Hundreds of thousands of visitors come each year to Cody, Wyo., equipped with cameras and binoculars, hoping to see an elk, moose, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, whitetail deer or mule deer. Kevin Hurley remembers seeing them all. In a single day.
“It was in April of 1986, and one of those watershed moments I’ll always remember,” said Hurley, conservation director for the Wild Sheep Foundation in Cody, where there are more bighorn sheep than anywhere else in the state.
Hurley’s experience of seeing seven of the region’s eight wild ungulates in a single day—he didn’t catch sight of any bison—is not unique among Cody residents. In fact, he said, it’s part of what makes Cody and the Bighorn Basin a special place for wildlife, and why wildlife are so fundamental to the region’s identity.
“In the Bighorn Basin, you go from a low spot along the Bighorn River at around 3,000 feet to the top of Franc’s Peak at more than 13,000 feet,” said Hurley, who worked for 24 years as a wildlife biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
That vast contrast in elevation—along with a wide mix of habitat and large tracts of public and undeveloped private land—are all keys to why Cody boasts an unparalleled diversity of big game, large carnivores and even a surprising array of bird species. Rounding out the picture is a network of blue-ribbon trout waters that criss-cross a sparsely populated region of stark and imposing beauty.
It all adds up to an enduring and compelling relationship between the landscape, animals and people, creating a local economy where tourism and ranching are major forces, and a culture that has long celebrated wildlife in ways that are both commonplace and unique.
For more than 400,000 tourists who traveled last year between Cody and the East Gate of Yellowstone National Park, wildlife viewing was a big part of the drive along a 52-mile stretch of highway that follows the North Fork of the Shoshone River. The North Fork corridor has long been a magnet for hunters, photographers and wildlife enthusiasts, and is home to several historic dude ranches.
“A dude ranch lends itself to a more private wildlife viewing experience simply because you are doing it from the back of a horse,” said Colleen Hodson, executive director of the Dude Ranchers’ Association, based in Cody.
Wildlife viewing has been part of the appeal of dude ranch vacations in Park County for more than 80 years, and it remains one of the most requested activities among guests, Hodson said.
Critical role in tourism
Scott Balyo, executive director of the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce, said wildlife “plays a critical role in tourism and visitation.”
In 2012, Park County saw more than $300 million in direct visitor spending, according to an April 2013 report released by the Wyoming Office of Tourism.
Visitor surveys conducted by the Park County Travel Council consistently rank wildlife watching as one of the top reasons tourists cite for visiting the area, Balyo said.
“International visitors, especially, are amazed at their ability to see animals they can’t see in other parts of the world,” Balyo said. “That includes grizzly bears and wolves, which rank high on everyone’s list.”
The area around Sunlight Basin, near the northeast corner of Yellowstone, has always been good grizzly bear habitat, said Marshall Dominick, whose family has owned the 7D Ranch there since the late 1950s.
The guest ranch caters to visitors who want a rustic vacation away from TVs, mobile phones and other modern distractions. The last few years have been as busy for the 7D as any in the last half-century, Dominick said, and the 2014 season is already almost sold out.
Dominick is a board member of Friends of a Legacy, a local nonprofit group that advocates for the McCullough Peak mustangs found in the arid hills east of Cody. The wild horses are a growing attraction for tourists and photographers who are drawn to the iconic image of horses roaming free across the open range.
The sagebrush steppe throughout the McCullough Peaks is also home to the greater sage-grouse, Dominick said, as well as “an incredible number of songbirds that use that sagebrush for nesting.”
Rob Koelling, an English professor at Northwest College and an accomplished wildlife photographer, said the farmlands and benches between Cody and Powell host an amazing array of birds.
Koelling’s photos are regular favorites on Facebook and other social media networks, where he shares dazzling images of American kestrels, pheasants, sage grouse, chukars, hummingbirds, golden eagles, rough-legged hawks and migratory shorebirds like sandhill cranes, pelicans and even long-billed curlews.
On one January evening this year while driving home around dusk, Koelling decided to cruise by a pair of cottonwood trees where he had earlier seen four bald eagles. That’s when he snapped a photo showing more than 20 bald eagles in the two trees, as they took a break from feeding on the nearby carcass of a domestic sheep.
Ranchers send their sheep into beet fields to graze during the winter, Koelling said, so eagles and other birds of prey know to look for them there.
Similar connections between agriculture and wildlife can be found throughout the Bighorn Basin, said Katherine Thompson, northwest Wyoming program director for The Nature Conservancy.
“Just as wildlife is valuable to Cody, the inverse is also true—Cody is valuable to wildlife,” Thompson said. “This area provides winter range, much of it on private ranches, for iconic species moving off the Yellowstone Plateau in the fall. Without access to these large, intact ranches, the region’s wildlife populations would have difficulty surviving our harsh winters.”
Ranches sustain wildlife
Doug McWhirter, a Wyoming Game and Fish biologist in Cody, said that large, historic ranches continue to play a key role in sustaining major populations of elk, deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep and other wildlife.
“Those private lands are as important as anything in making this whole thing work,” McWhirter said of Cody’s diverse ecosystem.
“If you like elk, you’ve got to like private lands and the cattle ranches around here, because they support a tremendous number of year-round and wintering animals,” he said.
The area around Cody, in the rain shadow of the Absaroka Range, is prime elk habitat, said McWhirter, who has extensively studied elk migration patterns around Cody and Yellowstone.
Elk are an important food source for gray wolves and grizzly bears, he said, two large predators that are relatively abundant around Cody. Black bears, mountain lions, coyotes and red foxes are other predators found in the area, while rare and elusive species like Canada lynx and wolverine are also present.
Human hunters also flock to Cody in pursuit of elk and other big game, and it was the town’s namesake, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who was among the first to realize the area’s value as a hunting destination.
“You have to give Cody credit for really seeing into the future for the role wildlife would play in this region for sport hunting and, to a certain extent even then, tourism,” said Jeremy Johnston, managing editor of the Papers of William F. Cody at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody.
Cody was instrumental in setting up early wildlife refuges on what is now the Shoshone National Forest, and had “a lot of foresight in seeing the role of hunting in the area’s economic development,” Johnston said.
Cody’s reputation as a prolific bison hunter was primarily a result of his efforts to feed railroad workers. He was appalled at the wholesale slaughter of bison in obscene numbers by market hunters after only hides and tongues, Johnston said.
Cody advocated protecting the bison herds in Yellowstone, and wrote articles pushing for the protection of big game species for future generations of hunters.
Buffalo Bill’s notoriety helped build the area’s reputation among hunters, and attracted many famous sportsmen, including Prince Albert I of Monaco. The prince became the first sitting European head of state to visit the U.S. in 1913. That’s when he joined Buffalo Bill for a hunting trip at spot now known as Camp Monaco, near Pahaska Tepee, Cody’s hunting lodge just east of Yellowstone.
A century later, Albert’s great-great-grandson, Prince Albert II, visited Cody to award the first Camp Monaco Prize. The $100,000 grant will fund research and education about biodiversity in the region, helping pay for a continuation of elk migration studies begun by McWhirter and others.
The prince’s visit to Cody last fall coincided with the Buffalo Bill Art Show & Sale, a major annual fundraising event that benefits the Center of the West and Chamber of Commerce. As always, wildlife art played a major role in the show, now entering its 33rd year.
Wildlife art remains as popular as ever with artists and collectors because it transcends boundaries, said Matt Hall, a past chairman of the show.
Wildlife forms can be abstract or realist and are popular in paintings and sculptures, said Hall, who is also assistant manager of Caleco Foundry, a Cody firm that specializes in casting bronzes for artists.
“Wildlife art is universal within many different cultures and styles,” said Hall, adding that some of the earliest cave paintings depict wildlife. “Our connection to wildlife is timeless.”
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected]