I was cruising the web not long ago when I came across a story (hat tip to the excellent Setter Feathers and Groused Tales blog for the link) about the state of Wyoming’s decision to completely close sage grouse season in the eastern part of the state.

From this story in the Casper Star Tribune:

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has announced a plan to shut down all sage grouse hunting in the eastern portion of the state this year. At Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, we view this as a symbolic gesture that will do little to help the dwindling grouse population in the Powder River Basin. Instead, we’re encouraging the Game and Fish Department to focus on the real threat that is causing population declines in the first place: irresponsible types of oil, gas, and coal-bed methane extraction.

In March, the Bureau of Land Management released the results of a sage grouse Population Viability Analysis that predicted the functional extinction of sage grouse in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin upon the next major outbreak of West Nile virus, as coal-bed methane well density increases to eight wells per square mile. The study modeled sage grouse population changes in response to increasing coalbed methane development and other factors, and projected that of the 370 sage grouse leks (or strutting and breeding grounds) active today in the Powder River Basin, only six leks would remain in the wake of a West Nile epidemic. This is dire news indeed, as the loss of the sage grouse population in northeastern Wyoming would eliminate the key link between populations in Montana, the Dakotas, and Canada with the heart of the sage grouse range in southwest Wyoming. And if this happens, endangered species listing would almost certainly follow.

Ultimately the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission voted to not shut down the season, but increasingly, stories about upland birds and their habitat read less like news and more like a series of dirges. We can argue the relative merits of why, and who is or isn’t to blame ad infinitum. Smarter guys than I can take up that banner, but I have to admit that there are times when I look at my dogs and see not fur, flesh and bone, but ghosts. Big, goofy, loveable, tail-wagging, face-licking, depression-killing, utterly perfect ghosts. But ghosts nonetheless, apparitions that seem to grow just a tiny bit fainter, more translucent, somehow less there, with each new piece of bad news for the birds they were born to hunt, as if Fate had intertwined the two in some cosmic Gordian knot. Tug on one, tug on the other. And I admit, there are days when I feel somehow less here as well, for I am–as a bird hunter–every bit as entwined in that knot as the birds and the dogs and the lonesome places I so love. There’s a beautiful symmetry to it, when you think about it: Birds are defined by the land, dogs are defined by the birds, and we, at the top of this metaphysical food chain, are defined by the totality of it all.

And when it all goes away, when what we love and choose to define ourselves by just disappears, as it sometimes seems like it surely is, do we become less than what we once were? Ghosts chasing ghosts chasing ghosts across the haunted, empty remnants of what once was? Sometimes it feels that way, like what I’m really doing as I follow my dogs across a vast arc of sky and grass, is mere ghost-chasing, searching out the scattered vestiges of something (birds, life, meaning, existence) that is rapidly slipping toward the past tense. How else can you honestly describe it? I have a friend in Idaho. Like me, he has a young setter, and like me, he wants to get his pup on a sage grouse, just once, while there is still time. I have another friend in Kansas with an aged pointer, a veteran of many, many years of those ghost hunts. He would like to get her on a lesser prairie chicken, just once, while there is still time, just like I would like to get my setter on a lesser prairie chicken, again, just once, while there is still time.

So we will try to do that this Fall, my friends and I, to etch that metaphorical notch on our souls and the souls of our dogs while there is still time to do so, with the full realization that what we do is pure ersatz. The fuzzy outline lingers, but the substance has passed. And soon enough, so too will the outline. So in a very real sense, we will be ghost hunting this fall, my friends and I. But we will do it, anyway, because that is what we have chosen to be defined by. And when that last and utterly final opportunity–ersatz or not–passes, when the door finally slams shut forever, as it in all likelihood will, I wonder if we will grow that much dimmer with its passing?