As wildlife conservation professionals, we remind ourselves to celebrate the successes. Sometimes we get so wrapped into understanding and mitigating the challenges facing wildlife that we feel frustrated. In these moments, it is sometimes in our best interest, our community’s best interest, and the best interest of the ecosystem to also tally up and celebrate the successes we have achieved. By doing so, we rediscover the wind in our sails. By sharing our observations of our successes, we hope to provide inspiration for our colleagues and friends (all of you!) to continue your conservation efforts!
We are happy to recognize a list of recent achievements that we and our colleagues have made happen. Did you follow the hard work that the County did to update the Wildlife Feeding Land Development Regulation (LDR) this spring? Did you know that the LDR does not include land in the Town of Jackson? Jackson manages wildlife feeding concerns separately from the County and they have embarked on discussions about their Wildlife Feeding Ordinance.
At a recent Town Council meeting, staff and Council members were unanimously in favor of improving the language in the ordinance to provide better security for bears and other wildlife. Councilman Rooks aptly summed up the sentiment in the meeting, “We are blessed to live in bear country and we need to act like it.” The Town will go through two more iterations of reviewing the ordinance language before they approve tighter restrictions on wildlife feeding, whether intentional or not.
Do you remember when JHWF installed ‘wildlife ramps’ on the Snake River levee? That project fledged circa 2015 in the hands of Jon Mobeck, then ED of JHWF, and Steve Brandenburg, board member JHWF. The goal was to make it easier for all wildlife, but especially hooved animals, to access the river by giving them a path though riprap (large, uneven rocks) in which an ungulate could easily break a leg. Three ramps were built and trail cameras immediately captured images of elk, moose, deer, and even coyotes drawn to this new, preferred access to the Snake River.
This summer we worked the with Teton Conservation District to install additional wildlife ramps along the levee system near the Wilson Bridge. The additional ramps augmenting the impact of the existing ramps by increasing the number of easy access locations on the many miles of riprap along the levee Our trail cameras are currently in place, collecting images of wildlife using the ramps. We can’t wait to show you what we’ve found!
Another win for wildlife in our community has been the system of exclusionary fencing and wildlife underpasses on S. Hwy 89, between Melody Ranch and Hoback Junction. Preliminary data has already shown a reduction in wildlife-vehicle collisions (especially involving mule deer) as animals are learning to use the underpasses to move beneath the roadway.
Last month, we worked with our partners at WYDOT, Teton Conservation District, Wyoming Game and Fish and Teton County to design, order, and install signage on the many pedestiran gates along this stretch of roadway. When these gates are accidentally left open, wildlife are able to access the highway instead of being funneled by the fencing to the underpasses. Ensuring the gates stay closed is important in order to allow the fencing and underpass system to do its job moving forward.
Of course, there are staffing successes to report too!
We can’t say enough about the work ethic and positive attitude of our summer intern Charlie Brandin. Charlie played such an important role supporting our bird-banding team in action this summer. She also eagerly pitched in on several fence pulls and helped us collect data on existing fences in Grand Teton National Park as part of a major fence inventory project we’re undertaking with both the Park and Bridger-Teton National Forest.
While Charlie recently departed to begin her junior year of college on the East Coast, we are now looking forward to filling a new, full-time position of “BearWise Jackson Hole Program Manager.” This position will allow JHWF and our BearWise Jackson Hole partners to better address the persistence of human-bear conflict here in Teton County. Our goal is to have the new Program Manager out in the field helping to reduce conflicts by mid-November!
In recognition of all of this and more, won’t you join us in celebration?
What a great time to be out traveling between Victor Idaho and Farson Wyoming! On Friday, a beautiful sunny spring day, wildlife was on the move and easily seen from the road. My wildlife sightings list in one short day included large groups of elk, mule deer and pronghorn, bighorn sheep, sandhill cranes, vultures, prairie dogs, burrowing owls, bluebirds, and light-colored slatey male Northern Harriers. Enough to give me a grin for days! And lots to report to our Nature Mapping database. 😊
This drive also elevated my vivid awareness of how dangerous this time of year can be for animals moving toward summer range and it reminded me of the work and collaboration we are doing to protect this precious resource. Some updates that may interest you:
In December 2020, at the behest of the Wildlife Foundation and others, the Board of County Commissioners added a statement to the County Transportation Plan that requires a county planning process for WY 390 as a whole corridor. This highway is challenging to mitigate in part due to the dense development and number of access roads. By planning for mitigation at a ‘corridor’ level, the county can move past piece-meal mitigation efforts that have been employed in the past (which have been helpful, in bits and pieces) and create an inclusive plan that makes sense for motorists and wildlife for the length of the roadway. We celebrate this milestone and we look forward to working with the county to create the safest plan for all who live and drive along WY 390 that also preserves and improves habitat for native wildlife that need the “West Bank” to survive.
On the topic of WY 390, our 4 fixed radar signs will be replaced this summer, and an additional radar sign will be added for southbound traffic where the speed limit decreases from 55 to 45 mph. WYDOT has also been scheming additional signs for either end of the corridor that are larger with multiple species represented. These will be similar to other wildlife signs in the county on US 191 and 89.
Planning and design for wildlife crossings at the WY 22-390 intersection is moving along. Construction is slated to begin late 2022 – early 2023. In a similar time-window, the Stilson parking lot is undergoing planning for expansion by JHMR and Teton County. This important work aims to preserve the greater ecosystem by expanding public transit. We are engaging with the county and partners to ensure that wildlife movement in this critical location is not compromised along the way.
A recent federal project was approved to plan for improvements of WY 22 on Teton Pass. This, along with the Stilson plan and another federal project—the BUILD grant— aim to seamlessly tie traffic, transit, and pedestrian flow together from The Village to Driggs, Idaho. We remain vigilant to the process to safeguard wildlife needs for habitat and movement.
Good research continues to help us adaptively improve wildlife crossing structures. Colorado DOT just released results from a study of ~5 years of monitoring over 10 miles of highway mitigation. You may find some of the results interesting…
• Wildlife-vehicle collisions were reduced by 92% where mitigation was installed
• Round-bar wildlife guards (similar to cattle guards) were the best at deterring wildlife breaches
• Elk—a notoriously challenging animal to mitigate for—took 4 years to begin using the structures
Data from our very own South US 89 mitigation is now being processed by the University of Montana. Researchers there are processing wildlife-vehicle collision data, carcass information, and trail camera data collected by a broad partnership, including JHWF, WYDOT, Game and Fish, Teton Conservation District, Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) and others. We hope to see preliminary results that delve into crossing structure use with and without funnel fence as well as any long-term concerns about wildlife deviating from the mitigation and crossing the highway surface at fence ends. These results will help direct any adaptive management needed to make the crossings as effective as possible.
We were just awarded seed money from the Community Foundation’s Youth Philanthropy Program (thank you Youth Philanthropists!) to launch a social media marketing campaign that will provide messaging around safe driving for wildlife in Teton County. The advertisements will include messages like local statistics and safe driving tips for locals, commuters, and visitors.
Finally, stay tuned for a JHWF-GYC-JHCA hosted speaker series that will dive into some of the wildlife-road mitigation that is in planning stages and/or has been proposed for various problem roads around the county. In our first meeting, we plan to talk more about ElectroCrete, which may be tested at fence openings along pathways adjacent to wildlife mitigation.
Thank you for your support and, as always, if you’d like to learn more please reach out to us!
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.
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:
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.
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!