The Wind River begins its life in high alpine meadows and forested terrain along the Continental Divide, eventually descending into a vast desert basin filled with badlands, bluffs, cliffs and rocky ledges. In this arid landscape dotted with sagebrush, geologic time sits exposed in alternating rock layers of reds, yellows and browns.
Where the river slices through this arid landscape, Shoshone Chief Washakie fought and won a fierce battle with Crow leader Big Robber in 1866 at Crowheart Butte, a flat-topped rise that stands like a sentinel on the Wind River Indian Reservation.
Diversion Dam alters the Wind River’s natural flow at its lower reaches, but water in the river’s upper region flows unobstructed, feeding wetlands and riparian areas for moose, elk, bighorn sheep, wintering and breeding bald eagles, mountain lions and many other wildlife.
West central Wyoming along the north side of the Wind River Mountains
The area’s alpine zone hosts plant species including the Weber's saw-wort and seaside sedge. Scattered stands of juniper, pine, and aspen dot the foothills, along with the rare Dubois milkvetch. The river’s edge supports extensive cottonwood and willow riparian areas, as well as rare plants such as the upward-lobed moonwort and narrowleaf golden weed.
The Upper Wind River site supports the world's largest herd of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, and one of the nation's largest naturally-wintering and migrating herds of elk. Ancient glacial potholes formed in the mountains collect water and provide a unique habitat for amphibians. Along the river’s banks and extensive wetlands are neotropical migrant birds, waterfowl and heron rookeries. Golden eagles, prairie falcons, mountain plovers, sage grouse, bobcat, grizzly and black bears, and wolves use the foothill country that spreads out from the river’s edge.
For more than a century, the private lands surrounding the only undammed section of the Wind River have been in the hands of large cattle ranches. But in the last ten to fifteen years, these ranches have fallen under the threat of residential development as a booming population looks for second homes with easy access to hunting, fishing and other recreational opportunities. The Upper Wind River’s riparian areas are particularly appealing to those seeking a home site near water.
Despite increasing threats to the Upper Wind River’s working landscapes, important wildlife habitat can still be found among a handful of large private ranches. The Conservancy’s primary tool is to work with these ranchers to secure conservation easements on biologically significant tracts of private lands. Another strategy is to influence innovative grazing and invasive plant management on both public and private lands, including the Conservancy’s Winchester Ranch located along the Wind River.November 21, 2010