Bighorns in the Winds
Last year I hiked for ten days along the spine of the Wind River Range with my friend Erik. We were blessed with Indian Summer weather in October for most of our adventure, up until the last day when a blizzard hit and we staggered out through snowdrifts. It was one of the most beautiful mountain sojourns I’ve had and I vowed to come back.
Now, a year later, I am back, but I’m pedaling along on the highway far below the peaks. So far away I can’t really see the Winds through smoke from fires in California’s Sierra Nevada. I need all my clothes to stay warm while I bomb down from Togwotee Pass early in the morning. Even with gloves I have to shuffle my hands behind my back out of the wind to rewarm fingers.
I’m heading to Brian Parker’s house in Lander. He’s the generous friend who shuttled Erik and I over 100 miles to complete our hike last year, and he’s volunteered to host me on this trip as well. I’m deeply in his debt, though he’d never mention it.
Brian works for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and manages the state’s interests in much of that land I’m riding through this morning. That means he works on wildlife and fisheries issues with ranchers, miners, tribal officials, biologists, hunters, fishers, outfitters, and many others. I met Brian in his clean office at the regional Game and Fish HQ, but I remember riding in his cluttered truck last year and knowing that’s where he really works.
“What impacts of climate change do you see in your work?” I ask. Brian pauses, trying to prioritize. Then it spills out:
Glaciers in the Winds are melting out and irrigators, including the state, are switching to pivot sprinklers vs. flood irrigation. That is more water-efficient, but requires a lot of power and expense. Who knows what will happen when there is no more glacial melt in late summer?
Mountain pine beetle and spruce beetles, native insects abetted by warmer winters, have devastated forests in the Winds and Togwotee Pass areas. It’s not much of a wildlife issue now, but when all those trees fall in 10 years of so it will be impossible for big wildlife to get through the jackstraw trunks. That will impede seasonal migrations and make herbivore life much harder.
The Whiskey Mountain herd of bighorn sheep was once the pride of the region and the largest anywhere. Now it is decimated by a pneumonia plague that may be climate-related. Their habitat is in need of prescribed burning to refresh the vegetation and remove excess fuels. But, like Ann in Yellowstone, invasive cheatgrass threatens to take over post-fire and effectively destroy the bighorn habitat. Brian marshalled an army of volunteers to survey for cheatgrass was and invesitgate how deep its seedbank went. Can they burn?
I sense that these complex examples are just the most obvious issue-icebergs in a sea of lurking threats. Any one of these issues involves diverse interests and cultures, along with conflicting values and uncertainties. These are the sorts of challenges that climate change confronts us with. To find our way through the troubled waters we need careful, committed leaders like Brian, an understanding of just how fraught their choices are, and willingness to put ourselves out there to help.