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for people who care about the West

The call of the semi-wild

 

The cars head slowly up the mesa through a patchwork of open fields and cedar woodlands. Binoculars around my neck, I sit in the backseat of the lead vehicle, a well-used Subaru station wagon. Jason Beason, a young father and biologist who works for the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, is our driver and expedition leader. Our objective: find and identify as many raptors as possible in this corner of western Colorado.

Jason pulls off the road and jumps out of the car: "There," he says, "on top of that irrigation pivot, three sections from the right."

Through my binoculars, I see a rough-legged hawk with black-and-white plumage. Several pairs have been in the area all winter, he says. They are drawn to what is, for them, ideal habitat: Pasture surrounded by perches such as fence posts, irrigation pivots and solitary cottonwood trees from which they can launch their hunts for the mice and voles that thrive in irrigated hayfields. It's a semi-wild ecosystem that also appeals to other birds, such as the northern harrier that, minutes later, sweeps low across the same field, flashing its white rump.

In fact, almost all of the birds we see this day thrive on the alterations humans have made to the landscape. Even the bald eagles -- we see six by day's end -- fish for exotic trout planted in our reservoirs and feast on the nutritious afterbirths left by calving cows. Would they be here if we were not? Probably, Jason says, but not in the same abundance. It's refreshing to think that we aren't always unmitigated villains when it comes to biodiversity, though we have certainly tilted the field in favor of some species over others.

The complex intersection of the wild and the human is familiar territory for Wyoming writer Annie Proulx, author of the novel The Shipping News as well as the short story that became the movie Brokeback Mountain. Freelancer Emma Brown caught up with the award-winning author on the edge of the Red Desert -- one of the wildest and yet most abused chunks of land in the Lower 48. Proulx and photographer Martin Stupich captured the Red Desert's unfiltered glory -- and its industrial scars -- in a recently published volume, Red Desert: History of a Place (University of Texas Press). The book refuses to sentimentalize the Red Desert, and it has disappointed some Wyoming conservationists, who are fighting hard to protect the area from oil and gas drilling, mining and motorized recreation. As Brown notes, they are producing their own book -- a more traditional coffee-table tome that will focus on the desert's untrammeled beauty.

Parts of the Red Desert certainly deserve formal wilderness status or some other legal protection. But Proulx's clear-eyed look at the region reminds us that the stories of the West's landscapes and wild creatures cannot be separated from the stories of the people who once lived there -- and who live there still.
 
My favorite birding spot these days is Fruitgrowers Reservoir, a shallow, algae-filled agricultural impoundment that has become a one-night stand for tens of thousands of sandhill cranes and other waterfowl every spring and fall. One recent morning I watched 3,000 cranes warm their wings and strut alongside cows and calves at water's edge. Then, responding to some subtle cues I could not discern, the cranes launched. In groups of 30 and 50 and 100, they circled higher and higher above the fields, trumpeting their wild reptilian call across the semi-wild land.