Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Back in the 1960s, Nevada state officials devised a way to attract more hunters into the remote Ruby Mountains to boost tourism. Their plan: import and breed a large game bird from the Himalayan region, the snowcock. After some trial and error, their plan succeeded, and the birds that favored arid, steep and open mountainous habitat established themselves in the Ruby Mountains. Today, those birds are still in the higher peaks of the Rubies.
The threat of damaging places like the Rubies — areas that are home to these majestic creatures and attract visitors by the hundreds of thousands annually — isn’t just a problem for my Nevada-based bird-watching business and the very existence of these unconventional snowcocks. It puts our state’s economy and our way of life at risk.
Accompanied by several friends, I’ve traveled to see the Himalayan bird. Our trip made one thing clear to me: It is imperative that the Trump administration halt plans to lease oil and gas adjacent to the Ruby Mountains in September. This landscape is too vulnerable and important for the damage that would ensue.
Our excursion started in setting up camp, passing by aromatic sagebrush and juniper, to locate a spot adjacent to an alpine lake above 9,000 feet. That was home base for the week. The diversity of this landscape is truly remarkable. Walls and steep terrain of granite surrounded us on three sides. It was like a piece of the California Sierras was sliced off and placed here in Northern Nevada, an alpine island surrounded by sagebrush.
In the frigid morning, I awoke to the long, drawn-out whistle of a snowcock calling somewhere high above in a boulder field. And so we began our trek higher, toward an elevation that the large game birds prefer. Above the conifers, we found an open meadow with a large group of migrating sparrows taking advantage of the seeps of water and willows. It’s no wonder these sights drive a tourism economy that rakes in over $165 million per year in revenue for Elko County alone. The Ruby Mountains are truly a place unlike any other, a part unknown.
Bordering the meadow we were aside, on a steep slope of talus rock, we happened to see a pika — a small, high elevation mammal, basically a scaled-down rabbit. It collects grasses and weeds feverishly all summer to stock up for an alpine winter, deftly hopping rock piles. I had no idea that they were in Nevada, thinking it must be too arid and mountain ranges too far apart for them to have colonized here. Their existence exemplifies the magic our public lands contain, and still, the fragility of wild animals that find their homes there and the communities that live just outside. Both are dependent on the protected nature of these landscapes.
A couple of days in, we finally got a look at the bird we came for: the snowcock. Our presence on the trail scared it, and in flight, it showed off its rounded, white wings. We refrained from celebrating too loudly out of reverence for the quiet around us.
We climbed into the late morning, reaching the top of the highest peak in the range, Ruby Dome, at nearly 11,400 feet. From there, we could see how far we’d climbed and just how much more there was to explore.
It was easy to see how important these mountains must be to wildlife. Migratory birds, including birds of prey and many songbirds, use these ranges to find trees and water that sage and desert can’t provide, hopping from range to range. Elk and deer migrate and move elevationally throughout this range as time of year affects food availability. And the pika, a species declining quickly due to a warming climate, can still be found in these towering ranges. These last pieces of wild — ones that preserve our planet, invite the younger generations to live out their imaginations and truly personify what’s at risk with our tipping climate disruption — must remain protected.
The end of our trip left us tired yet rejuvenated. We descended, broke camp and made our long trek back to Las Vegas with a greater appreciation for Northern Nevada.
It’s tragic to think that places like these are dwindling. We lose more habitat and see changes to our planet every day. Most immediately, we must stop President Donald Trump’s Interior Department from oil and gas leasing just outside this place. Protecting public lands like the Rubies is about more than just the place. It’s about memories made, connection with the past and hope for the future.
Alex Harper is a wildlife biologist, naturalist, and adventure guide. He is a bird population ecologist, trip leader for Red Rock Audubon Society and runs a bird guiding business with several partners.