Published June 24, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Book follows life of man who hunts with falcons.”
2014 Update: The Greater Sage-Grouse has not been listed as of yet. Energy exploration and development continues but Wyoming has put in place core areas where they are protected.
Falconer on the Edge, A Man, His Birds, and the Vanishing Landscape of the American West, by Rachel Dickinson, 2009, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 220 pages, hardcover, $24.
By Barb Gorges
Rachel Dickinson examines the life of hardcore falconer Steve Chindgren in her new book, Falconer on the Edge. For several months of each fall Chindgren lives in a cabin in southwestern Wyoming, near Eden, to hunt sage grouse with his falcons every day. Dickinson researched the book by making a number of trips to Eden. She recently responded to questions by email.
Question: When you decided to learn about falconry from somebody besides your husband, Tim Gallagher (author of “The Grail Bird” and “Falcon Fever”), were you thinking as a freelance writer or were you more concerned about getting a handle on your husband’s obsession?
Dickinson: I really wanted to understand what was going on and did think it would make a great book but I guess rather than stress the relationship by learning about the sport from Tim, I decided to go further afield and find the most hardcore of the hardcore falconers. And all roads led toward Steve Chindgren.
Question: How would you handle it if Tim, like Steve, decided he was going to fly birds in the middle of nowhere for several months every year?
Dickinson: As Steve’s wife, Julie, told me, she knew that this was the way Steve was when she married him. So whenever there was a fork in the road or a choice to be made falconry always won. If Tim decided that this was what he really wanted to do with his life I would say, “See you later and have a nice life.” I think Tim’s obsession is a bit more under control.
Question:Did you develop a taste for sage grouse? No catch and release for falconry, huh?
Dickinson: We always ate what the falcons caught. Sage grouse has a strong sage taste but if you take the breast meat and marinate it and then throw on the grill for a few minutes — not too long because the meat is so lean — it’s darn yummy. What we didn’t eat, the falcons ate.
Question: Energy development in Wyoming is a subplot in your book, the menace lurking in the background, taking sage grouse before Steve’s birds can. How did that come about?
Dickinson: I spent a couple of years going to Wyoming for a week or so at a time and I saw enormous change just over those two years. I knew early on that the changing landscape due to energy exploration would be a strong sub-plot in the book — it had to be because it affected everything that Steve loved.
Question:The local Audubon chapter showed Steve’s sage grouse film which supports sage grouse conservation. Does his obsession with falcons carry over to sage grouse?
Dickinson: Steve knows more about the natural history of the sage grouse than probably most wildlife biologists working out in the field. When he’s not flying his birds he’s driving around checking on the grouse — looking for leks, looking for wintering grounds, looking for evidence of bird strikes on fences — because if you don’t really understand the prey species, you can’t really understand how to be a falconer. He’s as hardcore about the sage grouse as he is about his falconry because it’s a part of his falconry experience.
Question: What does Steve think he’ll do if they are listed as threatened or endangered?
Dickinson: If the sage grouse gets listed, Steve says he’s going to fly his birds on jack rabbits — that will require a real paradigm shift for him since he’s hunted sage grouse for so long. He loves his spot in Wyoming and is determined to keep it as a falconry lodge so he’s got to do something. I know he’s just hoping and praying it doesn’t come to that.
Question: Did you have trouble adapting to the open spaces around Eden?
Dickinson: I come from the northeast where everything is pinched in with hills and gorges and lakes and streams so it took me a little while to get used to all that space. Once that happened there was no looking back. What a fabulous place. I miss it and hope to get back there, maybe this fall for the annual grouse dinner at Steve’s cabin.