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    Lake County

    Dawn over the sage in southeast Oregon.
    Dawn over the sage in southeast Oregon.
    Good sage grouse country is vast by necessity. In Oregon, Highway 140 takes you there, where the soil sits on top of Miocene rocks, 17-million-year-old basalts exposed by wind and water on the edges of sage plateaus. The dark igneous stones — earth’s prehistoric eyes — stare as you walk past.

    Weathered wood on the sides of a line shack speaks to the threadbare existence served up in eastern Lake County. So does a pile of cow bones, the skull 60 feet downhill from the carcass. Fewer than 8,000 people lived in Lake County at the last census. It is likely sage grouse outnumber registered voters.

    A hunter approaches a group of sage grouse.
    A hunter approaches a group of sage grouse.

    Biology and geology are intrinsically linked, and this is a country that is stretched thin. Around here much of the uplifted land is the result of normal faulting and spreading of the earth’s crust into horsts and grabens. Geological forces have pulled the land in two directions over eons, creating low basins broken by ranges that rise above the shorelines of Pleistocene seas. The wide, low valleys, called grabens, may stretch for miles before ending at a fault and uplifted horst. Basalt boulders crumble from the horsts and roll to the bottom, monoliths of erosion and time. Some of the boulders are immense, and a few of them are marked with petroglyphs, messages from a people long passed into history. Geysers and hot springs are hidden away among outcrops and sage. Above the shores of the ancient seas, atop the rocks, are stretches of big sage that provide habitat for the grouse. The habitat is not saturated with birds. In this arid land, a lot of species exist at low densities compared to more mesic habitats. It is a landscape of distance.

    In Oregon, sage grouse season opens in the middle of September as broods are starting to disperse, though plenty of 3-month-old birds are still with adult hens. Adult males are less abundant and are scattered throughout the sage. They are what a lot of hunters are after, perhaps even me, though I’m not ever that choosy. The odds of killing a bird in good enough condition for mounting are low, and I can’t afford it anyway. Hunters are allowed two birds per season. Permits for hunt units are chosen by a lottery process, and the number of permits available varies from unit to unit.

    We leave at midnight, driving east from Ben’s house in Eugene to arrive for an early morning hunt. We have more than 300 miles to cover over the next six or seven hours. Trout, Ben’s Labrador, and my English pointer Miller sleep in the backseat of his truck, and I struggle to stay awake in the passenger seat. The bed of the truck is stuffed with camp supplies and jugs of water.

    Miller locates sage grouse.
    Miller locates sage grouse.

    We cross the crest of the Cascade Mountains and stop in Crescent for gas. Dropping out of the mountains into southeast Oregon, we stop again in Lakeview for more before heading to our destination near the Nevada border. It is wise to get gas while you can out here. After several miles of driving on a dirt road, we park beneath an old juniper and finish a cup of coffee. The moon is still up. At sunrise we walk across the sage with two dogs in the lead, working toward the light. The morning is clear. The air is cold, and the sky glows pink and red above a silent daybreak.

    Sage grouse fly in before dawn to drink at tanks hidden in the desert before scattering into the sage to feed. The pre-dawn flight is more audible than visual, though you can see groups of birds silhouetted against the horizon. They fly past the water, land in cover and walk to the edge to drink. Hunting around these areas often produces some flushes because of the economy of water in the Great Basin. The birds have to drink.

    Around midmorning, Trout finds a single, and Ben kills a young bird with his first shot. Trout makes an easy retrieve, and we continue. The rest of the day is slow. Wild flushes of sage grouse and a look at some distant pronghorn.

    Miller points a covey of California quail.
    Miller points a covey of California quail.
    After a day of hiking, we make a late camp. Gin and tonics cut through the dust of the day. Dinner is kung pao grouse, wok-fried on the propane stove. There are stars that shine with no boundaries — countless points of light stretching north to south until they touch the ground. The air is cold, but the truck canopy is enough to insulate us. The bird dogs are in the cab. In the middle of the night, the angry screams of five feral horses wake us from a distance because we are camped near their water source, which they have denuded of vegetation except for stunted remains of sage. They won’t come near the water with us there, and they move on into the night.

    In the morning we wake and hunt near a stream that still has water in it, though there are only jackrabbits along its course. We are hunting on the perimeter of an ancient lakebed, walking on dust of eons and across a void that has been eaten bare by feral horses. There are too many horses in this part of the world. They remain a romantic icon to some, though I would guess mostly to those who have never spent much time in the Great Basin, the late zealous horse crusader “Wild Horse Annie” notwithstanding. I don’t see romance in an overgrazed landscape, especially one this fragile. On average, annual rainfall here is 10 or fewer inches. The aridity of this place makes it susceptible to the insatiable appetite of an animal like a horse, not to mention the pulverization of vegetation from their hooves. It’s obvious that Annie and the new cohort of ecologically myopic horse advocates are unconcerned for the welfare of native plants and animals in the Great Basin; otherwise, their interest in protecting this feral scourge would be diminished. Instead, we are left with a federally mandated legacy of dust.

    We hunt the last morning near another tank. There is a large group of birds ahead of me; I shoot two on the flush, and my season is over. This has been a lot of walking for two birds. I don’t hunt here because I desire volume; I hunt here because of a desire for the country sage grouse live in and the chance to see my dog hunt these icons of the West. We aren’t always successful. Sometimes you have to be satisfied with footsteps.

    We pack up camp and drive farther into the desert to enjoy it on its own merit. We see a group of bighorns, and a ewe climbs 30 feet up a basalt boulder, her hooves suctioned to the side as she surveys the green pickup and the men and two dogs looking at her. The rest of the group of ewes and lambs are looking at her, too. Her nose senses a situation that her eyes cannot interpret, and she gathers the herd. They walk up a familiar trail, disappearing in the rimrock shadows.

    Somewhere in the desert, at the base of one of these faults, is a large iron tub. Uphill from the tub, water boils out the side of the mountain, streaming downhill onto an alkali flat. As it cools, the water keeps a portion of the area green despite frequent droughts. A long piece of PVC pipe lies on the ground next to the tub with hot water rushing through it from the spring above. We lift the pipe to gravity fill the tub with hot water through the gradual heating of the residual cold water. Water boatmen evacuate the old tub as the water temperature gets too warm. After a few days of hiking, it’s not bad to soak a sore body for a bit, letting the minerals in the water renew muscles.

    The dogs roam on their own and find two coveys of California quail and a group of chukar in the sage and saltbush flat below the hot springs. Neither of these species is open to hunting yet, so we walk empty-handed behind the dogs and enjoy the points and flushes. We pantomime shots of a great bird hunt that never happened: a dream hunt. The dogs don’t seem to mind the lack of shooting, their joy drawn from the scents and sounds of birds. After a loop around the flat, the dogs climb into the back seat of the truck, and we travel west toward the mountains, the sun high on a clear September afternoon.

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