First-ever atlas charts big game migrations across Wyoming

Elk migrate along a high mountain pass outside Cody, Wyo. (Travis Zaffarano/Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit)

Elk migrate along a high mountain pass outside Cody, Wyo. (Travis Zaffarano/Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit)

CODY, WYO. — A mule deer doe cautiously makes her way along a riverbank, sniffing the wind before moving out from the cover of willows to cross a busy highway. A passing motorists slows just in time to spot the animal as it hesitates, then bolts across the road.

It’s a familiar scenario in Wyoming, but what drivers in the spring and fall may not realize is that road crossing is a small part of a seasonal migration that spans hundreds of miles. And if that doe is wearing a GPS tracking collar, there’s a good chance she’s generating an avalanche of data about her movements.

Satellite tracking collars for wildlife have reached an astonishing level of technological sophistication, sometimes showing researchers real-time locations, or recording movements every 20 seconds. Making sense of all that data can be a challenge. Telling a compelling story about wildlife migrations that connects with the public and helps inform policy decisions is even more challenging.

But that’s exactly what readers will find in “Wildlife Migrations: Atlas of Wyoming’s Ungulates,” an exhaustive collection of maps, photos, stories, charts and other visual data that details the seasonal movements across the Cowboy State of both mule and whitetail deer, pronghorn, elk, bison, moose, bighorn sheep and mountain goats.

Modeled after — and produced by some of the same creators of — 2012’s popular and groundbreaking “Atlas of Yellowstone,” “Wild Migrations” uses single-topic spreads, or page pairs, to show and tell detailed stories and images revealing how ungulates move across the landscape.

The book is a result of a six-year collaboration between Wyoming Migration Initiative biologists at the University of Wyoming and cartographers at the University of Oregon. It draws on scientific experts, award-winning photographers and acclaimed writers to contextualize and bring to life the past, present and future of the ongoing seasonal dance between animals, people and lands in Wyoming.

The book caps more than a decade of growing study and public interest in the secret lives of migrating animals. It traces back to work done in 2008 by researcher Hall Sawyer, writer Emilene Ostlind and photographer Joe Riis to track and document pronghorn migrations spanning more than 100 miles between Grand Teton National Park and Wyoming’s Upper Green River Valley. All three are contributors to “Wild Migrations.”

“There’s been a growing enthusiasm about migration in Wyoming ever since the Path of the Pronghorn,” said lead author Matthew Kauffman, a researcher at the University of Wyoming.

Kauffman and others from the Wyoming Migration Initiative spoke in Cody and five other Wyoming cities in November when “Wild Migrations” was released, sharing stories from the book with eager audiences.

More than 220 people showed up in Jackson, and the book sold out in minutes at the Cody event. Part of the book’s appeal, Kauffman said, is that it is written in a storytelling style, following characters and weaving together science, history, geography and other disciplines.

For Jared Moretti of Powell, the initial draw to Wild Migrations was a chance to learn more about elk.

“I’ve always just been fascinated with elk, and I enjoy observing wildlife,” said Moretti, a local school district employee and hunter who attended the Cody book release event. Moretti brought his 11-year-old son Andrew, who was also a wildlife lover.

“Hunting and being in the great outdoors has always been a part of our family life,” Moretti said. “It’s not an opportunity everyone gets to enjoy.”

Kauffman said the book helps show how “these animals have perfectly tuned their movements to the landscapes and seasons where they live,” taking advantage of the best forage along their seasonal routes.

Though the book takes an exhaustive look at migration studies in Wyoming, researchers continue to unlock new secrets.

A study completed last year documented a newly discovered mule deer migration route that spanned nearly 250 miles, from the Red Desert in Wyoming to Island Park, Idaho. Considered a potential fluke at first, GPS data confirmed that one intrepid doe repeated the trip in subsequent seasons, revealing a new record-long migration.

In September, Kauffman co-authored a study based on translocated bighorn sheep that showed for the first time that ungulates must learn migration routes from others in the herd. That means losing a migration route to development or other encroachments can mean it will take decades for descendant herds to rediscover the route and pass it along.

For that reason, conserving migration routes before they’re lost is key, Kauffman said. Wyoming is showing leadership in protecting migration routes, considering the paths in planning for oil and gas leases and moving toward designating routes as critical habitat. But so far, no migration route in Wyoming is fully protected from start to finish.

“Our primary impetus in creating this book was to help inform the conservation challenge that lies ahead,” Kauffman says. “‘Wild Migrations’ grew out of the idea that, if we made better maps of the migration corridors these herds depend on, we could do a better job of conserving them.”

Wild Migrations can be purchased at local bookstores across Wyoming or online from Oregon State University Press.

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

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