Some of Us Cannot Live Without Wild Places

I include myself among those that Aldo Leopold referred when he wrote “There are some that can live without wild things and some that cannot”. Obviously, he was including wild places because it is the going to wild places and the searching for wild things that many of us need. Living full-time like Jeremiah Johnson is not very realistic, so we have to be satisfied by spending a few hours to a few days at a time in the wild, before coming back to town for food, shelter and our civilized responsibilities.

Room to Roam

I grew-up in a small town in the south-east, where I had access to several hundred acres of Southern Piedmont fields and forests right out my back door. After I left home, I found I was never content living anywhere that did not offer that same freedom to get outdoors.

For almost 3 years, I lived in a small village in West Africa and had the freedom to roam anywhere through the forests, savannahs and farms I dared to go. When I moved to the Inter-mountain West, I was forced to live in a small town, but found I could tolerate town living here because there was easy access to thousands of acres of public land.

When we moved to our current location, in another small town, we chose this area based on access to nearby U.S. Forest Service land and we specifically chose our lot because it was next to a 2,000 acre ranch, which we hoped would buffer us from any future development.

I don’t consider the area around our house to be very “wild”, but I can still see wild things from my upstairs window. The ability to watch wildlife from the house has been an extra bonus that allows me to maintain my sanity while living in this suburban neighborhood.

Watching Wildlife from Home

young mule deer buck in winter habitat

Young Mule Deer Buck

I keep a spotting scope set up on a tripod so I can watch the local wildlife. To the north-east is a long, steep, south-facing slope rising from about 6,000 ft to 7,300 feet.  It is mostly grasses and shrubs with a few junipers and patches of oak brush. To the east, I can see the west side of a low, rocky, juniper covered ridge. The base of the mountain is almost exactly a mile from my house and the ridge to the east is about 3/4 mile away. The area between the base of the mountain, the ridge and my house still has several hundred acres of sagebrush and grassland that has yet to be developed and that habitat reaches all the way down to the backyards of my neighbors across the street.

When I am in the house, I frequently go the window to look outside. My usual routine is to search through the spotting scope until I find at least one deer or elk. Many times, I don’t need the scope to see deer. Except for the hottest parts of July and August, I can usually find a deer within a few minutes and between late November and mid March I can see usually see elk  several times per week.

I regularly get to watch Bald and Golden Eagles and other raptors and occasionally see foxes, coyotes, white-tailed jackrabbits, ermine (least weasel), marmots and badgers. A covey of California Quail has showed up and survived the last couple of years and I even saw a moose once.

I enjoy watching the deer and elk and get some satisfaction just knowing they are nearby. It’s also good practice to keep those “search images” burned into my brain. My eyes aren’t what they used to be, but I have thousands of hours of experience looking for and watching wildlife through binoculars and spotting scopes.

The area also provides a quick outdoor getaway and we regularly get about 15-20 miles per week just walking around the area, especially during the winter when the high country is snowed in.

Change is Coming

After living here for seven years, the ranch has been sold to a developer. My view now includes seven new houses, with three started just last month that seem to be placed as strategically as possible on the best wildlife areas or just to block my view. The economic slowdown that has protected the area from development for the last few years, seems to be over. Good news right?

This may be the last year that I can see elk  and soon after that, I expect most of the mule deer will also have to move elsewhere to survive the winters, but there are fewer and fewer wintering areas every year. Many of the other wildlife species that depend on open country will disappear and will be replaced by those common species that are attracted to human activity.

Our property values will probably go up, but the quality of our lives will go down. One of my neighbors said he was happy the neighborhood was finally being fully developed, as if the open sage is an eyesore and the sound of birds singing is intolerable. I am glad he is happy, but an exclusive development and world-class golf course will never be more valuable to me.

I don’t know if anything could have been done or not. The original ranch owner clearly had the right to sell his property and the new developer clearly has the right to develop the land and to make a profit, but there are many groups such as the Nature Conservancy and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation that acquire land trusts and wildlife conservation easements.

It’s too late for us and our little corner of the world. The area was probably not valuable enough from a wildlife or habitat standpoint to justify an easement, but we will never know, because we didn’t try. It may not be too late for an important wildlife area near you.

Learn more about Conservation Easements:

Perhaps our property values will grow enough so we can buy a 2,000 acre ranch of our own. Well, a fellow can dream can’t he? At least the public land is still available.

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