Needing a break from studying, I leave the Environmental Humanities building on the University of Utah campus and begin walking towards the hills and the Bonneville Shoreline Trail. I cross roads and parking lots, and pass students slack-lining between the trees that surround the dorms. The hum of the city to my back, I step from asphalt onto dirt and begin walking uphill.
On a south-facing slope, deer trails transect the landscape between oak and maple brushlands below. Wanting to know their story, I leave the muddy main trail and step onto an indistinct line of hoof prints perforating last year’s grass. This path takes me into what appears to be an impenetrable wall of the Wasatch chaparral, but it is surprisingly permeable while providing a temporary refuge, so I pause and listen before resuming my otherwise exposed route.
The trail continues; the subtlety of the impressions left by animals almost appear as a watermark on a page of earth—a ghost’s signature. Generations of animals and I inhabit the same space separated only by time, a potentially tenuous division. My own lived-in house can be viewed similarly. The previous inhabitants are revived through the worn wood floors. For decades, a bed sat against the eastern wall of the bedroom where someone threw their legs over the side, slid on their slippers, shuffled into the hall, and turned the corner to the kitchen. This line of movement, repeated thousands of times, wore a trail into the hardwood floor: a collective signature of individual lives. In some ways these individuals—likely long gone—still live on in the residue of their lives as shown by these worn oak boards. And still, the eastern wall is the best place in this room for a bed, so I do what others have done. My feet land where their feet did. I continue tracing this path.
So, too, does this generational deer path reference a need that flows through time uninterrupted: the need to move from food source to food source as the seasons and conditions change. Unable to forage on grass, and without the correct incisors or gut bacteria to process raw cottontails, I follow anyway. Emerging from the oak brush, I cross a road and reach a dead-end fence about seven feet tall, with three rows of barbed wire overhanging in my direction. Which way now? If I go right and follow the road, I will end up crossing sidewalks, parking lots, closely-mowed grass fields, and busy roads. My office and the work that I need to do is in that direction, so I choose the other way.
I go left and skirt the edge of the fence until it bends and dips into the creek bed where it crosses Red Butte Creek. The deer trail which had been lost in the road picks up again on the other side. Mud coats the bottoms of my shoes, transforming them into ice skates as I descend the slope. Hooves would be preferable in this early season mud. On the other side of the creek, the trail continues to hug the fence as it works its way up toward Red Butte.
This fence is necessary for protecting the nature-as-garden within from nature-as-metabolic-process without. If they could get inside, the deer would eat everything. Who could blame them? And who could blame Red Butte Garden for wanting to keep their plants alive? This dilemma becomes emblematic of the general concept of ownership, which has consequences for anyone who might have an eye for petunias, or sheep. So it is that the path of the deer and the path of the predator intersect here where I stand looking through the fence. The fates of many become entwined with the concept of property ownership. This narrative plays out all across the West, where abstract barriers stretch, twist, and cut up old signatures.
Three sets of giant ears hurry up the slope ahead of me. Although I don’t know the exact range of these deer, I know they are moving along the westernmost boundary of the Heart of the West linkage, an integral section of the Western Wildway. The Western Wildway is a wildlife corridor envisioned by Wildlands Network, which links smaller regions of wildlife movement and dispersal to a larger corridor running from the Yukon to Mexico. While the deer just encountered do not walk this entire 5,000 mile linkage, animals collectively do. This freedom of movement allows wildlife to adapt as drought, fire, urban sprawl, or oil and gas development push them onto unfamiliar ranges.
By building right angles into their previously meandering routes, our roads and fences are rewriting this generational signature of wildlife dispersal and movement. Through on-the-ground experience of tracing these paths and imagining their historical trajectory, an ancestral language can be reconstructed, a spectral alphabet deciphered. I am attempting this work now as I follow this deer path along the edge of the city, which is also the edge of something else. The “long-term tracking and monitoring of focal species” is the best way to achieve the identification of current corridors and the reconstruction of old ones, according to Dave Foreman, author of Rewilding North America. The fact that this trail hugs the fence tells me that, if they could, these deer might walk the entire length of the drainage through the valley to the Jordan River. It might be too late for that now, but it might not be too late for the reconstruction of other paths.
How might a coyote get to Big Cottonwood Canyon if she were unable to trace old paths through the valley? She might try the back way. She might work her way up this drainage, descend into East Canyon, then attempt to make her way across I-80. This very path is common enough that in the span of only two years, 98 deer, along with a few elk, moose, and mountain lions, were struck and killed in the area. Locals voiced concerns and started a nonprofit called “Save People, Save Wildlife” in 2015. The group raised money to initiate the building of a bridge at the top of Parley’s Canyon, and eventually the Utah Department of Transportation began construction. Wildlife collisions decreased 80 percent after the installation of overpasses on the Trans-Canada Highway in Banff National Park. Where else are these overpasses needed?
From this point, animal paths extend east to the Uintas, north to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and south to the High Plateaus of Utah. I can only guess what obstructions lie along these animal paths. Clinging to the fence in order to keep from sliding down the mud into the creek, I start to think about the lunch I have waiting for me in my office. I leave the fence, the creek and the path, and return to my office to dig through my backpack in search of my sandwich. When I get to my building, the door is locked. I begin feeling around for my keys. If I can’t find them it will be a long walk home.
Ben Kilbourne is a master’s student in the Environmental Humanities Program at the University of Utah. With backgrounds as a wilderness ranger and an artist, he has combined his skills by studying and writing about animal migration networks across the West, but especially the Colorado Plateau region. b. 1985