Bringing co-stewardship to Wyoming’s Red Desert

A Q&A with the Indigenous Land Alliance of Wyoming’s Yufna Soldier Wolf.

Yufna Soldier Wolf saw a problem. The Department of the Interior, under Secretary Deb Haaland, has actively encouraged the co-stewardship and co-management of public lands by tribal nations across the West. But so far, no such partnership has been formed in the state of Wyoming.


Soldier Wolf is the tribal conservation advocate for the Wyoming Outdoor Council and Indigenous Land Alliance of Wyoming (ILAW). About a year ago, the Wyoming Outdoor Council started ILAW to better serve and communicate with the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho, as well as the many tribal nations across the West whose ancestral ties to the land long predate both Wyoming and the United States. With ILAW, Soldier Wolf is now leading the first effort to establish a co-stewardship relationship between the tribes of Wyoming and the Bureau of Land Management. The first two places she submitted for the BLM’s consideration — Boars Tusk and Indian Gap Trail — are located in the Red Desert, a vast high-altitude stretch of red rock, sagebrush and sand south of the Wind River Reservation. The land was part of the territory ceded by the Shoshone-Bannock and the Eastern Shoshone in the 1863 Fort Bridger Treaty. An estimated 36 tribes maintain ancestral ties to the area.

The climb to achieve co-stewardship here will be steep. The BLM has not released a conservation plan for the Red Desert in roughly 30 years, according to Soldier Wolf, so it took time to come up with a viable strategy. But during her work with the Wyoming Outdoor Council, Soldier Wolf discovered some documents from the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho that highlight the historic and cultural significance that Boars Tusk and Indian Gap Trail have for the tribes and strengthen their applications for tribal co-stewardship. Soldier Wolf is optimistic about her prospects; ultimately, she hopes to see 11 areas in the Red Desert protected by Haaland’s Interior Department as areas of critical environmental concern.

Yufna Soldier Wolf, the tribal conservation advocate for the Wyoming Outdoor Council and Indigenous Land Alliance of Wyoming.
Courtesy of William Cotton/CSU photography

High Country News caught up with Soldier Wolf to check in on her progress, and to learn more about the inspiration she and the Indigenous Land Alliance have drawn upon as they work toward a solution that puts tribal nations front and center. 

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

High Country News: Can you describe the Red Desert for our readers?

Yufna Soldier Wolf: When I think about it, I think about the colors of the land: yellow and orange and red. I think the highest altitude out there is close to 8,000 feet. I think about this vast, unfenced landscape, and it’s beautiful. Right now, it’s full of snow. But as far as springtime goes, when you go out into Wyoming, I always think of the Red Desert, because it’s this beautiful high-altitude desert. There’s sand dunes out there … all types of wildlife out there. People think about deserts, and they think, “Oh, it’s barren, there’s nothing there.” But actually, there’s a lot of things out there that Indigenous people knew about.

HCN: Why is it important to have meaningful consultation with tribes, and to protect these two places in particular?

YS: So, for a lot of the Eastern Shoshone and Shoshone Bannock, a lot of these other tribes have their own unique ancestral names and connections towards Boars Tusk. To my tribe, the Arapaho, we call (the Boar’s Tusk) “the Parents,” because it looks like two people standing there with blankets over them. And so “Neniiheii” is the name for parents.

Boars Tusk was always this really central part to the landscape that brought a lot of tribes to that area. You would look at it and think it’s a desert, but there’s so many different types of natural springs there, where people get water — if you didn’t know where that water was, you wouldn’t know where to or how to survive. So a lot of the places that are out there around Boars Tusk were really important to ancestral tribes that were really sacred sites.


Boars Tusk under the Milky Way in the Red Desert, Wyoming. Natural springs nearby have attracted tribes to the area throughout history.
Jeff Vanuga/NPL/Minden Picture


Those trails (like the Indian Gap Trail) were actually trade routes. During the fur trading, and before even French trading had happened, a lot of tribes traveled through this area. A lot of trading routes were important to tribes, even before colonization happened, because we were trading. (Indian Gap) is the central route that takes you through that corridor into California.

Indian Gap Trail was a buffalo trail that later spawned into different immigrant trails. If you look at the immigrant trail map, you’ll see different types of trails on the Oregon, the California, Pony Express — all of these different trails kind of deviate within those areas.

HCN: So the BLM was under no obligation — before this process came down from Deb Haaland — to make sure everybody was on the same page?

YS: There was consultation, but a lot of the times there’s this criteria of “We will send a notice out to tribes, they have 30 days to respond. And if they don’t respond, we’re going forward.”

So a lot of tribes were like, “Wait, hold on, this is more than just a visit. This is more than just checking off eligibility criteria off this checklist.” They need to understand that tribes have this really intimate, close relationship with the land, and their Indigenous connections are more than just “Let’s make money off of it.” Tribal, Indigenous perspectives, oral history, knowledge, plant knowledge, wildlife — It’s all there.

Rain in the Red Desert. “There’s a lot of things out there that Indigenous people knew about,” Soldier Wolf said about the desert.
Jeff Vanuga/NPL/Minden Picture

HCN: What might applying on behalf of a place to make it an area of critical environmental concern look like in practice? Bears Ear National Monument in Utah has multiple tribes working on behalf of the land. Does ILAW’s model resemble something like that?

YS: I think as far as Bears Ears and their campaign, we tried to model in a way of collaborating and figuring out who needs to be at this table. (What) other tribes are a part of this? ILAW was that kind of idea to resolve that.

There’s a lot of history there, as far as making those pushes through the administrative processes, but at the same time realizing what model (the Bears Ear tribes) have, where [the Indigenous Land Alliance of Wyoming] can learn from, and how we can kind of model ourselves to fit into Wyoming in a way that’ll benefit tribes.

HCN: Finally, what do the next steps look like?

YS: I did send the (area of critical environmental concern) nominations to BLM (Wyoming) State Director Andrew Archuleta, Rock Springs BLM Manager Kimberlee Foster, and then to Buck Damone, their tribal liaison. So I’ve heard that from all three saying, “We received these, we look forward to continuing this conversation.”

It’s a first step as far as co-stewardship and co-management. But I really feel like this might be that stepping stone to that collaboration. We have yet to invite (the BLM) out. We’re hoping that they come out on a driving tour (or) an ecoflight tour — that they meet some of the tribal leaders, and we get them to come out and see the landscape and know how vital and important it is to our histories.

Taylar Dawn Stagner is a writer and audio journalist who’s an editorial intern for the Indigenous Affairs desk at HCN. She’s Arapaho and Shoshone and writes about racism, rurality, and gender. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.