Wyoming has a big problem to address. We’re losing our wildlife and most people don’t seem to care.
I will argue that Wyoming’s abundant wildlife is one of the core traits that set our state apart from most. Talk to a tourist traveling across the state or ask a rancher what makes this place special, and our wildlife will undoubtedly be a prominent factor.
Despite this, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has been underfunded for years, and several statewide ungulate populations have lagged significantly behind the department’s objectives. A 2014 report showed bighorn sheep, moose, mule deer, and pronghorn populations 20 percent, 32 percent, 34 percent, and 19 percent below their objectives, respectively. The rapid decline of sage grouse has been widely publicized, but support falters for the type and scale of conservation efforts many experts consider necessary.
At the same time wildlife groups continue to suffer dwindling memberships and struggle to engage members.
What can we do to reverse these trends? Get your kids outside.
Research over the past two decades demonstrates that childhood experiences with nature correlate with a sense of environmental stewardship and responsibility as adults. Intuition and experience tells me this is accurate. The National Wildlife Federation’s beloved Ranger Rick magazine is predicated on this idea.
I recently spoke with a friend and fellow wildlife enthusiast, Cindy Hayford of Lander, for a more personal insight into why it is important to get our kids outside. We spoke about her interest in wildlife, her remarkable photos, and why she spends her free time watching wildlife with her kids. It seems she is always accidentally finding herself in the middle some amazing wildlife experience, but I suspect it isn’t always accidental.
“The kids still talk about the golden eagle attacking the antelope,” Hayford told me.
She described pulling off the highway suddenly last spring for a “National Geographic moment,” witnessing an eagle attack a young antelope. Just as the antelope made a break for it, a coyote “came out of nowhere” and took the antelope down. The whole scene was encircled by a murder of crows waiting for its chance at the kill. A Wyoming Highway patrolman stopped to check on Hayford and her kids after seeing them yelling and jumping around on the side of the road.
“He didn’t seem to understand what we were excited about.”
Hayford’s passions for photography and wildlife began together at a young age. She credits both to her father. “Growing up, on drives he would always look for wildlife rather than watch the road,” she explained. They often went on hikes to practice photographing wildlife and landscapes at Camp Grace above their home town of Wheatland. She affectionately describes her father as both the biggest fan and biggest critic of her photography today.
Cindy attended the University of Wyoming where she met her husband Kendall Hayford and had two children, twins Aidan and Layla, now 8 years old. Both share their mother’s love of wildlife. It wasn’t intentional, she explained. It just kind of happened naturally. “It was just how I wanted to spend my time.”
As young parents and full-time students, spending time outdoors photographing wildlife was a way to play that didn’t cost anything. The family spent many days out hiking near Vedauwoo — a popular hiking, climbing, and biking destination near Laramie — pointing out moose and other wildlife.
Layla is more interested in all wildlife while Aidan has been more interested in insects recently. Both kids now have digital cameras and they share a pair of binoculars. “It helps to keep them interested and engaged,” Hayford said.
Their recent family trips have included a drive to Whiskey Mountain near Dubois, where they waited for several hours until a herd of bighorn sheep surrounded their car. More recently they watched elk sparring near Lander and Red Canyon.
“It [wildlife watching] helps to teach them patience and quietness. If you wait, you see more.”
I spoke with Hayford a few days before the children’s spring break, and she excitedly told me she was taking Aidan and Layla for a camping trip in Yellowstone to look for wildlife — their ultimate goal was to see wolves. Five inches of snow greeted the first morning of their trip but they went on, undeterred. They found their wolves on the west side of the national park.
I asked Hayford if she had any concerns for the future, for wildlife and for people in Wyoming. She replied, “My biggest concern is that the caring stops.”
That’s my concern, too. I met with Hayford in the Lander Bake Shop, which coincidentally was hosting the Lander Art Center’s Red Desert Audubon art exhibit featuring wildlife art. Layla interrupted our conversation several times to show me her sketches of the wildlife art. She explained she was drawing them to show me, “how much she loves wildlife.”
I think Hayford is on to something here. For their own sake, and for Wyoming’s wildlife, get your kids outside.
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