You may have noticed that the byline of the Methow Valley News’s other Ashley, Ashley Ahearn, has been missing from the newspaper’s pages lately. That’s because Ahearn — or Ashley 2, as I like to think of her — has been busy stalking the Greater Sage-Grouse, which lives exclusively in the sagebrush steppe of the west.
The sage-grouse is in dramatic decline, says Ashley, and people are fighting about what to do about it. Ashley has spent the summer learning about the sage-grouse, the environmentalists that are trying to protect it, the rural landowners who worry about government over-reach, and, consequently, the urban/rural divide in our country. And she has shared her learnings in an eight-part podcast called “Grouse.”
Ashley moved to the Methow Valley in 2018, trading urban life for more time in the saddle on her Arabian mare, Pistol, in sagebrush country. When I met Ashley, I realized where I’d heard her voice before: on BirdNote, the short but informative bird-focused story segments that my NPR station airs most mornings.
Ashley has been covering the environment for public radio ever since graduating college and she says “All I’ve ever wanted to do is tell stories about science and nature.” And for many years, this is what she did, quite happily. But one day, she was listening to the radio and heard one of her own stories. “It was so depressing and hopeless,” she says, “that I had to turn it off. I didn’t even want to hear the news I was reporting.”
At the same time, Ashley says, stories were getting shorter and shorter, presumably to keep pace with American attention spans. “I basically had to tell people how screwed we were, and then sign off.” Ashley was becoming numb; she wanted her stories to make a difference, not just become a vessels of despair. She wanted to make people care and, to some extent, she needed to make herself care again.
Ashley had heard about the Greater Sage-Grouse for years, and began recording people all over the west who have a stake in the bird’s future: environmentalists, ranchers, landowners, government agencies. She also spoke with members of the indigenous community, one of whom says, “What happens to [the sage-grouse] is what will happen to us as people. If they don’t have the right kind of environment, they will disappear.”
“Grouse” tells the story of this “strange, wonderful bird” that Ashley calls “the most controversial bird in the West, the symbol of all that is still wild.” It also shares what Ashley learned about hope, compromise and life in rural America through the process of reporting this story.
“Grouse” releases on Sept. 15 and is available on BirdNote and on NPR stations in Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nevada and Utah.