Red Desert: A Place to get lost, or find yourself

June 24, 2017


A fiery moon rose steadily over the horizon of the Red Desert, spreading a hazy glow over prairie and bluffs.

Between our tents on the side of Steamboat Mountain and that spot where the moon grew ever larger was a vast expanse of nothing. No buildings, stop lights, cell towers or power lines. No restaurants, gas stations or paved roads.

Some call it the Big Empty. And it is -- a vast expanse of wind-carved barrenness.

But as the sun rose the next morning in mid-June, its gentle rays igniting the desert floor, life appeared. Lavender-colored wild iris nestled near a stream. Pink sand dock grew scattered along a dirt road. A hawk circled above, gliding in the rising air currents. A meadowlark’s high trill cut through the wind.

It is the desert in the spring. Viewed from above, it’s still a rainbow of reds, whites and browns, but observed from inside, on the seat of a bicycle, the Red Desert is much more a series of greens with bursts of desert flowers.

When a friend of mine and I decided to spend two days pedaling nearly 70 miles from Oregon Buttes in the northern Red Desert to Boar’s Tusk, we sought a combination of isolation and adventure. We wanted someplace we could get away from cell service, computers and other people. Everyone who goes to the desert is looking for something.

“When you’re 50 miles from the nearest paved road in any direction, you got to make peace with the voices in your head,” said Walt Gasson, a multi-generational Wyomingite whose great-grandparents settled in southeast Wyoming. “The Big Empty is good at helping you come to terms with yourself.”

His dad retreated to the desert when he came back from World War II with PTSD.

“He was a wreck when he came back from the war, but he found peace and solace in the solitude of his own home country out there,” he said.

Our mission wasn’t so critical. We weren’t fighting demons. We weren’t hiding stolen horses like the mythical Jack Marrow, looking for gold like early prospectors or pushing bison off a cliff like early peoples.

But we did find the isolation we sought. In the first full day of riding, we saw only three other vehicles. Instead of waiting for cars or checking our phones, we raced curious pronghorn and faced off with wild horses unsure of two-wheeled invaders.

As with every brief inhabitant that came before us, we discovered our own Red Desert – a feeling of insignificance in the midst of vast prairie.

We joined the wildflowers, wind, sand, and elk as one small element to be swallowed in the desert’s openness.

Wyoming is home to one of the country's largest unfenced areas. Its future is uncertain

July 1, 2017


RED DESERT – A few narrow dirt roads snake across the landscape, at times the only sign of humans.

They wind from Oregon Buttes, marking the beginning of the promised country for settlers, to Steamboat Mountain, an ancient buffalo jump where early Shoshone tribes herded bison off the rim to their deaths.

Other roads connect undulating waves of white sand at the Killpecker dunes, where families race ATVs, to Boar’s Tusk, an ancient volcanic plug rising from the flats and attracting geologists from around the country.

Lovers of the Red Desert call these special places. Unique areas to be protected and conserved, set aside for another 100 or 200 years for people to witness.

Scattered along the way like branches on a cottonwood tree are smaller roads leading to oil and gas wells, mostly silent in their collection of Wyoming’s economic lifeblood. The Jim Bridger Power Plant is tucked in a basin north of Interstate 80 with four stacks reaching for the sky and an open pit where massive shovels pull coal from the earth.

The Red Desert loosely encompasses about 4 million acres in southwest Wyoming. It can be a forbidding place. Wind gusts routinely reach 50 and 60 mph, winter temperatures settle well below zero and the summer sun bakes indiscriminately. It’s also teeming with life – it’s home to the largest desert elk herd in the country and the longest migrating mule deer herd on the continent.

Right now, much of its future is under review.

The Bureau of Land Management is working on the Rock Springs Resource Management Plan revision. What comes out of the weighty, technical document will be a plan for the next 20 years. It will decide what can be developed and what should be protected.

Wyoming’s Red Desert, one of the last places to dry out after the great seas receded millions of years ago, is many things to many people. It is or has been a place of gold prospecting and horse rustling, oil exploration and hunting, grazing and wild horses. But to understand the interests tugging on pieces of one of the country’s largest unfenced areas is to first understand the people.


The Red Desert once teemed with wildlife – thundering bison, wary trophy elk and flighty pronghorn.

And then it didn’t.

Settlers killed all the bison. Ivory hunters took the elk for their valuable canines. Pronghorn and mule deer remained in very limited numbers, said Walt Gasson, a fourth-generation Wyomingite who has hunted in the desert for himself, as a guide or with family for almost seven decades.

But as with the wood duck, Canada goose and golden eagle, humans have worked to repair the damage. Wildlife managers reintroduced elk from Yellowstone National Park and other areas into the desert. They thought they would migrate into the south end of the Wind River Range.

“Instead, they looked around and said ‘looks good to us,’ and they stayed,” he said.

What formed then became the largest desert elk herd in the country and the only one in Wyoming. The experience of chasing a desert bull is so prized today that a resident hunter has about a 2 percent chance of successfully drawing a tag. Yet they keep trying.

“You’ve got these elk and you can see them out there and they can see you, but they use distance as cover, just like antelope do,” he said. “There’s an invisible line, and until you touch that line, they think: I can see you, you can see me, but I’m not going to waste energy by running right now.”

The area is also much more than a hunt, which is why so many people use their one hope of a special elk license on the desert. Gasson calls it the baker’s dozen — the extra. Each hunter has a chance to see a soaring eagle, flock of sage grouse or petroglyph or find an arrowhead.

“The sage grouse and wild horses and pioneer experience and Native American presence creates those extras,” he said. “Those make that part of the whole thing.”


Pull out a map of development in the Red Desert, and you’ll see a scattering of dots in the northeast corner. As your eyes move south and west, the dots become swarms of active wells and land offered up for future drilling.

Some places, like Adobe Town, south of Interstate 80, have been the subject of intense debate for years – conservationists arguing for its preservation, oil and gas developers promoting its valuable resources.

“I know there are areas that are sensitive out there and unique and pristine, but I also know there is a tremendous amount of energy resource out there,” said Peter Wold, senior partner of Wold Oil in Casper.

Wold’s father had uranium interests in the Red Desert years ago when yellowcake prices were higher. His company now has its sights set mainly on oil and gas development in the Powder River Basin, but he understands the value of energy extraction in the desert.

The BLM’s Rock Springs plan covers about 3.6 million acres, which encompasses the bulk of the Red Desert. It will present, in general, four alternatives to the public for comment. The first would involve little change from what exists on the landscape and is in the planning process now. The other three focus on other possible uses from more conservation to more development. The public will respond, and then BLM will ultimately choose the final plan. BLM will likely present those four alternatives by the end of 2017 or early 2018, depending on staffing in Washington, D.C., said Kimberlee Foster, field manager for the Rock Springs BLM office.

New Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has expressed a sense of urgency related to increasing drilling and development. He said “There’s a consequence of not using some of our public lands for creation of wealth and jobs.”

Wold said there can be a balance — and that there has been in the past.

“Like so many areas, you need to be sensitive about where you’re trying to develop energy resources,” Wold said.


The Shoshone people named the Red Desert Enga Sogope, or “red earth.” It was a general description for the area, said Jason Baldes, a member of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe and executive director of the Wind River Native Advocacy Center.

It was part of the original Fort Bridger Treaty of 1863, which gave the Shoshone Indians about 44 million acres. Many years ago, the tribes lost most of that 44 million acres, including the Red Desert.

But their mark on the landscape remains for anyone patient or curious enough to look.

A rock used for centuries by Shoshone women to help with childbirth still stands. Ancient campsites, arrowheads and chippings remain in those areas too stubborn to change.

Baldes and his father, an amateur geologist and former biologist, would spend days camping and exploring their ancestral home. Standing on top of Steamboat Mountain, riding on horseback or winding through Adobe Town, he understood his connection to those who went before him.

“It’s important to me personally, recognizing it used to be part of our reservation,” he said. “Just because we are confined to reservation boundaries it doesn’t limit our access to those historical sites we used to utilize.”

He fears development of all kinds in the desert – oil and gas, subdivisions. Anything that further cuts into the open space that remains. Wyoming depends on natural resources, he understands, but he wants a balance for the desert.

“A lot of people don’t recognize it as a beautiful landscape. They see the sage and flat lands and no one is there. They see it as a dead area, but it is very, very much alive and teeming with life if you’re willing to open your eyes and see it.”

The Ultimate Cutthroat Trout Fishing Slam

October 8, 2015


Five anglers tackle Wyoming’s cutthroat trout fishing challenge in free flowing streams in just one day. Story by Christine Peterson, photographs by Ryan Dorgan.


The plan started simply: catch all four sub-species of native cutthroat trout in Wyoming to qualify for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Cutt Slam. But hundreds of people had caught all four species, and Trout Unlimited’s Steven Brutger and I wanted a challenge. So we gave ourselves a parameter: catch them all in 24 hours.

Cutthroat trout are named for a bright orange gash along the bottom of their jaw. While each strain can hybridize with the other or rainbow trout, they have distinct markings in their purest forms. The Snake River cutthroat, shown here, has fine, concentrated spots. The Bonneville cutthroat, on the other hand, has fewer larger spots and elliptical par marks along its sides.

Cutthroat trout are named for a bright orange gash along the bottom of their jaw. While each strain can hybridize with the other or rainbow trout, they have distinct markings in their purest forms. The Snake River cutthroat, shown here, has fine, concentrated spots. The Bonneville cutthroat, on the other hand, has fewer larger spots and elliptical par marks along its sides.

The simple part ended there. Each strain of cutthroat trout lives in a separate drainage, which meant driving over multiple mountain ranges and swaths of Wyoming’s iconic wide open spaces. Last year, Brutger, Josh (my husband), and I finished our goal. What was the next logical step? Make it even harder.

In August, we tried repeating the venture, but on waters with state-owned in-stream flow rights. That meant no cheating by finishing in a stocked lake as we did last year. We had to find, and catch, fickle fish in their original, relatively undisturbed waters. Our luck barely held last year, each one of us doubted it would hold again.

When I pitched the new idea to Game and Fish’s chief of fisheries last year, he laughed at me. We faced multiple challenges: finicky fish, hundreds of miles of ground to cover, slick, muddy roads, and the sheer number of participants. One person might finish, but three? He didn’t think so.

When we upped the challenge this year, we included photographer Ryan Dorgan and his little brother—who had never touched a fly rod before. Each understood he, or she, would drop out if needed.

We camped the night before near the East Fork of the Wind River outside Dubois, Wyoming, in the northwest corner of the state. Last year, we started in the southwest corner and targeted Bonneville cutthroat trout. We each crossed it off in less than 30 minutes. Our first fish this year would be a considerably larger challenge.

The author (left) eats dinner by headlamp with Patrick Dorgan, Steven Brutger, and Josh Peterson.

The author (left) eats dinner by headlamp with Patrick Dorgan, Steven Brutger, and Josh Peterson.

Yellowstone cutthroat are native to the far northwest corner of the state, making it the farthest outlier of the species. For practical purposes, we only had a few rivers within reasonable driving distance. Last year, we resorted to fishing a lake, which still resulted in hours of slapping the water before learning what the fish wanted. The East Fork of the Wind River didn’t prove to be any easier. Bugs weren’t hatching in the early-morning air, and few fish were biting. By 11:30, after more than three hours of trying, four of us had caught fish and Brutger had dropped out. There was no way it would work in one day, we agreed. Perhaps this would have to be a “Cutt Slam in 48 hours” instead.

We piled in our vehicles and headed over Union Pass, the first mountain range crossing of the day. Storms brewed on the horizon as we dropped down near a cow town-turned oil and gas mecca called Pinedale. Our next fish, the Colorado Cutthroat trout, would prove to be the gift that put us back on track.

Last year it took us 12 minutes to each catch a Colorado cutthroat in North Cottonwood Creek, a thin sliver of water snaking out of the Wyoming Range. Both Trout Unlimited and Game and Fish have done restoration projects in the area, making it one of the last bastions of habitat for the subspecies. Colorado cutthroat are restricted to about 14 percent of their native habitat. They’re also hungry. About 20 minutes after we poured out of our cars, we climbed back in, grinning. The four of us were still in the game.

By the time we crossed yet another mountain range, time was starting to slip. Snake River cutthroat trout would need to be kind to us, or we certainly wouldn’t make it in 24 hours. Fortunately, the Greys River offers an unparalleled 30 or so miles of fishable water, with a dirt road traveling its banks. Opportunities to catch a Snake River were endless. Ryan, Josh, and I caught ours, but Patrick Dorgan, who caught the first two, would ultimately bow out of the quest.

Cutthroat trout are named for a bright orange gash along the bottom of their jaw. While each strain can hybridize with the other or rainbow trout, they have distinct markings in their purest forms. The Snake River cutthroat, shown here, has fine, concentrated spots. The Bonneville cutthroat, on the other hand, has fewer larger spots and elliptical par marks along its sides.

With one last cutthroat trout to catch, and a few hours of daylight, we felt cautiously optimistic. Our journey to catch a Bonneville cutthroat, found in the southwest corner of the state, would require another long drive over yet another pass. The quest requires not only patience and focus, but a stomach for gas-station corn dogs, an ear that can handle static-filled radio signals, and the willingness to drive almost 300 miles to catch four fish.

The sun was well into setting when we reached Salt Creek. Ryan needed to catch his first if he wanted to take photos of the rest of the team. The small trout rose everywhere, creating ripples in the dark pools. One struck, and he missed. Another struck, he missed again. Frustrations grew.

Patrick Dorgan casts into Salt Creek in the southwest corner of Wyoming.

Patrick Dorgan casts into Salt Creek in the southwest corner of Wyoming.

Then, with barely enough light to see the water, Ryan caught his Bonneville cutthroat. Our mission, however foolish, was doable for at least one angler. Josh and I eventually reeled ours in, beams from our headlamps helping verify the species. Luck, naïve determination, and about 14 hours of fishing and driving carried us through.

Even the most dedicated anglers occasionally need a nap after that many hours fishing. The next day, I hit the dirt for 15 minutes on the bank of the Greys River while waiting for Patrick Dorgan to catch a Snake River cutthroat trout, one of two subspecies he missed the day before.

For those who might want to try a similar quest, in a day or multiple days, here are a few tips:

—Plan ahead: The journey requires hundreds of miles of driving on long dirt roads. Plan your route ahead of time and check road conditions and weather.

—Try mid-to-late summer: Most of the fishing will be best after spring run-off is finished, especially since many of the creeks and rivers are small. But that doesn't mean you can't give it a go another time of year.

—Check with locals: Call the local Game and Fish offices at 307-367-4352 in Pinedale, 307-875-3223 in Green River, 307-733-2321 in Jackson and 307-332-2688 in Lander.

—Bring plenty of flies: We used primarily small dry flies like parachute Adams, but come prepared with a selection of dry flies, hoppers, and streamers. Most of the fishing is a long way from any store, and you don’t want to burn daylight standing in line for the cashier.

Wyoming isn’t the only state with a fishing challenge for native trout. Since trout rarely live in ugly places, you won’t be disappointed with the venture. For more information on a quest near you, contact your local fisheries department or check out Wyoming or California’s competitions:

Wyoming Game and Fish Department Cutt Slam
Catch all four strains of native cutthroat trout in their respective drainages

California Heritage Trout Challenge
Target three species of cutthroat trout and eight forms of rainbow trout throughout California’s roadside waters and wilderness areas



Originally published by Outdoor Life:

Ten Strange, Endearing and Alarming Animal Courtship Rituals

February 9, 2017


Human dating rituals may often seem strange, confusing and not-at-all productive. But the next time you’re wondering if you should wait three days to call, or if you talked too much at dinner, be thankful you aren’t worried you would become dinner.

The male praying mantis knows each time it approaches a female to mate might be its last day on the planet, says Jennifer Verdolin, author of Wild Connection: What animal courtship and mating tell us about human relationships and a featured guest on the D.L. Hughley Radio Show’s “Think Like a Human, Act Like an Animal.”

“If he decides she is ok, he mates with her,” Verdolin says. “If he’s right, he drops off, if he’s wrong, she bites his head off.”


Fortunately for the animal kingdom, not all mating habits are quite so vicious, Verdolin adds. Many involve offerings of gifts or dancing, other stories tell of fidelity or affection. And some mating rituals are familiar to anyone who watches their backyard, or nature documentaries. But there are lesser-known ones that are strange, endearing and even alarming.

To celebrate human’s upcoming holiday of love and romance, I asked Verdolin and other biologists for tales of fascinating animal mating habits.

Prairie voles. Photo ©  Dave Challender  through a Creative Commons license

Prairie voles. Photo © Dave Challender through a Creative Commons license

Prairie Voles

Monogamous Unless Drunk

When monogamous relationships come to mind, we typically think of geese, swans or humans. Rarely do we think of prairie voles. But the tiny mammals are actually quite faithful and affectionate, says Verdolin.

“A recent study showed when their partner is stressed they give them the equivalent of prairie vole hugs and kisses,” she says. “They will spend upwards of 50 to 60 percent of their time together if not more.”

If a member of either sex approaches the happy couple, they will chase him or her away. Unless, of course, the male is drunk. Researchers in Oregon tested the critters’ fidelity while under the influence and found females will become closer to their mates but drunk males will wander.

A female nursery web spider consumes a male after mating. Photo ©  Tony Court / Flickr  through a Creative Commons license

A female nursery web spider consumes a male after mating. Photo © Tony Court / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

Nursery Web Spiders

Beautiful Gifts, Lying Males

Nothing says “I love you” to a nursery web spider like a little bundle of food wrapped in pretty, white silk. The males bring their gifts to females as a request to mate, Verdolin says.

The female inspects the parcel, and if she accepts, he mates with her while she unwraps and eats the meal. Except research shows the male often lies. If he gets hungry before he brings the gift, he sucks out the food and presents a beautifully-wrapped exoskeleton. “Sometimes they don’t even bother with an exoskeleton,” she says. “They use a twig. Sometimes the females weighs it, but is still fooled by how pretty the wrapping is.” When she finds out, the relationship ends. Immediately.

A male bluegill guards his spawning bed. Photo © Eric Engebretson /  Engebretson Underwater Photography  used with permission

A male bluegill guards his spawning bed. Photo © Eric Engebretson / Engebretson Underwater Photography used with permission


Nice Guys Finish First

Many fish species have what biologists call territorial males and sneaker males. The territorial ones will defend their females and eggs from another approaching, aggressive male. The sneakers, which are typically smaller, weaker males, will wait on the outskirts and approach right when the female lays eggs, says Lisa Angeloni, an associate professor at Colorado State University.

But bluegills have a third category of male breeding behavior called female mimics, which are generally older sneaker males. “They look like females and can get close to a territorial male who is trying to fertilize the eggs,” she says. “He will think he is getting another female.”

A hangingfly has caught a crane fly as a gift for a female. Photo ©  Jean and Fred / Flickr  through a Creative Commons license

A hangingfly has caught a crane fly as a gift for a female. Photo © Jean and Fred / Flickr through a Creative Commons license


The World’s Most Unusual Dinner Date

Quantity is key in this relationship. The male hangingfly must find a large enough insect to keep his chosen female busy eating while he mates with her. It takes about 20 minutes for her sperm storage organ to fill, says Angeloni.

If she runs out of food before he’s done, she kicks him off and sends him packing. But if her storage unit fills up before she is done eating the insect, “He’s no longer interested in mating her and will take the food and regift it to someone else.”

Photo courtesy of Nico Michiels. [CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo courtesy of Nico Michiels. [CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Sea Slugs

Extreme Fencing

They may be tiny, but the Alderia modesta will fight epic battles. The slugs are simultaneous hermaphrodites, which means they have both male and female reproductive systems.

Wars are waged to decide who will carry eggs and who will fertilize, says Angeloni, who studied the slugs for her doctorate research. The fights are casually called penis fencing. “They appear as though they’re trying to stab each other without being stabbed themselves,” she says. Sperm can be injected anywhere on the animal to fertilize eggs.

Actual mating lasts about five minutes before one or the other finishes and slinks away.

New Mexico Whiptail (Cnemidophorus neomexicanus). Photo ©  Roger Shaw / Flickr  through a Creative Commons license

New Mexico Whiptail (Cnemidophorus neomexicanus). Photo © Roger Shaw / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

New Mexican Whiptail Lizard

Simulated Sex

Mating rituals for these lizards are particularly interesting, because there aren’t any. The entire New Mexican whiptail lizard species found in the southwest U.S. and Mexico is exclusively female.

The species resulted from a hybridization of two other lizards, and because it has double the chromosomes as other lizard species with males and females, can maintain its genetic diversity, according to a 2010 study published in the journal Nature. “But even though they are only females and don’t need males to reproduce, they still engage in simulated sex,” says Verdolin. “And the ones that do engage in simulated sex have more babies.”

Adelie penguins gather rocks to go courting. Photo ©  Robert Nunn / Flickr  through a Creative Commons license

Adelie penguins gather rocks to go courting. Photo © Robert Nunn / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

Adelie Penguins

Rocking It

Not all gifts involve food. A male Adelie penguin, living along the Antarctic coast, collects little rare rocks to present to his beloved. The female uses the rocks to line her nest, and if she likes the rock, she will allow him to mate with her, Verdolin says. Unfortunately for the poor male, if he wanders off and another male presents a rock, she will mate with him, too.

Male Hooded seal nasal display, St Lawrence Gulf, Canada. Photo © Doug Allan

Male Hooded seal nasal display, St Lawrence Gulf, Canada. Photo © Doug Allan

Hooded Seals

Pink Balloon Battles

Fighting over females is common in many species. Elk and deer will sometimes lock together and struggle until one, or both, are killed. Male hooded seals are no different except their first display of prowess comes in the form of large, inflatable pink balloons on their faces.

“Those balloons are sexually selected in this species and males have contests over females,” according to Verdolin. “The winner gets the girl (though the girl may mate with another male too).” When they’re done fighting, the bag deflates for mating. Until the next battle, of course.

A mature male Satin Bowerbird performing his courtship routine at the Australian National Botanic Gardens in Canberra. Photo ©  Leo / Flickr  through a Creative Commons license

A mature male Satin Bowerbird performing his courtship routine at the Australian National Botanic Gardens in Canberra. Photo © Leo / Flickr through a Creative Commons license


Dance and Decorate

Female bowerbirds are less impressed with athletic prowess than they are the male’s ability to dance and decorate. During courtship, male satin bowerbirds build nuptial bowers – which look a bit like towers of sticks – and decorate them with exclusively blue objects. “They will fight, scrap, steal and destroy each other’s structures,” Verdolin says. “They will steal anything blue, and it doesn’t have to be natural, it can be ribbon or plastic, and then the females will go around and inspect them.”

If the female approves of the blue creations, the male then has to dance for her. During some experiments, researchers have placed red objects on the bowers and found females choose smarter males, the ones most able to remove red items.

Scenes at a sage-grouse lek in breeding season. Fremont County, Wyoming. Photo ©  Alan Krakauer / Flickr  through a Creative Commons license

Scenes at a sage-grouse lek in breeding season. Fremont County, Wyoming. Photo © Alan Krakauer / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

Sage Grouse

Strut, Puff and Pop

Imagine a bar in a rural prairie town packed with testosterone-filled men puffing their chests and doing their best to run each other off. Now put that bar in the middle of the western sage brush and swap out humans for a chicken-sized brown bird called sage grouse.

Each year, male grouse gather on leks to fan their tail feathers like peacocks, blow up their chests and make strange popping sounds in hopes of attracting a mate. Female grouse wander in, appear ambivalent and decide, or not, on the right mate. Dozens or even hundreds can gather at the same time, only to finish by mid-morning, wander in to the sage and wait until the next day.


Originally published by Cool Green Science: