Category Archives: Wilderness Study Areas

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.


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.

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.


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