Scientists strive to map global migrations before they’re gone


JACKSON — Matt Kauffman was at an Italian conference and talking over coffee with fellow ecologists when he got to thinking that the challenges facing Wyoming’s migratory deer, elk and pronghorn are shared by wildlife around the world.

The University of Wyoming researcher knew from his experience leading the Wyoming Migration Initiative that the migratory paths of ungulates from Scandinavia to Eastern Africa could benefit by being documented with precision scientifically. And if migration maps were produced, that could be the catalyst for conservation.

“We just spontaneously got together, nine or 10 of us who work on migrations around the world,” Kauffman told the News&Guide. “We realized that a lot of the same things we were trying to address by mapping migrations in Wyoming were applicable globally.”

The impromptu conversation in 2019 was the genesis of an international collaboration that’s grown to include 92 scientists and conservationists. Their effort, named the Global Initiative on Ungulate Migration, seeks to inventory the seasonal movements from Mongolian gazelles and saiga to Norwegian reindeer. The web of hundreds of routes would then be presented in an electronic migration atlas.

Originally, the plan was to hash out the global strategy at an in-person meeting in Jackson Hole. But the venue — Jackson Lake Lodge — never opened in 2020, the result of COVID-19 upending normal life around the world. Instead of boarding jets or driving up from Laramie, Kauffman and researchers from universities and institutes fell back on what everyone did, meeting virtually.

Last week they debuted their strategy in the journal Science, publishing a 5-page narrative article, “Mapping out a future for ungulate migrations: Limited mapping of migrations hampers conservation.”

The Science paper describes how the ecological phenomenon of animals moving long distances to access food and other resources aren’t doing so well, like the wildlife populations themselves. The main reason for the struggles are the intrusions of humankind, whose infrastructure like roads and fences create barriers restricting movement and whose warming of the planet has thrown ecological systems out of whack.

The potential to completely lose some ungulate migrations — a learned behavior, passed down through generations — makes mapping and conserving the routes that much more urgent.

“The problem is that we don’t even know what we’re losing,” Kauffman said.

Migration wasn’t well understood until recently, when GPS technologies enabled researchers to document the precise routes that animals take across the landscape. Historic data about numbers of animals traveling those routes is largely lacking, or essentially heresay.

In that sense, the Global Initiative on Ungulate Migration and atlas that results will establish a baseline for many international migrations that have been poorly documented to date.

University of Oslo biologist professor Atle Mysterud is among the dozens of scientists partnering with Kauffman on the global effort. Reached by the News&Guide Tuesday, he said he hopes the initiative is a springboard for his country, Norway, to take steps to recognize and plan in a way that preserves their migratory reindeer, red deer and moose. Today, that recognition and planning is lacking — and many of the Scandanavian migrations are in decline.

“It remains to be seen if this is a starting point of a new direction,” Mysterud said, “or if it will be some kind of historical map of how the migrations used to be.”

Norway, he said, is in an early stage of losing its migratory ungulate populations, which have fared much better than those in continental Europe. But still, migration is falling domestically. Reindeer are eschewing areas because of infrastructure that cuts into their habitat, and fenced highways crisscrossing the subarctic taiga are severing routes by other ungulates.

“There’s been a huge, huge death toll for the moose,” Mysterud said. “About 2,000 moose die annually in accidents.”

Joe Ogutu, another participant in the initiative, is a statistician who studies migratory east African wildebeest, zebra and Thomson’s gazelle for the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany. Since 2015, he’s watched Southwestern Kenya’s Mara-Loita Migration effectively stop functioning as a result of fence-building and competition for forage with hundreds of thousands of sheep and goats.

“This migration, we can save,” Ogutu told the News&Guide. “It has collapsed, but it has not died, because the animals that participated in the migration are still there.”

“If we can open the corridor that they used to follow, it can resume,” he said. “They still have the knowledge.”

Ogutu’s hope is that the Global Initiative on Ungulate Migration raises the profile of the plight of the Mara-Loita migration and other imperiled routes. Publicity and attention, he said, will ideally lead to its restoration and protection.

“That’s the reason why we’re here,” Ogutu said.

The global initiative is in partnership with the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, a United Nations treaty.

The virtual atlas compiled will use GPS tracking technology, mapping software and data-sharing platforms, combined with local and indigenous knowledge. Another goal of the project is to map lost migrations, documenting local and historical knowledge of animal movements.

While many ungulate migrations on the planet still need to be studied, Kauffmann said that a lot of times the research and the data is already there. All that’s missing is the map, but creating it is an extra step that’s outside the normal research process. Once the detailed map is in place, he’s learned from experience that conservation follows.

“The Red Desert-to-Hoback mule deer migration is a great example,” Kauffman said. “A very detailed map of that migration led to the identification of the Fremont Lake bottleneck. The Conservation Fund raised $2 million to purchase that and it’s now the Luke Lynch Wildlife Habitat Management Area, keeping that bottleneck open explicitly for 4,000 to 5,000 migrating mule deer.”

The Red Desert-to-Hoback mule deer migration also went on to become the first migration route recognized and protected by the state of Wyoming.