Primer 5: Wildlife


Wild animals are as much a part of the American West’s mystique and grandeur as its mountains, canyons and plains. Nowhere else in the United States can you encounter wolves, grizzlies, buffalo, elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, golden and bald eagles, condors, mountain goats, and moose, wandering more or less at will across a varied landscape.


I have been intrigued by the West’s iconic animals ever since I was a child, but the reality of their existence didn’t strike home until, as an eager high school biology student, I took a trip from the Midwest to the West. Driving from the humidity and oak forests of Missouri into the grasslands and sagebrush of the arid Great Plains was like entering an entirely new world. When we first spotted a small group of pronghorn antelope running alongside the highway on the eastern plains of Colorado, I was dumbstruck.


Later, as a youthful environmentalist and aspiring journalist, I discovered the complex -- and often disturbing -- stories behind the West and its wildlife. Some species were not doing well at all, pushed into remote corners of the public domain by urban sprawl, ranching, hunting and other activities. Big game herds, I learned, were as heavily managed as livestock for the sake of maximum economic gain. And there were other, more subtle threats, such as disease and inbreeding.


I learned that wildlife could become proxies in the endless struggles between conservationists and industry: The northern spotted owl, in the Pacific Northwest’s diminishing old-growth forests; the sage grouse, in the overgrazed sagebrush sea of the interior; and the grizzly bear and the wolf, in the last remaining wild areas of the Northern Rockies. The storylines of these battles are marked by deteriorating conditions on the ground fraught with anger, fear and resentment on the part of the human players.


But not all wildlife stories are depressing. On occasion, people have come together to protect both wildlife and human economies. And often the animals themselves have shown tremendous resilience. In the 1990s, the federal government reintroduced timber wolves into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho, where they quickly reclaimed habitat that had been lost to them for many decades.


But even the success stories bring challenges. Westerners have to face new and difficult questions: When is an endangered species “recovered” to the point that it no longer needs federal protection? Can we trust ourselves to not repeat the destructive patterns of the past? In a rapidly changing – and warming – world, how do we share this land with its wild inhabitants?


The answers to these questions are tied to an even more fundamental one: How far are we as a society willing to go to accommodate wild creatures and the habitat they need? Population growth and sprawl are constricting our options, but the West, with its vast public lands and growing conservation ethic, still has a chance to ensure that real wild animals wander the region for centuries to come.


Below are some of the best stories about wildlife from High Country News' archives.


The author is the Executive Director of High Country News.
Mar 12, 2008 04:17 PM

Life in the West is not boring. Polarization and hot emotions are everywhere. Say the word "wolf" and people fly off in mostly two directions like iron filings to magnets. I believe that we as the "human" part of the web of life still are in conflict with ourselves over how to relate and live  with other living things, whether it's water,air , or plants and animals around us. We have been tinkering with Nature for hundreds of years. We have been picking the pockets of Nature for  hundreds of years. My hope for the future? - begin, really begin to sit down at the "table " together and talk about how we will fit ourselves in better in the future with the wild. It probably will continue to need to include "management" of wild beings, but wouldn't it be a very good thing if there will be some wild to interact with in the future that isn't in a zoo or on a computer?

Paul Correa
Paul Correa
Sep 04, 2008 02:35 PM
"pushed into remote corners of the public domain by urban sprawl, ranching, hunting and other activities"
As a sportsman who was raised on a ranch, I take offense at ranching and hunting being lumped in with "urban sprawl." Hunters dollars (through the Pittman Robertson Act) pay for almost ALL state wildlife conservation agencies, who put up water catchments and study and care for both game and non-game species. Hunters have brought back from near extinction such western icons as bison, elk, and turkey. And private sportsmen's groups regularly partner with other conservation groups. By far the biggest threat to wildlife is habitat loss and fragmentation due to housing developments and mining and gas developments.
threat to wildlife
Sep 08, 2008 10:29 PM
I agree that urban sprawl is a big threat to wildlife, but so is "Wildlife Services" killing 100,000 mammals per year with tax dollars on behalf of the livestock industry. This is a crime!

I also think the next biggest threat to wildlife is if McCain gets in office with wolf hating Sarah Palin.