Category Archives: Conservation Photography

Red Desert’s Adobe Town wins a pardon from natural gas leasing

Adobe Town

Adobe Town's maze of hoodoos remain relatively unexplored. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

Adobe Town wins a reprieve from natural gas leasing in its Citizen’s Proposed Wilderness. The Bureau of Land Management removed 15 parcels comprising more than 14,800 acres of Adobe Town from the December lease sale.

“It’s breath of fresh air the Bureau of Land Management has decided to draw a line in the sand and not lease away one of our most cherished places,” said Nada Culver, Senior Counsel at The Wilderness Society in a press release.  “This is proof when people from all walks of life stick up for a special spot, we can move mountains and ensure new generations Americans will always have a place to hunt, camp and hike.”

Much of the rock in Adobe Town is really just sandstone, easily eroded or crumbled away. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

Abobe Town’s labyrinth of hoodoos and canyons make it reminiscent of Bryce Canyon, except  in Adobe Town, there are no trails to guide your way. Wyoming declared the area “very rare or uncommon” in 2007, a designation that afforded the land some protection, but not from future oil and gas development. Adobe Town has been one of the most hotly contested regions of the Red Desert, receiving 89,000 comments mostly in favor of its protection during the revision of the Great Divide land-use plan. But leasing continued.

The removal in November of the 15 nominated parcels from the BLM lease marks parts of Adobe Town as too environmentally important to warrant leasing at this time.

Pronghorn munch on sage brush just outside Adobe Town in Wyoming's Red Desert.(Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

“This lease deferral is the first sign that the BLM has started to listen, and could mark the dawn of a new day when oil and gas development proceeds cautiously, and crown jewel landscapes like Adobe Town get the protection they deserve,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with Biodiversity Conservation Alliance in a press release. “The BLM deserves credit for making a sound decision.”


Into the Big Empty: Wyoming’s Red Desert goes live on YouTube

Journey into Wyoming’s Red Desert, a little known wilderness the size of Denali National Park that brings the steppes of Mongolia to America’s backyard. Here, energy companies vie for the desert’s riches in a world of 50,000 pronghorn, herds of wild horses and some of the most unforgiving landscapes of the West. Come learn of this place and the struggles to protect it as you travel Into the Big Empty.


Drilling the Atlantic Rim

 

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Wildflowers bloom along the Red Desert's Atlantic Rim. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

  If there was a portion of the Red Desert considered lush, the Atlantic Rim would be the place. Here, along the desert’s easternmost edge, rolling hills of sagebrush, green covered buttes and mountains also hide pockets of aspen and a surprising diversity of wildflowers.

      In March 2007, the Bureau of Land Management approved plans to allow mass-scale drilling within the Atlantic Rim. The Atlantic Rim Natural Gas Project covers about 270,000 acres of the Red Desert, and would provide more than 1,300 billion cubic feet of natural gas – enough gas for about 19 million homes for one year. And the BLM estimates that this project would yield almost $1 billion in taxes and royalties. There are already pilot wells within the Atlantic Rim, and this project will allow about 2,000 wells to be drilled in the future.


Lek time for Greater Sage Grouse

Sage Grouse lek in northeast Montana. April 2008. This footage is available in full HD (1080p) from Steve Schwartze Video. 

 

As winter begins to thaw in Wyoming’s high, cold desert, male greater sage grouse strut in a tousle of fanned feathers and jiggling, yellow air sacs only a female sage grouse could love. The hollow water droplet “plops” and coos of their mating calls echo across the Red Desert landscape. As if the sight of one of these birds prancing about wasn’t enough, males gather en masse trying to outdo each other in front of the highly discriminating and perusing females.

The Red Desert is one of the last strongholds for sagebrush wildlife, including the greater sage grouse,  says Erik Molvar, executive director of the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. The birds face serious habitat loss and declining numbers all throughout the West — a poor sign for an animal that used to be known for its wide distribution.

_mg_0021But even though one stands a good chance of seeing the bird on a visit, Greater sage grouse are poster-animals for wildlife conservation in the Red Desert. Their numbers have fallen 90 percent in the Red Desert during the last 50 years, says Lorraine Keith, BLM public affairs officer and former sage grouse biologist in Rock Springs, Wyo. The cause of the decline is unclear, though human disturbance likely plays a significant role in their falling numbers. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently considered and rejected the bird for endangered species listing. Biologists struggle to understand just how sensitive the birds are to development, and this gaping hole makes managing the sage grouse and their environment difficult, especially with growing demand for energy development. But as biologists concentrate more efforts on monitoring population trends, the greater _mg_0162b1sage grouse is once again up for endangered species listing, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expects to announce a decision sometime this summer.

Stay tuned for more information on the sage grouse’s status as decision time approaches. In the meantime, you can read a current report by the Fish and Wildlife on the birds here.


The wild horses of Desert Dust

Two wild horses kick up a frenzy in the crisp morning light. The Red Desert is home to thousands of mustangs, an iconic and often controversial symbol of the Old West. Mustangs have increasingly been in the spotlight because of their potential impact on habitat and the debate over how to manage their population. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

Two wild horses kick up a frenzy in the crisp morning light. The Red Desert is home to thousands of mustangs, an iconic and often controversial symbol of the Old West. Mustangs have increasingly been in the spotlight because of their potential impact on habitat and the debate over how to manage their population. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

The ghost of a handsome palomino stallion races across the ridges of Wyoming’s Red Desert. For back in his home, he his king. He is Desert Dust, perhaps the most famous wild horse of the West.

Desert Dust’s story is one of legend perfect for the movies. In the late thirties and early forties, the palomino proved too elusive for commercial horse wranglers rounding up mustangs in the Red Desert for market, until 1945 when Frank Robbins of Glenrock, Wyo., helped catch him.

On that day, another man, Verne Wood, took a photo of the wild horse standing defiant against a backdrop of red rock. That photo circled the world and came to epitomize the character of the American mustang.

Desert Dust was spared the fate of the slaughter house, so often destined for other captured horses. He went on to become a famous rodeo horse, drawing crowds to tiny towns, only to die a legendary death when a passerby shot then mutilated the horse while he was grazing in a pasture.

The story of Desert Dust helped inspire the movement that led to the passage of the Wild Horse Protection Act of 1959 and later the Wild and Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971.

Today the largest herd of wild horses in Wyoming roams the Red Desert with more than a thousand mustangs in Adobe Town alone. Virtually from corner to corner in the Red Desert visitors stand a good chance of seeing the flash of mane and whip of tail signifying a mustang.

A painted mustang catches a sliver of sunshine along the plateau near the Red Desert's Adobe Town area, Monday, March 24, 2008, and serves as the subject of a simple portrait of an animal at home in its environment. The Bureau of Land Management estimates there are about 5,000 wild horses in Wyoming, many of which live in the Red Desert.

A painted mustang catches a sliver of sunshine along the plateau near the Red Desert's Adobe Town area, Monday, March 24, 2008, and serves as the subject of a simple portrait of an animal at home in its environment. The Bureau of Land Management estimates there are about 5,000 wild horses in Wyoming, many of which live in the Red Desert.

All romanticism and glory aside, the horse still lives with a hoof in two worlds as debate rages over whether the animal should be considered native or introduced. See the recent National Geographic article, Mustangs: Spirit of the Shrinking West, for  a thorough look at how the BLM is trying to manage wild horse numbers and the arguments for or against protecting the mustang.

They are often either a symbol of freedom or menace. In the Red Desert especially, the horses are the big animals on campus, and those who view them as introduced see the mustang as an aggressive competitor of resources with native wildlife like pronghorn antelope. Their hooves batter the ground and teeth rip roots from the soil. And the BLM spends tens of millions of dollars to keep the horses alive when they cannot survive by the whims of nature alone. (See Ted Williams’ article, Sacred Cows, Audubon Magazine, 03/2006)

Management efforts of the horses right now are very similar to the days of Desert Dust’s capture. The BLM uses helicopters and wranglers to corral wild horses, though they’re destination is adoption rather than slaughter. But especially now, with a poor economy and rising costs of feed, owners are growing harder to find.

At least for now the wild horse still has a home in the Red Desert, and as my heart battles with my head on where I stand with the mustang, I’m certainly glad I got to see them running free across the desert.

A herd of wild horses appear like a real-life depiction of a cave painting in the Red Desert's Jack Morrow Hills, Monday, Nov. 17, 2008. The desert is home to thousand of wild horses, an iconic symbol of the West. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

A herd of wild horses appear like a real-life depiction of a cave painting in the Red Desert's Jack Morrow Hills, Monday, Nov. 17, 2008. The desert is home to thousand of wild horses, an iconic symbol of the West. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)


Killpecker Dunes: A desert oasis

Killpecker Dune Field

A flight over the Red Desert near Rock Springs, Wyo., Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2008, reveals the scale of the Killpecker Dunes. These dunes are part of the largest active sand dune system in North America and second largest in the world, beat only by the massive Sahara Desert. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

     This is where we’re going to get stuck. The Jeep Wrangler bounces into slow motion as we encounter a stretch of dirt road now impassible thanks to a mound of sand several feet thick which blew over the road the previous winter. To our left stretches scalloped mound after mound of pristine, bright sand dunes. Soft sand shifts under the tires. Trying to drive over this bit of road would be foolhardy,even in the Jeep. To explore any further, we’re going to have to go on foot into the Red Desert’s Killpecker Sand Dunes, part of the largest active dune system in North America.

The dunes here bury snow, which in summer leaks out creating pockets of desert wetlands that support countless birds and other animals. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

The dunes here bury snow, which in summer leaks out creating pockets of desert wetlands that support countless birds and other animals. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

     The Killpecker Sand Dunes sit in the northwest corner of the Red Desert, a sea of sand stretching north and west  for miles dwarfing it’s more popular cousin the dunes of Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. Here, 50 to 60 mph gusts advance the dunes across the martian landscape of the Red Desert. Each winter, storms blow through Wyoming — the powerful winds having the unusual phenomena of burying snow within the dunes. These dunes compact the snow turning it into ice and storing it in a natural locker until spring thaws. As the dunes heat up, water leaches into the desert, transforming the dunes into a rare desert wetland that provides desert elk, antelope, badgers, and thousands of birds with a vital source of water in this harsh environment.

     The Killpecker Dunes contain two of the seven Wilderness Study Areas in the Red Desert, the Sand Dunes and Buffalo Hump WSAs. And not far away is the Steamboat Mountain area, critical breeding habitat for desert elk. But even so, the Killpeckers are under constant threat. On this hike we saw people illegally four-wheel driving in the WSA, sand spraying high as the rider spun donuts on the dunes. (There’s a special ORV area at the other end of the dunes.) On another trip we found used shell casings within the Wilderness Study Area. And even though the WSAs guard the area from industrial development, gas wells chug and thump within 100 feet of the protected area.

    The Killpecker Dunes area is one of the areas up for potential expansion of protection should Congress ulitmately approve the proposed National Conservation Area. This National Conservation Area would safeguard about a million acres of the Red Desert.

 


Getting lost in Adobe Town

Hoodoos and labyrinthine canyons typify the Adobe Town landscape in Wyoming's Red Desert. The BLM designated 80,000 acres of Adobe Town a Wilderness Study Area, and a Citizens' Proposed Wilderness seeks to more than double the protected area's size. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

Hoodoos and labyrinthine canyons typify the Adobe Town landscape in Wyoming's Red Desert. The BLM designated 80,000 acres of Adobe Town a Wilderness Study Area, and a Citizens' Proposed Wilderness seeks to more than double the amount of protected area. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

The canyon walls curve and twist into narrowing darkness. Natural archways appear and disappear with a slight shift of your point of view. In an instant towering forests of hoodoos give way to pockets of open space paved with the remnants of old river beds.

There are no trails here. Just the metamorphosing mountains and sun guide your way. Southeastern Red Desert’s Adobe Town is the perfect place to disappear, something that could come in handy if you’re a train robber from the 19th century.

Legend has it that Butch Cassidy and his band of ruffians hid horses in Adobe Town, where they would escape into a maze of hoodoos, hiding out until the dust settled from their latest heist. Go there today and you probably won’t come across bandits, but you can step into the wild solitude of the Old West, exploring caves and tunnels, watching herds of antelope and mustang, and finding birds of prey nesting in the rocks.

To learn more about this unique landscape and some of the efforts to protect it, watch the following video by the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance.


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