by Frances Clark, Lead Ambassador Nature Mapping Jackson Hole
At this time of year, people see their lawn and gardens riddled with ground squirrels or pocket gophers or their trees chewed to toppling by beaver and ask, “What is the purpose of these pests?”
Small mammals serve as prey for our large mammals and raptors and provide other ecological services, such as aeration and recycling of soil and nutrients. Beaver, our largest rodents, form habitat for many other creatures, although they are a nuisance to homeowners with ponds and aspen plantings.
Small mammals serve as prey for raptors and other animals. Photo: Steve Jurvetson
Uinta ground squirrels are common in sage and grassland habitats, and they find similar features in lawns. They dig tunnels and form sleeping chambers, thereby creating holes and mounds, much to the consternation of homeowners and ranchers. I have nature mapped dozens and dozens of ground squirrels driving out the National Elk Refuge road in spring. Indeed they emerge and mate in April and each pair can produce four to seven young by May, which then scamper about every which-way eating grasses and flowers. Their abundance can seem overwhelming, even repulsive.
Driving out this same route a day in mid-June, I spied several red-tailed hawks, Swainson’s hawks and even golden eagles soaring overhead and a coyote or two trotting through the fields, ears alert. The high-pitched alarm calls of ground squirrels came from all directions. I realized the abundance of raptors was due to the plentitude of squirrels. Uinta ground squirrels are tasty packets of protein. They are a necessary and timely food source for raising young raptor chicks, red fox kits and coyote pups. And the time is short… Uinta ground squirrels are above ground only three months before they go dormant in August for the next nine months. Many don’t make it.
Other raptors, including northern harriers, prairie falcons and American kestrels, hunt open areas for rodents in sizes appropriate to their body weight. In addition to Uinta ground squirrels, least chipmunks, meadow voles and deer mice are important components of their diets. In old growth forests, red-backed voles nourish northern goshawks and pine martens. Great horned owls also devour small mammals. Fortunately, most small rodents don’t bother us humans.
Another annoyance in cultivated areas is northern pocket gopher. As snow melts, one can see the extensive “eskers” that mark the pocket gophers’ progress underground eating roots, rhizomes and tubers for food. In summer, occasional fresh mounds of soil indicate areas of activity. Rarely does one see a whiskered grey face, with tiny eyes and ears, emerge from a hole. Bear, fox and coyote use their ears to find this plump fossorial (digging) prey. The Teton Raptor Center is monitoring pocket gophers as part of their population studies of the majestic great gray owl. Great gray owls can hear pocket gophers moving under feet of snow and plunge feet first to catch their vital winter meal.
In addition, pocket gophers are particularly important in enhancing soils in mountain meadows. Their prodigious earth movement churns up nutrients, allows water and air to seep into hard-packed soils and provides opportunities for seed germination.
Young beaver move up creeks and irrigation ditches to find new territory to raise a family. The sound of running water and presence of willows and aspen stimulates dam building. Some of these appealing sites are now landscaped into ponds surrounded by aspen trees. Beaver build dams to impound water to serve as moats and insulation for their lodges, where they raise their young and keep safe. Anyone who has visited Schwabacher’s Landing or Moose-Wilson Road in the park has witnessed the diversity sustained by these industrious rodents. Beaver impoundments encourage willows, sedges and aquatics, which in turn provide food and shelter for ducks, sora, amphibians and moose. The U.S. Forest Service and other groups are moving trapped beavers up drainages to enhance wildlife habitat and also to help with flood control and water quality. While beaver can be pesky in our expanding human habitats, they are much needed in our natural habitats.
Even the most lowly, annoying-to-us critter has a role to play in our ecosystem. While no one wants wildlife in our homes, understanding the importance of each species in Jackson Hole can enhance our enjoyment of the out-of-doors, even in our own backyard.
How to Nature Map Small Mammals:
Nature mappers can help record the use of habitats — both cultivated and wild — by many of our often unseen or unappreciated small mammals. Here are some tips for mapping a few rodents and related species:
Uinta ground squirrels are buffy brown, about a foot long, with short tails. They often sit erect near the entrance to their burrow holes or look like soft lumps of manure on the edge of roads, until they move. We particularly encourage notations on the First of Year (FOY) appearances in March and April and Last of Year (LOY) sightings in late July and early August.
Uinta Ground Squirrel
Our other ground squirrel, Golden-mantled ground squirrel, looks like a chipmunk due to two set of stripes on its back, but unlike chipmunks, it does not have stripes on its head or tail. These are mostly found in forests, rocky areas and some shrubby sites, particularly at higher elevations.
Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel
We have three species of chipmunks: all have stripes on their heads, backs, and to some extent down their tails. Least chipmunk is more likely in the sage flats and runs with its tail straight up. The tail is longer than its body. It is smaller and darker on its belly than the Uinta chipmunk, which is found more in coniferous forests or shrubby areas. Uinta chipmunk tends to have a lighter belly and a wider tail. Unlike the other two species found in Jackson Hole, Uinta chipmunks have a white outermost stripe along their backs (rather than a fairly distinct black or blackish-brown stripe), which is shown nicely in this Berkeley photo. Relatively more brightly colored, yellow pine chipmunk is also a forest species and has orange highlights. These can be very difficult to distinguish. Do your best, but when in doubt leave it out.
Three Chipmunks in Jackson Hole: Least (left), Uinta (middle) and Yellow Pine (right). Middle and right photos Wyoming Game & Fish Department (WGFD).
Northern pocket gophers by their nature are hard to see unless you are lucky. These gray, 8 inch animals have small eyes, tiny ears, and large front feet with noticeable claws. Their tunnels are obvious either as 3-4 inch rounded eskers left over from winter foraging or fresh mounds of soil about a foot wide and several inches high in summer. This “sign” can be used to indicate areas of abundance in sage flats, meadows or forest openings.
Pocket Gopher, Yellowstone National Park; Gillian Bowser; 1990
Mice, voles, and shrews are impossible to identify to species; therefore, we encourage nature mappers do their best record the groups. Mice have big ears and long tails. Voles have smaller ears and shorter tails and look relatively compact compared to mice. Shrews, which are a separate family, have elongate pointed heads with small eyes and ears and many teeth to eat their prey of insects, earthworms and the like. Tails vary in length. Our common species is masked shrew. We do not have moles in Jackson Hole.
Mouse (left), Vole (middle), and Shrew (right).
Beaver can be distinguished from their relative muskrat by their flat vs. rat-like tails seen while swimming in water. While both have rich brown pelts, beaver are usually bigger with a flatter head and are found among willows or other woody plants, which they use for food and dam building. Muskrats use soft-stemmed cattails, reeds and rushes to form their mounds and for food; therefore, they are more likely in wet meadows and marshes.
Beaver (left) has a flat tail while its relative, the Muskrat (right), has a rat-like tail.
Red Squirrels: Many people recognize the wide-eyed, bushy-tailed red squirrel found in forests and porches. Often we hear their chatter in the deeper forest. These tree squirrels are defending their territories and particularly their caches of cones. If you happen to see an active “midden,” pile of cone scales and stalks, take a point. This is an indicator of highly productive trees and possible pine marten habitat.
“I saw my first robin!” “I saw bluebirds!” “Did you hear the Sandhill Cranes the other day?” “The bears are out.” “Have you seen an Osprey?” “Not yet, should be here soon though.”
As March melts into April, Nature Mappers are excited for spring: we have new critters to see and hear. The wildlife data we submit become all the more interesting and important. This is the time of year we enter First of the Year sightings or FOY’s. We are measuring the natural pulse of spring. Some years, critters appear earlier, other years later, and some species reappear within days of the same date year after year. Your entries help track these annual variations. And if you don’t have the first sighting for the valley, you may well have the first in your area or the first for you! When you see these fresh arrivals, type “FOY” in the notes box of the data form to highlight your finding. Below are some species to look for with the earliest dates recorded between 2010 and 2015 in parentheses.
First of the Year sightings can be migrating birds or emerging or transient mammals. Stimulated by longer days, warmth, and the evolutionary coincidence of food, critters large and small mobilize. Midges, flies and true bugs begin to crawl and fly and become sources of protein for birds. Red-winged Blackbirds and Mountain Bluebirds arrive in the valley in March. In April, Common Nighthawks (4.11.13) swoop overhead through fresh insect hatches, along with Tree (4.8.14) and Violet-green Swallows (4.22.15). With more warmth (and insects), Yellow-rumped Warblers (3.6.10, 4.23.12), Vesper (3.24.12), Savannah (4.17.14), Chipping (4.21.15), and Lincoln’s (4.24.13) Sparrows show up in their various habitats. Warmer soils enable worms and the like to wriggle closer to the surface…within reach of probing beaks of American Robins, Long-billed Curlews (4.12.14), and White-faced Ibis (4.22.14). Anyone heard a Western Meadowlark yet?
As wetlands and ponds thaw, a variety of waterfowl are on display. American Wigeon (3.20.15), American Coot (4.6.10), Cinnamon Teal (4.8.14), Blue-winged teal (4.12.14), and Wood Duck (4.19.14) are in elegant breeding plumage. A flotilla of magnificent American White Pelicans (4.12.15) may be spied on the Snake River, with a Spotted Sandpiper pecking amidst the stones (3.22.12). Near by, the more ordinary granivores such as Brown-headed Cowbird (4.15.10) and Brewer’s Blackbirds (4.22.10) may flock in among Common Grackles (5.2.10), picking up old seeds and new bugs. Listen for the raucous calls of Yellow-headed Blackbirds (3.16.12) in marshes and skulking Sora (4.10.15).
American White Pelicans
Favorites to spot or hear include mammals and amphibians. Uinta ground squirrels should be emerging from their burrows. They went down last August for the long winter, and are one of the earliest hibernating rodents to reappear (3.26.18). Keep an ear out for their high-pitched whistle and then look for scampering. They emerge in time to feed coyote pups and summering Red-tailed Hawks. Least Chipmunks will pop up as well (3.23.12). We all thrill at the trill of Boreal Chorus Frogs (4.11.13) in neighborhood ponds and floodplain pools. “Cold-blooded,” or technically ectothermic amphibians, are a true indication of warming weather. Wandering Gartersnakes gain mobility from basking in the sun. Amphibians and snakes are an under-reported prize for Nature Mappers.
Also, it is exciting to watch the world-renowned seasonal migrations of ungulates. When do the Wapiti begin to surf the green wave: moving by the thousands from the National Elk Refuge in sequence with the greening grass? Fresh forage provides essential calories and nutrition for females with soon-to-be-born calves. Hundreds of Pronghorn will arrive along the Path of the Pronghorn originating by Pinedale and weaving through the Gros Ventre into Jackson Hole toward the end of April. And where do the buffalo roam throughout the valley?
Where do the bison roam?
Some people consider April to be the off-season in Jackson. Nature Mappers know it is in fact the on season for wildlife. Enjoy entering your sightings that help us understand and protect these wonders of our valley.
–Frances Clark (Data compiled by Susan Marsh)
P.S. Curious what others have seen when? Click on the “All Observations” link on the bottom of the Nature Mapping JH Mobile Page. This is the list of all observations. You can filter by date, group, or species.
View All Observations
The Teton County Sheriff’s Office contributed two more variable message signs to a stretch of S HWY 89 as area organizations enacted emergency options to address a challenging winter for wildlife.
We have all seen that this year’s snowpack is making things difficult on wildlife. Mule deer in particular are spending more time in the town and on the roads – wherever they can find easier movement and potential forage. As they join us on the valley floor and move around where we do, the potential for conflict of many kinds increases. An obvious problem arises on our roadways, as high snowbanks both limit driver visibility and make navigation challenging for wildlife. Area organizations and agencies continue to discuss options to address the issue, some having been put in place immediately as short -and long-term strategies to reduce wildlife vehicle collisions are integrated. Here’s an update on the quick-response efforts:
Jackson Hole News & Guide article by Mike Koshmrl (Thursday, January 26)
A small herd of bighorn sheep is frequenting the stretch of N HWY 89 just north of the Dairy Queen near the town limits. Please give them ample space and time to move. Unlike deer and elk, these sheep will obstinately remain on the road.
While a county-wide master plan is in process, an array of short-term mitigation measures have been and will continue to be considered. We are grateful that a good deal of data exists on the relative effectiveness of various measures, which we use to make decisions while also recognizing the constraints of time, resources and feasibility. The planned crossings on South HWY 89 (construction set to begin next spring) will separate animals from the roadway, which data suggests is the most effective way to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions at scale. According to most research, underpasses and overpasses are 80-90% effective at reducing WVCs, while seasonal wildlife alert signage (i.e. variable mobile message signs) is estimated in the 20-25% effective range, making it an effective emergency measure and complimentary piece within a holistic WVC reduction effort. The master plan will likely include a number of mitigation recommendations to include structures, signs and speed limit adjustments to apply the most effective site-specific solutions across the valley.
What can you do now?
- Be alert and drive for the conditions. Most accidents happen at times of low visibility – dawn, dusk, nighttime or in bad weather.
- Watch for electronic warning signs. These signs are put in places where we know animals are or have recently been crossing the road frequently. They’re not just generic warnings – when you see these signs, watch carefully for wildlife.
- When you see wildlife near roadways – slow down immediately. If you see one animal cross the road, it is very likely more are close behind. Animals near the road are not waiting for us to pass by – expect them to do something unexpected, like dash in front of your car.
- In winter, wildlife often use roads to move about – it’s easier than walking through deep snow. But, sometimes they get onto a road and can’t find a quick place to get off. Give them a brake. Be patient and give them time to find a place to get off the road.
- To protect yourself and your passengers, experts advise that you should not swerve off the road to avoid hitting an animal.
- Familiarize yourself with the wildlife-vehicle collision hotspots (located here) and be even more mindful when driving there. Hint: The flashing fixed radar speed limit signs and digital message boards are located in some of these hotspots.
- Get involved with Safe Wildlife Crossings for Jackson Hole to learn about what we can do to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions as a community.
- Contact your elected officials to let them know that reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions is a high priority.
- If you see areas where snowbanks are trapping wildlife on roadways or impeding movement unusually, please don’t hesitate to call us at 307-739-0968. We work with local partners to address these issues if possible.
Additionally, if you are a Nature Mapper, record your observations of wildlife around neighborhoods and roadways. Please use the comments fields to share the activity you observe. The more information we collect about locations and behaviors during winter (all seasons, actually), the better we understand as a community how we are interacting with wildlife, with the goal of living compatibly alongside our wild neighbors.
Be especially alert in the areas highlighted on this map!
by Frances Clark
Wildlife deals with winter in many ways: some leave the valley, many others stay year-round. They may go underground for the duration; adapt their hunting strategies to deep snow–burrowing below or plunging deep; or just keep on moving until they get lucky. Several members of our Nature Mapping community describe how their favorite animals cope:
Amphibians – Debra Patla, Researcher
The four native amphibian species of Jackson Hole have three strategies to get through our harsh winters.
- Western Toads and Tiger Salamanders go underground, under the frost zone where they are safe from freezing.
- Columbia Spotted Frogs survive in water that does not freeze up, such as in underground springs, spring-fed streams and ponds.
- Boreal Chorus Frogs perform a winter miracle – staying near the ground surface under leaves or in small crevices, their bodies freeze in the coldest times and thaw as it warms up. It is a complicated physiological response to winter, shared by only four other amphibian species in North America.
Rarely, chorus frogs make a surprise appearance in winter, in a basement or garage. This has happened in Teton County! Kind rescuers have discovered that you can help them survive until spring by providing a box with moist, clean vegetation in a cool, dark place.
Beaver: Kari Cieszkiewicz, Winter Naturalist, National Elk Refuge
Beavers are highly industrious rodents that depend on meticulous winter preparation for survival. Before the first significant snowfall, beavers have already winterized their lodges and cached enough food, such as aspen, willow and cottonwood cuttings, for months. Since their teeth continuously grow, beaver must chew regularly on bark to maintain their teeth! These highly productive animals spend the summer months obsessively monitoring their ponds, ensuring that their dams are supporting enough water so ponds do not freeze to the bottom or prohibit access to their lodges.
Short-tailed Weasels (Ermine) – Kari Cieszkiewicz, Winter Naturalist, National Elk Refuge
Short-tailed weasels are highly adapted, masterful carnivores that have a surprisingly commanding presence in winter. Their elongated, slender bodies facilitate easy movement through tunnels in the snow, leading them to unsuspecting mice and voles. When the prey is bountiful, weasels will often store their leftover prey in caches beneath the snow for later feasting! During the winter months their fur changes color from tawny-brown to white, allowing them to be camouflage as they discreetly move across the snow.
Boreal Owl – Susan Marsh – Writer, Naturalist
Among our forest winter residents is a small predator, the Boreal Owl. Their coloration allows them to blend in well when perched in a tree so they are easily missed, but in the spruce-fir forests of winter, they are likely around. They hunt small mammals by ambush, from red-backed tree voles to squirrels. The photo, taken by Jim Hawley in lower Cache Creek, shows a Boreal Owl having just caught a red squirrel.
Boreal Owl Photo credit: Jim Hawly
Interesting adaptations that are especially helpful in winter include the asymmetry of the owl’s ears, found in other owl species as well. One opening is higher on the skull and the other much lower. The positions help the owl tell where a sound is coming from. I tried cocking my head in mimic but was woefully inept at finding a flock of chickadees without my eyes. The owl, on the other hand, can locate prey even under the snow.
Great Gray Owl – Katherine Gura, Field Biologist, Teton Raptor Center
A boreal forest raptor species that is circumpolar, found in the northern reaches of North America, Europe and Asia, Great Gray Owls are well-suited to brave the long, harsh winters in Jackson Hole. Locally, Great Gray Owls generally migrate down in elevation in wintertime and are often seen grouped up in the Snake River bottom where presumably there is less snow and more prey available. Equipped with exceptional hearing abilities, Great Gray Owls hunt primarily by sound and penetrate through as much as two feet of snow to capture rodents that are not visible.
Great Grey Owl Photo Credit: Steve Mattheis
Rough-legged Hawk – Katherine Gura, Field Biologist, Teton Raptor Center
While many species (and people) in Jackson Hole are “snowbirds,” spending summers here and wintering farther south in warmer climes, the Rough-legged Hawk is an exception. In summer months, Rough-legged Hawks breed in the arctic tundra, then migrate south to spend the winter in more “mild” areas in southern Canada and the northern United States. This past year, a Rough-legged Hawk outfitted with a transmitter in northwestern Wyoming migrated north through Alberta and the Northwest territories and finally summered in Nunavut before returning south this fall through Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. In the wintertime, look for these hawks perched on fence lines and power poles in open areas in the Valley.
Rough-legged Hawk Photo Credit: Steve Poole
Coyote: Kari Cieszkiewicz, Winter Naturalist National Elk Refuge
As the sun begins to cast its warming light on the snow-covered meadow, a coyote can be seen making very thoughtful, directed movements. Beneath the snow there is a secret society of critters that live in the subnivean (under snow) zone and the coyote can sense their presence. Using its powerful nose, the coyote sniffs at the ground and precisely locates its prey. With one powerful and swift dive-bomb into the snow head-first, the coyote emerges with its breakfast. Based on what prey is available, coyotes are highly adaptable, adjusting their hunting techniques based on their food source.
With its long legs and large body, moose are adapted to deep snow and long winters. When deep snow is present, moose are surprisingly sedentary, tending to range over very small areas, browsing on shrubs. Surprisingly, moose may move to high elevation conifer forests during the winter, foraging on lichens that hang from conifer boughs. The large body size of moose affords them a favorable surface-to-volume ratio that increases their heat retention, a distinct advantage over smaller ungulates such as deer.
From left to right: JHWF Board President Aly Courtemanch, JHWF Associate Director Kate Gersh, JHWF Executive Director Jon Mobeck, Wyoming Chapter of The Wildlife Society Board Member Ben Wise
The Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation received the Citizen of the Year Award for its Wildlife Friendlier Fencing Program on Thursday, November 17, at the Annual Meeting of the Wyoming Chapter of The Wildlife Society in Cody, Wyoming.
The Wyoming Chapter of The Wildlife Society Board Member Ben Wise announced the award at the closing evening banquet at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Wise introduced JHWF’s Executive Director Jon Mobeck to accept the award on behalf of the many hundreds of volunteers who, collectively, were recognized as Citizen of the Year. The Society typically gives the award to individuals who have made a significant contribution to wildlife management. Wise and other nominating agency partners from Wyoming Game & Fish and the Bridger-Teton National Forest saw an opportunity to celebrate the dedicated community that has formed around the Wildlife Friendlier Fencing program. The program’s impact exceeds the 183 miles of fence it has removed or modified over 20 years. It has also served to embody a community’s commitment to a land ethic that highly values landscape permeability.
In a brief acceptance comment, Mobeck alluded to Aldo Leopold’s oft-quoted mantra: “There are two things that interest me: the relation of people to each other, and the relation of people to land.” Mobeck concluded that one benefit of the Wildlife Friendlier Fencing program is that it advances meaningfully both of these relationships. JHWF believes that communities of people that come together for wildlife, especially throughout the rural West, may bridge social divides as we also clear barriers to wildlife movement. Since wildlife is a deeply shared interest in Wyoming – a Western passion – that connects people to each other, we believe that we can weave together the ethical fabric that allows a community to live compatibly with wildlife, while connecting individual communities to each other across a larger landscape. That ensures a bright future for wildlife in the Greater Yellowstone for generations to come.
JHWF Executive Director Jon Mobeck accepts the Wyoming Chapter of The Wildlife Society’s Citizen of the Year award on behalf of program volunteers at the closing evening’s banquet dinner.
The conference in Cody, which brought together 150+ researchers, students and land managers for three days of talks, workshops, films, field trips and social gatherings, reflected this spirit. By promoting collaborative science and land management – and refreshingly linking art and science by inviting the gifted artist James Prosek to deliver the keynote talk at the banquet – the conference aims to build healthy and resilient landscapes for Wyoming’s wildlife and people.
On the opening evening of the conference, JHWF’s film “Free to Roam” was screened to a receptive and engaged audience. “Free to Roam” captures the essence of the Wildlife Friendlier Fencing program and many of the individuals who have been involved since its origin.
JHWF’s Board President Aly Courtemanch and Associate Director Kate Gersh also attended the conference, which enabled the organization to make many valuable connections to extend its reach, and learn from some of the best wildlife managers and advocates in the state.
The Wildlife Friendlier Fencing Program endures because of the relentless volunteer commitment of many individuals as well as the financial support of individual donors and many foundations and agencies over the years. Thank you to all who have made a contribution to this effort!
Read a short piece about the Award in the Jackson Hole News and Guide.