Sage Spirit & The American West

ILCP Fellow Dave Showalter on making a difference with a camera and a focused mission

Tracks lead from the Boar’s Tusk, a 400-foot volcanic monolith landmark in the Killpecker Sand Dunes Wilderness Study Area, Wyoming Red Desert.

Ferrying my third load across rolling, unbroken sagebrush hills to a portable blind that’s a speck in an immense landscape, I’m thinking of how rare, how ephemeral these moments are—that so few places like this remain. I zip open the blind and drop my heavy photo backpack as sunset paints the surrounding sage in gold and magenta on a tranquil spring evening in northwestern Colorado’s Moffat County. A meadowlark sings from a sage top, and before I can get settled, there’s a rapid wing flap, then another, and more—greater sage-grouse arriving to roost on the lek. After a restless night of anticipation, more birds arrive at 4:45 a.m. until there are 60 males, so close to my blind that I can hear every syllable of the outlandish male sage-grouse display—wings swishing, air sacs popping, the deep growl on air intake and brief fights between males—all in absolute darkness. The wait to make images is agonizing, the moment timeless.

Light comes, first blue, then gold, and the intimate photo experience is exhilarating, especially when two females appear in front of the blind and are surrounded by males strutting and displaying for the right to mate. Sometimes, I just lower the camera and smile. I’m awestruck each time I have the privilege to view these remarkable birds.

A Brewer’s sparrow sings from the highest perch in a stand of Wyoming big sagebrush in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado. The Brewer’s sparrow is a sagebrush obligate species and declining at a rate of 2% per year.

In spring, imperiled greater sage-grouse and Gunnison sage-grouse congregate on mating grounds called leks to perform one of the great mating displays in the natural world. Sage-grouse flock to their same lek year after year—an open grassy area in the sagebrush, often a nondescript rise to better view approaching predators. Icons of the West, these sagebrush obligates are hard-wired to sage—mostly Artemisia tridentata, or big sagebrush, the dominant aromatic shrub species covering valleys and basins of the Intermountain West. Greater sage-grouse are a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and Gunnison sage-grouse, numbering around 4,500 individuals, were designated as “Threatened” under the ESA in November 2014. Sage-grouse are frequently called umbrella or indicator species because good sage-grouse habitat is vital to so many other wildlife species. This ecosystem called the sagebrush sea is so rich in biodiversity that some 350 wildlife species—from tiny Brewer’s sparrows to grizzly bears—rely on healthy, unbroken sagebrush to thrive.

Sandhill cranes wade in their flooded wetlands before taking flight from the evening roost. Cranes prefer to roost in shallow water for protection from predators. The Rocky Mountain sandhill crane population winters at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico and migrates to northern Colorado and throughout Greater Yellowstone through breeding season.

Now in my seventh year of the “Sage Spirit” project, I’ve photographed both species of sage-grouse from portable hunting blinds each spring, viewed grouse through the eyes of others in public viewing blinds, camped in natural gas fields, and hiked, mountain-biked and flown over wild, unbroken sage, canyons, plateaus, mountains, riverine corridors, ranch lands, wind farms and mega-energy developments. The aerial perspective reveals opportunity and loss—how all of the pieces fit together and where the land is fragmented into remnants of the sagebrush ecosystem. You’d think the western landscape would look bigger from 1,500 feet, but it’s the opposite once all the human features are laid bare.

Elk seem to pour from the Gravelly Mountains onto the Madison River Valley in Montana. Elk and other ungulates migrate from the deep snows at higher elevations to wind-blown sagebrush where they forage through winter.

My personal sagebrush journey grew from a growing concern for wild places lost during the energy rush when the fracking boom kicked into high gear around 2000. Suddenly, once-thriving areas were transformed into sacrifice zones, and places like Colorado’s Roan Plateau and Vermillion Basin, and Wyoming’s Red Desert and Absaroka Front were among the most threatened landscapes in America. Removing habitat pulls the rug out from under wildlife that needs room to roam freely, and alongside sage-grouse, a wide range of declining species added to a growing concern focused on the collapsing sagebrush ecosystem. Perfectly named, sage-grouse spend their entire life cycle in sagebrush. It’s vexing that they’re often lazily compared to a chicken with a peculiar dance and portrayed as somehow standing in the way of development; sage-grouse have been here for millions of years. Look deeper, and you’ll see that the Brewer’s sparrow, sagebrush sparrow, sage thrasher, pygmy rabbit, mule deer, golden eagle and land mammal migrations are all on the same diminishing path that has land managers concerned about a cascade of endangered species.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell has pointed to collaboration as the key to keeping greater sage-grouse off of the Endangered Species list and conserving the sagebrush ecosystem. Some may be surprised to learn that ranchers, conservation groups, several energy companies, sportsmen, scientists, other stakeholders (you and me) and government agencies are coming together to find common ground and solve complex issues. Leading up to the ESA listing decision, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has mapped Priority Areas of Conservation across the 11-state, 165-million-acre (257,000 square miles) region occupied by greater sage-grouse. About two-thirds of these western lands are managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Because sage-grouse are an umbrella species, this landscape-scale conservation planning effort will conserve habitat for wildlife species of concern across the West. It’s complicated, inexact, and we’ll still need to make room for migrating ungulates and apex predators, yet this collaborative approach is a way forward.

Gunnison sage-grouse male displays for a nearby female on a lek, or mating ground, on private land in the Gunnison Basin, Colorado.

When the Gunnison sage-grouse were recognized as a separate species in 2000 (creating greater sage-grouse and Gunnison sage-grouse designations), the extended Gunnison, Colorado, community realized the Gunnison sage-grouse was already endangered (although not yet protected under the ESA). Some locals feared changes to land management practices in this small ranching, tourism, adventure, academic community in west-central Colorado. Most Gunnison sage-grouse are concentrated in the Gunnison Basin that’s ringed by the Sawatch, Elk and San Juan mountain ranges, with several small satellite populations spread out west of Gunnison, in eastern Utah and southwestern Colorado. Smaller than greater sage-grouse, Gunnison sage-grouse differ in a number of ways, notably size, broad white bands on tail feathers and very different vocalizations. Working groups formed after the species designation, as western stakeholders from all walks of life came together to save their namesake grouse by conserving habitat and changing land-use policy. Today, Colorado Parks and Wildlife oversees a regional Gunnison Basin Sage-grouse Strategic Committee, ranchers are enrolled in conservation programs, habitat improvement programs are in place, seasonal closure of two-track roads and trails, and shed-antler hunting protect sensitive habitat, and, although tenuous, the Gunnison Basin population is stable at around 4,000 birds. The lingering concern is that wildfire, drought or anymore habitat loss could cause a rapid decline. The people of Gunnison stepped up in the spirit of collaboration to save a species when the Gunnison sage-grouse was barely known outside of the Gunnison Basin.

American bison graze on Antelope Flats with a backdrop of the Teton Range. Golden grasses and snow-covered mountains are telltale signs of the transition from autumn to winter.

What can we do as photographers who care about the West? Anyone can use photography to advance conservation. We can bear witness and use our images and collective voices to attest why the sagebrush sea matters, showcase the remarkable beauty and biodiversity of the only sagebrush ecosystem, and bring more fellow stakeholders to the table. As Americans, we all own a deed to these lands. You can pull on any thread in the story—beauty of the landscape, habitat loss, sagebrush songbirds, migrations, our human connections to the land, mule deer in decline—then share your images and encourage folks to support scientists and conservation groups doing great work. Audubon Rockies, Sierra Club Wyoming and The Wilderness Society are leaders in sagebrush conservation and partners of the “Sage Spirit” project, and there are many regional groups engaged in sagebrush issues. Grassroots conservation with compelling imagery is our most powerful tool for change.

Dave Showalter is a Colorado-based conservation photographer, an author and an Associate Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers. Sage Spirit is published by Mountaineers Books and is the foundation of a multiyear conservation campaign focusing on the eastern half of the sagebrush sea. See more of his work at

Nikon D3S

Gitzo Carbon-Fiber G1228 Tripod

Dave Showalter’s Gear
D3S for wildlife and aerials
Nikon D800 for landscape, aerials and video
Nikon D300 for all-around and time-lapse
Nikon D7100 for all-around shooting and hiking light
Nikkor 16-35mm, 24-120mm, 80-200mm, 80-400mm, 600mm, 70-180mm macro and a few DX lenses
Sony RX100
Gitzo tripod
Kirk ballhead
Kirk King Cobra for my big lens
Kirk window mount for shooting from the vehicle
Portable hunting blinds mostly for sage-grouse
All of my aerials were made with the support of LightHawk, a conservation organization of volunteer pilots

Nikkor 16-35mm

Sony RX100