US Wildlife Areas and American Indian Lands

The United States federal government claims public ownership of vast amounts of land in the Intermountain West. As Americans became interested in preserving natural environments in the twentieth century, the nation set aside parts of this western land as national parks, wildlife refuges, wildlife management areas, and recreation areas. Americans often imagined they were preserving untamed, untouched wilderness and setting it aside, beyond human use.

However, the land was not truly untouched or untamed. Indigenous peoples of the Americas had inhabited, traveled through, foraged from, and relied upon the natural landscape for generations, sometimes even thousands of years. While the United States made its own claims to the land—sometimes truly preserving the environment and sometimes exploiting the landscape for more destructive ends—tribal nations also expressed their land rights derived from heritage and treaties.

The following tour highlights tensions at five different federally designated sites in the Intermountain West. The history of various claims and uses speaks to how contested the territories are and to ongoing struggles over who truly controls the land.

Desert National Wildlife Refuge encompasses a large portion of southern Nevada, spanning from Area 51 to the northern tip of the greater Las Vegas area, and is part of a wildlife refuge complex protecting Nevada’s unique and rare species. However, the Nevada desert offers promising opportunities for many, and the contest for its usage is seemingly never-ending.
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Northern Paiute tribes have long struggled for the right to use their ancestral homelands in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and its surrounding basin. Yet the Paiute people are not the only group who feel they have a right to the land, and the now-infamous Oregon militia occupation of the refuge in 2016 has sparked further conversations about the importance of land repatriation.
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Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, which extends between Montana and Wyoming, has plenty of beautiful scenery to enjoy, especially its recreational opportunities on the water, made possible by the Yellowtail Dam. Additionally, the canyon has a rich history extending back thousands of years, and the right to its usage has always been part of the story.
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