By Kyle Kissock | Communications Manager
This tiny clump of feathers we found beneath a barbed-wire fence at Alkali Draw was evidence of a potential sage grouse “fence strike.”
Feathers as Clues
“I think I found a strike!” said Wes.
Beneath the fence lay a small clump of feathers – evidence, perhaps of what we’d been looking for since we’d left the trucks that morning?
The speckled down was so perfectly camouflaged with the sagebrush that I’d missed it when walking by seconds before. It was a sharp spot by Wes, who was evidently doing a better job of keeping his eyes glued to the fence line than I was.
Wes, Martin (our other volunteer) and I were surveying a two-mile long stretch of barbed-wire fence for “sage-grouse strikes” near Alkali Draw, just east of Big Piney. For the last two hours we’d waded through thigh-high sagebrush and post-holed through melting March snow drifts as we followed the fence line across the expansive open range.
We were looking for clues that would indicate the presence of a grouse strike, an unfortunate instance where a grouse collides with a barbed-wire fence in mid-flight. Strikes are more common that anyone would like in this area. While sometimes the grouse fly away unscathed, oftentimes the strike ends up being fatal, much like the fate of songbirds that slam into windows.
This smattering of feathers was the first evidence of a potential strike we’d come across that morning. Given the lengthy amount of fence we’d surveyed, finding only a single clump of feathers to this point was a good sign.
Project volunteers take field notes on the potential fence strike found on the Alkali Draw fence. The feathers were found under one of the fences we treated with black plastic loom, with the goal of making the fence’s top wire more visible to birds.
We marked our location along the fence using GPS. Although the feathers looked old (freshly melted out from under a winter’s worth of snow) we began to move outward from the feathers, methodically scanning the muddy ground for more clues that might help us determine the fate of the bird to which the clump of feathers once belonged.
The Problem: Mitigating Fence Strikes
Much of Wyoming’s whopping 43 million acres of sagebrush country serves as a refuge of sorts for the Greater Sage-Grouse.
It’s estimated that nearly 40% of the world’s Greater Sage-Grouse population occurs in the state, and perhaps no species is more inextricably linked to this specific sagebrush habitat.
But as land use has changed, Wyoming’s sage-grouse population hasn’t been exempt from dramatic declines. Over the last century the overall population of Greater Sage-Grouse in the American West has cratered nearly 95%. This is primarily due to habitat loss from human development such as farms, subdivisions, and energy infrastructure.
A victim of a fence strike. Sage-grouse most frequently collide with the top wire of barbed-wire fences, which can result in grizzly decapitations like the one pictured here.
While mortalities from fence strikes haven’t been shown to be a driving factor in the decline of grouse populations, anecdotal evidence suggests that the impacts could be significant. The fence we were surveying at Alkali Draw is one such case. It runs through an especially dense sage-grouse area, where birds flock seasonally either for mating or to forage for food.
Complicating the problem, sage-grouse are poorly adapted to recognize and avoid fences when flying. When they take to the air, grouse fly relatively low to the ground (think fence height), their wingtips nearly clipping the sagebrush.
By the time they see the fence, if they see it at all, it’s too late to react.
At Alkali Draw it’s not an uncommon sight to find signs of grouse strikes; a ball of feathers clinging to a fence, or even the full carcass of a grouse hanging on a wire if it hasn’t yet been dragged away by scavengers.
The Solution: Treatments for Fences
Back at the fence, for 10 minutes we searched the area surrounding the feathers that Wes found, but did not find additional signs of the bird that left its mark. This was to be expected as the strike was old and had it resulted in a mortality, remnants of the dead bird would likely be long gone.
Our approaching footsteps spooked this female grouse near the Alkali Draw Fence.
Given that the feathers were found directly under the barbed-wire, we determined this was evidence of a fence strike. After making note that the feathers were found under the section of barbed-wire that we’d treated with black plastic loom, we carried down the fence line.
The Alkali Draw fence is actively used to contain livestock and cannot be permanently removed. But in seeking a solution to mitigate strikes in the area, we had applied a series of treatments to the fence that make its wires more visible to airborne grouse. The “black plastic loom” was one of the treatments we were studying.
An example of the wooden stays “treatment” applied to the fence to make it more visible to grouse. Note the visible wooden posts we installed on the wire in between the standard metal t-posts.
Last year, the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation partnered with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to apply multiple treatment types to barbed-wire fences outside of Pinedale, where grouse strikes are recurring issues.
Our goal is to conduct a long-term study over multiple seasons to explore which treatment type works best to reduce grouse strikes. Teton Raptor Center is the project’s partner responsible for crunching the data points and analyzing the effectiveness, or lack thereof, for each fence treatment.
The study design is simple; at each study site each treatment type covers roughly ¼ mile of fence and treatments are as follows:
1. Black plastic loom on the top wire
2. White plastic loom on the top wire
3. Mixed loom (black and white) on the top wire
4. Wooden “stays” installed vertically on the fence
A volunteer surveys the Alkali Draw fence for strikes in the “mixed loom” treatment section. Both black and white plastic loom has been installed on the top wire to maximize visibility in all weather conditions.
Our plan is to work with the BLM to survey five miles of fence on a bi-weekly basis through the winter and spring to record the number of strikes and mortalities that occurs in each treatment area.
At each study site we leave a portion of barbed-wire untreated as a control in the experiment. If over time, and with the help of Teton Raptor Center’s research director, we determine that there is a statistically significant difference between the amount of strikes in the control segments and our treatments, we’ll be able to recommend a preferred treatment and application to fences where high-levels of strikes are occurring.
Data collection for the 2020 season is just starting, so stay tuned for updates on what’s working and why!
By Troy Koser | PhD Candidate, Montana State University
Dear Nature Mappers,
Do you love moose and frequently see them in or around your home?
If so, we would like for you to consider participating in a scientific project studying the interactions between moose, winter ticks, and climate in the Jackson Hole area.
We are specifically looking for landowners to grant researchers access to their properties so that they can collect data on winter ticks and moose health.
The project is also looking for participants who would be willing to have researchers erect experimental plots with ticks that would be monitored from Spring 2020-Fall 2020.
The details of the project are explained in this Moose Citizen Science Engagement document and the U.S. Geological Service permission forms for both studies are included here (first study), and here (second study).
The “Exp Plot and Surveys” permission form grants permission for both study components while the “Surveys” permission form only grants access to collect sample, but not establish an experimental plot.
Thank you for your consideration and time. Please feel free to contact me, Troy Koser, with any questions about the project or winter tick-moose interactions in general!
PhD Student at Montana State University
Bozeman Disease Ecology Lab
School Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Personal Email: email@example.com
By Frances Clark | Lead Nature Mapping Volunteer
This healthy-looking young moose was photographed by GTRE staff participant Sarah Dewey, browsing in a cottonwood grove.
The data is in: 127 moose, 100 volunteers in 32 teams, who donated over 350 hours! Wow, thank you all. Teams ranged north to Arizona Creek in Grand Teton National Park, east out the Gros Ventre, west to Alta, and south to the county border.
Click here for our Moose Day sightings map!
The total number of moose fits in with two other peak years: 127 in 2019, and 124 in 2011, which were extreme snow years that concentrated moose into the valley near roads and homes for easier movement.
Tamara Clausen uses binoculars to survey for moose. This year’s weather made for easier critter-finding than in 2019, when blizzard conditions and tall snow banks complicated search efforts. Photo: Frances Clark.
This year, with temperatures in the mid 30s and mostly sunny, it was good weather for humans scouting for moose, although less good for moose, which are adapted to extreme cold and begin to stress at temperatures over 23 degrees.
We had a whopping 172 moose in 2017, due to 57 out the Gros Ventre to the Darwin Ranch. This year the U.S. Forest Service team headed by Jason Wilmot snowmobiled to the Darwin Ranch and saw 39 moose.
In addition, we had a record number of volunteers: 100 up from 92 last year, which was then the all-time high. We had a several family teams and teams of new Nature Mappers. Thank you!
We particularly appreciate John Beller who trained and deployed eight volunteers in a new area around Alta, on the west side of the Tetons. They saw one moose.
Reports noted moose in great shape with glossy coats. Rarely did mappers observe injuries, and no rubbed fur (a sign of ticks) or nicked ears (a sign of carotid artery worms).
In general moose appeared at certain nodes – Buffalo Valley (16), out the Gros Ventre (39), a subdivision west of the airport (11), off the south dike in Wilson (8), and around Trail Creek/Old Pass Road region (16).
This volunteer team of cross-country skiers surveyed a large territory consisting of Ditch Creek, the Gros Ventre River, and Antelope Flats. Photo: Kathy McCurdy.
They were more scattered elsewhere throughout the valley requiring patience and in some cases causing disappointment. Several teams saw fresh tracks but no moose, and other teams saw no trace of moose. As we often say, “The moose disappear on Moose Day.” We don’t know why or where.
On Moose Day there were many other critters to nature map: coyotes, fox, otter, Pacific marten, ermine, bison, and elk, along with various birds: Bald Eagles, Trumpeter Swans, Common Mergansers, Ring-Necked Ducks, and “first-of-the-year” Red-winged Blackbirds.
We thank Wyoming Game and Fish, Grand Teton National Park, Bridger-Teton National Forest, and the National Elk Refuge for their contribution of staff time to the cooperative cause of Moose Day. And we thank all of you who snowshoed, skied, drove, and snowmobiled for hours. Finally, particular appreciation to the private landowners including the Resor Family, Jackson Hole Golf and Tennis, Teton Science School, among others for granting permission to survey their property.
Below are excerpts from individual team reports:
Old moose tracks in a cottonwood gallery, a common site for many participants surveying riparian areas on Moose Day. Photo: Kathy McCurdy.
In the north part of the park Moran junction to Arizona Creek, Kate Winters, her mother Nancy Winters, and Jon Wiedie observed coyote, ermine, a skier, an old snowshoer, and rodent tracks around Oxbow Bend. Skiing south of the roadway between oxbow and dam, they found two female moose, an adult and juvenile, who had been hanging around cottonwoods and crossing over to hide in the evergreens.
Covering her part by ski, Deb Patla saw one set of old moose tracks near the end of that jaunt, mostly covered by fresh or wind-blown snow. She saw swans, bald eagles, and lots of coyote, fox and ermine tracks.
Matt Fagan and Karyn Greenwood snowshoed five hours around Pacific Creek with no moose in sight, which puzzled him as he sees them regularly there in the summer. He was rewarded though by a couple of Buffleheads and Bald Eagles over the Snake River, and four Mountain Chickadees; also lots of tracks of fox, coyote, and otter!
Ray White surveys a terraced snowscape in Grand Teton National Park. Photo: Kathy McCurdy
Grand Teton Park biologists Sarah Dewy and Carson Butler found the motherload of 16 moose in the Buffalo Valley – good willow habitat!
Bev Boynton, Ray White, Kathy McCurdy, and Nancy Shea were surprised to find only four moose in their area covering Antelope Flats, the Gros Ventre river bed, road east of Kelly, and north along Ditch Creek to the Teton Science School’s Kelly Campus.
While there was plenty of sign, they saw only two moose up Ditch Creek eating cottonwoods. They saw plenty of other species including 70 elk walking on the Kelly Peak massif; Red-wing Blackbirds, Barrow’s Goldeneye, four geese at Kelly Warm Springs (“First of Year for us”) along with five bison, two swans, five Common Mergansers, 10 Ring-necked Ducks.
Two teams of two under the aegis of U.S. Forest Service biologist Jason Wilmot, snowmobiled 6.5 hours to find 39 moose along the Gros Ventre Road out to the Darwin Ranch.
Moose Day 2020’s youngest Nature Mapper? Photo: Taylor Phillips.
A team of Jackson Hole natives Leith and Barb Barker and Reade and Dave Dornan reported, “Several places of good moose tracks, which we really scoured with our four sets of binoculars, but nary a twig eaten did we spy, not even an ear tip. And nobody we approached saw moose either. We asked photographers, eco-tour drivers, cross-country skiers, and a bartender (at Moose). Nobody has seen a moose in ‘a couple of weeks.’ Alas . . . we were moose-less. Sigh. Hope others had better luck!”
To the west and north of the airport, Steven Squillaci and family cruised in an SUV to find 11 moose in a subdivision clustered along two roads, a sign of likely feeding. Unfortunately, feeding moose can be harmful as their gut may not be adapted to digesting the well-meaning handouts.
A team covered the region around Jackson Golf and Tennis (JHGT) by snowmobile, car, and ski to see five moose. The team included JHGT manager Jeff Jensen and Randy and Robin Reedy, who postponed a trip to participate in Moose Day!
Thanks to permission from the Resor Family, a team of six skied much of the Snake River Ranch, (“It was pretty rough!”) and two drove around the Snake River Ranch. Unfortunately no moose but David Watson and daughter Taylor Woods watched a Pacific Marten for 5-6 minutes. Bruce Pasfield saw two coyotes, and Ben Wise and company saw four individual foxes. “It was great to get out this morning!”
Jana Stearns and Kerri Ratcliff skied down the length of Old Pass Road, finding no moose there, but one at the cemetery and another few nearby. Jeremy Schmidt tramped around the woods with no luck. A neighbor provided a report of 11 moose.
Cheerful Moose Day volunteers after a morning of searching for moose. Photo John Beller.
The riparian area along the Snake River was scouted by three teams: Taylor and Brook Phillips are starting their son Canyon (above) and daughter Isa off early as naturalists, to find a cow/calf pair along the “north dike.” Susan Marsh, Meg Gilbert, and Julie Holding saw eight moose along the “south dike” in Wilson. AJ DeRosa deployed three teams of two to cover the extensive area around his “tipi camp” in the cottonwoods for one moose sighting.
Patty Ewing and daughter Heather covered Cache Creek for three moose that they know well, marking their movements throughout the day (most were loafing).
Many, many more of you covered neighborhoods of Wilson, Teton Village, Jackson, High School Road, South Park, Game Creek, and way south to the county border. Again, thank you for your time, enthusiasm, and commitment to the moose we all care for!
Frances Clark, Moose Day Coordinator
By Aly Courtemanch, Wildlife Biologist | Wyoming Game and Fish Department
Collared moose GPS locations in the vicinity of the Snake River Bridge and Highway 22/390 intersection from March 2019 – January 2020. Each color corresponds to an individual collared moose. The GPS collars collect a point every 30 minutes.
Moose are one of the most beloved wildlife species by our community. During the winter, they become more easily observable when they migrate down to low elevations and are often seen right in our neighborhoods and backyards. However, living amongst humans and our development can be dangerous too. The number of moose-vehicle collisions on roads have steadily increased in recent years in Teton County.
For this reason, the Wyoming Department of Transportation and Wyoming Game and Fish Department partnered in 2019 to learn more about when, where, and how often moose cross roads. In March 2019, we darted 10 cow moose within 3 miles of the Snake River Bridge and Highway 22/390 intersection and fit them with satellite tracking collars. These collars are programmed to collect a GPS location every 30 minutes and will stay on the moose for 2 ½ years, at which point they will automatically detach and drop off. The collars upload their GPS locations every 2 days to a satellite, which then sends the locations to an email account where we can download them. This technology allows us to get real-time data on moose movements and be alerted to possible mortalities.
Kate Gersh, Associate Director Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation, sits with an anaesthetized cow moose while she wakes up.
This is the first time that moose have been collared in this area so we are learning new and very interesting things about their movements. We have learned that four of the 10 moose are migratory, meaning that they moved from their low elevation winter ranges where they were collared to high elevation summer ranges. One of the collared moose spent the summer in Grand Teton National Park in Open Canyon and Death Canyon. The other migratory moose spent the summer in Phillips Canyon and Teton Pass. Six of the 10 moose are resident, meaning that they used generally the same areas in the summer and the winter. Resident moose mostly spent the summer on West Gros Ventre Butte, around the Wilson area, and along the Snake River, Fish Creek, and Fall Creek.
We have also learned that some moose cross roads a lot, whereas others cross very infrequently. Two moose have only crossed Highway 22 or 390 once or twice during the past 10 months. Other moose have crossed 27, 34, and 67 times! So far, only one collared moose has died. She died of unknown causes but had not crossed any roads while she was collared, so her death was not caused by a vehicle collision. The moose collar data has already provided important information about where wildlife underpasses should be located as part of WYDOT’s Snake River Bridge replacement project, which is expected to start construction in 2022.
Collared moose movements in the vicinity of the Snake River Bridge and Highway 22/390 intersection from March 2019 – January 2020. Each color corresponds to an individual collared moose. The lines shown on this map connect the 30 minutes points seen on the previous map.
This project has received a HUGE amount of support from our community! In addition, many new funding partners have contributed money this year to expand this study. Thanks to this help, we plan to dart and collar eight more cow moose in March 2020 and partner with other researchers to study how diseases and parasites (winter ticks) are affecting moose.
I want to extend a huge thank you to all of the private landowners who allowed us access to their property to dart and collar these moose! Thank you to our funding partners: Wyoming Department of Transportation, Teton Conservation District, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, U.S. Geological Survey, Teton County, and Veterinary Initiative for Endangered Wildlife.
By Jon Mobeck, Executive Director |
The Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation had a terrific year in 2019, making meaningful contributions to our wild community in a variety of ways. Our work to make roads safer for people and wildlife, which began at our founding 26 years ago, continued as we joined partners in supporting a successful ballot initiative that resulted in a $10M investment in wildlife crossing infrastructure. Our annual Teton County Wildlife-Vehicle Collision Report, along with the many graphs, maps and infographics we created to enliven these data, illuminated the impact of our roads on wildlife and provided an essential tool to decision-makers.
Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation volunteers and staff completed 21 fence modification or removal projects in 2019.
In the past year, with 300 Wildlife Friendlier Fencing volunteer days logged over 21 projects, we removed or improved 14 miles of fences in Teton and Sublette County, WY. Over the past four years alone, volunteers have collectively contributed more than 1,000 days in the field to make 28 miles of fence more conducive to safe passage for wildlife.
Also this year, our team organized 20 Snake River Float Surveys from May to September during which we recorded more than 7,000 wildlife observations. We spent more than 1,000 hours in the field capturing 619 birds and banding 372 of them to contribute data toward a multi-decade bird research project. In the 16th season of our Mountain Bluebird Nestbox Project, our volunteers monitored 112 boxes as we gathered more data on the least-studied member of the bluebird family. Nearly 100 volunteers turned out to record moose observations on Moose Day 2019, providing valuable data to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department on one of Jackson Hole’s most iconic, and perhaps vulnerable, species.
The best thing about all of these accomplishments is that they are the product of an engaged community. The JHWF team has the honor of helping to coordinate and plan projects, but nothing happens until passionate individuals pitch in. Many of the hundreds of JHWF volunteers have been there since the beginning in 1993. Others have more recently joined the “JHWF family”.
Securing $10 million in funding for future wildlife crossing solutions on last year’s SPET ballot was a major win for the wildlife conservation community.
After four years as the Executive Director of JHWF, I now have the opportunity to embark on a new adventure in a new place. While setting off in a new direction is exciting, I’m also grateful for a pause that allows me to reflect on the experiences along the trail that led me here, and express my gratitude to the people who have made this work so rewarding for me. The job of Executive Director of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation is one of the best jobs on the planet. The daily interaction with the great people of this community, and the daily interactions with wildlife, together comprise an exceedingly rare privilege.
Thank you to every board and staff member, to every volunteer and donor, to every agency and organizational partner, to every engaged community member, for being a part of something that I believe to be truly special. The work of JHWF is vital, conducted in a way that builds grassroots support for meaningful improvements to the landscape for wildlife. If a “land ethic evolves in the minds of a thinking community” as Aldo Leopold suggested, then Jackson Hole’s passionate community members form a fertile landscape, and JHWF’s deep roots have supported the growth of a forest of beneficial actions.
During the next few months, JHWF will seek to find a new Executive Director, and I will continue to fulfill my responsibilities until I can hand them to a new person, which I will be honored to do. Few places in the world retain the riches of wildlife that we enjoy here, and few opportunities are as good as this one to make a difference with a wide-ranging family of active wildlife enthusiasts and advocates.
I would strongly encourage interested people to learn more about the position and apply at https://jhwildlife.org/about-us/jobs-and-internships/
To the community of wildlife supporters of all kinds, I offer my thanks and appreciation.
By Kyle Kissock |
Do slower speeds reduce the chance of a wildlife-vehicle collision?
While the short answer is yes, the longer answer is likely a bit more complicated.
In winter, ungulates like mule deer cluster on the low-elevation buttes around town. Driving the posted speed can help reduce your chances of a collision with an animal.
An article in a recent Jackson Hole News and Guide highlighted the research of biologist Corinna Riginos, who was contracted by the Wyoming Department of Transportation to study the effects of reduced nighttime speed limits on wildlife-vehicle collision (WVC) rates on high-speed roadways.
Riginos’s results indicated that site-specific, nightly speed limit reductions from 70 mph to 55 mph failed to decrease WVCs.
The reason? Despite lower posted nightly speed limits (and in some cases increased enforcement) drivers decreased their average vehicle speeds only 3-5 mph.
This decrease in speed was likely not enough to compensate for the fact that vehicles traveling through “high-speed” study sites were moving relatively fast to begin with.
As the vast majority of WVCs occur at night, drivers involved in collisions likely still “outran” their headlights, a phenomenon that becomes increasingly hard to avoid (even for attentive drivers) as vehicle speeds exceed 35 mph.
However, it’s important to note that this study focused on a specific type of road; high-speed, two lane highways, and does not mean that slower speed limits are ineffective at preventing WVCs.
Rigino’s recent study showed that on high-speed roadways (70-80 mph) nighttime speed limit reductions had little effect to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions
As Riginos points out, research indicates that deer-vehicle collisions in zones with permanent speed limits of 65 mph were over 60% more likely to occur than deer-vehicle collisions in zones with permanent speed limits of 55 mph. In these areas, even a 10 mph decrease made a significant difference.
What about nightly speed limits in Teton County?
Although it does get harder to avoid WVCs at night as you “outrun” your headlights, reducing your vehicle speed still means increased reaction time as a driver.
Currently, ungulates in our valley are residing at low elevations and spending time on or near roadways where travel is easier than wading through the deep winter snow pack.
It’s on these town and county roads, where speed limits are relatively low to begin with, that driver behavior can have an out sized impact on avoiding collisions with wildlife.
For example, reducing your speed from 40 mph 30 mph on Broadway (in the 30 mph posted stretch) likely has more of an impact on collision avoidance than if you were to reduce your speed from 80 mph to 70 mph on, say, Interstate-80.
Moose-Wilson Rd, N. Highway 89 in Grand Teton National Park, and south of town near Rafter J are examples of where recent WVCs have occurred, and where abiding by the speed limit at night (it is the law after all) can truly safe a life.
By modeling good driver behavior, those of us who care deeply about wildlife can set examples for the rest of our community to follow!