Kyle Kissock – Communications Manager
Next time you see a moose along the Moose-Wilson Road, you might notice it sporting something a little different…
Starting this week, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is fitting ten moose with GPS tracking collars in the vicinity of the Highway 22/390 intersection. The collars have been provided by the Wyoming Department of Transportation, and the goal of collaring moose in this location is to better understand movement patterns in this critical habitat zone. The movement patterns will guide where wildlife underpasses may be installed, in conjunction with the Snake River Bridge replacement project (scheduled for 2022).
In this picture, the soil bag keeps the moose’s head tilted to ensure it’s airway remains clear. We constantly monitored this moose while it was sedated.
Wondering what goes into putting a tracking collar on a live moose? I was lucky enough to tag along and find out how biologists safely collar moose in the field!
It starts with selecting the right moose. As we know, this winter has been hard on ungulates in our valley. Although this process is generally safe for the moose, biologists want to avoid putting undo stress onto already taxed animals, so they will be looking for healthy individuals who are at least yearlings in age; calves are not collared. This project is also specific to the “West Bank” of the Snake River and biologists are only searching for animals which inhabit the Moose-Wilson Road corridor.
Using a coat as a blindfold helps protect the animal’s eyes as the biologist takes a blood sample to identify possible diseases. This moose even got an anti-tick medicine!
We ended up locating a cow- yearling pair who were well-nourished and showed minimal signs of hair loss or disease…perfect candidates for GPS collars.
The darting and collaring process was surprisingly quick, given the size and strength of the animals involved. After the moose were darted in the rumps, where their biggest muscle groups are, it took about 10 minutes for the tranquilizers to take effect. Like humans, drugs effect each critter differently, but these animals went down relatively easily, first to their knees, then bellies to the earth. We approached the moose and made sure they were not lying in positions where the ground could put pressure on their airways; suffocation was the biggest hazard for the sleeping duo, but one that could be easily mitigated. Fun fact: moose aren’t quiet sleepers, they actually snore and drool a little while they snooze!
While a small group of volunteers held the animals’ massive heads to make sure they kept breathing, the biologists drew blood samples to test for diseases and to see if the adult female was pregnant. Generally, a pregnant population of moose is a good indicator the population as a whole is doing ok. The adult female was given antibiotics for a small wound we discovered while collaring her, and even some tick medicine, which as a wild animal is likely as close as she will ever come to getting a veterinarian’s check-up!
The “after” photo, showing the yearling, a little woozy, but happy and healthy with the newly fitted GPS collar and tag. This first thing she did after waking up? Started munching on willows of course!
The next step is fitting and applying the GPS collars. We get questions from time to time about whether the collars will impact the quality of life for the moose (which is a great question). The collars are designed to not encumber the movements of the animal and will actually release, usually after a few years, when sufficient data is acquired. The biologists will then be able to track and recover the dropped collars. While the moose might prefer not to be wearing a necklace, scientists don’t believe these collars negatively influence their lives in any way. In fact, when these two woke up, they seemed utterly unaware anything had changed.
Before the moose were released, biologists injected each animal with a “reversal drug” which kicked in in a matter of minutes. The idea was to limit the time the animals were sedated in order to create as little stress for them possible. This brought both of the moose out of their slumbers, a little dazed, but no worse for the wear.
This project is the first time scientists have collected movement data on this population of “West Bank” moose. In addition to guiding underpass construction, it will also be interesting to find out whether or not these animals are migratory, and if there are specific times of day and certain locations where they are choosing to cross dangerous roads. We will report back when the data starts to come in, so stay tuned!
And when you do see a moose with a collar and a yellow tag, you can be sure that moose is providing important data for a good cause. And continue to drive cautiously, especially on Highways 22 and on 390 at night!
The unofficial number of moose counted on Moose Day 2019 (Saturday, February 23) was 131 moose. This is over the 124 total in 2011 (another deep-snow year) and below the record of 172 in 2017—when a mother lode of 57 moose was observed out the east end of the Gros Ventre at the Darwin Ranch. So 2019 is an exceptional count year! Notably too, we had a record number of 94 volunteers this year.
February 2019 was an epic month for snowfall and fell just short of the all-time record, missing the record mark by a mere 3.1 inches. Needless to say, it was an incredibly harsh winter for moose and all long-legged critters, including elk and mule deer. We have all seen moose standing on roads, blocked by snow banks, or huddled near buildings. Even with their long legs, food is hard to reach and the going is tough for moose.
What the Biologists Noticed:
Aly Courtemanch, ungulate biologist for Wyoming Game and Fish Department, surveyed for moose in a helicopter while Nature Mappers were searching on the ground. According to her, this was an especially important year for the contribution of volunteers on Moose Day because with the high snow, moose where huddled up against structures and vegetation, which made spotting them from the air especially challenging.
In recent years the moose population in the “Jackson Herd” has been estimated at between 400-450 individuals, down from a decade ago. However, there were some positive indications from this year’s Moose Day.
“This year we saw quite a few cows with calves, which was very promising.” Courtemanch said. “Generally there were more cows that had twins too; twins indicated those cows were healthy and have great nutrition.”
Another good sign was the observation of moose in areas where they had not been seen in some time.
“This is the second year in a row that we’ve seen moose in Willow Flats,” said Courtemanch. She added, “there used to be a lot of moose that wintered there in the past, but not so recently. After many years, this is the second winter in a row we’ve noticed moose there!”
131 moose were spotted on Moose Day 2019. 2019 also set a record for volunteer participation with 94 volunteers. High snow banks limited visibility for some groups. Image: Fred Becker
Moose Day surveyors worked hard to cover their territories ranging North to Arizona Creek in Grand Teton National Park, east out the Gros Ventre, west up Trail Creek (with a new area around Alta), and south to the county border.
Most surveyors traveled in teams by car intermittently getting out, walking, and peering over snow banks. They scouted along the main highways and throughout neighborhoods. Others skied and snowshoed public lands and extensive private tracts. One agency team snowmobiled far out into the Gros Ventre Range.
All were looking for sign of moose: tracks, poop, and browse, and dark masses with long ears silhouetted against white.
As usual, some “regular” moose vanished, such as one that had been lingering for days under a volunteer’s window. Others were found in their habitual spots, up Trail Creek and near Cache Creek by veteran surveyors.
Condition of moose varied. Most appeared pretty healthy looking, but some, especially juveniles and moose in Jackson were thin with worn coats from an overload of ticks. One long-time valley resident commented, “All wildlife is struggling with deep, dense snow.”
So where were the most moose?
Buffalo Valley harbored 19 moose and the area west of Lower Slide Lake had 18. Antelope Flats, Kelly, the floodplain corridor and the area west to the airport had a total of 13. The Jackson Hole Golf and Tennis Club north into Solitude had a count of 10. The majority of moose, over 50, were in and around Wilson: south down the dike (9), Trail Creek drainage (16), Fall Creek Road (5), and Snake River Ranch (9), as well as scattered in subdivisions (15). Three moose were sighted in Jackson (with several others later in the day), and a few moose were spotted south around Cottonwood, Rafter J, and South Park.
Where did moose not show up?
Zero is an important number in science. Despite great effort, intrepid surveyors– mostly on skis–did not see any sign of moose on the north and west regions of the Grand Teton National Park where snow is particularly deep. They did see a few coyote and weasel tracks. Upper Cache Creek trails and vicinity have been devoid of moose sign in recent weeks, where the snow is also deep. Also, teams surveying below South Park to the county border had no moose, consistent with years past. Special thanks to the surveyors who covered these areas without the reward of finding moose.
Nature Mappers recorded other sightings while out and about: One keen-eyed team saw dippers, Golden Eagle, Red-winged Blackbirds, swans, mergansers, and sage grouse in their area around Kelly and along the Gros Ventre . Two volunteers noted an elk as well as, several mule deer in the heart of Jackson. Many of you reported these and other species as well.
Over eleven years, the number of Moose Day volunteers has gradually risen to an all time high of 94 this year. Some are long-time Nature Mappers, others have not yet been certified, but will be trained soon. They come from all walks of life and from around the country, including Jackson Hole. We are also pleased that long-time Nature Mappers and Jackson Hole residents were joined by newcomers to the community who helped survey their neighborhoods.
Several agency biologists volunteered their time: Sarah Dewey of Grand Teton National Park, Jason Wilmot of the U.S. Forest Service, and Ben Wise of Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Besides all staff members and several board members of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation, David Watson and Sarah Ramirez took a busman’s holiday from Teton Raptor Center and Morgan Graham from Teton Conservation District..
Many Jackson Hole News & Guide folk also stepped up for the fun: Jennifer Dorsey, Melissa Cassutt, Mark Huffman, and Becca Harris. We also thank Jeff Jensen of Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis, and AJ DeRosa and his team from Jackson Hole Vintage Adventures.
Thanks to everyone for taking time to help the moose here in Jackson Hole. Our Moose Day 2019 numbers will become “official” once all data has been reported and vetted by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. A formal report and map will be circulated in the coming weeks and made available for download on our website. The Nature Mapping data will be shared with Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s WOS database to help protect our vulnerable moose population. By participating in this survey, many of you have acquired an extra understanding of moose here in Jackson Hole. The moose thank you! Job well done to all!
January, the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation welcomed Bruce Pasfield to the position of Executive Board President. Bruce enters the role with multiple years of existing board experience and will replace outgoing President Aly Courtemanch, who fulfilled her six-year term at the end of 2018. We wasted no time seating our new president in the “JHWF interview hot-seat” to have Bruce introduce himself, and a bit about his vision for the organization going forward:
Q: Welcome Bruce! We’re excited to introduce you as our Board President. To start off, how did you first hear about JHWF? Was there anything in particular which initially drew you to the organization?
A: Thanks Kyle. I’m excited to take over as Board President. I’ve been involved in conservation issues since a young age and when my wife and I decided to move to Jackson full time, it only made sense for us to explore the local non-profit community options. Jackson has a multitude of non-profits, so it can be a little daunting to choose between all the alternatives. What drew me to the JHWF was the people and the mission. The board and staff were welcoming and known for their cooperative efforts to make the community more wildlife friendly. Once I learned about the people and the mission, it was a pretty easy choice for me to join the board and now to lead it.
Q: Would you be willing to share a little about your professional background outside of your work with the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation (JHWF)?
A: For many years I was a U.S. Department of Justice trial attorney who specialized in prosecuting environmental crimes. Think Exxon Valdez or the more recent VW scandal. These cases were incredibly interesting and demanding. Prosecuting court cases against Fortune 500 companies where outcomes can be multimillion dollar fines or executives landing behind bars, you have to be on your game. After 20 years of government service, I decide to try my hand at the private sector and became a partner at the law firm of Alston & Bird. Private practice provides more entrepreneurial opportunities which I enjoy. I found working on both sides of the fence has given me a broader perspective on negotiating resolutions as well as a deeper understanding of environmental law. The creative aspect of this work is something I hope to employ while President of the JHWF.
Q: What keeps you busy in your spare time?
A: Spare time, what spare time? Seriously though, I’m slowing down on the legal work as I phase into retirement. Billable hours are less of a focus now and that has opened up a whole new universe for me. For starters, my wife Nancy and I can now spend more quality time together which is refreshing after the unrelenting pace of two professionals raising children in the Washington D.C. area. Beyond that I’m one of the assistant coaches for the Jackson Hole High School football team and its been a lot of fun helping to turn that program around. And when I’m not busy with the Broncs or JHWF, you can usually find me doing some form of skiing in the winter and on the trial hiking or birding in the summer. I’m also working on my golf game and learning how to fly fish.
Q: You’re stepping into a new role as board president, but you’ve held a position on our board for a few years. Based on your experience as board member, what has JHWF been able to achieve that you are especially proud of, and where do you see opportunities for growth within the organization?
A: Removing 200 miles of fence in 25 years is an incredible accomplishment and probably the most tangible success of the JHWF. I’m also just awed to be associated with past President Aly Courtemanch who is one of the most knowledgeable and dedicated wildlife biologist I’ve ever met. I’m really proud of her stewardship of JHWF over the last six years and hope I can deliver as well as she did. In terms of growth, I see opportunities in all our program areas. From fence removal to mitigating wildlife vehicle collisions to mapping wildlife movement, there is a great deal more that can be done voluntarily to make the valley more permeable for wildlife. I also see opportunities to make the community more aware of our work and potentially expand it to other communities such as Pinedale, Dubois and over the hill in Victor and Driggs. We won’t grow for growth’s sake, but to the extent we can help other communities duplicate some of our programs it would be a win win.
Q: Apart from serving on the board, you’ve also been an active member on our volunteer “fence team.” What about these projects keeps you coming back? Do you have any advice for people who are looking for ways to get involved with conservation efforts here in Jackson, or in their own communities?
A: The fence projects are so rewarding because they are so immediate and tangible. Fence teams remove or modify fencing and the results are in front of your eyes by the end of the day. If you haven’t been involved in conservation efforts and are looking for a way to become more active, the fence projects are a great way to start. Just sign up, show up, get some basic instruction on fence removal and you are on your way. Boom! If you want more, we have plenty of projects where we can use volunteer help. In fact, most of our programs have a large volunteer component. All of these projects are a great way to connect and meet people in the community.
Kyle Kissock – Communications Manager
A paper published last September in the scientific journal Biological Conservation emphasizes the need for both scientists and the public to better understand the impact fences are having on wildlife and ecosystems. Click here to read.
According to the authors, while fence impacts have been researched on local, species by species basis, there has been little effort to understand larger effects of fence infrastructure on “a multitude of species, population dynamics, or ecosystem processes.”
The study acknowledges “fence ecology” is relatively understudied compared to research on habitat fragmentation by other forms of human infrastructure. This relative “invisibility” of the impact on wildlife by fences is especially troubling, given that length of landscape spanned by fences is often times much greater than better-known barriers such as roads or energy infrastructure, especially in the West.
For example, a resourced we often cite here at JHWF is a study that monitored ungulate mortalities along 600 miles of Colorado and Utah fence for two years. It found that at least one ungulate died of entanglement per year for every 2.5 miles of fence. While we believe these numbers alone are enough to spur a broad call to action, what remains to be understood is the impact of fences on the broader ecosystem based on mortality rates. Further, are species besides ungulates being effected? Have fences changed migration patterns? Do they reduce survival rates even among the animals that avoid entanglement?
Just as increased research will ideally help identify problematic fences posing as bottlenecks and barriers to wildlife movement, this paper also predicts more attention given to fences will help identify locations where fences are having minimal, or even positive impacts on wildlife (i.e. protection from poaching or exclusion from busy roadways).
The authors acknowledge the reality that the study of fence ecology must involve human components, and allow “cultural norms and realities” to permeate ecological discussions. Impacts on wildlife that come to light through increased research must be balanced with the social needs of land owners and land managers. The reality is that many fences cannot simply be removed from the landscape, even if they do have negative impacts.
At JHWF we’re excited to see if “fence ecology” does take off within the scientific community. New science can help us better focus our work efforts to critical areas and lead us into exciting, new frontiers of fence removal and modification. We agree that more people seeing fences for their true impact is a good thing. A broader societal understanding of the realities regarding fences can only help, as we seek the best way to reduce barriers to wildlife movement while respecting the cultural necessity of fences on our Western landscape.