Impression Sunrise (Impression, Soleil Levant), created by Claude Monet in 1874, is one of the most important works in the impressionist movement. The contrast of the diminutive, dark colored fishing boats against the dominant, red-orange hued sunrise conveys peace and tranquility. In the background, the soft gray silhouettes of factory smoke stacks, construction machines, and large ships are almost comforting. In the midst of all the boom of construction in France following the Franco-Prussian war (1870-1871), this busy port of Le Havre may have symbolized the renewed power of France to Monet. But there is more than one way to view to heavy industrialization, and neither is generally that great for the fishermen.
Traveling out here, I drove cross country with my mom all the way from Saint Louis, Missouri to the tiny town of Burns, Oregon. It was the longest road trip I’ve ever been on. What struck me the most was how much of this country is miles upon miles of highway connecting little towns to little towns, the green grasslands blending into dark mountains blending into red rocks blending into gray-green sagebrush. It occurred to me on that trip that this is the stuff America is made of.
Compared with my Massachusetts hometown of Lexington and my erstwhile home of St. Louis, the scenery around Burns is incredible. Here in Harney County, one might crest a hill only to be confronted with a towering butte, or a range of snow crested peaks. It seems that every tiny dirt road has a view of expansive gray-green slopes, or the shimmering tan flat of desert. You might say it’s majestic.
The people of Burns are endlessly friendly and helpful to us newcomer interns. Several have invited the four of us into their homes, a couple have introduced us to other young people in the area, and some have invited us to fish and shoot with them. Many people have recommended their favorite activities to us. One night at a fiddle music festival, we were even given waltzing lessons, and another time we were welcomed with rocky mountain oysters at a cattle branding. Yes, many people have different world views from us city folk, but that has never dampened their honesty and hospitality.
One of the first things that surprised me about the BLM came up in my first conversation with my mentor, Caryn. During the interview process, she told me that the BLM was hoping that the sage grouse would not be federally listed as a threatened species. At first I was shocked, since I had expected that people would want to protect a species whose population has seen such a precipitous decline in the recent past. On second thought, this position makes sense since it would be difficult to coordinate protection of the sage grouse according to the endangered species act with the many ranchers who use BLM land.
When I arrived in Burns and started work however, it seemed not only that the BLM did not want the sage grouse to be federally listed, but many individuals actually saw the potential listing of the sage grouse as a threat to the ranching lifestyle that dominates the county. They believe that sage grouse are in decline for three main reasons: 1) fire due to drought, 2) invasive annuals such as cheat grass, and 3) encroachment into sagebrush by western juniper trees (Juniperus occidentalis). All three of these things also pose challenges to their ability to raise cattle.
Later, when I was hiking in the Steens Mountains with friends, we happened to meet a man who had helped write the petition to federally list the sage grouse. He was upset when we informed him that the BLM was still seeding burned areas with crested wheat-grass (Agropyron cristatum), a non-native grass that provides good forage for cattle. In his view, the cattle ranching industry was the one threatening the sage grouse in three main ways: 1) overgrazing grass so that it provides no cover, 2) allowing raven populations to overwinter on dead cows causing an increase in ravens which then prey on sage grouse, and 3) degrading water sources by trampling.
Clearly there are at least two sides to the sage grouse issue, and they seem to come to a head over the issue of ranching and cows. Cows are highly valued and represent a way of life in Harney County. In fact, even though many cows stand in the road, anyone who hits a cow with a car must pay for it. Ranchers and those who work closely with them at the BLM see the importance of ranching in the community. These people live lives that seem to come out of an old western, complete with brandings, rodeos, cowboys, and roundups. Other people see cattle ranching as an ongoing problem that is only getting worse as the high population of cattle (over 100,000 in the county compared to about 7,000 people) degrades the land over time. Some people even argue that with their use of government land and government subsidies, ranchers are all essentially “living on welfare”.
Beyond the seemingly timeless beauty of Harney County’s rich culture set against its stunning landscape, there lies a conflict between cows and birds, or maybe just between two groups of people. Hopefully, the large amount of funding currently going towards sage grouse research can find why the sage grouse is really declining and how the decline can be stopped while cooperating with ranchers, because the sage grouse is being considered for federal protection over the next few years. The clock is ticking.