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.