Statewide research program tracks Wyoming wildlife migrations

Researchers with the Wyoming Migration Initiative work with an elk captured in March near Dubois. The animal will be analyzed, collared and released so its movements can be tracked.

Researchers with the Wyoming Migration Initiative work with an elk captured in March near Dubois. The animal will be analyzed, collared and released so its movements can be tracked.

Springtime in Wyoming brings melting snow and the first shoots of green vegetation peeking through a landscape left barren by winter. For deer, elk, moose and other migrating ungulates, the change in seasons prompts a familiar journey in search of greener pastures.

But spring is also an exceptionally busy time for wildlife researcher Matthew Kauffman and his colleagues, as they fan out across the state in an effort to track and document as many of those migrations as possible.

For nearly three years, biologists with the Wyoming Migration Initiative have followed elk around Dubois, trailed moose through the Snowy Mountains, pursued mule deer across the Red Desert and worked to chart the movements of other herds on the move.

“We’re learning more and more about how important these migrations are to our big game herds,” said Kauffman, head of the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.

Click the "More Info" image to see social media postings from the Wyoming Migration Initiative.

Click the "More Info" image above to see social media postings from the Wyoming Migration Initiative.

There is growing public interest in protecting key migration routes, and Wyoming has become a focus of those efforts because its wide-open spaces and sparse population have allowed many herds to continue moving across the same lands as they have for decades.

But even in some of the most remote parts of Wyoming, herds can suffer as rural subdivisions, energy development, traffic, fences and other factors restrict key routes, Kauffman said.

Much of Kauffman’s work involves capturing, processing and collaring animals to learn more about when, where and why they choose to move.

But another important part of the Initiative centers on outreach aimed at sharing the science with  the public.

“We as researchers don’t always do a very good job of educating the public about what the questions are, and why we’re doing this research. The science isn’t always getting on the ground where it can be put to the best use,” he said.

Some fixes are relatively simple, like making sure fences are built in a way that contains livestock while still allowing wildlife to pass without unnecessary difficulty. Other solutions are more complex and costly, like highway overpasses or major regional conservation efforts.

Kauffman and other researchers go to great lengths to share their work via social media outlets, allowing anyone to follow along as they capture and release animals, or go behind the scenes to see the gear, preparation and technology involved in their research.

“The idea is to give the public a closer view of how the work is done. The captures and the action that go with them are a pretty exciting part of the research,” he said. “But we’re trying to create a story that people can follow along with and also learn more about the objectives of the studies.”

Kauffman often speaks at conferences and other public forums, and will discuss the Wyoming Migration Initiative on April 17 at TEDx Cody.

His presentation will cover the challenges Wyoming’s wildlife herds face in completing their seasonal migrations, but will also touch on some of the conservation solutions and successes being achieved around the region.

“I’m intrigued by the TED style of presentation, which is a very compelling way to tell important stories,” Kauffman said. “I’m excited to shape some of the things I’ve talked about before into the TED format, and bring it to a Cody audience.”

If you go…

TEDx Cody is scheduled for 5:30 – 9:30 p.m. April 17 at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Tickets are $35 (seniors and students $15), and available online or at The Thistle in Cody and the Powell Tribune. Visit www.tedxcody.com for more information.

Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].

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