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On The Wild Road – Wildlife Conservation Tourism in the Rockies – Part 1

At The Wild Animal Sanctuary northeast of Denver, Colorado I watched through my telephoto camera lens as a grizzly bear gently backed himself into an artificial pond. He was cautious and slow but once in the water he floated peacefully and splashed around with a stick. The pond was out of place among the dry grasses of the eastern Colorado plains. The folks running the sanctuary constructed the water feature for the animal. When the giant blond bear arrived he could barely walk. Kept in a crate for most of his life, the bear’s hips and lower vertebrae had been crushed when a metal gate fell on him. His owners never treated his wounds. Once rescued, the bear found that by floating in the water he could reduce the pain and find some mobility. Over time, the hydrotherapy helped him heal enough that he could walk again, albeit slowly.

wildlife conservation
These Siberian bears were rescued from a zoo in Bolivia.

In September, I was invited to join The Wild Road Expedition, a wildlife conservation tour sponsored and organized by Seven Direction Tours of Santa Fe and co-sponsored by Paonia, Colorado-based High Country News. My job was photographer and so I offer you a photo-heavy blog post. I’ll try to go easy on the text.

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
The crew at the offices of High Country News in Panonia, Colorado. Wait! Is that me in a photo for once?!

The Wild Animal Sanctuary

The Wild Animal Sanctuary is one of the world’s largest and most respected shelters for wild animals that are the victims of the exotic wildlife trade, circuses, road-side shows and zoos. These animals have been abused and tortured in one way or another for most of their lives and none can function in the wild anymore. At the sanctuary the animals can heal, find companionship and live out their lives in relative comfort. Sprawling over 700 acres, the animals have large spaces to roam. But this is not a zoo. It is not designed to replicate habitat. There is no breeding. Read more about the sanctuary here. I admit that I had no idea that there were so many animals in need of rescue from really unconscionable situations. Are you aware that you can legally own lions and tigers, bears and wolves in most of this country? (Read more about the lives of captive wolves) I somehow assumed that was illegal but it is not and the suffering caused by this need to own exotic “pets” is heartbreaking to say the least.

ReadThe perils of exotic pets

wildlife conservation
African lions at The Wild Animal Sanctuary.

Wild Horses of Pilot Butte

On Tuesday morning we woke in Green River, Wyoming and before dawn we were out in the chill climbing the high desert mesas above the valley in an immaculately maintained 1975 Pinzgauer owned by Rich Nobels, the only guide currently licensed to run wild horse tours in the White Mountain Wild Horse Management Area backcountry of the Rock Springs Bureau of Land Management (BLM) district. “People don’t realize…” is Rich’s preferred way of beginning a sentence. The mesas are rugged and the horses are more often than not found in the back canyons where they can find water and better grass. To get back into these areas you need a rugged 4-wheel drive vehicle with a high clearance. Thus the Pinzgauer.

The wild horse issue throughout the West is a controversial issue to say the least and like many rural westerners Rich blames “easterners” for wildlife problems in the west (I couldn’t disagree more being a fifth generation Coloradoan myself but that is another discussion) and launches false tropes about violent wolves attacking humans but it is clear that Rich loves this land and loves the horses and he has some very good ideas on how the wild horse issue in the west might be solved. The fact is that there are too many of them.

Read: Is there a way through the West’s bitter wild horse wars?
Read: No. The BLM did not slaugher 44,000 horses
Read: The True Costs of Wild Horse Roundups

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Read: Don’t Fence Me In

wildlife conservation tourism

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Raptors and Connections

The next morning we woke in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I left early for a run and hike up Snow King Mountain. Jackson is like Wyoming’s Aspen. Far too fancy so not really my kind of place but the view over town to the Tetons beyond was well worth the 1700 foot gain in elevation and the sweat soaking my clothes. After a much too brief stop at The National Museum of Wildlife Art (gorgeous collection and well run museum) we passed over to the Teton Raptor Center in the hamlet of Wilson under the magnificent Teton Mountains.

wildlife conservation tourism

The Raptor Center is a non-profit organization made up of a team of conservation biologists, veterinarians, wildlife rehabilitators, educators, and volunteers. They work to protect birds of prey in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem through education, research and rehabilitation of injured animals. One of the center employees spent a good amount of time with us, introducing us the birds currently at the center and educating us about both the state of conservation in the region and the research being conducted on raptors. This is an organization I can confidently urge you to support financially.

wildlife conservation tourism

Then it was on to Idaho and the Earthfire Institute. I’ll just be straight up honest here. I felt very uncomfortable at Earthfire. Some members of our group agreed with me and others did not. There are numerous inherent contradictions in how we value wildlife and how we advocate for its preservation and yet we are all working for the same end. Or are we? Do we care about the means to an end? wildlife conservation tourism

I struggle to find a way to describe Earthfire. It is somewhat of a wildlife sanctuary but with a mission to “connect” humans and wildlife on an emotional level…emotional for humans that is…so that the humans will be more conservation oriented. From the EI website:

As I held those vibrant squiggly little bodies close to me, eagerly sucking down the nutrients for life, nothing prepared me for the flood of feeling that rushed through me. I swear oxytocin was flowing through my veins. It made no difference at all that it was a species other than my own. The urge to nurture and protect and help bloom was overwhelming. I made a sacred promise that I would do everything I could for them, for their species, and for all wild ones. The urge to nurture Life, and to help others see (tune to) the wonder of it, has been the driving force behind all I have done since, culminating in the founding and continuing evolution of Earthfire.

It is somewhat unclear what is going on here. To me. Anthropomorphizing animals even with the intention to protect them is harmful.

So often when certain people claim wild animals have befriended them what I see instead is a power play based around food. The animals come to these people because that is the food source. In a video in the EI website a badger crawls around a man in a flower filled meadow. We are told this is because there is a connection and friendship. What I see rather is an animal sniffing around a man looking for snacks. It’s a power relationship around food with the human dominating the animal and controlling it’s behavior. The human then interprets that behavior as friendship or connection. I don’t buy it. Horses, cats, dogs are of course another story entirely as they are domesticated animals. Do you have to hold animals captive to listen to them?

Take a look at the website and make your own decision. For me, while the end goal of EI is aligned with my values I disagree with that way they are arriving at that goal. To me they are perpetuating the same power dynamic that causes the problem they ultimately hope to solve. Contrast what is going on at EI with the mission of the raptor center where they work to get the animals back out into the wild and approach their work with the feeling that wild animals should remain wild animals and that we should not anthropomorphize them. Meanwhile, there is the Wildlife Animal Sanctuary where mistreated animals are rescued and healed and treated with respect while still being honored for the wildness in their genes. They are distinctly different ways of dealing with these issues.

wildlife conservation tourism
A wolf at the Earthfire Institute

Yellowstone National Park

Amazingly, this was my first visit to Yellowstone National Park and I’m just sorry we didn’t have more time. It really is as impressive as you hear and I can’t wait to get back. Our guide showed up well before dawn.  Leo Leckie is a guide for Yellowstone WolfTracker. He is also a Research Associate for Dr. Jim Halfpenny at A Naturalist’s World in Yellowstone National Park. This Wisconsin native has hands down one of the best wildlife guides I’ve met in all my years out searching for great wildlife shots. His knowledge base is extensive; he is super kind and he chefs up one impressive picnic lunch. Oh. And he showed up before dawn bearing coffee. The man can’t do wrong. Check him out at

It has rained all night and we drove from the Canyon Lodge in the center of the park through the mist and low hanging clouds into the Lamar Valley where, just below Druid Peak, Leo brought us to an overlook where we watched a solitary black wolf feed on a bison carcass. The gorgeous wolf was too far off for my camera lens but Leo had brought along some very large wildlife viewing telescopes.

wildlife conservation tourism

Now one of the downsides of Yellowstone is that there are too many people (and there I was contributing to that problem) and the road was lined with over a hundred cars and literally a thousand people watching this wolf from a distance. And yet you could hear a pin drop when the wolf howled and, somewhere out there…where we couldn’t see…the pack responded. I’ve heard wolves howl in the Gila wilderness before and even had my own run-in with a wolf but the sound of that howl is something that just lights my inner core on fire still. By the end of the morning we had seen moose, mountain goats, bighorn, numerous bison, pronghorn and soaring eagles.

wildlife conservation tourism

ReadHave returning wolves really saved Yellowstone?

Wildlife conservation tourism

ReadAs delisting looms, grizzly advocates prepare for a final face-off  wildlife conservation tourism



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wildlife conservation tourism

That evening our group met with the activists of the Buffalo Field Campaign. Their mission?

To stop the harassment and slaughter of Yellowstone’s wild buffalo herds; protect the natural habitat of wild, free-roaming buffalo and other native wildlife; and work with all people—especially Indigenous Nations—to honor and protect the sacredness of the wild buffalo.

The internet is littered with articles on the Yellowstone buffalo controversy so I will round it up as succinctly as possible here and leave you with some links below to read more on your own.

Basically, when winter snow falls in Yellowstone, the parks bison migrate along age old routes out of the park and to locations in Montana where they can find enough food to survive the winter. Small numbers of bison carry a disease called brucellosis which can cause a cow to abort a fetus. The bison have developed a natural immune response to brucellosis and are not impacted by the disease. Domestic cattle however are impacted by the disease. The fear among Montana cattlemen is that the Yellowstone bison will infect the domestic cows while they are migrating to their winter grounds. And so the state of Montana kills any bison that cross out of the park. They have killed tens of thousands.

But Let’s be clear. As far as we know there are NO KNOWN cases of brucellosis being transferred from buffalo to domesticated cattle. But there ARE known cases of the disease being transferred from elk to domesticated cattle. Yet there is no move to limit the movement of elk across the border. This is a case where the powerful constituencies of Montana hunters and cattlemen hold political sway over wildlife policy in a way that is counter to science and everything we know about the issue. This is a perfect example of a wildlife policy that makes ZERO sense. There is a bit more going on here.

The bison is a symbol of the pre-colonization West.  It is a symbol not only of wild North America but it is also a reminder of the people who originally inhabited this land. Remember that it was our society’s policy at one time to eradicate the bison in order to genocide the native peoples. Killing and controlling the bison continues to be a symbolic form of dominating Native Americans.  The Buffalo Field Campaign is another organization I strongly urge you to support.

Watch: 150 Bison Captured for Slaughter
Read: A Brighter New Year for Bison
Read: The Killing Fields
Read: Yellowstone Bison Get More Room to Roam    wildlife conservation tourism


Next we were on to South Dakota. Come back for Part 2 of my roundup of The Wild Road Expedition!


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