A Story of Conservation, Friendship, and Surprise Wildlife Sightings in Rafter J

A Story of Conservation, Friendship, and Surprise Wildlife Sightings in Rafter J

By Hilary Turner

The following is a story from Nature Mapping Jackson Hole. Citizen science is valuable because it engages community members in long-term data collection. Through the process of becoming involved in a monitoring project like Nature Mapping JH, folks learn more about their world, while contributing meaningful data that can have a broader impact.

In December of 2021, I received a phone call from a Nature Mapper who lives in the Rafter J Neighborhood. She was wondering if Nature Mapping data showed any strong trends in wildlife use of the area. Unfortunately, there was not enough data in the neighborhood to show any kind of trends, but I encouraged the person to continue Nature Mapping and to have her friends and neighbors email me if they were interested in contributing. So started my friendship with Gina Lipp, a neighbor of the person who had called, who soon reached out with interest in the Nature Mapping program. A resident of Rafter J since 1984 and wildlife enthusiast, Gina wanted to contribute data to further understand how wildlife use the Rafter J Neighborhood.

The Rafter J neighborhood south of Jackson was developed in the 1980s and early 90s. Wildlife corridors through the neighborhood and a thriving Flat Creek riparian habitat have made it a place that many wild animals can call home, alongside their human neighbors.

Gina took my virtual Nature Mapping training in Jan of 2022. About a week after the training, she photographed a Great Gray Owl in the neighborhood, and made one of her first Nature Mapping observations. After this, she reached out to me regularly with questions about the variety of wildlife she was seeing in her neighborhood. She had a camera, so had photos of everything and I was able to help her with identification over email. However, I am a firm believer in the “Teach a person to fish” philosophy, so I offered to meet Gina down at Rafter J and go for a walk to help with some of her bird and wildlife ID questions. As many know, my interest and skill set are geared towards birds, which are one of the most ubiquitous and accessible groups of wildlife, yet relentlessly underappreciated in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE).

Hilary and Gina began recording Nature Mapping observations in early 2022. Documenting wildlife sightings over a three-mile walking route approximately twice per month, Gina has contributed to citizen-science by making well over 700 wildlife observations in her neighborhood.

I met Gina on a chilly morning in early February of 2022. We started off on our birding walk from the Rafter J office and almost immediately spotted Green-winged Teal in the shallow sloughs of Flat Creek. Farther down the road, some small birds flushed from the ground into the willows. As I lifted my binoculars, a sense of excitement passed over me; the birds were American Tree Sparrows! These adorable songbirds nest in far northern Canada and Alaska and are only present in the GYE during winter. As hardy as they are, they can be very difficult to find during the coldest months of winter in Jackson. Yet here were three individuals, making a living in the Rafter J neighborhood in mid-February. We ended up finding 13 species of birds together that cold morning. Gina Nature Mapped everything we saw and we parted ways, happier for having enjoyed the wildlife in the suburban neighborhood together that morning.

Green-winged Teal photographed on Flat Creek in mid-winter. Green-winged Teal are a dabbling duck found year-round in the Jackson area. Photo: Gina Lipp.

The next year went by and Gina continued to collect data in the neighborhood, but I noticed her reports became fewer and fewer throughout the year. This reduction in reporting is typical with Nature Mappers but I had seen Gina’s enthusiasm and thought if I continued to engage with her, perhaps she would continue reporting. At the start of 2023, I emailed her about the new Nature Mapping app and asked her if she would like to walk again in Rafter J to reinvigorate her Nature Mapping. A clear morning, free of snow, finally arrived and we walked again, this time digging up 18 species. Our list included an American Dipper using Flat Creek and a flock of Bohemian Waxwings relishing the leftover fruit of a crabapple tree in the neighborhood. I told Gina that we should aim to walk again in April, to see what we could find as spring migration got underway. My goal was to understand how birds use the neighborhood during different times of year and I knew Gina was also excited about this.

Hilary and Gina look for ducks while walking along Flat Creek

The local homeowner’s association controls much of the land along Flat Creek through Rafter J, creating a defacto “development setback.” Native vegetation within  the riparian zone along the creek allows the area to retain ecological functionality. Birds, mammals (including people!), reptiles, and amphibians all make use of the habitat along the creek.

April came and so did the birds. I was stoked to see what had arrived and to my delight, the Osprey pair were already fixing up their nest for another round of raising chicks atop a platform installed by the neighborhood near Flat Creek. A pair of Northern Harriers coursed low over the open space near the wetland habitat restoration area in the middle of Rafter J. I wondered aloud if they might be breeding in the neighborhood. We spotted eight species of waterfowl using the creek and ponds as stopover habitat during their spring migration. I became ecstatic when I heard a Virginia Rail kiddick-ing from the cattails of the restoration area. A Fox Sparrow sang its glorious tune from the willows along Flat Creek. Tree Swallows investigated nestboxes and I was thrilled to detect five finch species as we meandered through the neighborhood. Our three mile walk yielded an incredible 37 species of birds on April 28. I made plans with Gina to walk again in June, this time to assess the community of breeding birds present in the Rafter J neighborhood.

April sightings included elusive Virginia Rails and their chicks (left) in the habitat restoration pond and a Fox Sparrow (right) along the creek. Photos: Gina Lipp.

Gina continued Nature Mapping on her own as well. Everything she reported was easily verifiable with photo documentation. She observed a variety of wildlife using the Flat Creek Corridor and wetland habitat, including beaver, muskrat, moose, coyote and boreal chorus frog. Other members of the neighborhood community became involved as well. Local photographer and JHWF supporter Anna Knaeble became trained in 2023 and mapped Northern river otter and Western toad in Rafter J, both Wyoming Species of Greatest Conservation need and species that are Nature Mapped in relatively low densities in Teton County. Many Rafter J neighbors became excited when a group of White-faced Ibis dropped into a flooded open space of the neighborhood for a few days to refuel during spring migration. The neighbors recognized the importance of the open space in their neighborhood when they observed the birds utilizing it in this way.

White-faced Ibis and Western toad, both Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Wyoming. Some ibis stopped by to dazzle residents during its spring migration, taking advantage of flooded pasture along Flat Creek near the entrance to Rafter J. Photos: Anna Knaeble.

In June, Gina and I returned to our walking route. Indeed, the avifauna had changed again; the breeding season was now in full swing! The dawn chorus included Savannah Sparrows chiming from the edges of the neighborhood, Black-headed Grosbeaks sweetly serenading from the willows, and Bullock’s Orioles chattering from the tops of residential cottonwoods. Male Calliope Hummingbirds zipped around defending territories with their impressive aerial displays and American Robins carried food to young in nests. Many fewer waterfowl were present, as most had continued their journeys to northern breeding grounds, but we heard another Virginia Rail and Gina spotted a Sora this time. These two rail species do not usually persist outside of intact marsh habitat and their presence during the breeding season is indicative of a functioning wetland ecosystem within the Rafter J neighborhood! Willow Flycatchers sang from the Flat Creek Corridor and we watched a sweet female Yellow Warbler building her nest, low in the willows. We documented 43 bird species on this walk, confirming a robust suite of breeding songbirds in the neighborhood.

Gina and Hilary watch and photograph waterfowl on a Rafter J pond. This pond is believed to be geothermally heated which keeps portions of it ice-free throughout the winter. Waterfowl such as Trumpeter Swans, Barrow’s Goldeneye, and Mallards make use of the open water.

August rolled around and once again I contacted Gina. This time, I wanted to see what was starting to move south. Fall is my favorite time to go birding in the West and believe it or not, late August is the start of peak fall migration. I knew our walk was going to be great this time. Following the breeding season, there is simply more avian biomass on the landscape and because so many of the birds are young, the likelihood of finding something unusual increases by quite a bit. We met on August 28 and it was foggy to start. Initially, I was bummed at the conditions, but as the sun started to cut through the fog, Rafter J came alive with activity. A Lincoln’s Sparrow skulked in the willows, popping out to allow us brief looks. A Western Wood-Pewee sallied out over Flat Creek, capturing insects and returning to its perch long enough for Gina to photograph it. We encountered six warbler species, a decent number for a single location-outing in Jackson. A Swainson’s Hawk circled overhead, preparing for its annual journey to Argentina. Ruby-crowned Kinglets alerted us to their presence with their chiddit call notes and Cedar Waxwings swirled throughout the neighborhood with their newly fledged young. It was the best outing yet – we detected 54 species throughout the neighborhood that day!

In August, Hilary and Gina record six warbler species on their walk, including this Yellow Warbler. Yellow Warbler is the most common warbler in Jackson during summer months, and can be found without too much work in a variety of habitats, from willows, to wet thickets, to open woodlands. Photo: Gina Lipp.

During our five walks, Gina and I documented a whopping 83 bird species in Rafter J! Even better for me, however, was watching Gina become a keen observer of nature as she grew her knowledge of Jackson’s wildlife. She improved vastly in her wildlife identification skills since our first outing and she also found some amazing things. In mid-July, she witnessed a Virginia Rail emerge from the cattails in the habitat restoration area and then another, followed by two small black fuzzballs – baby Virginia Rails! We suspected they were breeding at the site, but now had ironclad evidence. Since Jan 2022, Gina has made over 700 wildlife observations in her neighborhood. Mapping her three-mile walking route approximately twice per month, her wildlife observations have exact locations, showing where wildlife use the landscape in the neighborhood. Her hard work over the last two years has breathed new life into the Nature Mapping database in the Rafter J neighborhood. Although Gina is dedicated, she is not alone. Since 2016, Rafter J residents have Nature Mapped 118 species in the neighborhood, including 20 Species of Greatest Conservation Need, a state-level designation by Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WSGCN).

Occurrences of Wyoming Species of Greatest Conservation Need (WSGCN) near Rafter J are shown with colored dots (left). Trumpeter Swans (right) are an example of a WSGCN and utilize the Rafter J pond and nearby wetlands as seasonal habitat and during migration (SEE SWAN SIGHTINGS MAP). Photo: Gina Lipp.

As more development occurs to meet the needs of the growing community, we have a responsibility to consider those who have no voice. Nature Mapping data can give wildlife a voice. The picture we now have of landscape use by wildlife in the Rafter J neighborhood can inform responsible development along Flat Creek, such as Northern South Park, and other areas. Through the data Gina and others have collected in Rafter J, we see that robust development setbacks from Flat Creek and wildlife corridors through the neighborhood have made it a place that many wild animals can call home, alongside their human neighbors. Nature Mapping data show that the neighborhood’s riparian corridor and wetland complex are healthy enough to sustain a very nice suite of riparian breeding songbirds during the summer and make it one of the most bird-rich areas in Jackson Hole in the winter.

Emergent wetland of the habitat restoration area adjacent to Flat Creek form a valuable habitat type for species like Northern Harrier, Sora, and Virginia Rail, all of which Hilary and Gina spotted here. Sora and Virginia Rail rarely occur outside of intact marsh environments such as this one.  

Rafter J residents are fortunate to live alongside such a healthy community of wildlife, but this also comes with the responsibility of stewardship as neighbors to wildlife. Young wild animals are extremely vulnerable to predation by domestic animals like cats and dogs. Keeping cats indoors and leashing dogs while walking through the neighborhood are simple ways to protect the wildlife that also call this space home. Both grizzly and black bears have been documented in Rafter J. Use of bear-resistant trash containers and securing other attractants can be the difference between life or death for these animals. Making conservation-minded decisions, even in a small neighborhood, can have many far-reaching and positive impacts!

A Red-tailed Hawk perches on a nesting platform on the east side of Rafter J (left). A secretive Sora was a surprise find by Gina in the habitat restoration pond in the summer of 2022. Photos: Gina Lipp.

Gina’s work in the Rafter J neighborhood shows that with commitment and dedication, Nature Mapping can illustrate the complete annual cycle of wildlife – even in developed areas! And if data are rigorously collected, they can sometimes be used to inform responsible development and aid in wildlife conservation.

I asked Gina to speak to the importance of Nature Mapping and this is what she said, “Living in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is a blessing and a responsibility. With all its beautiful wildlife, there is no other place like it in all of North America. Nature Mapping is so important to help us recognize, learn, appreciate, and protect the wildlife and their habitat.”

What will you Nature Map in 2024?

Balancing Progress and Conservation: A Sustainable Approach to Northern South Park Ensuring Open Space Protections

Balancing Progress and Conservation: A Sustainable Approach to Northern South Park Ensuring Open Space Protections

By JH Wildlife

What’s in store for Northern South Park

Since 2020, the owners of this land have been engaged with local government and community groups regarding the development of their private property in Northern South Park (NSP). The landowners’ intent is to subdivide and develop a 200+ acre section south of Jackson. An option currently being considered would develop the area densely to accommodate as many as 1,800 housing units (the majority of which would be deed-restricted). Alternatively, the landowners could decide to split the land into 35 acre lots. While exactly how the development plays out is still a bit complicated, what can be expected is the future landscape of NSP is likely to resemble something much different than it does in its current layout of cattle pastures and cottonwood-lined irrigation ditches.

A schematic from the 2022 Neighborhood Plan shows a version of how “passive open space” (light green) might be configured to allow wildlife to move through the development.

How might future development impact wildlife?

Even in scenarios of highest density housing development we anticipate wildlife will use NSP in similar ways to nearby neighborhoods. Although open space will certainly be lost, as agricultural fences come down (including a current 6′ woven and barbed-wire fence which parallels High School Road from the high school to South Park Loop Road) deer and moose will have easier access to the NSP property. New landscaping may increase attractants and potential phasing-out of elk feedgrounds and the termination of elk hazing in NSP may also encourage new movement patterns through the area. Then there’s Flat Creek on the eastern boundary of the proposed development area. Even within the Town of Jackson, Flat Creek serves as an important movement corridor and habitat for everything from beavers, fish and songbirds, to ungulates and other large mammals. Mule deer wintering on the butte across Highway 89 often access this section of Flat Creek for food, water and cover and we expect they will continue to use the creek, even after the buildout of NSP.

So can Northern South Park be developed in a way that reduces the impact on wildlife?

We believe the answer is yes! Currently, Teton County Planning staff are drafting site-specific Land Development Regulations (LDR) and a new zoning overlay in anticipation of NSP buildout. We joined many of our partner organizations in submitting letters to the Planning Commission. While you can read our full letter here, it essentially covers three main recommendations: 1) the application of wildlife-friendly fencing standards, 2) defined Flat Creek setbacks, and 3) protect open space within the developed area to accommodate wildlife movement.

Wildlife-Friendly Fencing Standards: We encouraged the alignment of wildlife-friendly fencing standards in NSP with the current Teton County LDRs to avoid confusion. We also suggested that open spaces and parks remain clear of fencing so as not to entrap wildlife that happens to wander in.

Since 2021, 18 Wyoming Species of Greatest Conservation Need have been reported by JHWF’s Nature Mappers in the Rafter J neighborhood. These data show that the HOA-owned parts of the Flat Creek corridor, as well as the habitat mitigation area, are important for these species. Ideally, NSP would be developed in a similarly responsible way, which would allow for the continued use of the creek corridor by wildlife.

Flat Creek Setbacks: We advised that development not occur within at least 150′ of Flat Creek. A good example of responsible development near Flat Creek is the Rafter J neighborhood. Rafter J’s Flat Creek setbacks, often hundreds of feet in width, are owned and maintained by the Rafter J homeowner association and this protected area supports breeding populations of Wyoming Species of Greatest Conservation Need (WY SGCN) such as Willow Flycatcher and Calliope Hummingbird, along with a large suite of other riparian-associated species. Rafter J also has a habitat mitigation area which supports an impressive community of wetland birds. If NSP can be designed in a similar way, water quality would benefit, as would flood mitigation. This would also help preserve a north to south movement corridor through some of NSPs most valuable habitat.

Open Space: Our recommendation is that NSP design accommodate for wildlife movement through and out of the neighborhood though the preservation of linked, “passive” open space. The NSP Neighborhood Plan, released in 2022, contains sketches of how this open space might be connected and used to allow wildlife passage through the developed area. Ideally, open spaces would maintain a 200-meter minimum width (and larger outside of bottlenecks) based on local research by (Wachob and Smith, 2003). However, if this isn’t practical given the density of the development, these corridors could be combined, to increase width, or laid out near existing open space along the Flat Creek Corridor or southern end of the development area to adjoin with existing open space.

Virginia Rail, another Wyoming Species of Greatest Conservation Need, has been documented breeding in the Rafter J habitat mitigation area. These wetland specialists do not persist outside of intact wetland ecosystems, indicating the health and importance of the Rafter J habitat mitigation area.

If you’re interested in following the development of this issue, the next planning commission meeting is on January 8th! Please let us know if you have any questions or concerns about the process and we’ll answer them to the best of our ability. We are optimistic development can occur in a manner consistent with values outlined in our community’s Comprehensive Plan!

Won’t You Join us in Celebration?

Won’t You Join us in Celebration?

By the JHWF Staff

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!

Volunteers after a successful fence pull in Teton Valley. We scheduled 8 public fence project this year, each taking plenty of time and effort to pull off!

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. 

A mule deer uses one of our “levee ramps” to avoid dangerous riprap and access the river.

Do you remember when JHWF installed ‘wildlife ramps’ on the Snake River levee? That project fledged circa 2013 under the leadership of Greg Griffith with help from Gene Linn from the nearby Linn Ranch. 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!  

You can help keep wildlife off the highway by keeping the pedestrian gates closed!

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! 

Charlie on the Mosquito Creek fence pull

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? 

Message from JHWF Executive Director April 12th, 2021

Message from JHWF Executive Director April 12th, 2021

By Renee Seidler | Executive Director

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!

Small Mammals: What Good Are They?

Small Mammals: What Good Are They?

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.

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.

High Uinta Ground Squirrel

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

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 found in Jackson Hole

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

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).

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 versus Muskrat identification

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.

Red squirrel

Red squirrel

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