Game and Fish tracks moose to save them

Chris Colligan, a former Wyoming Game and Fish Department employee who now serves as program coordinator for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, holds a tranquilized cow moose’s head out of the snow after it was collared last month in a neighborhood near Stilson. The effort is part of a study to track the movements of moose in the area near a Teton County intersection that has been the site of numerous moose collisions with automobiles. (Photo by Bradly J. Boner, Jackson Hole News&Guide)

By Mike Koshmrl

Jackson Hole News&Guide

Via Wyoming News Exchange

JACKSON — A slightly skinny, smallish cow moose that now goes by Yellow 18 was having a rough day.

It had been a hard winter, for starters. With her grown yearling calf at her side the denizen of the Snake River’s west bank had waded through a historic low-elevation snowpack for months just to nibble on tree buds and willow shoots to stay alive. Like most moose in the valley she’d lost weight, become infested with throngs of ticks and tolerated dogs and people around her.

Adding to the hardship the morning of March 18 was the prick of a tranquilizer dart that interrupted a nap in a Prosperity Lane backyard.

It wasn’t too big of a deal, evidently, because Yellow 18 didn’t even bother to rise from her bed. A few minutes later she was in a deep slumber — snoring, actually — and had gained the ear tag that gave her the name, along with a new GPS-tracking collar. Unknowingly, she’s now poised to share some valuable information.

“We’ve never collared moose in any of these urban, valley areas,” Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist Aly Courtemanch said from the backyard, a short drive from the Stilson parking lot. “One of the main questions for me is: How many are resident and live in the neighborhoods year round? How many are migratory? We have no clue. Where do they go?”

Knowing where Jackson Hole’s moose go is important as a standalone matter of biological inquiry, but in this case it will also help humans redesign the landscape to better accommodate the long-legged ungulate, a species that’s in a long-term decline through much of its range in the United States.

The Wyoming Department of Transportation is about four years out from rebuilding a redesigned Highway 22, along with the Snake River bridge and intersection at Highway 390. The state doesn’t want a repeat of the 114 moose that have been hit and killed within 2 miles of the deadly crossroad since 1990. Those numbers come from the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation, which has found with the passage of time the intersection has grown deadlier: Fifty of the fatalities occurred in the last 10 years.

As a result, WYDOT is paying for Yellow 18 and nine of her cohorts to be carefully monitored.

“The question is: What are they doing when they’re crossing the road and where do they go to?” WYDOT resident engineer Bob Hammond said. “What we really want to get at is where crossings are needed. We want the right type of crossings in the right places for the right reasons.”

There’s a long history of trying to solve the moose collision problems on the commuter thoroughfares of Highways 22 and 390. After the winter of 2010-11, an especially deadly one on Highway 390, advocacy groups like the Village Road Coalition, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation rallied to erect moose silhouettes, trim roadside willows and station portable message signs that warn of the 500-plus-pound animals that frequent the corridor. WYDOT lowered the nighttime speed limit by 10 miles an hour.

More recently the Village Road Coalition commissioned a large reflective moose silhouette, public art that stands near the Rendezvous Park entrance. Point north toward Teton Village nowadays, and it’s clear as can be: There are moose here, be careful.

Meanwhile, an effort led by the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance pushed Teton County to come up with a master plan to identify where wildlife needs the most help crossing roads. The county budgeted $100,000 for the Western Transportation Institute to write a plan, approved by commissioners in 2018. The document solidifies the Highway 390 and 22 intersection area as the single highest-priority run of road in Jackson Hole.

Conservation can be a long slog, but in this case there is a clear solution on the near horizon. WYDOT has penciled in a replacement of the Wilson Bridge and redesign of the intersection for 2023. Federal money with some state funds “mixed in” will pay the bills, Hammond said.

The plans, he said, are to widen the intersection to four lanes and add four underpasses so that moose, white-tailed deer and other critters can more easily traverse the rich riparian zone along the Snake River corridor.

Tentatively, a crossing structure would go on each side of the newer and wider bridge, another would go in west of the Highway 22/390 intersection and one would be placed north of the intersection, somewhere in the vicinity of Rendezvous Park.

The 10 moose whose tracking collars are now online will help fine-tune where the costly underpasses go.

As Yellow 18 slumbered, Game and Fish alumnus and current Greater Yellowstone Coalition wildlife program coordinator Chris Colligan cradled her coat-covered noggin and kept watch on her vital signs, which can be compromised by the tranquilizer. With regularity Courtemanch checked in with him to make sure her breathing was OK.

Colligan has spent years lobbying for projects to curb wildlife-vehicle collisions, and he knows that keeping West Bank moose alive comes with unique challenges.

“It’s not like some of the other places in Wyoming where we try to get wildlife crossings,” he said. “There’s not a long-distance migration route we know of, and there’s not large tracts of public land. These are animals right in and around people, and we’re trying to find a way for them to navigate this landscape.

“I would think that the No. 1 cause of mortalities here is the highways,” he said, “but we will find out.”

There are examples of road building responsibly through moose habitat in places — like Salt Lake City or Alaska — but the effort in Wyoming “is pretty novel,” Colligan said. While the design of the wildlife component of the Highway 22/390 intersection rebuild is nowhere near complete, the literature about road crossings for moose suggests they will need plenty of space: With underpasses that means a minimum of a 15-foot height and a 40- to 60-foot span, he said.

WYDOT is hiring an environmental consultant to help determine the specifics, like whether high exclusionary fencing will be needed to funnel moose into the subterranean passageways.

“We want to make sure these crossings are used,” Hammond said, “so that’s probably likely.”

Carla Watsabaugh is a four-decade Sylvester Lane resident who’s long bemoaned the “massacre” of moose on the village road. She said she’s willing to accept the aesthetic hit of an 8-foot-high fence in an otherwise open view.

“I’ll take ugly if it’s going to save the lives of our wildlife,” Watsabaugh said.

Anytime a moose is hit — and it’s happened several times along 390 and near Wilson this winter — it hurts folks like Watsabaugh.

“We are all heartbroken and appalled,” she said. “We have a unique situation on 390. It’s a migratory path and it’s close to the river, so these animals travel back and forth in our backyards. They seek refuge, and they have their babies here. We don’t treat them like pets, but we’re very familiar with them.”

Yellow 18’s exit from a drug-induced stupor last month didn’t go precisely as planned. She was slow to come to, and when Courtemanch was moments away from injecting her with a second round of sedative reversal drug, the cow let out a moan and then abruptly took to its feet. Biologists, neighbors and volunteers, who had all gathered around, bolted away for their own safety.

“I was about to give it to her,” Courtemanch said, “and she was like, ‘Nope.’”

But within moments Yellow 18 was back in her bed snoozing, and a little more soundly than the wildlife specialists on the scene would have liked. A plastic bag waved in her face wasn’t fazing her. By the next day, though, she was on her feet and hanging amid skiers at the Stilson lot. Her grown calf, which browsed in the background without worry during its mother’s capture, was again at her side.

Already, valuable data has been piling up. For the next several years she will transmit a GPS location every half hour that will upload daily to Courtemanch’s computer.

Go ahead and add dodging vehicles barreling to and from Teton Village to the list of hardships Yellow 18 has endured so far this winter.

Some 36 hours after her capture, she crossed Highway 390 for the first time, bound for Rendezvous Park, according to her collar’s data. By the next morning she was back on the west side of the road, again right around the Stilson parking lot.

“It looks like she crossed at the bike tunnel,” Courtemanch said.