I first met Dave Moody at a Wyoming Wildlife Federation board meeting in December. He’s been a member of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation for over 35 years, and currently serves as their Board President. If I had to describe him in a few words, I’d say he is pragmatic, a realist, and not afraid to speak his mind or the truth. And he’ll be the first to recognize that his outspokenness hasn’t always been to the benefit of his career, but I think you’ll find his path to have been well-worth the sacrifices along the way.
Dave first moved to Wyoming in 1974 for a position with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Dave was, and still is, a wildlife fanatic. It’s what he went to school for, and he did so knowing that he wanted his career to be working for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. He’s an avid outdoorsman who enjoys hunting, fishing, and horseback riding.
Dave worked for the Game and Fish for 35 years before he recently retired in Lander, WY. He worked in locations across the state, but I think he would agree if I said it was his first 10 years with the Game and Fish that made the biggest impression on his life and career. Dave moved to the small town of Baggs in south-central Wyoming in 1974 for his first position with the Game and Fish, where he was worked to manage game species in the Red Rim area. The Red Rim, southwest from Rawlins and Northeast of Baggs, is classified as critical winter range for antelope. In a 1988 special to the New York Times, Dirk Johnson wrote, “With its vast stretches of open range, Wyoming remains one of the last bastions for pronghorn antelope. The Red Rim region is especially well-suited for them because its high, wind-swept ridges expose sagebrush and other natural food for wild animals in winter, when heavy snows cover much of the rest of the land.” It was once renowned as the place to hunt for a trophy antelope. Dave hunted antelope there for many years even after moving away, and that says a lot- there is no shortage of good hunting opportunities around Lander. Red Rim was known as a place for wildlife, and serves as vital habitat for mule deer, sage grouse, and many other species.
In 1977, Dave found himself in the thick of what would become a major conflict set around the tiny town of Baggs. The next ten years would herald a major change in Wyoming, and set the tone for natural resource management and energy development across the state. Dave’s career was beginning just as the first major oil, gas and coal developments were being proposed throughout the state. 1977 was the year the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) undertook a new, large-scale land planning process, beginning with a proposal to lease a vast tract of land for energy development. The lease included the Red Rim and nearly the entire west slope of Wyoming’s Sierra Madre range. Dave, still relatively new to WGFD, knew that they didn’t have enough data on the wildlife in the area to predict how they might be affected by such developments. After a bit of forceful nagging, his supervisors gave him the green light, and he hit the ground running.
Dave went on a mission to gather as much data as he could to better understand the wildlife habitat use and movement patterns. As a product of this work and a collaborator from the University of Wyoming, the Game and Fish learned that the Red Rim serves as critical winter range for pronghorn and mule deer, and is home to many other species that need undisturbed open space to prosper- species that would most certainly be affected by the proposed energy developments. They got some crucial evidence from the winters of 1978-79 and 1983-84, when antelope and other wildlife populations were dramatically reduced by intense winter storms. They realized that if the habitat was compromised, these populations might not be able to recover after natural catastrophes like these. The labeling of the Red Rim took some of the wind out of the sails of coal development on federal lands, but development remained a very real possibility on the checkerboard of surrounding private lands.
1983 brought significantly more attention to the Red Rim and it’s wildlife. A private rancher’s fences trapped and killed hundreds of antelope attempting to migrate to the Red Rim during a winter storm. The Wyoming Wildlife Federation and the National Wildlife Federation caught wind of the incident, and the threat to wildlife, combined with somewhat-grisly press footage of the dead antelope, quickly mobilized people across the state and throughout the nation.
Some people suspected that the fence was intentionally constructed to reduce its value as antelope habitat so that the land could become eligible for development. If it was no longer considered critical habitat, someone could potentially move to extract the rich coal deposits of the area. This incident became a multi-year conflict that escalated to national attention in the late 80s, and eventually ended up in the Supreme Court as a result of a suit brought by the National Wildlife Federation. The rancher was ordered to remove the fence or modify it to allow passage of antelope. There was still a great concern with what might become of the rancher’s property, but amidst the law suit the land was forfeited to the Prudential Insurance Company. The land went up for sale in 1991, and a heroic effort ended with the purchase of 63,000 acres by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department for wildlife habitat protection. A resounding success- the Red Rim would be protected from development in perpetuity.
Dave explained to me that the Wyoming Game and Fish was once a very different agency than it is today. Back then, “We were supposed to advocate for wildlife.” And that is
what he and his agency did. Red Rim was heralded as a great victory for wildlife, environmentalists, gamesmen, and all wildlife-lovers alike, but Dave still wonders at the long term consequences of that battle. He believes that the public involvement and backlash caused the BLM to restructure the way it engaged the public regarding its land management- it became more guarded, secretive, and often too complex, confusing, or frustrating to engage with for the average person. He also believes the conflict created an antagonistic view of environmentalists that continues to harm and impede environmental efforts today. Groups like the Wyoming Wildlife Federation battle constantly with negative perceptions, and face an uphill battle to engage people like they used to. Dave sees many people, including many sportsmen, as apathetic and complacent when it comes to the impacts of energy development. The people who care at all only react when it is in their backyard and the damage is already done. Once the open range is cut up with new mines, well pads, roads, and heavy truck traffic, the land has little value-and may even be detrimental- to populations of pronghorn and mule deer. Even after the wells run dry and the developers move on, recovery to suitable habitat would take many years- if it ever truly recovers at all.
“Things are different now,” Dave explained. Advocacy for the resource in the Game and Fish Department is outright discouraged, and politics- both internal
and external- play a much larger role in the day-to-day work of the staff. “That’s why I left.” Dave went on to explain that he wouldn’t have retired already if it wasn’t for all the politics, often feeling handcuffed by the pressure to not speak out against development, even when it was clear that there would be significant harm to wildlife. Dave confessed to me, “When I started with the Game and Fish, I didn’t think you could harm mulies (mule deer) and antelope.” They were so abundant then that they seemed to defy human intrusions.
It’s a different story now.
“Unless there are some big changes soon, I wouldn’t be surprised to see sage grouse, mule deer, and antelope get listed in my lifetime,” Dave said, suggesting that they might be added to threatened or endangered species lists. Sage grouse didn’t surprise me, but the other two gave me pause. I asked, “You mean listed on the state level?” Dave replied, “No. Nationally. They all rely on undisturbed sagebrush and grassland habitats.” Dave expounded, “There is no end in sight.” He explained that oil and gas companies have been getting the easy stuff, closer to existing roads, in mild topography, and going after the biggest reserves to maximize their profits. But there is plenty more out there that might be slightly less profitable, and when the easy stuff is gone, you can bet they will go after it. And that just means more habitat loss and fragmentation, disruption of migration routes, and general disturbance that these animals can’t tolerate.
I can’t say that I felt very optimistic for the future coming out of our conversation.
“I don’t want to be a dinosaur, that bitter old wildlife biologist. At some point I need to pass it off to you guys (the younger generation of conservationists).” But I get the sense that he doesn’t quite trust us yet. Dave feels that this younger generation often takes an all-or-nothing approach in conservation, and he doesn’t see that working out for us in the long run. And as much as he’d rather spend time home on the range, I can’t see him stepping down from his role as an advocate for wildlife any time soon. That range is disappearing, and you can’t help but see the developments encroaching.