The wild red and yellow-rock canyon of the Yampa River appears beneath the little plane, the river shadowed and darkest green, the sandbars at the bends a deep maroon. North of the river is Dinosaur National Monument, and west the smoke and steam plumes of the Bonanza coal-fired power plant at Vernal, Utah. As we bank south towards the White River, we fly over a wild corrugated country of pinon and juniper, bitterbrush, mountain mahogany, and high plateaus of sagebrush and grass. The steep coulees are blanketed by aspen groves, leafless and stark in December against the bare earth. The Red Cliffs loom, Moosehead Mountain towers. This is Colorado’s Unit 10. It looks like spectacular elk country, and it is. The region is home to some of the biggest trophy bull elk in North America.
“That’s the habitat, right there,” says John Ellenberger. “You need multiple preference points to draw a tag for Unit 10, but people who have that opportunity will tell you it’s worth the effort and the wait.” Ellenberger knows what he’s talking about. Recently retired, he’s been the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife biologist on this ground since 1976, and has walked almost every foot of it. Now he’s working as an independent, helping the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership find a way to keep healthy some of the game herds and the landscape they depend upon, as an onslaught of new uses moves in. Energy development, writ large, is already here and booming. Natural gas, oil shale, tar sands–all are slated for development.
There has been no snowfall at all this year, and the country is parched. We are over the vast public lands of the White River Ranger District, the winter range for the world’s largest remaining mule deer herd–more than 35,000 deer roaming a landscape beloved by generations of big-buck hunters. The mule deer share this high country winter range with America’s largest migratory elk herd, 30,000 or more strong. A map of the migration patterns of elk and deer here looks like a map of wind currents, flowing into the high mesa country (including the spectacular Flat Tops Wilderness, nearly 13,000 feet in elevation) all around and back again. Summer range, winter range–big game does not survive if you remove either one from the equation.
This is not a landscape that has been spared the attentions of mankind. There are old roads, and lots of livestock grazing. Over the past ten years, 1800 gas wells have been developed here, with a matrix of new roads and well pads and pipelines. Over the next 20 years, there will be about 18,000 more wells here, with the industrial and pipeline infrastructure to support them. Here, too, buried in the earth, is the Mahogany shale, which holds millions of barrels of oil, though no one has ever figured out an economical way to harvest it. Right now, there are two experimental projects working to try to unlock the secret.
In a way, this huge, game-rich, mid-elevation, Rocky Mountain hunting ground is a microcosm of our planet, and of our nation. And just as we have solved some of the greatest American conservation challenges in the past 100 years, hunters and fishermen are building a new model for keeping our game herds, our access, our lands and waters, in the face of a burgeoning population and its ravenous consumption of natural resources.
The model is called Backcountry Conservation Areas, and it involves identifying critical core areas of habitat and watershed protection, and making sure that the impacts of energy or any other development are limited there. “This is a model that sportsmen in Oregon, Nevada, and Colorado have created to make sure that we can keep our opportunities at least as good as they are now,” said Joel Webster of the TRCP. “What we and a lot of other sportsmen’s groups are working on is a ground-up plan to safeguard our finest public hunting and fishing lands. What it boils down to is that we know that these developments- from natural gas drilling to wind and solar projects- are going through on a huge scale. If we do this right, we can safeguard an entire way of life, a Western way of life in the outdoors that we have enjoyed, and have a responsibility to pass on to our kids and grandkids.”
Webster wants to make clear that the Backcountry Conservation Area idea is to try and keep opportunities as they exist now, even as development will inevitably change the landscape. “Under one development plan for the White River country, the mule deer herd will decline by at least a third,” Webster explains. “There’s a lot of development, lots of infrastructure, lots of traffic. We need to have these core habitat areas protected. There will be losses, but we can keep them to a minimum.”
So far, public lands managers like those at the Bureau of Land Management have been hamstrung in their attempts to balance energy and other developments with big game and fisheries resources on public lands. “There are administrative tools to try and protect habitat, such as designating ‘Areas of Critical Environmental Concern,’ but they are complicated, and they have not been applied consistently,” said Webster. “All of those tools are seen as top-down mandates from Washington, not representing the reality on the ground. One, they are hard to understand and hard to put into action. Two, the public, including the hunters and fishermen who are most impacted here, don’t see how they work.”
The BCA model comes from local knowledge. “The BCAs will keep access open for sportsmen; allow for restoration of habitats; maintain, in these core areas, all of what we have now, identified by local, boots-on-the ground sportsmen and land managers who know what is at stake.” Webster points out that with more than 40 million acres of public lands leased for oil and gas development, and millions more on the table for solar and wind, it’s past time for sportsmen to get involved with public lands managers.
Photo courtesy of EcoFlight