On our return trip through Antelope Flats this side of Jackson a few days ago, we encountered ice and cold winds. But over the pass and back in Dubois, we found the weather milder and dry.
That’s no particular surprise. When we left home early in the morning to catch a plane in Jackson last week, we had noticed that the temperature was 27° F. The car registered 15° at the top of Togwotee Pass, and then a frigid 7° farther west in Jackson, 90 minutes later.
People here sometimes refer to the Upper Wind River Valley as the “banana belt.” The four-footed wild critters, who are are at least as smart about the climate as we humans, have been migrating through and to Dubois for at least as long as we have (if you include in “we” the Native Americans).
Later this month, wildlife biologists will begin documenting these animal migrations around Dubois, using the latest tracking technology. Next week, they will be fitting 15 mule deer in the Dubois area (among a total of approximately 90 in the general area over a period of several years) with GPS collars. They will then watch remotely in real-time as the critters relocate each year from Yellowstone, across the Wind River Valley toward the Bighorn Basin, and back.
This is part of an evolving series of studies. Last year, when biologists reported that the mule deer’s annual trek along the south side of the Wind River range is one of the longest land-based migrations in the lower 48, the story made the New York Times.
Maybe they travel even farther on this side of the mountains. Who knows? We’ll find out soon, thanks to the collaboration between the Nature Conservancy, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the Wyoming Migration Initiative, and numerous other partners.
Last week at the Bighorn Sheep Center in Dubois, a member of the migration studies listened with interest as local hunters and biologists in the audience told what they know about game animals here on the north side of the range.
Retired biologist Mark Hinschberger revealed that he had been surprised to see mule deer heading uphill toward the Continental Divide in the autumn while the elk were heading downhill toward Jackson. This was in the late 1970s, when he was part of a US Forest Service study monitoring the effects of logging on elk migration patterns.
Mark told me he began to understand the “backward” uphill migration of the deer after he moved to Dubois. “There are areas on the leeward side of the Continental Divide at the south end of Lava Mountain that are part of the Wind River range,” he said. “They travel over that lower elevation and head into this country and parts east. Some of the deer also hang around here.”
(This is no surprise at all, because we have to watch carefully for them all winter, even on routine daytime trips into town. You often see herds of deer and antelope grazing a respectful distance apart from the cattle in the pastures on both sides of the road. Some of them even seem to know how to watch for traffic. The problem is, you never know which ones those are.)
“After spending the winter of ’78 and ’79 in Jackson Hole, seeing the snow and the weather, I’m not surprised to see the deer and the antelope coming this way,” Mark said. “The elk used to leave too, but we started intercepting that with fences [which they can’t jump]. So we have diverted those elk to the feed ground [in Jackson] at extremely high numbers.”
Pity the poor elk, standing in the snowfields over there all winter, grazing from bales of hay. I thought of them last week as I looked out the airplane window, ascending eastward over the Gros Ventres and away from Jackson.
Just look at the snow in those mountains beneath the plane and on the flats behind them, with the Grand Tetons to the West in the background. Over the pass in the “banana belt” of Dubois, I knew, whatever snow might land over the coming weekend would quickly blow away. And I was right.