You know the old phrase: Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over. Over the two years that I’ve now been in the San Luis Valley (SLV) of Colorado, I’ve heard a lot of stories that recall that phrase. Stories of family members who no longer speak due to disagreements irrigation strategies, landowners who’ve been shot by trespassers hoping to steal water under cover of night, ranchers on their fifth year of a water court case due to a neighbor dispute. This story, however, is not one of those.
I stop what I’m doing for a moment and look up to watch a pair of circling Red-tailed Hawks. They’re smugly indifferent to my work, but their presence makes it go a little faster all the same. With the Western Meadowlarks, Lark Buntings, and Cassin’s Sparrows as a soundtrack, it’s a simply beautiful day to be outside.
One of my favorite quotes by Aldo Leopold in his book, A Sand County Almanac. A classic read for any upcoming wildlife biologist, nature-lover, or outdoors person. This quote reminds me of the well-known saying “leave it better than you found it”. A saying that had been engrained in me ever since I was just a kid playing in the river behind my house. I am fortunate that I grew up as an “outdoor kid”.
The first time meeting a bull I thought there should be much more care taken. We parked the pick-up in the two-lane adjacent to the white mound napping and chewing his cud. He didn’t move or glace our way as we approached. I walked equal to the rancher; if he was going in, I was, too.
On Sunday, March 13th, I saw my first Mountain Bluebird of the year. He was coming off the south fence of the northwestern pasture. He launched, dipped, then propelled making it to the opposite side to watch me travel on, my car having done more to move him than the cows, or even the coyotes could manage.
From a young age, I felt a disconnect between our culture and nature. I was always curious about the natural world and wondered why anyone would want to study anything else. My father’s idealist view and respect for Indigenous people specifically inspired me. I longed to live more connected to the land, like the Indigenous people whose ways of life I had come to admire.
Another summer in the Northern Great Plains has come and gone, now fleeting as quickly as it arrived. With it, the many birds who travel thousands of miles to call these grasslands home during the breeding season have begun to make the long journey back to their wintering grounds. For the many ranchers and farmers of eastern Montana, the work is not done.
Dogs aren’t new to me, but they almost seemed that way when I moved to the San Luis Valley and started working as a Private Lands Wildlife Biologist. I grew up in Chicago, IL and the dogs I knew were house pups – used to lazy mornings and an afternoon walk. So when I moved to the San Luis Valley and met a cattle dog that wanted nothing to do with me, I was surprised. But by spending time with local landowners and their dogs, I quickly learned the difference between the “pet” dogs I’d grown up with and the working dogs out here in the San Luis Valley – and much more. I’m a Private Lands Wildlife Biologist and I work with landowners, ranchers, and farmers to conserve wildlife habitat on their properties. Landowners are typically focused on making a living and carrying on generations-old traditions, while I am focused on creating and enhancing habitat for migratory and resident birds. These goals often go together, allowing us to develop and work on projects that both enhance landowner operations and benefit birds and other wildlife.
Northern Bobwhite quail are an important species in the plains and the eastern United States, known for their characteristic whistle, their habit of gathering in groups (known as coveys) and their white and black faces that peek out through the shrubby habitats they call home. While other game birds fly south for the winter, these short stout birds stay put. Bobwhites are indicators of rangeland health, and their presence often indicates that land managers are taking the health of the land into consideration when implementing agricultural practices. They are a charismatic species, and habitat protection and enhancements that target Bobwhites also benefit numerous other grassland species. Agricultural producers take great pride in the health of their lands, and knowing they have an iconic species like the bobwhite on their land gives them as much joy as it gives us in observing them in the field.
As Thanksgiving is right around the corner, let’s reflect on Wild Turkeys, the habitats they call home, and how we can help conserve them. Wild Turkeys can be found in all of the lower 48 states, but in the early 1900’s this was not the case; turkey populations were nearly depleted due to poaching and habitat loss. Once conservationists began to focus on habitat restoration and reintroduction to areas where turkeys were formerly extirpated, populations began to bounce back. Unfortunately, we are beginning to see a slight decline in Wild Turkey populations again today, and Bird Conservancy is working with private landowners to improve habitat for Wild Turkeys and other forest inhabitants. This Thanksgiving we are thankful for all of the private landowners and partners who have worked with us to improve wildlife habitat!