The rugged backcountry of northwest Wyoming's Absaroka Range contains some of the West's finest bighorn sheep habitat, a stronghold for grizzlies, free-ranging elk and Yellowstone cutthroat trout. This wilderness borderland along the eastern edge of Yellowstone National Park once drew Teddy Roosevelt, Buffalo Bill Cody and Ernest Hemingway with its pristine vistas and immense numbers of wildlife.
Unfortunately, much of the area's present-day wildlife faces a classic western dilemma—while the high summer ranges are in public ownership, most of the winter habitat in the lower shrub and grasslands is held privately. Conflicts between landowners and wildlife have increased dramatically in recent years, particularly with elk and grizzlies.
Northwestern Wyoming’s Absaroka Range
More than three million acres
Volcanic in origin, the land is dissected by scores of clear creeks that transform into frenzied rivers during summer rainstorms. Glaciers, canyons, dense forests, broad mountain meadows and hundreds of alpine lakes comprise some of the nation’s most striking wilderness. It is rugged country where stark beauty meets ageless rituals. The Nature Conservancy has targeted some rare wildflowers in its work, including aromatic pussytoes, Absaroka goldenweed, Shoshonea and Absaroka biscuitroot.
In the Greater Yellowstone area—the largest intact ecosystem in the lower 48—keeping rangeland open and unbroken by development is essential to preserve ancient migration routes and wilderness. The borders of a national park mean nothing to grizzly bears, which move in winter from Yellowstone National Park to the nearby lower elevations of the Absaroka Range. For migrating herds of elk, the open slopes of a ranch offer a good place to calve in the spring. Although human boundaries do exist, they rarely are apparent in a country that remains largely unbroken.
The Conservancy’s work in this area targets grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, Yellowstone cutthroat trout and ferruginous hawks.
Why the Conservancy Selected this Site
From Thermopolis, Wyoming northwest to the Paradise Valley and Yellowstone River in Montana, lies a working landscape of open spaces, free-flowing rivers and abundant wildlife. Along these river valleys at the base of the Absaroka and Beartooth Ranges, ranchers have lived in harmony with the land for generations, but now things are changing.
More and more people dreaming of owning their own piece of paradise have descended upon the foothills of the Absaroka and Beartooth ranges. As new homes are built, they threaten the very values that make this place special. Rising land prices erode the viability of family ranches. Inappropriate housing developments fragment the land and whittle away at wildlife habitat. And the rural way of life that has defined this Yellowstone country for generations is at risk.
Maintaining the intact nature of the Absarokas is vital to many species like sage grouse and grizzlies, whose habitat has been greatly reduced elsewhere in the West. Because ranches contain much of the precious open space that connects and buffers conservation areas, keeping local ranches in business and free of subdivision is a primary goal of the Conservancy.
What the Conservancy Has Done/Is Doing
Through partnerships with ranchers, other private landowners and public land managers, the Conservancy is working to assure the future ecological integrity of this eastern edge of the Yellowstone ecosystem.
To reach this goal, the Conservancy uses a variety of approaches, including securing conservation easements, acquiring land, restoring ecosystems through fire management, encouraging conservation management of public land and involving communities in natural resources management.
The Conservancy’s successes include:
- At Heart Mountain Ranch Preserve, innovation and collaboration bring scientists, ranchers and outdoor enthusiasts together. As a site for advancing the field of rangeland management and ecology, the preserve hosts sustainable cattle grazing on its pastures, weed management projects and wildlife field research.
- The 1,828 acre Sheep Mountain property west of Cody, Wyoming provides critical winter range for a variety of regional wildlife. The property provides a crucial migratory corridor for wildlife moving out of the Shoshone National Forest and Yellowstone National Park. Sheep Mountain additionally provides a scenic mountain viewscape to visitors traveling on US Highway 20 between Cody and Yellowstone.