Every spring thousands of elk migrate from winter range in the Bighorn Basin, climbing over mountain passes rising more than 10,000-feet into the sky. They push through chest-deep snow and swim across swollen rivers. They remain vigilant, guarding their young from grizzlies and wolves as they make their way to summer range in the heart of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
It is a route carved through rock and snow and over mountains that the animals have followed for hundreds, if not thousands of years, said Arthur Middleton, a research scientist at the Yale School of Forest and Environmental Studies. It is a trip that takes stamina, endurance and fortitude. It also is the basis of a new documentary on Greater Yellowstone migrations Middleton is working on with photographer Joe Riis, known for documenting pronghorn migration, filmmaker Jenny Nichols and artist James Prosek. The film has the working title Elk River, named for the the Crow word for the Yellowstone region.
It is a story that until recently few people, including scientists like Middleton, knew much about.
The film grew out of Middleton’s project mapping elk migration paths in Greater Yellowstone for the Migration Initiative at the University of Wyoming. In the last 10 to 15 years advances in technology allowed GPS collars to track movements that were previously hidden.
“Before, you could get a few dots on the map, but actually documenting those detailed travel routes was out of reach,” Middleton said.
The migration mapping and the film was funded through multiple grants and partnerships.
Middleton knew from the start of the project that he wanted to bring the story of elk migration to an audience beyond scientists and land managers.
“This is a story that can’t stop with peer-reviewed journal articles,” Middleton said. “It’s so important to this region and so important to the people who live around Yellowstone and in the ecosystem.”
The Cody herd, the subject of the film, is one of the last needed to complete the migration map. It also was the herd Middleton knew least about. The herd typifies elk migrations, moving from ranchland where it winters to the heart of the ecosystem, Middleton said. But the path they follow is arduous beyond what Middleton imagined.
The film team spent weeks hiking and horse packing the route to find collared elk. They continue this summer slogging distances where the elevation changes thousands of feet in a stretch.
While aerial filming they flew across a deep snowfield with elk tracks. The pilot said it didn’t make sense and it couldn’t be elk trail until he saw the animals start to cross. He then let loose a stream of expletives through the radio. It was a reaction that sums up the incredible route the elk follow.
“The terrain they go through is unbelievable,” Middleton said. “When you walk it, it’s totally vexing.”
In the short film, Middleton explains the migration research and why it’s important, but then Riis’ photographs draw viewers in with close-ups of intimate moments few people have seen.
“It’s like showing people the first images of Old Faithful or something,” Middleton said.
Middleton studied elk near Yellowstone for years, including documenting how wolves impact the animals. The more time he spent studying elk, the more the animals’ migration patterns intrigued him.
“It’s like the heartbeat of the ecosystem,” he said.
As the migration map started to come together, it looked like spokes on a wheel radiating out from the heart of Yellowstone. The landscape’s geology takes the animals up high in the summer for the good grass and down low to find shelter from the snow in the winter.
“This is a landscape largely defined by this phenomenon,” he said.
Ecosystem science can be abstract, but the map makes it understandable and shows how the migration routes are like veins across the mountains and plains.
The data will be useful for land management agencies. But it’s important for regular people to also understand. The migrations touch a vast number of stakeholders across the landscape. Understanding the elk migration also helps explain other ungulate routes across the state.
The film is meant to inspire and engage people to think about the future conservation of habitat. Elk serve as a guide through the ecosystem, which is home to an assortment of important species.
Middleton is working to mount an exhibition in the Draper Natural History Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody in 2016, when he anticipates a short version of the film may be ready to screen.
For Middleton, working on the documentary has informed his own understanding of the animals he studied for years. He hopes people will take away a similar reaction when they see the finished film.
“(Elk) will never be the same animal to me,” he said.
You can follow progress on the film on Instagram: https://instagram.com/elkriverfilm/