Noppadol Paothong, a wildlife photographer who lives in Missouri, for years trained his lens on majestic animals, charismatic creatures that can fill a viewfinder and command attention.
But in 2001, as a newspaper photographer, he got an assignment that changed his career — shoot the spring mating ritual of a bird known as the greater prairie chicken down near Golden City in southwest Missouri.
“I never knew something so small could inspire me,” said Paothong, who is now staff photographer with the Missouri Department of Conservation. “It was so fascinating to watch them dance. They are all gone now from Golden City.”
Since that long-ago trip, the Thai-born photographer has traveled the West and Midwest photographing imperiled grassland grouse species, including Utah’s sage grouse. His images now illustrate the book “Save the Last Dance,” written by Joel Vance.
He is now on a Western states tour timed with the upcoming centennial of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, the bird whose flocks once blotted out the skies over the United States but which was hunted to oblivion in a generation. The last one died in the Cincinnati Zoo on Sept. 1, 1914.
Paothong hopes to help prevent such a fate from falling on sage grouse. They were never as abundant as the passenger pigeon (indeed, no bird species was), but they are the signature bird species of the West’s sagebrush steppes.
“Sage grouse are one of the most iconic, unusual and fascinating of Western wildlife species, yet many people have never seen their mating dance,” said biologist Erik Molvar of WildEarth Guardians, one of the environmental groups sponsoring Paothong’s tour. “Noppadol’s photography and behind-the-scenes stories make a compelling case that this is a bird we can’t afford to lose.”
Habitat loss from energy development, mining, subdivisions, grazing and wildfire has taken a toll to the point that the U.S Fish and Wildlife Services proposes listing the greater and the Gunnison sage grouse for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
“I believe the only way these birds can get the support they desperately need and deserve is to make people care about them,” Paothong said. “I hope people can glimpse the life and beauty of these extraordinary species through my book and talk. If a person like me, who grew up in a city on a continent 10,000 miles away, can fall in love with these birds, anybody can. If only they get to know them.”
But opportunities to observe sage grouse are becoming increasingly rare, despite broad efforts to conserve core habitat. Utah’s most visible lek, the patches of ground where sage grouse perform their spring mating rituals, could get erased under residential development under a rezone proposal. The spot is on State Route 65 east of Salt Lake City in Morgan County.
“While documenting these birds, I’ve witnessed their rapid decline firsthand. In many places where I had photographed them, they have disappeared forever, in a matter of a decade, due to ongoing habitant disturbance and land fragmentation,” Paothong said. “It is heartbreaking.”
P WildEarth Guardians is sponsoring Noppadol Paothong’s tour. All shows at 7 p.m.
Sunday • Brewvies, 677 S. 200 West, Salt Lake City
Monday • The Roxy Theater, 718 S. Higgins Ave., Missoula, Mont.
Wednesday • The National Museum of Wildlife Art, 2820 Rungius Road, Jackson, Wyo.
Thursday • Ag Auditorium, University of Wyoming, Laramie