As meat lockers go, this corner of northwestern Wyoming is one of the prettiest on earth. Behind me, as I sit on this sage-covered bluff, is a great horseshoe of snow-dusted peaks: the Wind Rivers, the Gros Ventres, the Wyoming Range. Ahead lies the Upper Green River Valley: empty, vast and skeined with moving lines of pronghorn antelope.
Twice each year, these herds
move south to their winter range and return north to summer forage.
Some of these antelope routinely trek 200 miles to Grand Teton
National Park, making their particular migration the longest
undertaken by any mammal in the Lower 48.
In addition to
the 32,000 pronghorn out here, there's also 48,000 mule deer, some
of them moving upwards of a hundred miles to reach the surrounding
national forests and their summer haunts. Now and then I see some
of the 8,000 elk that seep down from the high country, and there's
rarely a morning when, walking across these hills and draws, I
don't flush a covey of sage grouse.
The size of small
turkeys, the birds stop my heart when they burst directly from
beneath my feet.
With the quarters of one antelope
already on ice, I'm sitting up here and looking for another; in
fact, two. Like many people in Wyoming, I haven't eaten farm-raised
meat in decades. Three antelope, one elk and a variety of grouse,
ducks, and geese feed my family and me, and the friends who help
with the packing, from fall to fall. It's one of the blessings of
living amid lots of publicly owned land: Food is inexpensive,
healthy and fills the soul while it's gathered.
it's been until recently.
Today, when I look south, I can
see several pickup trucks leaving dust plumes, here and there an
ATV skittering through the sage, men erecting aerials on hilltops,
and a line of enormous "thumper trucks," big as tanks, rumbling
their slow way across the landscape. Overhead, helicopters flash as
they tend seismic equipment that read what lies below. The
antelope, trying to negotiate this gantlet, rush helter-skelter
from thumper truck to hovering helicopter and back.
Natural gas happens to be one of the other blessings of these
public lands. The Bureau of Land Management has already permitted
3,090 wells in what's called the Pinedale Resource Area, with many
more on the way. In fact, with the Bush administration's push to
fast-track the production of domestic energy resources, the BLM has
exceeded the number of wells permitted by its 1988 Resource
Management Plan. It's now in the midst of writing a new one, which
will decide the fate of the Upper Green's wildlife for next 15 to
I suspect that many hunters in the basin (2,600
go after antelope, 7,300 after mule deer, and 7,600 after elk) feel
about the way I do: We all use natural gas, but we're not willing
to extract it at the expense of the region's wildlife. So what I've
been saying to the BLM is this: Protect the land critical to these
animals in winter; make it off-limits to anything that might
The animals' transitional habitat needs to be
protected as well. That's all the country antelope and deer use for
food and rest while on their migrations to and from their summer
and winter ranges. Anyone who has spent some time in this basin has
probably noticed the passages through which deer and antelope have
migrated for millennia, some of them only a half-mile wide. These
bottlenecks need to be safeguarded.
The Bureau of Land
Management also needs to recognize that more than energy
development is taking place out here. Private lands are being
subdivided even as some livestock grazing continues, and an
ever-increasing number of recreationists -- from hunters and
anglers to snowmobilers and ATVers -- use roads and trails and
everything in between.
What I'm describing, of course,
are cumulative impacts -- something the federal agency has done a
poor job of adding up. The current resource plan, in fact, lacks
such an analysis. Most of all, what I keep asking of our federal
land managers is caution: Let's find out what's happening to
wildlife before we permit more gas well development.
Today, though, I have nothing left to say. Thumper trucks shaking
the ground approach my bluff, and I head back to the car, looking
for some undisturbed bit of country. These days in the Upper Green,
it is getting harder and harder to find.