Can elk migration routes be restored?
Pronghorn and deer still make the trek, but elk unlikely to follow.
By Angus M. Thuermer Jr., Jackson Hole, Wyo.
November 9, 2011
Perhaps no conservation story has been celebrated recently in Jackson Hole as much as that of the Path of the Pronghorn.
The route between Grand Teton National Park and the pronghorn wintering grounds in the Green River basin has been embraced by conservationists, protected by some federal land managers and held up as a model for a healthy and natural ecosystem.
Photographers document the annual trek, and adventurers follow the antelope’s route, the third-longest overland wildlife trek in the world.
Some Jackson Hole and Yellowstone National Park elk also made the annual journey to winter in the Red and Little Colorado deserts near Rock Springs, according to at least two historic accounts. In one telling, documented by the 1927 Commission on the
Conservation of the Jackson Hole Elk, the mass movement eventually collected 20,000 animals.
Today, elk are short-stopped by feedgrounds, seen by some biologists as places where new and deadly diseases can spread easily and possibly cause catastrophic population crashes. The best defense against an outbreak of the scariest new pathogen — chronic wasting disease — is to break elk of their feedground habit, former National Elk Refuge biologist Bruce Smith writes in his just-released book “Where Elk Roam.” He argues they should forage on native winter ranges, spread out naturally and live in relatively smaller, yet sustainable, herds.
It would be difficult, however, to maintain today’s elk numbers on the limited winter range in Jackson Hole. Would re-establishment of the historic migration resolve the twin desires of having a Jackson Elk Herd of 11,000 animals while minimizing the effect of CWD?
Could the historic migration of elk be re-established along the Path of the Pronghorn?
The several hundred pronghorn that summer in Grand Teton National Park congregate in late fall and head up the Gros Ventre River drainage in small bands, perhaps 20 in a group. At the head of the Gros Ventre, they cross Kinky Creek Divide into the Green River drainage and head south to the deserts.
They collect in larger strings in Sublette County, where scores of pronghorn stride single file through falling snow, creating an impressive march nearly 6,000 years old.
Joel and Kim Berger, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, started documenting the migration in 2003 with Grand Teton National Park biologist Steve Cain. Their work led the Bridger-Teton National Forest to recognize the route and plan to preserve it. While that agency looks after the path on forest land, private groups have reached out to Sublette County landowners to help the pronghorn through private property.
Starting in 2008, the Green River Land Trust, now the Wyoming Land Trust, began the Corridor Conservation Campaign and has since spent some $3 million modifying fences in Sublette County to allow pronghorn easier passage. At no cost to landowners, the trust alters fences to be no more than 42 inches high with a smooth bottom wire 16 inches off the ground that allows pronghorn to scoot underneath.
By 2009, the group had modified approximately 82 miles of fence along the Path of the Pronghorn. Work spanned 75 miles and 84,500 acres.
Last year, the trust began its second phase along a mule deer migration route. A study by research biologist Hall Sawyer and others documented deer migration routes, some of which are similar to paths once traveled by elk from Jackson Hole.
One deer traveled from Kelly, through the Gros Ventre Wilderness, and the Hoback Basin, into the Green River drainage and to wintering grounds at the southern foot of the Wind River Range, according to the study. Another deer from Cache Creek near Jackson also migrated to Sublette County, as did one from the Snake River Range south of Wilson.
The trust has completed more than half of the project to modify 200 miles of fences along 60 miles of deer routes covering 86,000 acres.
“We thought it was a fit with our mission,” said Jordan Vana, the group’s director of conservation. “We thought we could do it more efficiently than some of the other agencies — as a private organization.”
In the beginning, some landowners shunned the project. “There was a little resistance there,” Vana said.
When the second phase got under way, word was out of the group’s good work, however. “Landowners called us,” Vana said.
“This has been a project that has been fun for us to work on,” he said. “It’s brought together a whole host of nontraditional partners — Patagonia and Safari Club International, Shell and the Environmental Defense Fund.”
As antelope trek along the Path of the Pronghorn and toward trust-modified fences, they pass a historical sign along the Green River at the site of the former Gros Ventre Lodge. Built by Billy Wells in 1897, it hosted prominent American and British big game sportsmen who shot abundant game.
But by 1906, the business had played out “in part due to stricter game laws and a shorter hunting season,” the landmark states.
Within six years, the National Elk Refuge next to Jackson was established, and supplemental feeding of elk in the winter eliminated any reason for the animals to make a long-distance migration past the lodge.
In “Where Elk Roam,” Smith outlines the challenges of restoring historic elk migration. In a guest editorial this week, he says such a notion is improbable (see page 5A).
Steve Kilpatrick, a former Wyoming Game and Fish habitat biologist agrees, saying the migration of antelope and elk can’t be compared. For one, when pronghorn decide to go, they move with purpose.
“Three days later, they’re through Jackson and on their way to Farson,” Kilpatrick said. Elk are more apt to be held up by opportunities to graze.
“Pronghorn are much less inclined to get into trouble, to conflict with current land uses,” said Kilpatrick, who now works with Teton Science Schools’ Conservation Research Center. “Elk forage along the way,” he said.
The historic elk migration routes traverse major cattle feeding ranches that are the hallmark of Sublette County. “We can’t assume [landowners] will welcome large numbers of wintering ungulates — elk,” said biologist Franz Camenzind, former director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.
Elk mingle with cattle on ranch feed lines, where they could spread brucellosis. Ranchers used to have less resistance to forking out extra hay for elk, especially since they are reimbursed by Game and Fish for that cost. The threat of disease makes that practice less inviting today.
In 2004, a cow from a herd in Boulder near wintering elk in Sublette County tested positive for brucellosis. Two other herds in Sublette County also were found to be infected, and all were destroyed according to federal and state protocol.
What once was just a matter of money has changed to a risk to a stockman’s entire herd.
“It isn’t just damage now, it’s disease,” Kilpatrick said. “Disease is bigger than damage. With brucellosis, emotions are much higher.”
To underscore the seriousness with which the state takes the threat of brucellosis, one need only look at Game and Fish’s controversial five-year elk test-and-slaughter program at two Sublette feedgrounds.
After spending more than $1 million and with disappointing trapping numbers, the agency announced mixed results.
Exposure to the disease declined from 37 percent to 5 percent among elk tested in the program, Game and Fish reported. Meantime, 1,250 adult cow elk were captured, and the 197 that tested positive for exposure to brucellosis were slaughtered.
Bringing back a long migration is “highly improbable.” Camenzind said. “There are a lot of things that have changed in the last century that can’t be undone,” he said.
Among those are energy development — including the Pinedale Anticline and Jonah I and II fields. Another proposed development, the Normally Pressured Lance natural gas field, would add to the industrial sprawl across the Green River valley. Plains Exploration and Production Company also is proposing to develop a gas field in the Hoback Basin where Sawyer’s migrating deer were tracked.
Kilpatrick also cautions that the desert holds marginal attraction for elk. Wintering there is better than starving in deep snow, but hardly a posh life.
Today, browse in the Little Colorado and Red deserts is decadent and perhaps oversubscribed by deer and pronghorn. Some range is degraded by grazing cattle.
Meanwhile, BLM managers are preoccupied with oil and gas development and not wildlife habitat, Kilpatrick says.
For elk, the difference between trekking to the desert in search of meager pickings and stopping along the way at a feedground or ranch is like a person choosing between a meal of rice or steak.
“The drive is not going to be there,” Kilpatrick said of the elk’s motivation to migrate to the desert. “They’re not going to come running to the barn if there’s only straw.”
He agrees with Smith’s conclusion that resurrecting historic elk movements is a romantic notion.
“Sadly, I think he’s correct,” Kilpatrick said.
In addition to scientific papers and interviews acknowledged above, this article includes information published in the Jackson Hole News&Guide and the Sublette Examiner and by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental studies.