By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist
Arthur Middleton had just ridden out of the Thorofare on horseback. We were in a coffee shop off Sheridan Avenue in Cody talking about wildlife migrations, specifically the ancient pathways of elk.
Middleton is among a group of field researchers pioneering new ways of thinking about how big game animals use landscapes. And many regard him as a scientific rock star.
In the Thorofare’s rugged backcountry, he collaborated with Joe Riis, a photographer on contract with the National Geographic Society, and best known for rigging remote cameras to capture the discreet movements of antelope along the “Path of the Pronghorn” corridor between Jackson Hole and the Upper Green River valley.
This summer, the twosome, along with noted writer-artist James Prosek, have a special exhibition on migrations appearing at the Draper Museum of Natural History, part of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo.
Riis’ portfolio confirmed that peripatetic elk in western Wyoming embark upon dramatic seasonal journeys between distant winter and summer habitat. Half a dozen different wapiti herd segments, Middleton says, spiral into mixing zones in the southern reaches of Yellowstone National Park come 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 wapiti.
Thanks to groundbreaking research conducted by biologists Hall Sawyer, Kevin Monteith, Matt Kauffman and Steve Cain, new mule deer migration passageways, too, 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 cardio-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 better understand precisely how, why, and where animals utilize landscapes. Like the radio telemetry twin brothers John and Frank Craighead brought to grizzly bear tracking half a century ago, migration study is one of the next great frontiers of conservation science.
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 says.
Keeping Greater 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 thought about the research of Middleton, Sawyer, Berger, Cain, Monteith and Kauffman while reading Bridger-Teton National Forest’s record of decision for the Alkali Creek elk feedground in the Gros Ventre valley, the sixth wapiti feedlot to get re-permitted on the national forest in the last decade.
Then acting B-T supervisor Kathryn J. Conant wrote in her approval of Alkali Creek 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.”
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 hardwired into Greater Yellowstone elk and factor into their long-term survival. Conant’s decision is perplexing.
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?
Columnist Todd Wilkinson has been writing about the environment for 30 years and is a correspondent to National Geographic online and other publications. He is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Jackson Hole grizzly 399 (only available at mangelsen.com/grizzly) and featuring 150 stunning images by Jackson Hole nature photographer Thomas D. Mangelsen. Wilkinson wrote a profile about Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk for the summer 2016 edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine, now on newsstands.