Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in October 2021.
JACKSON, Wyo. — For animals in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, fall is a critical time as they begin their migration from their summer range into their winter habitat.
“Fall is a really important time of year; ungulates (hoofed mammals) are primarily migratory in this ecosystem,” said Josh Metten, a naturalist with Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures. “For the most part, they have to move from their summer range to winter range because the places they summer become too deep with snow for them to survive. This is especially true in the Yellowstone, Grand Teton and the Jackson Hole area.”
In the coming months, residents will bear witness to increasing numbers of land-based animal migration in the Jackson region. However, ungulates are not necessarily headed south or to warmer climates.
“Here in Wyoming although we have the longest known migrations in the lower 48 states, and some of the longest ones in the world, land-based migrations usually occur on an elevational basis,” Metten said.
Wildlife will be crossing roads and making their way to lower elevation habitats for the winter season. Some of these high elevation habitats where they begin their migration are national parks, the Yellowstone plateau and surrounding high elevation national forest lands.
While the migration window is snow and weather-dependent, animals will start to move as snow begins to accumulate in the high country.
“Once we start getting accumulations in the high country is really when they start coming down and moving through the Jackson Hole valley through Grand Teton National Park and end up in places like the National Elk Refuge, South Park Feedground and all of the winter wildlife closures along the lower elevation sections of the national forest,” Metten said.
In Jackson, the National Elk Refuge is one of the important areas for wintering wildlife. This is where elk from Yellowstone migrate for the season. Additionally, short-distance migrants such as deer will go from Grand Teton National Park to the East Gros Ventre Butte.
“Bighorn sheep will come down from the Gros Ventre and end up on Miller Butte. But there are also bighorn sheep in the Tetons who will end up on Prospector Mountain, Mount Hunt and Static Peak in areas of 10,000 feet where the winds are blowing the snow off,” Metten said. “Additionally, the pronghorn antelope herd that’s in Grand Teton now will migrate all the way down to Pinedale in the next two months.”
As a result, the corridor from all of Broadway, roadways below the butte, HWY 89, HWY 191 and traveling north toward the airport along the refuge are critical areas and really high mortality areas for road collisions with deer. One of the reasons deer are crossing at Broadway is because they are aiming for the habitat at Karns Meadow.
With migration at hand, it is important to be especially vigilant in looking out for wildlife along roadways. Now through the winter, avoid traveling at night and obey speed limits, as plenty of the winter range for these animals exists alongside the road.
“Our economy is very reliant on intact wildlife populations in the area; hotels, restaurants and our wildlife tour operators,” Metten said.