US Official: Thinking Big can Save Big-Game Migration Routes

November 11, 2015 07:24 AM

More cooperation between government and private landowners, such as that which has kept the greater sage grouse off the endangered species list, can help protect big-game migration corridors in Wyoming, a federal official who oversees the U.S. Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service said Monday.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Robert Bonnie made a pitch for federal programs that encourage private landowners to conserve wildlife habitat. They include the USDA's Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which he said recently allocated $372 million for conservation nationwide.

"We have to think bigger. But the paradox is even while we think bigger, we have to understand that all conservation is local," Bonnie said at a wildlife migration forum hosted by the Ruckelshaus Institute at the University of Wyoming. "We have to be successful in a lot of small locations."

He pointed to the Interior Department's announcement in September that the greater sage grouse didn't need protection under the Endangered Species Act as a success made possible by cooperation between landowners and government. Sage grouse range can be found across Wyoming and all or part of 10 other states.

Others who made presentations at the forum outlined the scope of the conservation challenge with elk, mule deer and pronghorn migration maps made possible by new tracking technology.

From elk in Canada's Banff National Park to the wildebeest of Tanzania, animals thrive when they migrate and suffer when they can't, said John Fryxell, a professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. "Migration is a very important mechanism if you want to sustain, abundant, rich, natural resources. And losing that motion means that you lose a large part of that natural heritage," Fryxell said.

Several species migrate between summer ranges in Yellowstone National Park to winter habitat at lower elevations of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, said Arthur Middleton, a Yale University research scientist. "We have to understand migrations to understand key attributes of this system," Middleton said.

Middleton's doctoral work involved trying to find out why calf mortality had increased among the elk that migrate between the eastern part of Yellowstone and the lower elevations west of Cody. After tracing elk migration patterns and exploring several theories, he learned that a big part of the answer wasn't on winter range.

The killing and consumption of elk calves by grizzlies in the elk summer range in Yellowstone increased three- to fourfold between 2003-2005. Research suggested grizzlies switched diets away from Yellowstone's dwindling cutthroat trout, he said.

"That's why we have to take migration into account if we're going to understand population changes on our landscapes," Middleton said.

More recent work piecing together previously collected data has enabled the mapping of nine major elk migration routes, like spokes on a wheel, into and out of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, he said. About 20,000 to 25,000 elk take part in the migrations.

"For me, these migrations have come to seem like the veins and the arteries, the blood, of the greater Yellowstone," Middleton said.

The elk sustain not only scavengers, but tourism and hunting worth tens of millions of dollars to Wyoming's economy every year, he said.

In many cases, elk winter on private land in Wyoming.

Bonnie suggested Wyoming could be eligible for funding through upcoming Regional Conservation Partnership Program awards. "You have everything sitting in this room to put together a pretty good proposal," he said.

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