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On The Wild Road – Wildlife Conservation Tourism in the Rockies – Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of my roundup of The Wild Road Expedition. Let’s just jump right back in with a few more Yellowstone National Park shots!

Part 1 of the Wild Road Expedition Roundup can be found here.


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The Wild Road Expedition was an activist’s journey. The goal of the tour was/is to connect people who care about wildlife and wild places with both the wildlife and the activists fighting to protect the animals and their habitat. The locations we visited were skillfully chosen by Patrizia Antonicelli, the owner of Seven Directions Tours. These locations gave participants a broad view of the issues facing wildlife in the American West. Along the way we met with biologists, educators, wildlife sanctuary and preserve operators. We also had some pretty stunning food. This was an opportunity to get a better handle on the challenges faced by people working to protect wildlife and to find a way to become a better wildlife activist. Can wildlife conservation tourism have an impact? The trip was not limited to the native wildlife of the Rocky Mountains but also covered the victims of what I consider to be the shameful practice of owning exotic pets – something that, in my opinion, should be illegal. Ten percent of the proceeds from the tour were donated to the sanctuaries, preserves and organizations we visited.

wildlife conservation tourism
American Kestrel. Teton Raptor Center. Wyoming.

On September 23rd we set off from Yellowstone under a windy, chilly and rather grey sky. We made some brief stops in Cody and Sheridan but our goal for the day was Rapid City, South Dakota and the historic – and haunted! – Alex Johnson Hotel.  We arrived well after dark in a driving rain. This was my first visit to both Rapid City and South Dakota in general. The day ended with a much appreciated cold beer at the Vertex Sky Bar, one of the highest points in Rapid City and with an outdoor deck offering some impressive views. By the next morning the rain had dried up and a stiff chilly wind blew the storm to the east leaving us with mostly clear skies.  We had two stops to make, the last on our journey.

Our first stop was at the Spirit of the Hills Wildlife Sanctuary outside of Spearfish, South Dakota. As with Colorado’s Wild Animal Sanctuary that we visited on the first day of the expedition, the Spirit of the Hills Wildlife Sanctuary exists solely to care for abused and rejected animals that were previously privately owned. Come to find out, there are hundreds of these types of places around the country. I had no clue. This is a non-profit organization existing on a shoestring budget, volunteer labor, an underpaid on site veterinarian and donations. The Sanctuary does not breed or sell their animals. The animals live out their lives in peace with minimal human interaction. From the Spirit of the Hills Wildlife Sanctuary website:

It defies logic that an endangered species can somehow be overpopulated. But this is the case for some of the Sanctuary’s animals. The captive, privately bred population of tigers is estimated at around 5,000 animals, which dwarfs the wild population of all species of tigers combined. We as a sanctuary envision a future where we are happily put out of business due to a lack of unwanted animals, where endangered animals like big cats flourish in their native habitats and there is no longer a need for sanctuaries. Until then, the mission is to educate.

Wildlife conservation tourism
There is nothing better than a blast of warm sun on a chilly autumn morning. The Wild Animal Sanctuary outside of Denver, Colorado

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this round up I am stunned that this problem even exists. How is it that wild animals can be captured or bred to be pets or performing animals? This should be illegal, in my opinion. And things are indeed changing here and there and in 2012 the state of Ohio began outlawing and even confiscating exotics. But:

Because the majority of states do not keep accurate records of exotic animals entering their state, it is impossible to determine exactly how many exotic animals are privately held as pets. The number is estimated to be quite high. Certainly 6,000 to 7,000 tigers are held by private individuals.

The American Veterinary Medical Association, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have all expressed opposition to the possession of certain exotic animals by individuals.

The Sanctuary was started in 1999. Since then they’ve taken in several wolves, wolf-hybrids, lions, exotic birds, emus, leopards, bison, servals, tigers and more. When South Dakota outlawed wolf-hybrids people just dumped them around the state. Twenty-three ended up at the sanctuary within a year. These animals are not capable of existing in the wild.

Individuals possessing exotic animals often attempt to change the nature of the animal rather than the nature of the care provided. Such tactics include confinement in small barren enclosures, chaining, beating “into submission,” or even painful mutilations, such as declawing and tooth removal.

If and when the individual realizes he/she can no longer care for an exotic pet, he/she usually turns to zoos and other institutions such as sanctuaries to relieve him/her of the responsibility. However, all the zoos and accredited institutions could not possibly accommodate the number of unwanted exotic animals. Consequently, the majority of these animals are euthanized, abandoned, or doomed to live in deplorable conditions.

One brown bear we met had been caged and forced bred dozens of times. Her cubs were all taken from her and sold into the exotics trade. Several white tigers has been so inbred they were nearly blind and suffered osteoporosis. Again. It stuns me that we don’t have a national law against this kind of horrible abuse.

wildlife conservation tourism
Spotted Leopard. Spirit of the Hills Wildlife Sanctuary. Spearfish, South Dakota

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Serval. Spirit of the Hills Wildlife Sanctuary. Spearfish, South Dakota

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Wolf-dog hybrid. Spirit of the Hills Wildlife Sanctuary. Spearfish, South Dakota

Next it was south to the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary south of Rapid City near the little town of Hot Springs. Founded in 1988 by a visionary named Dayton O. Hyde this 11,000 acres of privately owned prairie, mesas and valleys is owned and operated by the non-profit Institute of Range and the American Mustang. The purpose of the sanctuary is to rescue unwanted wild horses (American, Spanish, Curly, & Choctaw Mustangs) and gives them a chance to live the wild and free good life. They also work on initiatives to solve the wild horse problems on public lands.  In addition, the sanctuary runs a program to keep rare breeds of horses alive. They receive no federal funding for this program, instead relying on donations and money from their tours. Interestingly because horses are not classified as “agriculture” the sanctuary also runs a herd of red Angus cattle so that they qualify for agricultural tax breaks and incentives.

We jumped in an old bus for a two-hour tour of the sanctuary with one of the volunteers, an old boy that had moved with his wife from Florida to work with the horses. He explained that the wild and undisrupted horse herds have their own type of culture. “Each group lives in a slightly different way,” he told us. “That is, if they haven’t been split up and removed from where they grew up.” The horses on the sanctuary were apparently developing new ways of living and of creating their own culture.

There were more than two million wild horses in the American west in 1850. There are currently about 35,000 – and that number is disputed.

At the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary. South Dakota
At the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary. South Dakota

The next day we made our way back south to Colorado and end-of-tour dinner at the top knotch Denver restaurant Mercantile.  After a solid night sleep we all headed our own ways to digest the massive amount of information we’d gotten over the past ten days.

The Wild Road Expedition is a wildlife conservation tourism vision with a mission to educate and activate. It will run again next year and may indeed have two options to choose from. Contact Patrizia at Seven Directions Tours for more information.

Somewhere in South Dakota

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Fossil fuel development at 60mph. Another massive industrial impact on the wildlife of the American West. Eastern, Wyoming.

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wildlife conservation tourism
Eastern Wyoming


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