New podcast gets personal about the most controversial bird in the West

Grouse, a new podcast by Ashley Ahearn explores the plight of the Greater Sage-Grouse, as seen in this illustration of a male in strut during its annual spring mating ritual.

BOISE

The Greater Sage-Grouse is disappearing across the west as oil and gas extraction, development, wildfire, invasive plants and overgrazing change its habitat. As a radio journalist living in Seattle, Ashley Ahearn hadn’t paid much attention to the sage-grouse issue. But now she lives in sagebrush country — and she’s fascinated with the bird and what it symbolizes for people in the west today.

“It’s a lightning rod for people who are worried about government overreach and onerous environmental regulation. And on the flip side, for environmentalists it’s become a call-to-arms for action — as we live through the 6th mass extinction,” Ahearn said. “But really, it’s this weird, prairie chicken-type-creature just trying to do its thing and hang on, like the rest of us. I was hooked.”

Ahearn is a newcomer to sagebrush country, and she uses her personal journey — as an outsider trying to understand rural life — to serve as the proxy for listeners who may never live in the country or see a sage-grouse in real life. She went from filing news stories on deadline to herding cows on horseback and killing rattlesnakes on her property — and she talks about it in the show, weaving together her flailing attempts to understand country life with her quest to understand what it is about this strange bird that gets so many people riled up.

The first two episodes of Grouse were released on Tuesday.

The podcast is sound-rich and field-recorded. You’ll hear Ahearn desperately cajoling her stubborn mare into herding cows, or traipsing through the snake-infested Idaho sagebrush to trap and tag grouse with scientists. She asks ranchers, straight-faced, about their feelings on liberal city environmentalists and asks environmentalists why they see going to court as the best way to solve conservation problems. But always, she comes back to the bird and what’s at stake.

Sage-grouse populations — across the West — have decreased by 44% on average in the past five years.

At its core, Grouse is a love story about a bird that may not be with us for much longer and what it means to find the courage to love the shit out of something even if you may be losing it,” Ahearn said.

The podcast is an eight-part series, produced in partnership with BirdNote Presents and distributed in collaboration with Boise State Public Radio, along with the Mountain West News Bureau. Find Grouse at the Boise State Public Radio website, with the Boise State Public Radio app or at NPR One.

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