great job.
Last month, I wrote about the plight of the greater sage grouse. While populations in Northwest Colorado are considered some of the healthiest, we have gone from the days of old when wagonloads of sage grouse were harvested to a dubious one-day hunting season and a bird that is a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act. The rhetoric would have you think that this is entirely political. Reality is that you only need to read historical accounts of how flocks of grouse used to darken the sky, then walk across our sagebrush steppes to the silences left by once-flourishing inhabitants. Sage grouse are so dependent on sage that they act as a canary in a coal mine — signaling that things are out of balance on the land.
The hard, cold facts are that habitat fragmentation resulting from human activity is the No. 1 threat to sage grouse and about 350 other species of wildlife. This includes the big game that are the draw for so many of our hunters and an important economic driver for our region. The threat of extinction is very real. North America had eight grouse species, and in the past 10 years, one of those has become extinct.
The good news is that there still is time, and if we caused it, we can and we are fixing it. This summer, I had the opportunity to tour area ranches and learn about the cutting-edge management practices many are adopting to improve the productivity of the range and to enhance wildlife habitat, especially for grouse. I learned about the frustration of concensious when neighboring landowners, often federal agencies, were not doing more.
Neighbor to neighbor, concerned citizen to concerned citizen, it's time to reach over the fences that divide us, whether they be barbed wire or political, and share the lessons of what works and what doesn't.
I personally extend that hand to everyone. Join me from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday at Downtown Books when award-winning photographer Noppadol Paothong informally will be discussing and signing his book "Save the Last Dance," the poignant story of North America's grouse species. I'll be there, maybe not in blaze orange but hard to miss, providing fact sheets about the Bureau of Land Management/U.S. Forest Service Northwest Colorado Sage Grouse Plan and ways you can help to improve the plan.
Working together, we are trying to not only preserve the majestic sage grouse but also help bring balance to competing needs and save age-old traditions, important economic drivers and a legacy of wildlife riches to provide our future generations.
Sasha Nelson is the field organizer for Conservation Colorado.