Voices from Sage-Grouse Country

For Wyoming Rancher and Sportsman, Sagebrush Steppe at Core of Being

By Judith Kohler

Westerners who live, recreate and make their living in Sagebrush Country want to save the greater sage-grouse, a bird that once numbered in the millions, and want to save the sagebrush steppe. The steppe, which is habitat for sage-grouse and more than 350 species, has been reduced in size and degraded by urbanization, wildfires, invasive species, energy development, overgrazing. There are fewer than a half million sage-grouse across 11 Western states.

Communities, ranchers, state and local agencies and nonprofits have teamed up to conserve sage-grouse and the habitat that’s also home to mule deer, elk and pronghorn. Their work and conservation plans the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management wrote with input from states and locals led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to decide that sage-grouse didn’t need to be placed on the endangered species list.

A year after that decision, it’s time to put the plans in action and rebuild the population of a signature Western species. Leading up to Sept. 22, the one-year anniversary of Fish and Wildlife’s announcement, the National Wildlife Federation is daily showcasing Westerners who care about the greater sage-grouse and its habitat. They want the political wrangling over the conservation plans to stop so we can get on with saving the bird and the herds.

These are some of the “Voices of the Sage.”

The sixth-generation Wyoming rancher, sportsman and grandfather reflects on how “sagebrush country is as much a part of me as the very air I breathe.” Image: iStock.com

Walt Gasson and his family have lived, worked and recreated in western Wyoming’s sagebrush country for six generations. His family moved to the Cowboy State to raise sheep in the 1870s, settling on Big Sandy Creek, a tributary of the Green River.

“That sage land, most people just drive by, but for a few of us it’s really part of the core of our being,” he says. “Our family, my family when I was a child, my children and grandchildren are as tied to that sagebrush country as my father was and my grandfather and great grandfather were because it is the country that nourished them.

“From the time I was born, there was never any question about if I would hunt and fish. There was never any question about where I would hunt and fish,” Gasson adds. “The sagebrush country is as much a part of me as the very air I breathe.”

He recalls heading out in his father’s ’61 Chevy pickup to hunt sage grouse in the early fall.

Greater Sage-grouse fly over the Green River on the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Wyoming. Image: Tom Koerner, US Fish and Wildlife Service
“It was amazing, on a bad day we’d see a hundred birds. I look back on that now and it was just magical,” he says.

Gasson hopes the greater sage-grouse populations will rebound and that his nine grandchildren will feel the same magic. And he hopes the work to save the bird expands to save the sagebrush landscape, which is just as critical for elk, mule deer and other wildlife as it is for sage-grouse.

“I’m here to tell you that those very same elk and mule deer that we value so much in the treed country and those very same trout that we value in the mountain ranges, they rely on these sage lands, too. We’ve got to get together as a people and quit fighting and find solutions.”

Next up: A transplanted New Englander is at home in the Colorado sagebrush lands.

From the NWF — Our Public Lands team: Help us protect Greater Sage-grouse and the sagebrush ecosystem. Sign up for our emails — don’t worry, we only email when it’s really important — and follow Our Public Lands on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.