Elk migrate across the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park. This herd likely crossed the Teton Wilderness, within a mile of this spot, on its annual trek. (Scott Copeland — click to enlarge)

Wildlife wilderness migration comes alive in video mapping project

By Angus M. Thuermer Jr.
— November 19, 2014

The idea came from a Hollywood blockbuster in which Indiana Jones flies around the globe and his journey is depicted on an old-fashioned map.

When University of Wyoming professor Matthew Kauffman described how he wanted to show wildlife migrations on a video, he turned to Indie for an example. Kauffman and his colleagues at the Wyoming Migration Initiative had reams of data from radio-collared animals but no established method of showing it off to the public.

“I was describing how we should do it like Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Kauffman said this week. In the travel scene from that movie, Indiana Jones’s globe-hopping is depicted by a line growing across a 1930s-style map.

Kauffman’s dream comes true in a video “Wyoming’s Big Game Migrations and 50 Years of Wilderness,” which depicts the importance of wilderness to the migrations of bighorn sheep, mule deer, elk, moose and pronghorn antelope. The five-minute piece may not be groundbreaking science, but it could be a breakthrough in conveying scientific information to the public.

The same kinds of animated lines seen in the classic movie starring Harrison Ford also grow in the wildlife video. The University of Oregon’s InfoGraphics Lab produced the animated maps.

They show moose traversing the Teton Wilderness from Jackson Hole to southern Yellowstone National Park. Elk migrate from eastern Yellowstone through three wilderness areas to winter grounds south of Cody. Bighorn sheep traverse wilderness areas near Dubois, and deer and pronghorn make other wilderness treks.

Accompanied by a soundtrack, stunning still photography and eye-candy footage of migrating animals, the package paints a picture of the role wilderness plays in the survival of Wyoming’s wildlife. It was released during the 50th anniversary year of the Wilderness Act, the 30th anniversary year of the Wyoming Wilderness Act.

Some of the most dramatic shots are of wild animals being released by biologists and field workers after being caught and collared. Their zest for escape reveals wildlife’s insatiable desire for freedom and open spaces.

The Torrey Creek bighorn ram herd is world famous, only because it can migrate from summer to winter range. The herd spends much of the year in roadless areas. (Scott Copeland — click to enlarge)

Most surprising to Kauffman was how much wilderness animals used during migrations. In Southeast Wyoming’s Platte Valley, mule deer pass through four wilderness areas in Wyoming and Colorado during a yearlong cycle.

Kauffman and his migration team are working on a migration atlas that will show many of the routes he and others have discovered. The video is an offshoot of that, another way to show the public that if it values wildlife, it needs to protect the migrations that allow animals to live across the landscape.

Until now, “we haven’t taken the reams of data and figured out how we illustrate and visualize those migrations,” Kauffman said.

Wilderness visitors might see deer or elk in the high country in summer and figure their future is secure, protected by the Wilderness Act. But those animals can’t survive in the mountains during the winter, and wilderness visitors might not immediately understand what other lands are necessary for their survival.

A moose and twin calves stroll the shore of Louis Lake in the Shoshone National Forest. Some moose migrations are made exclusively through wilderness areas. (Scott Copeland — click to enlarge)

The best example is the mule deer migration from the Red Desert to Hoback Junction. Between 4,000 and 5,000 deer make the 150-mile journey, crossing a mix of public and private property.

One bottleneck included private land that could have been developed, potentially cutting the route off. Kauffman and others’ research identified that parcel and the Conservation Foundation is now in the process of trying to buy it to prevent development.

“Migration only works if you do the whole thing,” Kauffman said of preservation. “Once we mapped the wilderness areas, we had to say something about the connectivity areas.”

Wilderness travelers who value their summertime wildlife experiences may learn from the video, he said. “It’s the multiple-use landscapes — that’s where the work needs to be done.”

Animals migrate because they have to.

Antelope bunch up while migrating near South Pass. Videos and photography can help the public understand complex biological problems, members of the Wyoming Migration Initiative believe. (Scott Copeland — click to enlarge)

“One of the things coming into focus to us is migration is a key strategy,” Kauffman said. “That’s the solution these animals have in making a living on the Wyoming landscape.”

They can no more live year-round on their winter range than they can on their high summer pastures. By moving uphill in the spring, wildlife take advantage of vegetation as it greens up and is most nutritious.

“You can’t live off the forage that’s on the low-elevation range,” Kauffman said. “You can’t live well. I think people are increasingly making that connection.”

Kauffman and others are seeking to convey scientific information in ways that engage the general public. In one presentation, he showed a slide of a typical scientific paper, complete with small type, inaccessible verbiage, extensive footnotes and an exhaustive bibliography.

Exquisite maps made at the University of Oregon under the direction of James Meacham help the public understand the role of migration in wildlife survival. (click to enlarge)

Such dry work quickly shelved in bureaucrats’ offices to collect dust. In contrast, slide shows, illustrated booklets, beautiful maps, and now videos with “Raiders” cartographic animation, quickly get the message to the public and their policy- and decision-making representatives.

“These journeys are fascinating to us,” Kauffman said. “I think the public wants to understand these, which is why we’re trying to tell these stories.”

Bryce Tugwell, director of New Media, directed the video. James Meacham of Oregon was the chief cartographer while Brad Watson narrated. Mark Gocke, Joe Riis, Morgan Heim, Randy Travis and Ray Hageman contributed footage while still photography came from Scott Copeland.

Primary funders for the Atlas of Wildlife Migration was provided by the Knobloch Family Foundation, George B. Storer Foundation, University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute, and U.S. Geological Survey.

Correction: This story was corrected on November 19, 2014, regarding Bryce Tugwell’s title and affiliation. — Ed

For more on wildlife migrations, read these WyoFile reports:
Group launches $2.1M drive to save mule deer migration parcel, September 2014
Bighorn sheep survive migration loss, now pressed by skiers, July 2014
America’s longest mule deer migration discovered in Wyoming, April 2014

— Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He began working at the Jackson Hole News in 1978, and was editor of the Jackson Hole News and Jackson Hole News&Guide before joining WyoFile. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307) 690-5586. Follow him @AngusThuermer.

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Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. I was driving from Cody to Meeteetse one sunny April afternoon in 1981 . The highway traverses the wide open valley of Dry Creek below the Meeteetse Rim. The sandstone and sagebrush with scruffy patches of white snow appeared to be moving, undulating.

    It was 3,000 Pronghorn , give or take , moving back towards the Greybull River valley from wintering in Oregon Basin. It was amazing. If I could post a photo here, I would.

    On a gibbous moonlit night in April , 1997 , myself and three other photographers drove from Cody up to near Cooke City Montana thru Sunlight Basin and Crandall on the Chief Joseph Highway . We were on an outing to photograph Comet Hale-Bopp as a nocturnal landscape. We did that 45 times that winter. But the comet took a back seat to something else we saw about midnight…25 to 30 Moose snaking thru the trees in mostly single file. Thirty Moose do not usually do this , even on Moose lodge night. It had to have been some kind of a migration , but what ? They were heading east , out of the mountains, down country…exactly 180° in the opposite direction of what you would think. Nobody had seen anywhere near that many Moose in one place at one time in the Upper Clarks Fork since I don’t know when , before or since. Quien sabe?

    We humans might think we understand wildlife behavior, but then they do something surprising. All the more reason to give them latitude to roam.
    Dewey Vanderhoff
    Cody, WY