The allure of the Red Desert

By Erik Molvar

“Miles and miles of nothing but miles,” that’s how one old-timer described the Red Desert. This wild and wide-open remnant of the open range, spanning millions of acres of unfenced sagebrush, has been compared to the Australian Outback for its unpopulated expanse and to the Serengeti for its diversity and abundance of wildlife.

A conservation priority since the 1800s, these lands have always figured prominently in the collective psyche of Wyoming. Wide-open spaces and a scarcity of settlement have always been the hallmarks of this state, setting it apart from other western lands. And while the largely private lands to the east of the Continental Divide have been carved up into threadbare pastures where the public is fenced out, to the west of the Divide there are sagebrush basins that settlers found too hardscrabble to bother claiming as a homestead. These remain largely public land, and this is where you can still find the real Wyoming.

Metes and bounds

The boundaries of the Red Desert have always been a matter of contentious debate. A botanist named Aven Nelson provided the first geographic description of the Red Desert, in his Red Desert and its Forage Resources, a government publication printed in 1898. He was the founder of the Rocky Mountain Herbarium, and the botany building on the University of Wyoming campus still bears his name. Nelson described the Red Desert based on the common understanding of ranchers at the time as spanning the lands between the Green River and the North Platte, and the isolated ranges flanking Crooks Gap in the north to the Colorado border. Of course, this delineation includes forested mountain ranges like the Sierra Madre and the Pine Mountain massif, which hardly qualify as ‘desert.’

On the other end of the spectrum, some modern-day cattlemen claim that the Red Desert applies only to a 2,000-acre depression known as the Red Desert Basin. But this too is suspect, since the redbeds of the Wasatch formation, ancient sediments of Lake Gosiute which covered the area when it was an Eocene swampland more than 50 million years ago, crop out strongly in lands ranging from the deeply dissected Honeycomb Buttes at the northern edge of the Great Divide Basin to the massive palisade of the Delaney Rim in the center of the desert and the pediment of the Flattop Mountain massif near the Colorado border.

From an ecological and geographic perspective, the most reasonable description of the Red Desert is a middle path that combines the Washakie and Great Divide Basins with the drainages of Bitter and Killpecker Creeks, an area of unbroken sagebrush spanning about six million acres.

A richness of desert life

Although prickly pears and a handful of other cacti can be found in some parts of the Red Desert, this is a cold desert, having perhaps more in common with the steppes of Siberia and Mongolia than with the Sonoran, Chihuahuan, and Mojave Deserts of the southwestern United States. Some parts of the Red Desert get as little as five inches of annual moisture, as dry as the land of the saguaros, but here most of the moisture falls as winter snow. And the growing season is short, due to elevations ranging from 6,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level. The dry climate and short, cool growing season favor a sagebrush steppe, with saltbush and greasewood on the saltier soils.

This land can bloom richly when the rainfall arrives at just the right time. But even when rainfall is scarce, there always seems to be something in flower in this sere landscape: Death camas with its spike of tiny lilies along the Atlantic Rim, white milkvetch blossoms like wild peavine and phlox in pinks and purples along the windswept rims, purple flutes of penstemon along exposed sand dunes and on mudstone bluffs.

This sagebrush sea harbors one of the richest assemblages of wildlife of any ecosystem in the continental United States. In this last great expanse of the open range, herds of pronghorns migrate along their ancestral migration pathways, unimpeded by barbed-wire fences. Desert elk still roam far out from the security of the forest. And smaller sagebrush species are here in abundance as well: Brewer’s sparrow, sage thrasher, pygmy rabbits, white-tailed prairie dogs, and burrowing owls have disappeared from much of their North American range, but are still prevalent in parts of the Red Desert.

Here, too, are an abundance of sage grouse, an icon of the West for its fanciful displays each spring of brilliant white neck plumage, fan of spiky tailfeathers, and plopping sound made by its expanding yellow throat sacs like a yolk in a pan-fried egg. On the brink of extinction throughout their range, the sage grouse is still found in numbers here, with major concentrations along the flats below the Atlantic Rim and on the slopes below Green Mountain in the northern Red Desert.

Perhaps the rarest of North American wildlife is the Wyoming pocket gopher, found only in the Red Desert. Since its discovery in 1875, fewer than 50 individuals have been discovered. With a unique number of chromosomes that distinguish it genetically from any other pocket gopher, this reclusive rodent is beset by industrial gas drilling projects throughout its entire known range.

In all, this blank spot on the map holds one of North America’s most intact and complete ecosystems, with healthy populations of almost all of its native inhabitants. The only missing species are the bison, which once roamed these sagebrush expanses, and the wolf. Wolves were just beginning to be spotted in the Red Desert when an iron-fisted State of Wyoming policy declared they could be shot on sight outside the Yellowstone ecosystem. In open country like this there is no place to hide, and no wolf can be expected to survive for long under such a death warrant.

This area is also home to impressive herds of wild horses, a living symbol of the Wild West. Their detractors call them “feral,” an error grounded in the misconception that the individual horses began as saddle stock and escaped from ranches to roam free across the desert. In reality, almost all were born in the wild, and have for centuries reverted to their natural social hierarchies and harem-breeding behaviors. Wild horse advocates argue that they are “native,” because horses evolved in this part of Wyoming tens of millions of years ago and disappeared only 7,000 years ago. But this too is a stretch, because these horses are not from the same genetic stock as those that once lived here, instead escaping from Indian encampments and later cattle and sheep ranches over the past three centuries, their bloodlines augmented by stallions turned out to breed with the wild herds by ranchers who would then capture the offspring and break them to ride. And while some ranchers argue that wild horses are ruining the range through overpopulation, the science suggest that these horse herds have limited impact on native wildlife or even livestock, instead using different habitats at different times of year from other grazers, minimizing competition for forage. Although not a native species of wildlife, wild horses have established a place for themselves in the natural order of things.

Landscapes to fire the imagination

Traveling through on the interstate highway, there is little hint of the geological wonders that hide just beyond the horizon. The brilliant redbeds of the Wasatch formation, born of the lakebed of Ancient Lake Gosiute, still bear the fossils of turtle shells. The tan Fort Union shales form rims and bluffs where the fossils of delicate spiral snail shells are frozen in time. The whimsical spires and arches of the Washakie formation in the southern Red Desert, a thick bed of volcanic ash protected by reddish caprock and whittled by wind and water into mazes of striking landforms. More recent volcanic eruptions creating landforms like Black Butte and Steamboat Mountain as well as the Boar’s Tusk, a “volcanic neck” where a column of solidified lava was exposed when its cinder cone blew away in the incessant wind. And the actively migrating Killpecker Dunes, rewriting the geology of the Red Desert with each passing year.

These lands have intrinsic value for their beauty, scientific importance, and wildlife habitat. But they also have infinite value as refuges for people to experience Wyoming in all its natural splendor, to see wildlife in an abundance and diversity that rivals the Serengeti, to test their outdoor abilities in the midst of a howling wilderness, and to experience an authentic remnant of the Wild West.

First among these spectacular landscapes is Adobe Town, the largest and most spectacular desert wilderness in Wyoming. Here, centuries have sculpted a thicket of pinnacles, buttes, arches, and palisades from a thick deposit of volcanic ash. This wonderland of geological oddities forms an enchanting setting for hiking and horseback riding, and the abundance of cliffs and spires makes it prime nesting habitat for birds of prey. A hideout used by Butch Cassidy and his outlaw gang, the Haystacks at the northern end of Adobe Town tower in a forbidding ridge where mountain lions and mule deer make their homes. The Skull Creek Rim in southern Adobe Town rises to majestic vertical heights, overlooking a desert plain where a wide wash channel wanders among sand dunes stabilized by sagebrush and other vegetation.

The other prize landscape in the Red Desert runs from the colorful badlands of the Honeycomb Buttes to the ancient rock art panels of the White Mountain Petroglyph site. Known as the Jack Morrow Hills, this area contains a striking diversity of landforms. The heights of Steamboat Mountain and the Oregon Buttes are studded with limber pines and a few aspen groves, where desert elk come to have their calves each spring. Evidence of volcanism is apparent in the Boar’s Tusk and North Table Mountain. The shale blufftops of the Joe Hay Rim, Bush Rim, and Alkali Draw harbor cushion-plant communities favored for nesting by the rare mountain plover, a shorebird that is never seen close to water. The “type specimen” for the mountain plover, the first individual ever discovered and described by science, was collected here in 1832. Scattered throughout this northern rim of the desert are pockets of wilderness where the adventurous can find solitude and serenity far from civilization.

This is not a landscape for the faint of heart. There are few road signs to point the way, and many of the gravel roads and jeep trails appear on no map. Rough traveling is expected when venturing off constructed roadways, and even major gravel thoroughfares devolve into bottomless morasses of mud when they become saturated by rain. But for those who make the journey, the rewards are great.

Prognosis for a threatened land

Since about 2000, the Red Desert has been besieged by an onslaught of natural gas and coalbed methane drilling, sprawling across several million acres of public land. About 5,000 wells are currently pumping fossil fuels out of deposits underneath this fragile desert basin. Strip mines in the western part of the desert gouge at the bones of the Earth in a quest for coal to feed power plant near Point of Rocks. And a new threat, dormant since the 1980s, is rising in the north, in the form of uranium speculation and mining. These industrial incursions spiderweb the desert with roads, wellsites, and pipelines. The once-pristine desert air is now clouded with pollution from a thousand sources, from lofty smokestacks to diesel generators and compressor tailpipes, and toxic gases waft from storage tanks on almost every wellsite to contribute to the smog. Wildlife, from sage grouse to ferruginous hawks to mule deer, have suffered major declines in areas where drilling occurs. Prime recreation areas have been turned into industrial wastelands.

But all of this destruction has so far left two-thirds of the Red Desert in a natural state, filled with healthy wildlife populations, spectacular geological features, and open spaces unmarred by industrial activity. About a fifth of the Red Desert has been proposed for permanent protection as a National Conservation Area by the Wyoming Association of Churches and conservation groups like Biodiversity Conservation Alliance.

As a society, we tend to protect mountain ranges but neglect sagebrush basins, regarding them as empty wastelands. The most recent act of conservation protection, the first Wyoming effort in 25 years of Congressional work, was to set aside 1.2 million acres of the Wyoming and Salt River Ranges to protect them from drilling. In terms of aesthetic appeal, these previously obscure overthrust mountains represent the eighth most spectacular mountain chain in Wyoming, behind the Tetons, Wind Rivers, Absarokas, Beartooths, Big Horns, Gros Ventres, and Snowy Range. They offer middling-good hunting, with abundant (but not large) elk, and scarce (but trophy-class) mule deer. But these mountains deserved protection, and they got it.

Yet the Red Desert has Wyoming’s most spectacular desert landscapes, vistas that are often compared to national parks. Among western public lands at risk for industrial destruction over the past decade, both the Jack Morrow Hills and Adobe Town rate near the top of the West’s “crown jewel” landscapes that include Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, Otero Mesa and the elk ranges of Valle Vidal in New Mexico, and Colorado’s Roan Plateau. And its hunting is unparalleled – the Steamboat Mountain elk herd is one of the most sought-after hunts in Wyoming, and an abundance of pronghorn offers an opportunity to test one’s mettle against North America’s fastest land animal, a species that evolved with cheetahs. Those who enjoy the simple pleasure of wildlife viewing will find a breathtaking abundance of charismatic animals, from the ferruginous hawks and golden eagles wheeling overhead to herds of hoofed animals coursing across the sagebrush to the occasional spotting of a reclusive badger or a burrowing owl.

Why then was the Wyoming Range saved from imminent threats, while the Red Desert is still awaiting protection? The answer lies in the breadth of appeal. Humans are naturally drawn to babbling brooks, alpine meadows brimming with flowers, the grandeur of towering peaks. It is in our DNA, inscribed by millennia of hunting and gathering without the aid of long-distance transport such as horses or automobiles. To survive, humans needed to gravitate toward lands where all of their needs could be met within a relatively short radius of a day or two of trekking. Our instincts still draw us to such lands today, a legacy of our Paleolithic past.

The Red Desert, on the other hand, is an acquired taste. It is bypassed by the throngs of tourists headed for Yellowstone. It may be years before new arrivals to Wyoming discover the National Park-quality vistas hidden here, in the empty spaces on the map. Its secret beauty is guarded jealously by longtime residents as if it were a favorite fishing hole or a mountain meadow that produces trophy elk year after year. It is deserving of permanent protection. After years of work to keep this area in a natural state by thousands of dedicated supporters, the Red Desert’s time has come.

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Categories: Issue 5, Non-Fiction | Leave a comment

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