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.
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The Red Desert earns some well-deserved attention in the new 412 page book Red Desert: History of a Place, written by Annie Proulx, author of such notable works as The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain. The desert and Annie Proulx are featured in last month’s issue of High Country News.
I have to say that I’m thrilled there is a sizable article out there about the Red Desert. The article is beautifully written and accompanied by some of the photographs from the book, taken by Martin Stupich. While the attention to the desert is nice, Proulx seems to be coming from the perspective that the desert is a curious place, raw, unknown, not particularly beautiful and perhaps a wilderness already lost.
Take this excerpt from the HCN article:
“This is the story that Proulx tells — that writing about a third of Red Desert: History of a Place,…, was a task inspired by curiosity rather than love. That the end result, including Stupich’s photographs and contributions from a dozen Wyoming scholars on the desert’s history, geology, hydrology, plants, animals and insects, is more an elegy than a plea for conservation.”
It’s true what she says about the desert being a hard place to love. It is more awe-inspiring than anything else, partly just to think of the overwhelming amount of creatures that have adapted to live out there, including people. It’s a place you go and immediately feel vulnerable.
Proulx’s position about the desert is interesting. She almost revels in the harshness of this place and the perpetual presence of man, then docks the environmentalists for trying to paint a picture of the desert as a “calendar” destination.
“There is an air of unreality about many efforts to protect the Red Desert, perhaps because (conservationists’) reasons for wanting to save the area seem to be largely based on beauty, solace of the wild and exquisite ephemeral qualities.” (HCN, April 13, 2009)
I can see the merit of her argument, that to portray the desert as beautiful and devoid of human presence would be deceptive, but so is the other extreme. (Maybe she is trying reverse psychology to get people to care about this place.) But I do think the answer is more in the middle.
One of the biggest flaws I think the U.S. has when it comes to land management is this separating of man from the concept of nature or wilderness. Folks from the BLM will tell you that if a place has been changed by man, it can no longer be considered for wilderness designation. This immediately puts managers in an “it’s either us or the nature” mindset, instead of figuring ways to better integrate our existence so that it doesn’t take over the environment.
The Red Desert is a land that hangs on to any change that happens to it, especially the man-made variety. (You can still see wagon ruts from people crossing the Oregon Trail.) I imagine this thinking could be part of why the environmentalists in the desert want to show all the beautiful and unspoiled areas.
In Proulx’s mind, it sounds like the desert is already gone.
‘”It’s not going to be saved. It’s not possible to save it,” Proulx says, matter-of-factly. “This is Wyoming; it’s an energy state. The best we can hope for is that part of it not be given over to oil and gas extraction. We’ll see how that one goes,” she says. “I’m not holding my breath.”‘(HCN, April 13, 2009)
Overall, it’s exciting that a place hard to love is getting some airtime and being portrayed as undeniably magnetic, even if it’s not always pretty to look at. But it can be beautiful, just as it is harsh and flawed and undeniably marked by man. And unlike Proulx, I don’t think it’s too late for the desert. It’s just hard to think that way when no one knows it exists.
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.
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.
But 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 sage 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 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 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.