Arthur Middleton had just ridden out of the Thorofare last summer on horseback. We were in a coffee shop in Cody talking about migrations.
Middleton is among a group of field researchers pioneering new ways of thinking about how big game animals use landscapes.
In the Thorofare’s rugged backcountry, he’s collaborating with Joe Riis, a National Geographic Society photographer known for rigging remote cameras to capture the movements of antelope along the “Path of the Pronghorn” corridor between Jackson Hole and the Upper Green River valley.
Riis now has a portfolio confirming that elk in western Wyoming embark upon dramatic seasonal journeys between distant winter and summer habitat. At least a half dozen wapiti herd segments, Middleton says, spiral into mixing zones in the southern reaches of Yellowstone National Park in late spring, then fan out to summer ranges and reverse course when the snow flies.
Middleton, affiliated with the University of Wyoming and Yale University, says the revelations fill him with awe.
“What we’re learning is pretty amazing,” he said. His reference wasn’t only to elk.
Thanks to groundbreaking research conducted by biologists Hall Sawyer, Kevin Monteith, Matt Kauffman and Steve Cain, new mule deer migration passageways have been identified flowing in all directions in and out of Jackson Hole and between the Red Desert and Hoback.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is renowned for cradling the headwaters of three major river systems — the Snake-Columbia, Yellowstone-Missouri-Mississippi, and Green-Colorado. Their natal tributaries function as liquid arteries carrying crucial lifeblood, nurturing the richest zones of biodiversity.
What water represents as a circulatory system, wildlife migrations serve metaphorically as Greater Yellowstone’s pulmonary system, “showing how it breathes,” Middleton said.
Elk herds moving between seasonal ranges are akin to lungs inhaling and exhaling, he explained. GPS collars, genetic tools, overflights and remote cameras have helped open the eyes of scientists to understand precisely how, why and where animals use landscapes. Like brothers John and Frank Craighead’s work tracking grizzly bears through radio telemetry a half a century ago, migration study is one of the next great frontiers.
Save for caribou in Alaska and wildebeest on the Serengeti Plain, most mega-wildlife migrations on Earth have withered or gone extinct because human development impedes them, says Joel Berger, the Craighead Chair of Wildlife Biology at the University of Montana and a global migration expert with the Wildlife Conservation Society.
“Losing wildlife migration is like destroying a human language,” Berger said.
Keeping Yellowstone’s spectacular migrations viable represents a major challenge for government agencies, private property owners, scientists and conservationists aware of the role they play in the health of iconic species.
Kauffman, who is overseeing the Wyoming Migration Initiative at the University of Wyoming, is compiling a “migration atlas” that catalogs and maps the newly discovered routes.
I’ve been thinking about the research of Middleton, Sawyer, Berger, Cain, Monteith and Kauffman while reading Bridger-Teton’s record of decision for the Alkali Creek elk feedground in the Gros Ventre valley, the sixth wapiti feedlot to be repermitted on the national forest in the last decade.
B-T Acting Supervisor Kathryn J. Conant wrote in her approval of Alkali Creek last week that the Forest Service is committed to re-establishing lost migratory instincts in Jackson Hole elk, which today are bogged in unnaturally high concentrations over lines of artificial feed.
Conant confessed: “Elk feeding sites have been strategically placed on and near national forest system lands with the intent of preventing elk migration through private lands that are located in historic big game winter range.”
Conant’s decision is perplexing. Not only do feedgrounds fuel high infection rates of brucellosis and, likely, deadly chronic wasting disease in elk, experts say, but by design they stymie the very kind of wildlife migrations that have been hard-wired into greater Yellowstone’s elk and factor into their long-term survival.
A few years ago Tom Roffe, then national chief of wildlife health for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told me that knowingly promulgating disease in big game herds is no different than tolerating the dumping of toxic pollution into rivers. Serious ecological consequences are inevitable.
Greater Yellowstone’s unrivaled wildlife is telling us what we need to know, but are we listening?