Citizen Science on the Owyhee Front


Mrs. WC volunteered the two of us to participate in an experimental Greater Sage-Grouse survey. Basically, the idea is to compare the results of a ground census with an infrared camera aerial census.

We were assigned an area on the Owyhee Front, the northern foothills of the Owyhee Mountain in southwestern Idaho. While we counted birds from the ground, the airplane would circle overhead and see how many birds technology could spot. The map showed the lek we were to survey was pretty far up Bates Creek Road. But about 3.4 miles up Bates Creek Road, we ran into this sign.

That's rude. And inconvenient.

That’s rude. And inconvenient.

The thing you need to know about the Owyhee Front is that it has been sacrificed to Off Highway Vehicles, OHVs. Dirt bikes, 4-wheelers, 6-wheelers, something called “rock crawlers” and a whole menagerie of other gasoline-burning, terrain-chewing, CO2-spewing machines. It’s not that there weren’t alternate routes to our research point; it was there was and absolute maze of “roads,” trails and paths, some signed, most not, and those that were signed often had the signs knocked down. But armed with a GPS, the coordinates of the lek and our own tank of gasoline, we eventually got where the lek was reported to be. It looked like this:

Why they call it the sagebrush sea

Why they call it the sagebrush sea

Which is pretty much what the entire Owyhee Front looks like. Note the Cheatgrass in the foreground, obviously brought in by traffic along the road. But, while this area was somewhat over-grazed, this section didn’t have extensive patches of Cheatgrass.

There's a lek around here?

There’s a lek around here? Looking down at the Snake River Plain

We set up the tent, ready for the pre-dawn census, had a perfectly bland meal of freeze-dried food and turned in early. At 5:30 AM we got up, made a hasty thermos of coffee, and set out to find the lek in the near-pitch dark. You aren’t going to see the birds that early, but you can hear them; the distinct “pa-loop” call the big males make carries a ways.

And we did eventually find them, and were ready to count just at the designated time. It looked a lot like this:

So how many birds do you see?

So how many birds do you see? Don’t count rocks. (Simulated conditions)

WC and Mrs. WC weren’t even permitted to work together; we had to count independently, at least 60 meters apart. We did our initial count and then, right on schedule, the airplane appeared in the sky, and we counted again. For a wonder, WC and Mrs. WC agreed on the number of birds. It was a lot less likely than you might think. The lek was spread out over a very large area, and in the half-light the birds appeared and disappeared behind terrain, taller sagebrush and when they had their butts pointed at us. We almost certainly undercounted the total birds there.

We’ve reported our results to the scientist running the experiment; we’ll let you know if and when we hear the results of the study.

Science is good, despite what Republicans in Congress may say. Data – hard facts – are far more useful and instructive than opinion, conspiracy theories and outright lies. When you as citizens participate in science, you’re not only helping a worthy cause. You’re investing in the process, and as a result understand it better. WC’s modest skills at counting birds aren’t remarkable. With a little experience, literally anyone with decent vision and good, light-gathering binoculars can do it.

Plus, it gives you an excuse to get outdoors. If you need one.

Sunset behind the Owyhees

Sunset behind the Owyhees

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