|Sand Dunes in Wyoming? You Betcha!
The Greater Sand Dunes are part of the larger Killpecker dune field, the largest active dune field in North America. This dune field is at the western end of a narrow belt of dunes that stretches 150 miles (240 kilometers) to the east. The outer margins of the field are occupied primarily by dormant dunes, while active dunes are found in the central portion of the field. The Killpecker dune field encompasses approximately 109,000 acres, extending 55 miles east from the Green River Basin across the Continental Divide into the Great Divide Basin.
In 1982, the Greater Sand Dunes (including Boars Tusk) was designated an Area of Critical Environmental Concern to protect geologic and cultural resources, as well as the area wildlife, including a rare desert elk herd. The ACEC covers about 38,650 acres (approximately 38% of the Killpecker dune field). These dunes are unique to the Wyoming Basin and contains values that are geologically, aesthetically and biologically interesting. In addition, the ACEC includes prehistoric and historic sites, exquisite scenery, diverse wildlife and wildlife habitats, and extensive oil and gas fields. The Greater Sand Dunes ACEC also encompasses portions of the Sand Dunes and Buffalo Hump Wilderness Study Areas, in the western portion of the ACEC.
The dunes are one of the primary destinations in the Jack Morrow Hills, enjoyed by motorized and nonmotorized recreationists alike. Recreation use with all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), is high in the ORV open area, located on the unstabilized dunes in the eastern portion of the ACEC. A parking lot was developed to provide access to the dunes ATV user days in the ACEC are estimated at 3,200 a year and appear to be increasing. Other recreation user days such as sightseeing, hunting, horseback riding, and environmental education field trips in the ACEC are estimated at 10,000 per year.
The historic 40-acre Crookston Ranch site is located in the ACEC south of the ORV parking lot. The site is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places as a representative example of architecture from the Wyoming Basin homesteading era. The site is closed to surface disturbing activities. Some damage is occurring to the riparian area on the ranch site from ATV users and campers. The BLM plans to preserve the historic nature of the Crookston Ranch, and develop interpretation on ranching history in the area. About 500 acres of BLM-administered public lands surrounding the site (the area within a 0.5 mile radius) will be managed to preserve the setting of the historic ranch.
The dunes within the Greater Sand Dunes ACEC help to support the desert elk herd known to occupy this unique desert habitat. Large numbers of elk occupy the area during the spring, summer, and fall, using dunal ponds (flockets) as a source of water. The dunal ponds generally are not as alkaline as other water sources in the area and are known to provide an oasis for plants and animals. The dunal ponds also provide excellent habitat for waterfowl, amphibians, songbirds, and small mammals. Waterfowl species use these ponds for nesting in the spring, raising young in the summer, and staging in the fall. Amphibians, such as the tiger salamander, can be found in many dunal ponds reproducing and rearing young.
Livestock grazing in the Greater Sand Dunes includes both cattle and sheep. Cattle use the area mostly in the spring and summer months, while sheep use the area mostly in the late fall and early winter. Cattle use on the dunal ponds can be heavy while sheep use is generally light. Heavy use of the dunal ponds in portions of the Greater Sand Dunes ACEC by cattle causes ecological damage to the ponds and surrounding riparian vegetation by trampling the riparian vegetation and stirring up the bottom of the ponds by wading in the water. This wading in the water causes sediments to become suspended. Pollution also occurs from cattle defecating in the ponds making them more eutrophic which reduces the oxygen available in the water for amphib-ians, making successful reproduction difficult. Spring and summer use of the ponds by cattle is also disruptive to nesting waterfowl.
Presently, there are 17 producing gas wells within the eastern portion of the ACEC, one of which is inside the Sand Dunes WSA. Industry is interested in developing this area further; including development of up to 10 coalbed methane wells in the eastern part of the ACEC. To remain consistent with the purpose and intent of the ACEC, clear and specific management direction is needed on whether further oil and gas development will be allowed within the ACEC, and if so, where and at what level.
Oil and gas activity has caused some conflicts with ATV use. Oil and gas facilities, particularly linear facilities such as pipelines, may be buried but after a period of time, as the sand moves and shifts, portions of these pipelines become exposed creating a hazard for ATV users driving across the sand. Some pipelines were placed aboveground when constructed and have since been buried in the sand. Different portions of the pipelines could be exposed at different times and change often, making it difficult to identify and mark these hazards for the ATV user. As more oil and gas development occurs, more hazards would be created.
Balancing the many uses of the Greater Sand Dunes ACEC, both by wildlife and by humans, is a tricky and delicate business. The BLM has been working on this issue for several years, consulting with environmentalists, local Native American tribes, motorized recreation groups, ranchers, and oil and gas companies. A working plan is still in the future, but hopefully the BLM will find a plan which continues to allow for future public enjoyment and use of these unique public lands without compromising the ecological integrity of the majestic dunes.
Wild horses graze at the foot of the Boar's Tusk, a prominent landmark on the Overland Emigrant Trail