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(PHOTOS) Good as gold

Evan Barrientos’ photo essay celebrates an overlooked quadrant of the rich sagebrush steppe habitat in western Wyoming known as the Golden Triangle.

A lone pronghorn walks a ridge in the Golden Triangle. (Evan Barrientos)

CASPER, Wyo. — At first glance, it may look like the big empty. But watch long enough, and the quadrant of sagebrush steppe habitat in western Wyoming known as the Golden Triangle will come to life.

Male sage grouse strut and bounce in their bizarre mating dance. Balsamroot and phlox flowers unfurl in colorful carpets. Pronghorn steal through the sage, while wind gusts stir up the rhizome’s unmistakable tang.

A male greater sage grouse inflates his air sacs and fans his tail while performing his courtship display for females. (Evan Barrientos)

“As the American West continues to change, the Golden Triangle is a reminder of where we came from and an example of what public lands can be,” said Evan Barrientos, a photographer from northern Colorado whose photo essay underlines the remarkable aspects of the place. 

The sun rises above sagebrush steppe habitat in the Golden Triangle in May 2023. (Evan Barrientos)

The 367,000-acre landscape, located roughly between the points of Farson, South Pass City and Boulder, contains multitudes, Barrientos observes: streams, wetlands, forests and most predominantly, sagebrush steppe. With little development, wildlife have held their ground, and ranchers graze their cattle. It’s considered the best remaining sagebrush steppe habitat in the world.

Pronghorn in the Golden Triangle pause from grazing on the lush spring plant growth to survey their photographer. (Evan Barrientos)

Another superlative: The world’s densest population of greater sage grouse resides in the Golden Triangle, according to Barrientos. Thousands of mule deer, elk and pronghorn migrate through. It’s home to the sage thrasher, a small grayish bird that is one of eight vertebrate species that require sagebrush habitat to survive. 

Supporting the wildlife are bunchgrasses, flowers and sagebrush.

A host of flowering plants bloom in the Golden Triangle, including Castilleja angustifolia, Erigonum caespitosum, Phlox hoodii and Astragalus sp., Tetraneurinae sp., Artemisia sp., Dodecatheon sp., Pediocactus simpsonii, Astragalus sp. and Phlox hoodii. (Evan Barrientos)

Indigenous people such as the Eastern Shoshone, Cheyenne, Crow and Shoshone-Bannock have occupied the landscape for thousands of years. 

Though relatively unknown to the public, some 93% of the Golden Triangle is public land, Barrientos notes. 

The sage thrasher is one of the eight vertebrate species that require sagebrush habitat to survive. (Evan Barrientos)

“The Golden Triangle is a stunning example of how [public lands] can look and function when managed well,” he wrote in a piece accompanying his photos. 

Across the U.S., development has fragmented sagebrush steppe habitat and invasive grasses have degraded it, Barrientos notes. The Golden Triangle stands as a stark exception.

A super bloom of arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) grows in the heart of the Golden Triangle during Wyoming’s exceptionally wet 2023 spring. (Evan Barrientos)

“I created this photo essay to draw attention to this overlooked and invaluable place,” he wrote to WyoFile. “As the sagebrush steppe disappears, management of public land in the United States is becoming simultaneously more important and contentious. The Golden Triangle is an example of what public lands can provide when kept healthy.

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.