Wyoming lives uneasily with big game and big equipment

  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.

Or so 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 20 years.

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 disturb it.

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.

Ted Kerasote is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is the author of several books about wildlife and hunting and lives in northwestern Wyoming.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.