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Episode 7: Why Are Open Spaces Vital To Our Communities And Wildlife?

Kids Ask Why?
Kids Ask Why?
Episode 7: Why Are Open Spaces Vital To Our Communities And Wildlife?

Photo: Mack H. Frost

Molly Buckles and Sam Obrecht love Wyoming because of the open spaces that are made up of federal, state and private land. Molly’s backyard is Yellowstone National Park. She interviews Tony Mong, a Wyoming Game and Fish biologist, on the wildlife in the park and why it’s so important for the animals to have access to open spaces. Sam is interested in how opens spaces contribute to the small town feel of Wyoming. He takes his questions to Al Simpson, former US Senator for Wyoming. 

Molly Buckles

Molly was born and raised in Cody Wyoming. She loves going up into Yellowstone or even just up the North Fork with her brother and parents and looking at all the wildlife. She has many pets that she loves too! Molly loves to swim in nearby lakes, mountain bike, ski, spend time with friends and family, act, and craft. She loved doing the podcast and she hopes to continue doing stuff like this.

Tony Mong

Tony came from a heritage of hunting. He grew up in southern Missouri hunting squirrels, rabbits, turkeys, and white tailed deer in the Ozark Mountains with his family. He completed his undergraduate work at the University of Missouri and received a Master’s degree from Kansas State University. Tony has worked for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department for ten years as a senior wildlife biologist in the both the Green River region and the Cody region. In his spare time, Tony likes to spend time with his family. He, his wife, and three kids try to go camping, hiking, skiing, boating, fishing and get outside as much as possible. 

Sam Obrecht

Sam is a 12-year-old from Cheyenne, Wyoming. He currently attends McCormick Junior High School. He loves skiing, hiking, camping, backpacking, baseball, fishing, and hunting. But public speaking and traveling get him most excited. To meet him is to know him, as he enjoys storytelling and talking the most!

Alan K. Simpson

The Honorable Alan K. “Al” Simpson is a native of Cody, Wyoming and a University of Wyoming graduate. Al’s political career which began in 1964, included time in the Wyoming State Legislature, House of Representatives, and three terms in the United States Senate. He continues to stay involved in many political affairs, serves on numerous non-profit boards and is involved with many organizations.

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MOLLY BUCKLES: Why is there so much wildlife in Wyoming? 

SAM OBRECHT: Why are the open spaces in Wyoming important for both people and wildlife?

BOTH: Welcome to the Kids Ask Why podcast.

NARRATOR: Where kids ask the questions! This is a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

SAM: Hi Molly, how are you today?

MOLLY: I’m doing good, Sam. How are you?

SAM: I’m doing good. Where do you live?

MOLLY: I live in Cody, Wyoming. How about you?

SAM: I live in Cheyenne, Wyoming. What do you like about Cody?

MOLLY: Um, I love all the wildlife that passes through your backyard from the deer and rabbits to the bison, and wolves in Yellowstone. What do you like about Cheyenne?

SAM: I really like the wide open spaces and having a small community. What are you going talk about today?

MOLLY: I’m going to be talking about all the wildlife in Wyoming, and specifically in Yellowstone. What are you going to be talking about?

SAM: I’m going to be talking about how the wide open spaces impact our small community.

MOLLY: That’s cool.

SAM:  Yep. Why does this interest you?

MOLLY: Well, I really, whenever I go skiing, there’s a bunch of bighorn sheep blocking the road. And I don’t really acknowledge them anymore. But when my cousins came to visit, they had to pull over for every animal they saw, and I started thinking this is different for other people.

What about you?

SAM: Well, every time I go camping or hiking, I always love the wide open spaces. It kind of feels like connecting with nature that you can’t get in other states. 

MOLLY: I agree.

Today, I’m speaking with Tony Mong. I am speaking with him because he is a wildlife biologist, and I thought he could answer all my questions about Wyoming’s ecosystem. 

I’m going to be asking you some questions, okay?

TONY MONG: Sounds good.

MOLLY: All right. So what is different about Wyoming’s ecosystem that attracts wildlife?

TONY: Well, there’s a few things that are really interesting about Wyoming and make us a little bit different than a lot of other places in the United States, at least down here in the lower 48. One of those and one of the most striking things that I think that you’ll find is that it’s just a lack of people, right? Whenever we go out, there’s very few people around. We have one of the lowest populations or we have the lowest population of people in the United States, but one of the biggest land masses. So that means there’s a lot of open space. And so most of the wildlife that I deal with, most of the wildlife that we see out there, need wide open spaces, and Wyoming is perfect for that. The other thing is the variety of habitats that we have here in Wyoming. And that’s due to different mountains, and different basins and sagebrush. So we’ve got all kinds of different ecosystems that animals can adapt to and that they can live in.

MOLLY: Yeah, that’s so cool. All right. Um, what is your favorite animal in Wyoming?

Photo: Gary Sundburg

TONY: My favorite two are the antelope- the pronghorn antelope, and the bighorn sheep. But the pronghorn antelope for Wyoming is one of the coolest species because we have more in Wyoming than anywhere else in the world. We have more pronghorn than anywhere in the world. And there’s so many unique things about pronghorn antelope. And one of the cool things is that they’re fast. They’re one of the fastest land mammals out there. They can travel at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. And even more importantly, they can travel at like 30 miles an hour for miles and miles and miles. Have you ever ran 30 miles an hour? 


TONY: It’s really fast. And so pronghorn can do that forever. And so that makes them really unique and really special. Another thing is that they are their own species within their own animal kingdom family that they live in, and it’s called pronghorn antelope. Now, when people came over from Europe and other places, and they started seeing this antelope, they were like, “I don’t know what this really looks like. It kind of looks like antelope in Africa, so let’s call it an antelope.” Okay. And so they were just very confused on what to call that. And as we started to understand genetics and understand how things are related, we found out that they’re not like any other species anywhere. 

Photo courtesy of Tony Mong

For bighorn sheep, my favorite thing is that, again, Wyoming kind of leads the way. We’ve got some of the biggest populations in the country. And Wyoming is special, in that, in the northwest corner of Wyoming, we have the largest herd of bighorn sheep that there is in the lower 48 states. And those sheep have always been here.

MOLLY: Yeah, that’s so cool. I did not know that. Um, is there any particular animal that is close to becoming extinct in Wyoming?

TONY: Well, there’s actually quite a few. And when you talk about animals, you’ve got to throw fish in there too, because they’re wildlife. We call those the warm and fuzzies versus the cold and slimy- those are the fish. And so the warm and fuzzies that we can consider to be endangered are the black footed ferret. Have you heard of that one? It is a species that Wyoming helped to save and is near and dear to my heart, because just recently in Meeteetse which is just south of Cody, they reintroduced a population out into the wild after they thought that they had gone extinct. So that’s pretty cool. Another one is a Canada lynx, grizzly bear, Northern long-eared bat. I don’t know if you’re a fan of bats, but bats also can be placed on the endangered species list. And then there’s two that I think are really kind of special because they only occur in Wyoming. The Preble’s Meadow Jumping Mouse- not a lot of people like mice, but there is one that is on the endangered species list. And then the Wyoming Toad. Did you know that Wyoming had its own toad? 

MOLLY: No, I did not. 

TONY: So the Wyoming Toad is really cool, because it only occurs in Albany County, which is around Laramie down in the southeast part of the state. And they’ve been working really hard to actually start to reintroduce these this species into different areas, because they don’t think there are very many left because of development, because of changing landscapes. And so the Wyoming Toad is something that Wyoming has, again, that is its own special species. So that’s, that’s pretty cool.

MOLLY: Yeah. How interesting. Um, how can we keep wildlife in Wyoming for the long run?

Photo: Adele King Reinking

TONY: A younger generation getting involved and being interested in wildlife and asking that that exact question: how can we do this? And I think just by educating the public on the importance of why we want wildlife around, and understanding that for ourselves as well, is going to go a long ways. Because if we care about something, it’s going to help us to make decisions that are better for that something, if that makes sense. And so I think as we move forward, here in Wyoming, we’ve got to realize what the special things about Wyoming are, which are big, open spaces, and also living with wildlife. And so as our population grows, and we get more people, if we can do that in a way that is not detrimental to wildlife, that’s going to be a good thing for both people and wildlife.

MOLLY: Yeah. All right. Last question, what animal in Wyoming is most famous? And why?

TONY: Well, I think because we get millions of visitors to Yellowstone National Park, one of the most famous animals is probably going to be one of those, what we call charismatic megafauna, which is going to be probably the grizzly bear. If you poll people that go into Yellowstone National Park, the number one thing they want to see is a grizzly bear. And so that is that is one reason that a lot of people come to Northwest Wyoming. There are also another whole group of people that come to Wyoming to enjoy the outdoors through legal harvests, so they want to see an elk out in the field. They want to see a pronghorn. It’s amazing when you talk to people from other countries and they see pronghorn they’re just blown away. And folks in Wyoming are like: I didn’t even hardly notice that pronghorn back there. Are you like that?

Photo: Matthew Kauffman

MOLLY: Oh yeah, sometimes

TONY: Yeah. Yeah, cuz there’s so many of them.

MOLLY: Yeah. All right. Well, that was all the questions. Thank you so much.

TONY: All right, take care. Thanks so much.

MOLLY: Before I spoke with Tony Mong, I thought many of the animals did well in Wyoming because of the open spaces and food that surrounded them. I also wanted to learn what animals were becoming extinct and how we could help them live longer. After I spoke with Tony Mong, I found out that I was right. The animals do well in Wyoming because of the open spaces and food. But I also learned that many of the animals thrive in Wyoming and Yellowstone, because there are not as many people here like in a bigger city. This contributes to how we can help all the animals live longer. We need to keep our population low, so all of the animals will stay here and live longer.

SAM: Today I’m speaking with Al Simpson. He’s a former U.S. Senator for Wyoming. I’m speaking with him because he has connections with Wyoming’s open spaces. 

Why do you love the open spaces and public lands of Wyoming?

ALAN SIMPSON: Well, I am a great hunter and fisherman.

I love that at the age of 88, I can’t get out on those rocks anymore. Because I used to just get tennis shoes on walk out in the river, and then fish you know, right from in the middle of the river with just tennis shoes on. I never wore boots. And I hunted. Then I got tired hunting, it was a little tough to cut the throat of the deer while they were watching you like a hawk. I gave that up. But often those recreational efforts are on public lands and almost 50% of Wyoming is public land. And it’s critical that it remain in public lands because then it belongs to everybody. It doesn’t belong just to Wyoming people, it belongs to people all over the U.S. So it’s very critical. And then you have people who say they think it should go into private hands. I can’t imagine anything worse- guys would exploit it, subdivide it, restrict use of it. I’m very opposed to any private, you know, taking over public land.

SAM: Good answer. What would happen if the open lands of Wyoming shrunk or even disappeared?

Photo: Mack H. Frost

ALAN SIMPSON: Well, Wyoming would be the loser, the people of Wyoming, the people who love to hunt and fish and recreate and camp, they’d be shut out. Now, you have to remember that, when I was in the senate 44% (leave off Alaska), 44% of the nation’s wilderness wilderness was in Wyoming. Now wilderness is highly restricted. Wilderness is not like the BLM, or the Forest Service, which is multiple use. They have to have mining, grazing, and public use.

SAM: As a Senator, you spend a lot of time in Washington D.C. How did that time open your eyes to value Wyoming’s open spaces?

ALAN SIMPSON: I didn’t need to have my eyes opened. I mean, I was raised here in Cody, Wyoming. I mean, I am 52 miles from Yellowstone Park, I don’t need my eyes open to go to Washington. I needed to open their eyes about what the hell goes on in Wyoming. Your sense of worth about open space is what you get when you’re raised here. You don’t need any tutorial. A tutorial being what you’re giving to me. No, I didn’t mean it, Sam, I take it back. 

SAM: Why do the public lands contribute to the ecosystem of our Wyoming wildlife?

ALAN SIMPSON: They eat it. They like to eat it. They eat grass and the grizzly bears lift the rocks and eat the moths. That’s why there aren’t any Miller moths around. It’s great. Grizzlies eat, I think 10 pounds of moth larva as they turn over the rocks.

Photo: Mack H. Frost

SAM: We need some bears over here. We have so many moths outside.

ALAN SIMPSON: Oh well, we’ll send some Grizzlies down there. They’ll eat ‘em for you.

That’s your phone. I’m not going to answer it. It’s your teacher calling to ask me some more questions.

SAM: How would we keep Wyoming the way it is while still moving forward?

ALAN SIMPSON: Well, you have to have a sense of balance. People have to eat and you have to develop. And through the years, we have had governors and congressional delegation people who realize the balance between, you know, economic reality and jobs. So you have, you have governors, Democrat and Republican alike through the years, who said, we have to have a balance. We have to protect this precious ecosystem, and we have to eat. And that’s a tough situation. But you can’t eat if you close up the public lands, to recreation, fishing, hunting, all that. That’s absurd.

SAM: That is all the questions I have written up.

Before I spoke with Al Simpson, I thought the open spaces in Wyoming were important to me and my community. But after I spoke with Al Simpson, I realized there are actually contributing to all of Wyoming. The open spaces of Wyoming are important to both people and wildlife, because it makes Wyoming the state it is and it also allows us to go hiking and camping, which I love.

SAM and MOLLY: That’s why we asked why.

NARRATOR: Thanks for listening to this episode of Kids Ask Why. If you want to learn more about the subjects that were discussed today, check out our website where we have lots of different resources. And now it is our turn to ask you a questions: What do you think would happen if Wyoming or really the United States didn’t have any open spaces?

Share your answers with us on Facebook at the kidaskwhy podcast page or twitter at Center of the West. Thanks for listening. Tune in next week.

NARRATOR: This podcast is produced by Emily Buckles, Gretchen Henrich, Megan Smith and Kirsten Arnold. Our executive producer is Kamila Kudelska. Levi Meyer and Anna Rader, are our digital consultants. Kids Ask Why is a production of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and Wyoming Public Media.