In what seems to be an unraveling natural world, Grand Teton National Park has witnessed a restoration of its wildlife tapestry in the last 25 years, a retiring biologist there says.
When Steve Cain arrived in the park in 1989, the bald eagle was on the endangered species list and federal law also protected the rare peregrine falcon. Humans had eliminated a keystone predator — the wolf — and grizzly bears were few and far between. Cain, whose job it was to travel into the backcountry and observe animals, didn’t see a grizzly until his second year at work.
Many eagles soar over the park today. If you nap on the summit of Mount Moran, you could be dive-bombed by a peregrine. Bison graze in large numbers now and the first pair of wolves to breed in Jackson Hole in more than 70 years denned in Grand Teton in 1998. Grizzly bears are just another, albeit amazing, roadside attraction.
Another species — the pronghorn — is likely to be part of the ecological fabric for a long time to come. That’s partly because Cain and researcher Joel Berger documented in detail their migration route to Sublette County and beyond. They then promoted the Path of the Pronghorn until in 2008 it became the first federally protected wildlife migration route in the U.S.
“It’s been really fun to see a re-wilding of the park during my tenure here,” said Cain, who retires at the end of this month. “It’s satisfying and rewarding to have been a part of those conservation programs.”
As Cain packs his files and moves them from his third-story “crow’s nest” office in Grand Teton headquarters, however, work remains. His list of threats to wildlife in Jackson Hole starts with the continued feeding of elk and bison on the National Elk Refuge.
Elk feeding tops list of challenges
“I would like to think changes would be made before we have a crisis — for example Chronic Wasting Disease coming to Jackson and onto the feed-grounds,” he said. The always-fatal and incurable malady is spreading west across Wyoming. Conservationists fear that when it crosses the Continental Divide to elk winter feed-grounds, the artificial concentration of wildlife there will accelerate spread of the disease.
“Any ungulate biologist familiar with the disease would say it’s just a matter of when, not if,” CWD arrives, Cain said. Nevertheless, it’s been difficult to change the entrenched winter practice.
“I understand the investment all the interest groups have in it,” Cain said of feeding. Nevertheless, “myself, and without fail all of the colleagues I’ve worked with, have been frustrated with the difficulty (in getting) the public to understand the serious consequences associated with artificially feeding elk.”
Cain’s own research may provide a clue as to how CWD would arrive in Jackson Hole. He recently lectured on a study that revealed a previously unknown mule deer migration path. After collaring deer in the north end of the park, deer that Cain suspected would cross the Tetons to winter in Idaho, he instead discovered they went east, over the Continental Divide to an area just west of Cody. That’s near where Wyoming Game and Fish made one of its latest discoveries of CWD infection in mule deer. The trail over the divide, “it looks like that’s one of the most plausible routes,” he said.
After wildlife feeding, the second challenge Cain sees is local connectivity — “the ability of wildlife in the valley to continue to use the same historic movement paths they have in the past.”
Third on the list is incremental development or loss or fragmentation of wildlife habitat. This would amount to “death by a thousand cuts,” each incision seemingly innocuous.
Increasing impacts of human recreation on wildlife would be number four on Cain’s list. Cyclists seek to pedal, kayakers to paddle, paragliders to fly and skiers to venture farther into wildlife winter range. In recent years he’s seen the paving of pathways in Grand Teton to accommodate bicyclists; the park still is wrestling with calls for another route along the Moose-Wilson Road, one of the richest ecological corners of Grand Teton.
Finally, regional connectivity for wildlife rounds out the top five. Many Jackson Hole and some Yellowstone National Park elk used to migrate along the Path of the Pronghorn to also winter in Sublette County and places south. Development of ranches, homes and the beginning of artificial winter feeding short stopped that movement. Seeing the migration reestablished “would be fantastic,” Cain said.
Pronghorn path an international model
Recognition of the Path of the Pronghorn created a model for how such routes could be protected. That groundbreaking study and conservation push began before Cain and Berger started their work in 2003. But they got their hands on a new type of radio collar that used GPS technology. The devices better defined the “pretty wide swath” of the path and allowed conservationists to lobby for protecting the whole avenue pronghorn used.
People saw pronghorn in Jackson Hole every summer — about 300 of them — and knew they went somewhere in winter. One researcher, Hugh Harper, interviewed people along the route and wrote an unpublished paper in 1985. Tom Segerstrom wrote about the herd in 1985 and Hall Sawyer and Fred Lindzey were first to collar some for a study published in 2000.
Sawyer and Lindzey’s radio collars required researchers to, essentially, find the collared animal first. This was done at times by flying over the presumed migration route and recording transmissions, but it allowed the two to draw at least a thin migration line.
In 2003 Cain and Berger used GPS radio collars that recorded the precise location of a collared, migrating animal every two hours. Another innovation: researchers could program collars to release, enabling them to easily collect information from an animal’s trip up and down the route.
Collecting data is one thing, getting it out to the public and spurring people to action is another. The precision of the GPS data and the description of the path’s width gave Berger and the Wildlife Conservation Society the impetus to push the issue into new territory.
Publicity was important, including reports in major media outlets. Teton County’s Board of County Commissioners wrote a letter to Gov. Dave Freudenthal in 2006 supporting preservation of the corridor. In 2007 the Western Governors’ Association adopted a policy resolution for protecting wildlife migration corridors across the West. “We don’t think that was coincidental,” Cain said.
Grand Teton National Park didn’t have to act — its property already was protected. The Bridger-Teton National Forest, which the path traverses, proposed to protect the corridor through its forest plan. That meant any changes to the landscape or its use had to take the migration into account and couldn’t disrupt it.
“All of those things together gave (then) Bridger-Teton National Forest Supervisor Kniffy Hamilton the support to protect that migration path through the forest plan,” Cain said. When Hamilton proposed the protection, 99.9 percent of the more than 19,000 comments were positive.
Conservation, however, had just begun. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne provided a $1 million challenge grant for further work on corridor. Private conservation groups engaged willing landowners to repair and modify fences to make sure the migration route “stayed permeable,” Cain said.
The Wyoming Department of Transportation, which had been scraping dead antelope and deer off U.S. Highway 191 near Sublette County’s Trapper’s Point for years, joined the effort. Flighty pronghorn rely on long sight distances for safety. So they won’t use confining tunnels — the way mule deer and other animals do — to cross roads.
WYDOT spent spent $9.5 million, the majority on two 150-foot-wide pronghorn overpasses, near Trappers Point. The state agency, however, is not one to invest money without assurances. “They used not only our data but our protection of the corridor (for) the rationale it would be worth their investment,” Cain said.
The BLM was “the one entity that never really came to the table,” Cain said. “They were lobbied and provided information through the Wildlife Conservation Society and, as far as I know to date, they have never enacted any protection on the lands they administer. I think it disappointed everybody who was interested in the issue.”
The Path of the Pronghorn story has emerged as a model of how to use science and policy to protect migration corridors worldwide. Before the first collars went on “I think we knew the potential was there,” Cain said. “What we didn’t know is how important these data would be in providing a launch pad for a number of conservation efforts.”
That’s not to say another effort would go as well. “Protecting pronghorn was easy,” he said. “It didn’t conflict with any use on the landscape at the time.”
A carnivore research crucible
Not all of Cain’s work has been with cuddly doe-eyed ungulates. “He has been an exceptional promoter of research in a true microcosm of carnivore survival in the western hemisphere,” said Howard Quigley, director of the Teton Cougar Project and the Jaguar program director for the worldwide conservation organization Panthera. “So few times do we have a person who understands the role of carnivores in ecosystems, and so few times do we have a chance to make a difference in a site that is recognized worldwide. Steve has been a promoter of that, if not an exceptional promoter of that.”
Researchers need only mention the name “Yellowstone” before they find money being thrown at them, Quigley said. Without dogged fundraising and support of the Grand Teton Foundation, Cain “would have been there twiddling his thumbs as a frustrated biologist.” When Cain was promoted to senior wildlife biologist in 1999, “he never forgot his field days and the role of field science and need for people in the field that would collect the data that would be so critical for some of the decision makers,” Quigley said. “He was always there to support research when the political winds were blowing.”
Derek Craighead, executive director and senior scientist with the Craighead Beringia South research and educational institute, said Cain didn’t guard turf. “He was the exception with working cooperatively,” Craighead said. “You don’t find that always in federal and state agencies that are often possessive.”
While hiking for years around and in the Tetons, counting or tracking animals, Cain has had only two serious run-ins. The “very uncomfortable interactions,” as he called them, came not with flesh-eating wildlife, but with a moose and a bison — both females.
“In both cases I thought for a few seconds ‘This might be the end of me,’” he said. The mother moose chased him through willows and was ready to trample him after he tripped. She turned back to check on her calf at the last moment. The bison charged “full speed” from 100 yards. A second before he was going to sacrifice his expensive Zeiss binoculars as a distraction, he reached his vehicle.
A park for more than scenery
At 310,000 acres, only 485 square miles, the park is nevertheless an ecological microcosm. The scenery, with the Grand Teton jutting to 13,775 feet, is awesome enough. When combined with its diverse wildlife and the Snake River “there’s very few places in the world that can compare,” Cain said. “The context of those environments together … creates wildlife habitat that’s very diverse, a great mix.”
When he began working in Grand Teton, he had the only computer in the park. In the subsequent decades, Cain has institutionalized wildlife conservation among park staff to the point workers there see the reserve as more than a place for a pretty picture, a mountaineering adventure or a scenic float trip. As much as he’s promoted research, however, he’s never had a budget for it.
“Almost without fail the money has come from outside the park budget,” he said. Competitive grants and donations are key, including those regularly made by the nonprofit Grand Teton Foundation. “They raise a couple hundred thousand dollars a year just for wildlife work,” he said.
There are times over the last quarter century when events have been depressing. Climate change is a bummer, and the biologist has faced lawsuits too. The landmark Parker Land and Cattle litigation in 1989 brought him to the witness stand. The Parker cattle herd had been infected by brucellosis, and wildlife and their managers were to blame, the largely unsuccessful suit contended.
“I understand the reason groups litigate,” Cain said. “In reality, most often it takes away from the resources. I would like to see parties work together and put those resources toward good things.
“I’m always optimistic, always looking for ways to improve things,” Cain said. “I don’t allow myself to get mired down in negativity. We also have so much support for wild, free-ranging wildlife populations, I’d like to think at least in Jackson Hole we will prevail.”