Deer and Elk Migration Routes Part 2

Placing radio collars on elk calves in Island Park resulted in some unique movement data that gave biologists a clearer image of elk migration in the Island Park herd.

The classic method for understanding elk migration movements is to go to winter ranges and put on a bunch of radio-tracking collars, then follow the animals to summer ranges. This is effective, but results in an incomplete picture of migration from summer range to winter range.

It is far more difficult though, to go to summer range and do the same thing. The elk are spread out and cannot be easily moved from conifer cover, even by helicopter, making trapping nearly impossible. There is one small window of vulnerability though, and that is when calves are less than three days old and easier to catch. About ten years ago, when technological advances allowed for miniaturization of radio tracking collars, a study was conducted in Island Park, capturing and collaring elk calves during late May and early June. Although the study was designed to evaluate what kills elk calves, the side benefit of trailing elk from summer range to winter range was even more enlightening.

Autumn migration is often thought of as a north to south affair and on a continental scale, that is often true. At a more local level though, it is not always the case. For instance, most elk and deer in the Tex Creek herd move north for the winter. It is better thought of as moving from high elevation summer ranges to lower elevation winter ranges, regardless of the direction.

The Island Park elk calves, following their moms to winter range, revealed that elk in Island Park move east to west, north to south and south to north, depending on where they summer and winter.

Elk living along the Centennial Range are as likely to head north over the hill toward winter ranges around Montana’s Lima Reservoir as they are to move south to Sand Creek Desert. It was surprising to discover that many elk that live on and around Sawtell Peak do not head south for the winter. Instead, they cross the Red Rock road somewhere near Rock Creek, cross the mountains west of Henrys Lake and then take a hard left and follow Highway 87 into Montana.

Previous studies discovered that the elk that leave the southwest corner of Yellowstone as far away as the Pitchstone Plateau head in two different directions, with major crossings of Highway 20 occurring between Valley View and Targhee Pass, just above the Mesa Falls road into Harriman State Park and around the top of Ashton Hill. Those crossing up near Targhee Pass are headed to Montana’s Wall Creek winter range about 30 miles north of Reynolds Pass. Those that cross by Harriman and Ashton Hill are headed to the Sand Creek Desert along with a significant portion of the Island Park/Warm River elk.

Hundreds of migrating elk cross Highway 20 and Highway 87 in Island Park and this has sparked a debate about the need for wildlife overpasses. Overpasses have been shown to work well, reducing automobile-wildlife crashes by as much as 85-90 percent. An ongoing study of wildlife-vehicle collisions in Island Park has shown that there are four elk crossing hot spots: the three aforementioned ones and Reynolds Pass. These areas are broad expanses, not discreet points. In 2017-18 there were 27 road-killed elk detected (also 74 mule deer, 12 white-tailed deer, 9 moose and 6 pronghorn) on Highways 20 and 87 combined.

Fremont County voters soundly rejected the idea of a wildlife overpass in Island Park. However, the issue isn’t going away and will only get bigger with improvements to the road.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho