The Red Desert of southern Wyoming is one of the last high-desert ecosystems in North America. Its varied landscape of buttes, dunes, sagebrush steppe, mountains and rocky pinnacles is home to some of the continents most hidden treasures:
- The largest living dune system in the United States
- The largest migratory herd of pronghorn in the lower 48 states
- The world's largest herd of desert elk
- And, at its heart, the Great Divide Basin--a large depression along the Continental Divide from which surface water does not flow out to either the Atlantic or the Pacific.
People and the Red Desert
Long before European settlers arrived, the region played a significant role in the lives of Native Americans, including the Shoshone and Ute tribes. Rock art from the region dates back over 11,000 years. The Red Desert's unique features helped guide hundreds of thousands of pioneers on the Oregon Trail towards their destinations in Oregon, California and Washington. In some places, you can still see their tracks. Riders for the Pony Express and the United States' first transcontinental railroad passed through the Red Desert. Today, Interstate 80 bisects the region.
In the Red Desert, people can enjoy bird and wildlife watching, hiking and camping, horseback riding, mountain biking, pronghorn and elk hunting, and a remarkable complex of active sand dunes to visit. Cattle and sheep graze on its rangelands. It is also a source of natural resources, including oil, natural gas, coal, coalbed methane and minerals including uranium.
Wildlife in the Red Desert
The Red Desert is home to 350 species of wildlife and many more plant species that have adapted to its harsh conditions. The world's largest herd of desert elk, 50,000 pronghorn antelope, and rare plant and bird species can all be found there. Most of the Red Desert is actually sagebrush steppe--habitat for pronghorn, elk and pygmy rabbit. It also has aspen and conifer-covered mountains, rivers and springs. Its dune regions actually help to store snowmelt with temporary ponds, providing habitat for swans, ducks, plovers, and even tiny freshwater shrimp.
- Birds: Many species of birds, including raptors, waterbirds and shorebirds can be found in the Red Desert at different times of the year. Interesting Red Desert birds include the rare mountain plover, greater sage grouse, burrowing owl, white-faced ibis, golden eagle, ferruginous hawk, Brewer's sparrow, sage sparrow, and sage thrasher.
- Mammals: The Red Desert is home to many species of mammals, large and small, both predator and prey, including Wyoming's only population of the endangered black-footed ferret, desert elk, pronghorn, pygmy rabbit, mountain lion, mule deer, white-footed mice, wild horses, coyote, badger, and the white-tailed prairie dog.
Threats to the Red Desert
Wyoming is rich in natural resources, including coal, oil, natural gas, coalbed methane, and minerals, including uranium--all of which may potentially be found in the Red Desert. The majority of the Red Desert has no legal protection, and is therefore open to oil and gas exploration and development, along with the accompanying roads, pipelines, fences, truck traffic and utility lines. There is also renewed interest in mining for uranium, with all of its potential radioactive hazards. The construction and resource extraction fragments wildlife habitats and disrupts elk, pronghorn and mule deer migration, as well as scarring the landscape and polluting the air and water.
National Wildlife Magazine Articles:
Showdown in the Great Divide
Short film "Into the Big Empty"
Friends of the Red Desert
Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, Protecting the Red Desert
The Special Values of the Great Divide report (PDF)