Nature: Where the Wild Things Were
As Bonnie Springs gives way to luxury homes, the fate of its animals reflects our complicated relationship with the nonhuman world
The peacocks were gone. Not because of the freak snowstorm that had turned the grounds of Bonnie Springs Ranch to cold mud; the replica mining town’s exotic sentries had been moved to new homes, the place somehow odder without them on this February day. A few mallards lazed on the pond outside the saloon, no doubt missing the turtles already transferred to a refuge.
The nostalgic Old West attraction in the shadow of Red Rock Canyon was closing after six decades, making way for a development not involving wax pioneers and a mini railroad. And plans were snapping into place for the horses, goats, and sheep, for the wolves, deer, and ducks, for the emus, cavies, and lone serval that helped define its legacy.
“Each and every one of those animals are already accounted for to go to certain places … around here in Southern Nevada, in Pahrump, the Hesperia Zoo in California,” attorney Bob Gronauer testified at the Feb. 19 meeting of the Clark County Planning Commission. Gronauer, representing developer Joel Laub, was assuring the commission that both the property’s buyer and seller were trying to do right by the animals and environment in and around the 64 acres. The 20-home development has support from the Red Rock Citizens Advisory Council as well as advocacy groups Save Red Rock and Friends of Red Rock Canyon, the latter declaring it “a new vision for this very special place, one that respects the past while setting it on a future path of economic and environmental viability.” That last part concerns wild creatures on the site, from butterfly populations bolstered by revegetation with native plants to burros unimpeded by fences or perimeter walls from drinking at restored springs.
Despite such sensitivity to the area’s natural feel and functions, the proposal from Laub and partner Randall Jones has still met with some opposition. One of the strongest protests at the commission meeting came from the state director of the Center for Biological Diversity, Patrick Donnelly. “It would really be killing the goose that has laid the golden egg for our economy here in Southern Nevada,” Donnelly said. The Clark County Commission unanimously approved the development March 20. (Attorneys for April Hopper, daughter of the ranch’s late founder, Bonnie Levinson, did not reply before press time; developer Randall Jones did not respond to interview requests.)
It’s a classic tableau of the American West: Humans fighting over space — and animals waiting to be handed their fates. Coyotes can’t step to the mic for public comment any more than Bonnie Springs’ beloved 98.25-percent wolf Tkai can.
Furry, scaled and feathered, these silent residents are bound to us, a species that considers them valuable one day and nuisances the next. In this case, it looks like a happy ending for the animals. The Bonnie Springs menagerie is being re-homed; and the developers have indicated they’ll try to preserve the integrity of a landscape that supports abundant wildlife. Southern Nevada isn’t unique in moving animals around so readily to suit human needs. But our dynamic with them, both wild and tame, is tied to our complicated relationship with the desert.
The conservation ethic is rooted in the mid-1800s, when hunters and fishermen realized wildlife wasn’t unlimited and began organizing to protect wild places and resources. What was so obvious in forests and rivers didn’t immediately translate in the desert that would become the Las Vegas Valley, as settlers, railroad outfits, and Strip developers razed an ecosystem that’s deceptively rich.
“I don’t think people even thought about the desert. There was this sense of, it’s the desert, you know?” says Mark Hall-Patton, Clark County Museum system administrator and a valley dweller for the past 25 years. He’s familiar with the side effects of growth, and not just in Las Vegas. Hall-Patton points to his grandfather’s vineyard and orange groves becoming a subdivision in Southern California. “We do this no matter where we are. We grow over the land, and whatever was there we take it away,” he says.
Of the Clark County Museum’s 30 acres, 10 remain creosote desert so people can see what this metropolis erased. Rabbits, coyotes, and quail keep watch, and Hall-Patton takes it as evidence that wildlife adapts better than we think. “They find ways of working with us.”
But for every adorable rodent tucked into a suburban trail, there’s a Peregrine falcon snatching one from a golf course. Boulder City touts the bighorn sheep grazing Hemenway Park, while Summerlin residents swamp Nextdoor with screeds about cat-eating coyotes. Animals are genius opportunists, and valley developments offer what Doug Nielsen calls “pockets of habitat on steroids.” And we love those animals — that is, as long as they’re the right ones.
“We create this attractive nuisance, but now we want to pick and choose who comes to that buffet,” says Nielsen, conservation education supervisor for the Nevada Department of Wildlife’s southern region. “We have changed habitat so much, yet people like to say, we’re just gonna take us out of the equation. You can’t. … The thing that can change in that equation is us, our behavior. (Animals are) gonna go on doing what they’ve been programmed to do.” The key is accepting that we’re all right on top of wilderness. As in, bobcats have visited the Strip.
Google Earth’s 1950 map of the valley hammers home how fast it grew to the corners. You can’t click to see what might have been, but it’s worth knowing Spring Mountain Ranch — the state park next to Bonnie Springs — was almost a subdivision. And that Summerlin could have extended all the way up to the visitor center of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.
Getting people to appreciate the obvious splendor of these protected resources is easy. The Bureau of Land Management also oversees “general” lands in Southern Nevada, and that’s where rangers find the mattresses and jet skis. “People are like, it’s desert, and just throw it out there,” says BLM spokesman John Asselin, who thinks most offenders probably grew up here.
Maybe they’re drunk on the illusion of space. Asselin explains that, actually, uses are competing for a relatively small area of viable land. Take the barren-looking I-15 corridor just outside Las Vegas. Why not channel growth there? Because off-roaders use that land, and if you move them, then you have to move some solar utility, and if you move that, it displaces desert tortoises, and …
Nature has its own chain of butterfly effects, one that connects disappearing habitat with pet bunnies dumped at local parks. And don’t forget our misguided selves, whether we’re dumping the bunnies or feeding them. Maybe we’re drunk on the illusion of separateness.
“Nothing that we do doesn’t disturb something,” Nielsen says, “and it’s really unrealistic to say, ‘Well, my house didn’t displace anything, but my neighbor’s did.’”