For Boise man, retirement brought a new passion: Saving the sage grouse

A greater sage grouse male strutting in southwestern Idaho's Owyhee County. The male greater sage grouse is known for an elaborate courtship ritual to attract females. The greater sage grouse could be classified as an endangered species next year. (Photo courtesy of Ken Miracle)
A greater sage grouse male strutting in southwestern Idaho's Owyhee County. The male greater sage grouse is known for an elaborate courtship ritual to attract females. The greater sage grouse could be classified as an endangered species next year. (Photo courtesy of Ken Miracle)

Ken Miracle can’t remember exactly when he became fascinated with the plump greater sage grouse that strut about on the once-endless sagebrush expanses of southern Idaho.

“From my earliest memories, I was always enchanted watching sage grouse and following them around,” Miracle said.

The life of volunteerism this fascination inspired is getting recognition far from the ranches and wilderness of the sagebrush country.

The 66-year-old Boise resident has been nominated for a national conservation award to be presented Wednesday in Washington. Miracle is one of six finalists for the “Heroes of Conservation” award presented by outdoor magazine Field & Stream.

All six finalists will receive a $5,000 grant at Wednesday’s ceremony. The overall winner will be awarded a new Toyota Tundra.

This Twin Falls native and Idaho State University graduate has long called southern Idaho home. Most of his volunteer work is in the name of another resident of the region: the greater sage grouse.

The greater sage grouse is a chicken-like bird that soon may be designated as an endangered species. Another species of sage grouse – named the Gunnison sage grouse – lives in a more limited range in Colorado and Utah.

The fate of the greater sage grouse is caught in a conflict between development in the American West and the region’s deep conservationist roots.

Miracle retired from the Idaho State Department of Agriculture as a human resources manager in 2008. He now turns his passion for protecting the habitat of the threatened bird into a full-time profession.

“The volunteerism has always been there, but it has accelerated after I retired,” Miracle said.

His projects include anything from fitting sage grouse with radio collars to building and marking fences that are safer for the birds. He also works to maintain their habitat by spraying weeds and seeding.

Since retiring, Miracle said he spends about six days a week in the field giving his time to conservation groups and government efforts alike.

“Ken is very well known because he volunteers for just about everybody,” said Lisa Eller, the communications director for the Idaho chapter of the Nature Conservancy, a national conservation group.

Miracle said he “accidentally” took up wildlife photography several years ago. It was good news for those groups that work to raise public awareness of declining sage grouse populations.

“He takes beautiful shots of wildlife and the landscape we work in and he donates that to us,” Eller said.

The group’s restoration and stewardship director, Art Talsma, said he has known Miracle for about 10 years of volunteer work.

“He’s also willing to pick up a rake and . . . do the hard work when no one’s watching,” Talsma said.

Miracle also volunteers for the Owyhee County Local Working Group. In the world of sage grouse conservation, local working groups are comprised of stakeholders – ranging from government agencies to private businesses and ranchers – who push for protecting the habitat necessary for the species’ survival.

Miracle also volunteers for the Sage Grouse Initiative, a 2010 creation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Idaho is one of 11 Western states participating in the initiative’s projects.

Talsma of the Nature Conservancy said Miracle excels at communicating with local ranchers and convincing them to participate in projects that protect the sagebrush habitat.

“He knows the ranchers and he communicates well with them,” Talsma said. “He understands their occupation and their needs.”

Miracle said some ranchers are initially skeptical of conservation efforts.

“I was able to introduce (Talsma) to the ranching community in Owyhee County and those people that were involved in that local working group that were frankly distrustful of any conservation group or entity,” Miracle said.

Jeff Burwell, who oversees Natural Resources Conservation Service initiatives in Idaho, said these groups aim to improve sage grouse populations so the species does not become listed as an endangered species next year. He said such a listing, under the federal Endangered Species Act, would dramatically scale back grazing on public land in Idaho.

“It’s a paradigm shift in how we treat endangered species,” Burwell said. “They’re trying to do it in a proactive, voluntary approach upfront.”

Miracle said he also leads tour groups through sagebrush country. He said he enjoys leading people to explore Boise’s backyard.

“Every time I get a chance to bring people together sometime to help educate them, that’s a really great opportunity,” he said.

Although Miracle said he occasionally volunteers by manning a state fish and game office, he enjoys field work the most.

“Whenever I’m in the field in the high desert, in the high sagebrush steppe, and I’m getting to interact with the wildlife in the field, I just love that,” he said.

He said his stewardship worldview inspires his volunteer work for restoring the greater sage grouse’s habitat.

“It’s my strong philosophy and belief that we should be doing what we can to take care of it,” he said.

The other finalists for the Field & Stream award hail from Minnesota, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Washington. Some lead habitat restoration projects and others work to preserve salmon and bobwhite quail populations.