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.
Tag Archives: Jack Morrow Hills
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.
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.
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 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.
The Wyoming BLM earned a little bit of kudos from conservationists last December after they decided to withdraw more than 16,000 acres from the last auction of 2008. The withdrawn parcels included 10,000 acres in Little Mountain, one of the most southwestern regions of the Red Desert, also a previously listed Area of Critical Environmental Concern by the BLM. The decision prevents, for the time-being at least, drilling in this part of the desert considered important habitat for greater sage grouse.
There were more than 125 protests filed by conservationists at the last auction. The withdrawn parcels are being reviewed, and will not be offered again unless the protests are voided and then renominated. The auction did sell leases to parcels in the Jack Morrow Hills however, one of the other hotly contested areas nominated for development.
The BLM ultimately leased more than 172,000 acres in Wyoming, earning more than $9.1 million. For more information on the lease sale, read this article from the International Business Times.
Some of you may know that I’ve spent the last nine months, researching and photographing Wyoming’s Red Desert, a 6 million acre high, cold desert, that for all appearances transports the steppes of Mongolia into America’s West. This little known desert has been called the “Serengeti” of North America, with more than 50,000 desert pronghorn antelope roaming across seas of sagebrush and the United States’ largest active sand dune system.
But this specialized ecosystem is filling up as the new oil and gas boom sweeps across the West. A network of roadways and drill sites already crisscross the land, and more is expected as the BLM continues to offer new leases to the petroleum companies who seek them.
I figure now is as good a time as any to get some of this info off of the notepads and out to all of you. Over the coming months I will be bringing you updates from the field, as well as notes from my archives, photos, slideshows and other news about the Red Desert. I hope you enjoy learning about this rare and endangered place. It is my pleasure to bring you these notes from the Big Empty.
Morgan E. Heim
P.S. – The aerial photography in this piece was made possible by the gracious help of LightHawk.