When wildlife scientists ponder the ever-hazy future the best they know how, the prognosis for the animals and habitats that make Jackson Hole what it is today isn’t always bright.
Take beavers. Creators of wetlands, the giant rodents have declined by 80 percent since the middle of the 20th century where they make their home along the Snake River through the heart of the valley. Jackson Lake Dam’s annual theft of the peak springtime flows and associated flooding is a suspected cause, but the real reason is truly unknown, as is the future of the paddle-tailed swamp dweller.
Sage grouse are similar. Completely dependent on sagebrush to exist, the politically charged birds have lost an estimated 45 percent of their historical habitat because of development, fire and agriculture. Numbers have fallen apace, leaving the birds’ chance at long-term persistence in question.
These are some of the more grim insights from the “State of Wildlife in Jackson Hole,” a just-out report commissioned by the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. It was written by Nature Conservancy conservation scientist and ecologist Corinna Riginos and Frances Clark, a botanist who coordinates Nature Mapping Jackson Hole.
“Whitebark pine. Sage grouse. Moose. Our ungulate migrations,” Riginos said. “All of those are things that, if not taken care of, could disappear in the next 50 years.”
Gloomy outlook aside, the exercise of cataloging all the best-available scientific information on some of Jackson Hole’s most imperiled species didn’t leave the former Jackson resident despondent.
“If we can pull off the conservation of these species, targets and habitats, it is in a place like Jackson Hole,” Riginos said, “where the high-elevation, climatically, makes this a place that’s more resilient. The large amount of protected land. The engaged community. Managers working really hard. I think all of those things give me hope.”
The “State of Wildlife” report, which has been in the works for several years, uses a model that identifies 10 “conservation targets,” which could be species, habitats or ecological processes, like migration. To complete the 107-page report Riginos and Clark mined dozens of studies from land managers and fellow scientists and consulted with 33 specialists.
“The local research was necessary to have a good understanding of what’s happening in this area,” Clark said, “because these wildlife and these processes react differently in this region than they do elsewhere.”
The review is confined to a “Jackson Hole area” that Riginos and Clark roughly define as the Snake River watershed in Wyoming, plus several off-shooting tracts of habitat into places like the Thorofare’s backcountry and Green River drainage’s sagebrush sea.
The wildlife and habitats chosen for the Alliance’s report generally were selected strategically, so the list would capture the maximum amount of diversity possible. Species perceived as stable or thriving, like grizzly bears and elk, didn’t make the cut. Others critters, like bats, loons and amphibians, weren’t suitable as focal points because there wasn’t enough data to say either way how they were doing. These species were instead dubbed “watch targets” and assessed succinctly.
The full list of “targets” that earned an examination include Snake River and its wetlands complex, beaver, cottonwood tree stands, Snake River cutthroat trout, sagebrush and its dependent species, ungulate migrations, moose, goshawks and mature conifer forests, and, lastly, whitebark pine. Each species was subject to a robust critique of the threats to its persistence.
The Northern goshawk, for instance, faces a “high” level of threat from wildfire, which is forecast to become more frequent as the climate inexorably warms in this century. The large raptor, which is dependent on mature forests, also faces low- to moderate-level threats from invasive plants, mountain pine beetle, increased recreation and more.
Some threats were deemed to be pervasive.
“The development issues in the 3 percent of private land are very important,” Clark said. “I would say that the number and types of recreation increasing into public lands are having an impact on a variety of issues. And then the invasive species. It’s huge.”
Clark worries about one threat that was difficult to quantify in the report: the degradation of Jackson Hole’s culture of protection and stewardship.
“I’m very concerned about the growth of the surrounding area,” Clark said, “but also the change in attitude of the use of these lands and lack of understanding about nature and what individual human impacts on it are.
“Our sense of quality of life here in Jackson Hole is shifting dramatically,” she said. “That’s in my personal sense. It used to be a sense of solitude and quiet appreciation. It seems to have become more active, fast and based on individual gratification. And there’s more people, each wanting a piece.”
Some of the threats the report identified aren’t the usual suspects, like climate change or habitat fragmentation. Riginos pointed to mankind’s impact on Jackson Hole’s hydrology, be it through dams, levees or diversions.
“It cuts across a lot of our different targets,” she said.
Cottonwood galleries along the Snake River north of Moose have been reduced 30 percent since 1957 because of Jackson Lake Dam, and the tree stands are not regenerating. Further south, where the Army Corps of Engineers encased the Snake River with dikes, 90 percent of wetland habitat has been affected.
By design the Conservation Alliance report omits prescribing conservation actions that might stem the threats each “target” faces. Partially, Riginos said, solutions to species’ woes were left out to respect work already being done by management agencies and the advocacy community.
Reading between the lines of “State of Wildlife,” the warmer and more people-packed Jackson Hole of the future will need to be closely monitored, carefully preserved and, at times, managed differently if it’s going house the same suite of species it does today.
Clark and Riginos threw out some ideas that could give Jackson Hole’s wildlife and wild places the best chance of persistence. They painted a picture in which pastureland protected by conservation easements is set aside for wild ungulates instead of cattle. The Kelly hayfields revert to native sagebrush-steppe habitat. Mansions inhabited seasonally by the wealthy in Teton County’s outskirts are more closely clustered. Underpasses and overpasses give wildlife safe passage across highways. Visitation to the parks is more tightly controlled, and land and wildlife managers have the tools and funding they need to keep wildfire and invasive species at bay.