By Christine Peterson
Hundreds of years ago, animals covered the West’s mountains and plains. Antelope, mule deer and elk moved back and forth across Wyoming’s landscape. They wandered into the mountains in the spring and summer for cooler temperatures and better forage and made their way down into valleys and basins during winter to escape deep snow and harsh conditions.
With people came habitat fragmentation. Cities, towns, highways and fences blocked their paths.
But a few migrating herds remain. Many are connected one way or another with Yellowstone National Park. In the park they roam relatively undisturbed by human industry but face larger battles with such predators as wolves and grizzly bears. As they move outside the park, they come closer to people but farther from wolves and bears, said Arthur Middleton, a former University of Wyoming student working on his post-doctorate work at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
Now, as the climate changes, seasons adjust and temperatures rise, scientists want to know how those iconic migratory elk herds will respond. Will they give birth earlier in higher, more predator-heavy country? How does weather affect migration? How does the timing of migration affect hunter success?
Middleton and photojournalist and National Geographic young explorer Joe Riis plan to find answers to those and many other questions. Equally important, they hope to communicate those results with the public. The duo is the first recipient of the $100,000 Camp Monaco Prize started by the Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s Draper Natural History Museum, UW’s Biodiversity Institute and the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation-USA.
“There is a mutualism where our work is really complementary,” Middleton said. “The science can help Joe tell a story to folks and Joe can help make the story more engaging.”
The prize was intended to help researchers look at how animals function across political boundaries such as national parks, national forests and private land. It also wanted scientists to work together, crossing disciplines.
Lastly, the projects needed to create a dialogue the public, said Charles Preston, chief scientist at the Center of the West, senior and founding curator at the Draper museum and co-chairman of the prize jury.
“To be able to communicate good science that is relevant to people in a public forum is so important,” he said. “A lot of very good scientists do very good work and only 12 scientists know about it.”
The project begins by looking at the Cody elk herd. It is one of five migratory elk herds in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
Middleton will begin by analyzing a vast database of research already performed in the area by other scientists. The next step will be placing collars on between 20 and 30 elk in the area. The collars will tell Middleton exactly where the elk are during their migration.
Then Riis’ part comes in.
Riis has a degree in wildlife biology and has photographed animals all over the world. He’s captured vicuna (a type of camel) in Argentina, Gobi bears in Mongolia and toads in Venezuela. In Wyoming, he produced a photo documentary on antelope that migrate from Grand Teton National Park to the Green River Basin showing the trials the animals meet along the way.
His work helped promote the development of six highway overpasses and underpasses for wildlife.
“My ultimate goal is for people to say, ‘Wow, what we have is really cool and special and it’s worth allowing to continue on into the future,’” he said. “This is not a commercial goal. The goal is to educate and inspire.”
He hopes to show people, through his photographs and videos, how Wyomingites are connected to the elk migration. He also wants to help people understand what it’s like to be an animal that moves in and out of a national park.
The two will also be working with Wyoming and Montana’s game and fish departments, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service.
Their field work will begin in early 2014 when they collar their first batch of elk to begin tracking the animals’ annual spring migration.