THE WONDERS OF THE SAND CREEK DESERT | PART I: THE PAST

The ancient sand dunes located outside the small city of St. Anthony, Idaho, are made up of 10,600 acres of fluid and flowing white quartz sand. More than 10,000 years ago, Idaho’s climate grew drier and warmer, shrinking lakes and trapping the newly exposed sands blown by persistent winds in the remnants of extinct volcanoes, known as the Juniper Buttes. Although much of the area is now a world-class mecca for local and regional off-road vehicle recreationists, many of these fascinating acres are still managed as a wilderness study area by the Bureau of Land Management.


The St. Anthony Sand Dunes of the Sand Creek Desert. (Photo BLM.)

Less than ten miles to the east of St. Anthony and just a short drive from the main dune complex lies another wonder right here in our Idaho home: the Sand Creek Wildlife Management Area (Sand Creek WMA). In 1947, Idaho Fish and Game (IDFG) purchased a 4,763-acre parcel of land for the purpose of preserving a small herd of elk, which used the property for a winter refuge. IDFG continued to acquire additional parcels as well as agreements with state and federal land management agencies over the course of several decades, and the Sand Creek WMA is now a 32,489 acre collection of parcels that continues to be managed by IDFG.

The original purpose of the Sand Creek WMA remains intact and in effect today: to provide winter refuge for migratory deer, elk, and moose that travel from their high-elevation summer ranges in and around Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park. This desert oasis of diverse ecosystems is bounded by 11,000 acres of ancient sand dunes; lodge-pole pine, Douglas-fir, and aspen forests in the north; wetlands along the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River in the east; and, semi-arid sagebrush steppe across Sand Creek desert in the south. Together, these ecosystems provide food and cover for the many migratory deer, elk, and moose that rely on this area to survive the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s harsh winter months.

A moose wanders through its winter range. (Photo Stephanie Pierce.)

A moose wanders through its winter range. (Photo Stephanie Pierce.)

The Sand Creek WMA provides an important winter home to another unique wonder: one of the largest desert migratory moose herds in North America and the only desert wintering moose herd in the world. Although moose use varies from year to year, IDFG estimates that approximately 500 moose spend their winters hunkered down in the greater Sand Creek desert. 

In addition to this special herd, the Sand Creek WMA area also hosts approximately 2,500 mule deer and 3,500 elk each winter, as well as many grizzly bears, black bears, elk, Greater sage-grouse, Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, trumpeter swans, sand hill cranes, and other waterfowl. Other interesting creatures include kangaroo rats, badgers, skunks, red fox, yellowbellied marmots, coyotes, beavers, muskrat, mink, red squirrels, and pine marten, just to name a few.

Stay tuned for the second and third parts of this blog, “The Wonders of the Sand Creek Desert: A Past, Present, and Future Series.” “Part II: Present” will dive deeper into the wonder of the Sand Creek WMA as well as discuss the different ways in which agencies have managed these lands to date; and, “Part III: Future” will peer into the proverbial crystal ball to examine the land management issues currently facing the Sand Creek WMA and how these challenges may be opportunities to find and implement durable conservation solutions on this important Idaho landscape.

– Allison Michalski, Idaho Conservation Associate, Greater Yellowstone Coalition

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