Land & Environment

Reclaiming Sacred Space: QCNR Students Assist in Restoration at Wuda Ogwa Site

By Lael Gilbert |

Students and faculty from the Quinney College of Natural Resources participate in tree-planting project at Wuda Ogwa, a site sacred to the Northwestern Band of Shoshone Nation near Preston, Idaho. (Photo Credit: USU/Lael Gilbert)

Just north of the Utah-Idaho border at a gooseneck bend in the Bear River, rolling green meadows stretch against a backdrop of scattered sagebrush. Steam wafts through the morning air from a nearby hot spring. The site, called Wuda Ogwa, is sacred to members of the Northwestern Band of Shoshone Nation — their ancestors gathered at the site every winter season for hundreds of years to rest, socialize and share their resources.

Students from QCNR recently participated in a restoration event at the site, planting tree seedlings to help replace invasive species like Russian Olive that have been recently removed. QCNR students and faculty dug into soil alongside volunteers from around the region to plant young cottonwoods, willows, dogwoods and currents — species that will eventually help to improve water quality and provide habitat for wildlife.

The Northwestern Band of Shoshone Nation are leading an effort to reclaim the history and restore the ecology of Wuda Ogwa, with an array of collaborators and volunteers, including researchers and students from the Quinney College of Natural Resources and other USU colleges cooperating in the effort.

It is easy to imagine why this particular site played an important role in Shoshone history — high bluffs and thick willows shielded families from harsh winter winds. The hot springs kept water flowing through the coldest winter freeze, and the serendipitous curve of river offered a convenient and natural corral for horses.

A horrendous military-led slaughter of Native people in 1863 leaves a staggering spiritual scar at the site, along with the buried remains of perhaps more than 400 women, men and children, some of which have been uncovered over the years, said Maria Moncur, communication director for the tribe.

But the natural landscape at the site has shifted dramatically over the course of history. Cattle grazing, farming and construction of a railroad altered its complex ecology, marking the land in a thousand ways. The grazed meadows now stand mostly devoid of native trees.

“Hands-on events are a good way for our students to understand this sacred place better,” said Eric LaMalfa from the Department of Wildland Resources, who organized QCNR participation at the tree-planting event.

LaMalfa and other members of QCNR faculty are cooperating in efforts to facilitate restoration, working to incorporate Indigenous knowledge into traditional restoration strategies, and to support students with Indigenous ties as they engage in the process.

Nizhonii Begaye, a QCNR senior in Wildlife Ecology and Management, is working on a project to deploy and monitor camera traps to better understand the diversity of wildlife using the area, with direction and support from LaMalfa.

“I’ve captured images of mule deer, coyotes, lots of birds and owls, and a bobcat,” said Begaye, who is a member of the Navajo tribe, and comes from Blanding, Utah.

“Coming here and getting out into the field on this kind of research is new to me, and is really exciting,” she said. “The whole process has been kind of a challenge, but it’s really fun to learn how to work with the equipment and how to talk and relate to people as we do the research.”

QCNR faculty and students have participated in the process in other ways. As part of a Climate Adaptation Science (CAS) program out of the USU Ecology Center, doctoral candidate Will Munger and recent graduates Sofia Koutzoukis and Lindsay Capito use downscaled climate models to assess the Wuda Ogwa site potential for planting species valued as culturally important by tribal elders and their ancestors.

Sarah Klain, from the Department of Environment and Society and the Ecology Center, instructed the CAS studio when her interest was piqued in efforts at the site. Klain recruited QCNR graduate students Cole Stocker and Sarah Woodbury to interview landowners in the region to gather information about local knowledge and values related to land management, and to learn more about opportunities for improving downstream water quality at Wuda Ogwa.

Klain and Munger also worked with USU Extension Professor Darren McAvoy to produce and test biochar on the site — a low-tech method for recycling waste wood, trapping carbon and augmenting soil — using invasive Russian Olive trees.

Klain’s lab group collaborated with Trout Unlimited on a Wildlife Conservation Society grant, to support the Wuda Ogwa stewards program — a four-day on-site educational program offering Indigenous youth a chance to learn from their elders and from scientists, archeologists and restoration ecologists from the local environmental consulting firm BIO-WEST. QCNR alum Aiden Klopfenstein was a participant of the program when he met BIO-WEST professionals, eventually leading him to gain a position as a restoration technician for the company.

The tribe has big goals for the site over the next decade, according to Brad Parry, vice chairman for the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation. They are working toward building an interpretive site with an amphitheater, education center and trail system. For now, the tribe takes incremental steps toward restoring the natural habitat as close as possible to when the Shoshone were active on the site while honoring the history of those who lived and died there.

This site has also been known as the Bear River Massacre, and as Boa Ogoi. The tribe officially uses the term Wuda Ogwa, a direct translation of Bear River.


Lael Gilbert
Public Relations Specialist
Quinney College of Natural Resources


Eric LaMalfa
Assistant Professor
Department of Wildland Resources


Hands-on Learning 193stories Land Management 116stories Service Learning 68stories Culture 62stories Sociology 49stories

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