Misadventures in the Wild: New book by local author gets personal with outdoor reporting

As a passionate outdoor reporter for many years, Kris Millgate said there were moments that would cause her to step back out of objective “work mode” and become human.

Like the time she was nose-to-nose with a grizzly bear, and it woke up from its sedation.

“So what’s it like to go nose-to-nose with a grizzly bear? You’re going to pee your pants,” Millgate said. “I could never tell you in my news story that I peed my pants, but inside a book, I can tell you that you are so scared that you pee your pants.”

Millgate was talking about some of her personal experiences she has included in her new book “My Place Among Men — Misadventures in the Wild,” while sitting alongside the Snake River at Freeman Park last week.

Her first book tells the personal side of many of the stories she covered as an outdoors reporter. The book is due on shelves Aug. 6, and her first book signing event will be Aug. 7 at Great Harvest in Idaho Falls. The event is sponsored by Teton Land Trust. Millgate, who lives in Idaho Falls, has planned her first seven book signing events in Idaho before going out of state.

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Millgate said the book grew out of answering the question, “What’s it like to be the only woman in the woods?”

“They wanted to know what it was like to be in that moment, and I realized that maybe writing inside of a news story wasn’t giving them that,” she said.

Millgate said because of her journalistic approach, she carefully kept herself out of her stories. In her new book, she puts herself front and center, in an autobiographical way. Sometimes the stories are awkward, sometimes humorous.

One tells how she stepped away from a huddle of men collaring a bighorn sheep to get a video shot of the animal being released. Microphones were still attached to men in the group and linked to her ear.

“In the huddle as I walk away I hear, ‘Where’s she going? Does she even know what she’s doing? Is she any good?’” she said. “It’s that moment when you kind of roll your eyes and think, ‘Honestly, is he really asking if I’m any good? He has no idea of what I’m really doing. He thinks I’m just this silly little girl running around in the woods.’ I heard somebody else in the huddle say, ‘You’ll know the answer to that when you see her story.’ I was kinda proud of that moment. I don’t know who said either statement.”

A goofier story in her book involves a hunting guide in New Mexico taking her to elk habitat that was recovering.

“I’ve never been to New Mexico, I don’t know New Mexico at all,” she said. “I don’t know this guide at all. Before the sun is even up we are hiking in single file, and we have to get into our spot before the sun comes up and he says, ‘I really wish you would fart.’ I said ‘What?’ He said, ‘It would make us feel more comfortable because we have a woman with us, and we would all feel more comfortable if you’d just go ahead and fart.’ I said, ‘I don’t fart on cue, but I will be so upset if you keep talking when the sun comes up and you ruin my shot.’ ”

Kris Millgate

Kris Millgate of Tight Line Media poses for a photo at Russ Freeman Park on Tuesday, July 2, 2019.

Millgate started working as a general assignment TV reporter before she left college at the University of Utah. She bounced around to several cities across the U.S. for about 10 years. She and her husband settled in Idaho Falls, and she started the company Tight Line Media to produce stories for a variety of media and also do production work. Millgate is a lifetime member of Trout Unlimited and former commissioner for Idaho Falls Parks and Recreation. She’s a fly fisher, trail runner and youth hockey coach.

During her time at other cities, she always wanted to get back West. Unlike several other female TV reporters, she didn’t mind getting a little dirty.

“I was the only one that would keep boots in my car,” she said. “So I could go from court to a farmer’s field and get muddy, and I’d have the boots to do it.”

Millgate grew up in Utah surrounded by the Wasatch Mountains.

“A lot of people will say, ‘Do you miss those mountains because mountains don’t surround us here?’” she said. “I do miss the Wasatch Mountains, but I would not trade them for the Snake River.”

She grew up hiking the mountains with her father.

“My mother says I don’t have a danger gene, which is true, but my dad doesn’t have an internal compass,” she said. “We were always lost, and he would never admit it. I learned to follow him wherever he was going. It taught me persistence and endurance and patience. I use all of those skills in my job now.”

The book shows readers a personal side of many of the major outdoor issues facing the West today, such as public lands, grizzly bears, wolves and the loss of salmon in the West. It was stories such as these that pulled her into outdoor reporting.

“Those stories mattered, and you have to get dirty to get those, or you have to get cold,” she said. “There were days when it was 20 below, and my batteries were in my armpits, and the snot freezes in my nose. Some people don’t have any interest in having a workday like that. But I do. I think the stories that come out of the wild are just fascinating.”

Now with her new book, readers will learn her reaction to the experiences. Her human side.

“Inside those stories there’s a moment where I stop what I’m doing, and even though my camera is still rolling I step back as a human and look at the moment and think, I’m on top of a beaver dam and looking at the first Chinook I’ve ever seen in my life,” she said. “I’m human right then, I’m not a reporter. You feel things in a different way when you flip from work mode to personal mode. Those moments go into the book.”

Grand Teton’s refurbished Jenny Lake ready to take on the public

A project, started in 2012 and employing more than 100,000 hours of labor to spruce up, rehabilitate and rebuild the Jenny Lake area in Grand Teton National Park, has finally been completed.

With a snip of the ribbon earlier this month, national park officials and the Grand Teton National Park Foundation celebrated the refurbished Jenny Lake area, the park’s most popular destination.

Leslie A. Mattson, president of the Grand Teton National Park Foundation noted a long list of changes from exhibits, to kiosks, to the walkways under your feet.

“Everything is going to be different,” Mattson said. “The central area where the visitors center is and the store there has all been redone. There are interpretive exhibits outside. There’s a bronze relief map of the mountain range, there’s interpretive elements that talk about the history of climbing the Grand Teton. The visitors center has been updated and redone inside, it’s absolutely beautiful.”

She said there also are some interpretive elements and access to the lake shoreline from the visitors center is also disabled accessible.

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A photo of an eroded trail leading to Hidden Falls on the west side of Jenny Lake before the trail was refurbished.

Also, heavy revamping was done to eroded trails around the lake and rerouting and refurbishing trails from the boat dock on the west side of the lake to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point.

“There was an area on the hike to Hidden Falls where four points of the trail were all intersecting and it was very confusing,” Mattson said. “In fact the rangers called it “confusion junction” because kids would get lost there. They might be ahead of their parents and the parents didn’t know which way they went. That’s been eliminated.”

The park said in a news release that work completed reduces congestion and ambiguity by creating suggested directional trails, larger boat docks, increased restroom facilities, and designated areas to rest and take in the stunning views. Mattson said an old bridge has been replaced with an “absolutely beautiful” new bridge.

“Jenny Lake’s trails, bridges, key destinations, and visitor complex have transformed into a portal for discovery and now allow people with a wider range of abilities to connect with the park in meaningful, memorable ways,” the park said in a news release.

Park trail crews specifically worked to improve drainage of rainwater and snowmelt on Jenny Lake trails to fix erosion. Some trails suffered from rocks and tree roots being exposed by years of use and erosion.

One of the trail sections that benefited from the revamp was the route to Inspiration Point.

“That is a lot of intense rock work by the trail crew here,” Mattson said. “It’s been made safer and easier for people to access that. It’s still a wilderness experience — it is a backcountry — but it’s much easier and safer than it was.”

“The transformation that has taken shape at Jenny Lake … would not have been possible without the incredible public-private partnership between the foundation and the park,” Mattson said. “We cannot wait for visitors to experience the renewed Jenny Lake area.”

The foundation raised $14.5 million and the National Park Service contributed more than $6 million to make the transformation a reality.

Wildlife alliance group forms in Fremont County

A wildlife advocacy group in Fremont County with the aim of increasing and sustaining wildlife in the upper Henry’s Fork watershed was organized this week.

The Henrys Fork Wildlife Alliance has set as its goal to educate and advocate on issues that impact wildlife in the Island Park area and surrounding region.

The group announced its launch recently at an Island Park Safe Wildlife Passage volunteer appreciation dinner at Harriman State Park. More than 70 people attended.

Jean Bjerke, one of the group’s founding committee members, said that most of the organization’s members rallied around the cause to create wildlife crossing structures on U.S. Highway 20 through the county, but that issue is not its sole purpose.

“That is not our main issue,” Bjerke said. “We really have a much broader goal, which is to conserve the native wildlife throughout the area for enjoyment by the public, including hunters, photographers, people who see wildlife in their backyard. We believe there has been a lot of misinformation and things are not well understood.”

Bjerke said other issues the county faces could be rampant development, loss of habitat, increasing highway traffic and dealing with animal migration. She also mentioned a need to create wildlife fences that don’t hinder migrating deer, pronghorn and elk. Every late fall and spring, elk from the west side of Yellowstone National Park migrate through the area to and from wintering grounds west of St. Anthony, according to Idaho Department of Fish and Game reports.

“(Wildlife) migration seems to be a hot topic even nationwide,” she said. “This spring and summer we have the Trump administration issuing directives about preserving wildlife and migration corridors.”

Bjerke said the group plans to expand its outreach on issues through different forms of media, including printed newsletters delivered to Fremont County residents.

“Wildlife issues may be the last nonpartisan issues left in our country,” says Brian Brooks, executive director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation, who was at the organizing meeting. “There is no such thing as a Republican elk or a Democrat mule deer. All they need is food, habitat and the ability to get from point A to point B. Partisanship and misinformation keep us from having substantive conversations and good policy. Bringing folks together to inform decisions that keep Island Park and the Upper Henry’s Fork a great place to live, visit and hunt is critical now. (Henrys Fork Wildlife Alliance) will be a uniting organization with this in mind.”

Bjerke said besides locals, people from around the country care about Island Park and are welcome to join the organization.

“We want to be here in 30 years, we want to become a sustainable organization that stays around,” she said.

The group is in the process of obtaining nonprofit status. To join, go to henrysforkwildlifealliance.org and click the “join us” button.

Fish and Game acquires more land to increase Tex Creek Wildlife Management Area

The Tex Creek Wildlife Area east of Idaho Falls is set to grow by 1,552 acres after a land acquisition was given the go-ahead.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game Commission recently approved the land deal during its quarterly meeting held in Grangeville. Also approved for purchase was a 232-acre parcel of grass and shrubland about 10 miles northeast of Boise adjacent to the Boise River Wildlife Management Area.

The new acquisition in East Idaho butts up against Tex Creek Wildlife Management Area about 20 miles east of Idaho Falls.

“It’s on the south end of Tex Creek, kind of off the Kepps Crossing Road,” said Gregg Servheen, Fish and Game wildlife program coordinator. “Those additional acres will provide that amount of public access to Tex Creek Wildlife Management Area.”

Servheen said the area was previously grazing land and has kept its natural habitat characteristics.

“It will be providing for normal spring, summer and transition to winter range needs for wildlife,” he said. “For big game, in particular, it will serve as winter range and transition range for deer and elk. This will help improve the ability of Tex Creek to keep and hold those animals during winters and such.”

Tex Creek Wildlife Management Area is a combination of Fish and Game property, Bureau of Reclamation land and state land managed by Fish and Game. Its current size is about 34,000 acres. Much of the area surrounds Ririe Reservoir and land south of it.

The purchase price for the two properties is $1.96 million. It will be paid for using Bonneville Power Administration mitigation funds. The mitigation funds are a result of a settlement deal between the state and Bonneville Power Administration for impacts to fish and wildlife associated with the Columbia River Power System.

“It’s pretty frequent we get folks come to us want us to look at purchasing land,” Servheen said. “Lots of them are interested in protecting habitat and helping wildlife.”

To find a map of the Tex Creek Wildlife Management Area online, go to idfg.idaho.gov/old-web/docs/wma/texCreek.pdf.

Fish and Game posts final tally of rainbows electrofished from South Fork

The numbers are in, and Idaho Department of Fish and Game zapped nearly 6,000 rainbow trout in the South Fork and dumped them into three area ponds as part of a study to suppress the species.

A total of 5,857 rainbows were removed from the South Fork from three areas known to have high concentrations of rainbows. Becker Pond in Idaho Falls received 1,480 fish, Jim Moore Pond in Roberts got 1,160 fish and Trail Creek Pond near Victor got 2,064 fish — 200 fish died in transport.

The problem Fish and Game faces is trying to manage the river to preserve the native Yellowstone cutthroat trout population, but non-native rainbows are threatening to overwhelm cutthroats and hybridize with natives.

“I think the rainbow trout abundance has doubled since 2002,” said fisheries biologist Pat Kennedy. “I think they’re nearly twice as high as cutthroat abundances right now. That becomes a threat during spawning season when there are more rainbow trout to hybridize with cutthroat trout.”

Fish and Game continues to use its harvest incentive program urging anglers to keep all rainbows and placing bounty tags in the snout of many fish worth as much as $1,000. But anglers often don’t cooperate.

“By and large the angling public doesn’t like to harvest fish,” said James Brower, Fish and Game regional communications manager. “They would have to be harvesting for that to be effective. So that’s why we began this secondary study of our own mechanical suppression as an addition to that. We do wish anglers would be a little more prone to harvest and help that way. It’s crucial to the health of the river. But if people don’t want to do that it’s their choice.”

Kennedy said the electrofishing efforts this spring was to see if it would be a viable option to suppress fish.

“The effort that we provided this year probably wasn’t enough of a suppression effort to benefit the entire Yellowstone cutthroat population in the Snake River South Fork,” Kennedy said. “There may have been local small scale benefits. I think we learned that we can remove enough and over subsequent years if we choose to continue this. I think that we could have a result in enough of a decline in rainbows to benefit the cutthroats.”

Kennedy said removing 5,857 rainbow from the South Fork didn’t make much of a dent in the overall problem.

“Our estimates of rainbow trout is that there are about 90,000 rainbow trout in the South Fork from the (Palisades) dam down to about Byington boat ramp,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do to remove enough rainbow to benefit cutthroat.”

Kennedy admitted that removing rainbows is not always a popular idea with some anglers. Many prize catching the feisty rainbows over more docile cutthroats.

“We certainly are concerned about anglers’ interests and their opinions,” he said. “I think we hear support, we also hear some concern from anglers, some pushback. My opinion is that those are both kind of the polar opposites and the vocal minority on both sides, both for and against what we’re doing.”

Kennedy says he expects Fish and Game to ramp up electrofishing in the coming years to check rainbow numbers and give cutthroat a better chance. Estimates put rainbows at close to twice the number of cutthroats in the South Fork, especially in the Swan Valley area.

He reported that another rainbow suppression program of using weirs on four tributary creeks — Burns Creek, Pine Creek, Rainy Creek and Palisades Creek — of the South Fork has worked well. The weirs capture spawning trout during the spring and rainbows are removed. Cutthroats are tagged and tracked with in-stream monitoring devices and allowed to continue on their way.

“I think we have eliminated that life history that went from the mainstem up into the tributaries to hybridize,” Kennedy said. “We’ve used genetics to monitor the genetic integrity of the Yellowstone cutthroat upstream of those weirs. We have less than 1 percent hybridization with rainbow trout in those populations.”

Another approach Fish and Game hoped to try was called a “spring freshet.” Essentially releasing a blast of water from Palisade Reservoir about the time rainbow trout would spawn and flush their redds (nests) down the river.

“Modeling suggested that we needed 25,000 cubic feet per second out of the dam to achieve that effect,” Kennedy said. “Flood stage is at 22,000 so the reality is that was never going to be a very good tool.”

So it’s likely that come next spring, some area ponds will once again be flooded with hundreds of rainbows taken from the South Fork.

“I think it’s going to be a good thing,” Brower said. “It seems to be a pretty effective way to manage those rainbows on the South Fork.”

Riding a wave: Youth mountain bike teams doubling in size

When youth mountain bike teams started up in Eastern Idaho in 2014, you could fit all the participants in a few cars.

Now, as the teams are in the process of signing up new recruits, the original team of 16 youths has grown to three teams and has nearly doubled in numbers each year.

“High school, middle school mountain biking is the fastest growing sport in the United States at the moment,” said Brian Olson, the head coach for the Thunder Ridge Composite team. “We’ve had a team here since 2014, it started out with 16 kids. Last year, we made it up to 65 kids on the team. But now we’re at the point where it’s really starting to take off.”

The original team has split into three: The Rigby Composite team, Thunder Ridge Composite team and the Idaho Falls Composite team. The teams include high school and middle school age students and, in the case of Thunder Ridge and Idaho Falls, they are school-district-wide. Between all the teams, coaches expect to well exceed 65 youths as they continue to sign up more students.

“The response has just been phenomenal from the students as well as the adults that are participating and helping out,” said Matt Klinger, head coach of the Rigby team. “We have not finalized our numbers for this year. We’re still signing everybody up. We anticipate this year in Rigby we will probably have 30 to possibly 40 riders. Every year we’re a little surprised. If we follow the trend of doubling then that’s about where we’ll land.”

What is the attraction?

A lot of it has to do with how the program is put together. The program is organized through the National Interscholastic Cycling Association. It is not a team sport organized within the schools. The association’s motto is “we build strong minds, bodies, character, and communities through cycling.”

The program takes a three-pronged approach, offering races, adventure rides and girls-only rides. Team members can participate in all, one or none of the races or just the adventure rides. Teams in Eastern Idaho practice at Freeman Park, the Kelly Canyon area, Teton Valley and Pocatello. Races are held in Boise, McCall, Twin Falls, Sun Valley and Grand Targhee Resort.

“It’s really fun to do because you get to ride up in the mountains,” said Ashlyn Stucki, 13, a Rigby Middle School student on the Rigby team. “I really don’t like doing track and football and stuff what the schools provide. I like doing this. You aren’t practicing at school and not many people are doing it compared to what other sports are doing. I think it’s really fun, and I like it a lot more than doing softball.”

Coaches mention the inclusiveness of the mountain bike team as a major attraction. Students neither try out nor sit on a bench.

“It’s a sport that you don’t have to be good or bad, you just have to know how to ride a bike,” said Erik Peterson, the Idaho Falls composite coach. “Not every kid is in it for the competition, some are just in it to ride bikes and learn how to ride a mountain bike.”

For those who do give racing a try, the atmosphere is supportive and encouraging.

“It’s a great atmosphere to be around, and you grow up with great people,” said Chris Palmisciano, 16, a student at Thunder Ridge who has been on the team for two years. “You learn a lot of new skills, things you grow up with and you’ll have forever. It feels more like a family than it does a team.”

Palmisciano said he joined the team after a friend brought him to a practice and he “fell in love with it.”

“We only have a handful of kids who are interested in getting on the podium,” Klinger said. “We have some kids whose whole goal was to smile as they crossed the finish line. One of our riders would come in last basically every race, except for her last race. She just loved it. … That was her goal was to just go out there and have fun.”

Participants mentioned that part of the fun is camping out at the race venues.

“There’s always camping at the races, and a lot of the parents camp at the races with their kids,” Chris said. “The campgrounds are right next to the race site. You ride your bike from your tent to the race.”

Right now, coaches are in the process of signing up participants. The first gatherings will be maintenance and skills clinics and trail work projects. The official practice season begins in July, with the first races in August.

Olson said a major challenge with the teams is parental and adult involvement. The cycling association requires teams to operate with one adult per four to six youth. Adults are given a background check and training to ride with the youth and more extensive training to become coaches.

Olson said the cost to join the team is reasonable, especially when compared to some school team sports.

“(National Interscholastic Cycling Association) requires that each student pay $175 for the season,” he said. “That covers liability insurance and all the stuff that’s required to protect the kids. Our local teams charge $20 for the team fee. A jersey typically costs either $35 or $55 depending on the jersey a kid purchases. If kids want to race, there is an additional cost. For those who don’t want to race, that’s pretty much the cost right there.”

Olson said getting a bike for youth has not been much of a hurdle. The Idaho chapter of the cycling association offers a limited number of loaner bikes to youth who need one.

“Our team has a small number of loaner bikes that we purchased through Idaho Mountain Trading and Bill’s Bike Shop,” Olson said. “So far it hasn’t been an obstacle this year. I’m concerned it could be. Generally, if a kid comes out and really likes it, there have been ways we’ve figured out to help a kid get a bike.”

More information is available via email at ifcmtb@gmail.com for Idaho Falls Composite; titansmtb@gmail.com for Thunder Ridge Composite; and rigbymtb@gmail.com.

Mule deer fawns survival rate below average after cruel winter

The lingering snowpack during March and April took its toll on Eastern Idaho mule deer with below-average survival rates of fawns.

“The mule deer fawns, in particular, took a pretty big hit,” said James Brower, Idaho Department of Fish and Game regional communications manager. “In some places, up to 40 and 50 percent were lost. There’s probably some loss from some predation stuff, but it’s mainly due to the prolonged winter. We just had a winter with a lot of snow in February with record snowfalls especially in the Palisades zone.”

Despite the grim news, numbers are still better than the tough winter of 2016-2017. While mule deer fawns were hit hard, elk calves fared better, with Fish and Game reporting that about 77 percent of collared calves have survived.

“It will not be like the winter of 2016-17, but we will be below the long-term average,” said Daryl Meints, Fish and Game’s deer and elk coordinator. “On a brighter note, it appears that elk calf survival is doing just fine, as are adult doe and cow survival.”

Fish and Game biologists have been monitoring 207 mule deer fawns and 201 elk calves statewide that were captured in early winter and fitted with telemetry collars.

“Every time a collar becomes inactive, which means the deer hasn’t moved for a long time, it sends us a signal,” Brower said. “We have technicians that check that daily, and they go out and determine the cause of death. They check for starvation or predation. There are days when they spend all day hiking in the snow.”

Brower said the biologists try to get to collars within 24 hours of a signal going off.

“They have no idea what their schedule is going to be like from day to day,” he said. “They just know that they are going to check the signals and go track down collars.”

They are often particularly busy during March and April.

“March and April is when most of the fawns will succumb to the rigors of winter,” Brower said.

Technicians will continue monitoring collars until the end of May and expect to add to the numbers of fawn mortality.

“Wildlife managers expect that 2018-19 mule deer fawn survival will end up being higher than 2016-17, which was the second-lowest survival of fawns (30 percent) in 20 years,” said Brian Pearson, Fish and Game information specialist, in a news release.

Adult deer and elk typically survive winter at higher rates than fawns and calves unless it is an extreme winter, Pearson reported.

Of the 548 radio-collared mule deer does being monitored across the state, 92 percent were alive through April 30, and 98 percent of the 643 collared elk cows survived. Biologists will report a final tally in June.

As snow melts and temperatures ease, most deer and elk will head back into the high country following the green-up.

“Where the snow has melted and the green up is pretty lush and full of nutrients, they’ll follow that and start moving back to their summer ranges,” Brower said.

Separating the sheep from the goats, national park wants goats gone

Just so you know, Wyoming Game and Fish doesn’t hate mountain goats. But the growth of the non-native critters in the Teton Range is posing a problem that has wildlife managers considering lethal measures.

An aerial count this past winter found, for the first time, invasive mountain goats outnumbering native bighorn sheep.

Wyoming Game and Fish biologist Aly Courtemanch counted 88 mountains goats to 81 bighorns. Some estimates put the goat numbers at 100. Grand Teton National Park is reviewing a plan it hopes to implement this year to remove the invaders mostly by catching them alive or possibly shooting the hard-to-catch goats.

Why the bounty on mountain goats?

Four of Wyoming’s native bighorn sheep populations have been given highest priority and wildlife managers hope to protect them from the threat of diseases from goats and domestic sheep where habitat overlaps. The other issue is that habitat in mountain country provides a limited amount of groceries that a small bighorn sheep herd can’t afford to share.

“Where we think that issue really becomes significant is on winter ranges,” said Doug McWhirter, Game and Fish wildlife management coordinator.

“In the Tetons, those winter ranges are very restricted, high elevation, wind-blown areas and they don’t support a lot of mouths.

“It’s a situation where although we like mountain goats, this is a situation where with these high-priority sheep herds we’re favoring bighorn sheep. We basically support the park service in the identification if this is an issue.”

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A few bighorn sheep rams rest high in the Teton Range of Grand Teton National Park.

Bighorn sheep once numbered in the millions across North America, but their population numbers crashed in the early 1900s to several thousand due to diseases introduced by domestic sheep and by over-hunting. Now bighorns are mostly confined to remote mountainous areas across the West. The national park plans to protect the bighorns that fall within park boundaries and Game and Fish is backing it up by encouraging mountain goat hunting on the west side of the Tetons.

“What we are doing is we have created some new hunt areas in the Tetons and the Absarokas and initiated a whole new license type for mountain goats which allows us to much more liberally hunt those goats,” McWhirter said. “What we are looking to do is to minimize goat numbers in the Tetons.”

Game and Fish plans to issue 48 licenses to shoot goats west of the park this year.

He said another native bighorn herd under encroachment by mountain goats is around the northeast corner of Yellowstone National Park in the Absaroka Range.

McWhirter said the bighorn herd in the Tetons “is what we call the coordinative herd. It’s a population that has never been extricated, never been supplemented. It’s a native sheep herd and one of our highest priority herds.”

Besides the threat of disease, bighorns also face fragmented habitat and being pushed into higher elevations with poorer conditions. Courtemanch told a public open house meeting on goat management that avalanches are a major cause of death for bighorns occurring at a higher rate than predation, according to a WyoFile report of the meeting.

That also brings up the pressure bighorns receive from backcountry skiers. A map of viable winter habitat south of Grand Teton National Park overlaid with skier and bighorn activity tracked by GPS devices on both groups showed few bighorns entered the skiers’ zone, according to research presented at the open house.

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A mountain goat in Idaho’s Snake River Range.

The mountain goat expansion into the park was decades in the making but has ballooned in recent years. Local biologists believe the goats migrated into the Tetons from a group established in the 1960s and 1970s in the Snake River Range of Idaho east of Palisades Reservoir. The goats were introduced into the area to give Idaho hunters a new critter to chase.

“That’s the most likely source for the goats in the park,” said Hollie Miyasaki, Idaho Department of Fish and Game bighorn sheep biologist. “The goats were introduced into Idaho, they moved into Wyoming. It’s probably likely that they moved from the Wyoming side north into the park.”

McWhirter said annual aerial goat counts conducted with Idaho Fish and Game puts estimates at 250 mountain goats in the Snake River Range and south of Teton Pass.

Occasional goats were seen in the park during the ’80s and ’90s. “But it wasn’t until 2008, when it was actually documented that there were nannies with kids,” McWhirter said. “So that population was reproducing. So in the last 10 years, we basically go from a sporadic observation of a single goat to a hundred goats. It’s a dramatic increase.”

Grand Teton National Park is reviewing public comment on its plan to remove mountain goats. Its next step is to publish findings and issue an environmental impact statement on its eradication plan.

“We probably won’t be doing anything until late summer,” said Denise Germann, park public information officer.

McWhirter said Wyoming hunters have benefited from having mountain goats in the region south of Teton Pass.

“It’s what we call the Palisades herd, and it’s one that we benefited from the transplant in Idaho,” he said. “Those goats moved into Wyoming and established a population and we began hunting them 20 years ago. The point I’m trying to make is we do value those goats. We want to manage for a thriving goat population there for hunting and viewing opportunities. The issues for bighorn sheep don’t exist there. We have to make it really clear, we don’t hate mountain goats.”

A war in Yellowstone: Park biologists reporting some victories against lake trout

The war is still being waged against lake trout in Yellowstone Lake, but fisheries biologists are seeing new trends that offer optimism, and anglers hunting cutthroat trout are seeing more and bigger fish.

During the 1990s or perhaps earlier, lake trout were introduced into Yellowstone Lake illegally, and the invasive species had catastrophic effects on the fishery. Yellowstone National Park’s website on the subject illustrates the point with what happened in one spawning tributary to the lake: “The number of Yellowstone cutthroat trout spawning at Clear Creek peaked at more than 70,000 in 1978 and fell to 538 by 2007.” That scenario was being repeated in all of the tributaries to the lake — a population crash with extinction knocking at the door. The voracious lake trout were eating cutthroat right out of the lake.

Todd Koel, Yellowstone National Park fisheries supervisor, said 24 years of gillnetting operations are starting to turn the tide with a reduction of lake trout numbers.

“We caught 400,000 (lake trout) in 2017 and a lot of those fish were small,” Koel said. “So then in 2018 was the first year that in the netting boats we caught 100,000 less fish than we did the year before. A 25 percent decline in catch over one year’s time from 2017 to 2018. Not because of lack of effort. There was more effort, more net out there, more crews out there last year than the year before.”

“THE RETURN” – Trailer

Fewer lake trout is causing a rebound in cutthroat trout numbers in the system. Diana Miller, a Jackson region Wyoming Game and Fish Department fisheries biologist, and her father Dave Sweet, a Trout Unlimited volunteer, had heard rumors that the cutthroat were returning. In the early summer of 2018, they ventured into the remote Thorofare River region below the southeast corner of the park during spawning season. The area is a major tributary of Yellowstone Lake and once was a thriving spawning region before the cutthroat population crash. They reported catching more than 100 fish.

“There were some beautiful Yellowstone cutthroat back up in that country,” Miller said. “It was really just phenomenal. They were all really healthy big fish. I think our average fish was probably 22-23 inches, something like that. Just beautiful, big Yellowstone cutthroat.”

Sweet said in the mid-2000s, outfitters quit taking anglers into the area because the fish were gone.

“So our goal was really twofold. One was to have a good father-daughter trip back into the Thorofare,” he said. “We hadn’t been together for 15 years. And the second, of course, was to find out if the rumors were true, if those cutthroats were returning into the Thorofare in significant numbers. Indeed we found them. That was pretty exciting.”

Because gillnetting operations are expensive, costing more than $1 million a year, the park is developing other weapons to crash the invaders’ population.

lake trout

Lake trout are extremely efficient predators, even when their preferred prey are scarce. These lake trout were caught in Yellowstone Lake during 2007 when cutthroat trout numbers were low. The 21 lake trout caught in this overnight set had remains of at least 47 cutthroat trout in their stomachs.

With the help of “Judas fish,” park biologists have tracked fish tagged with an acoustic tag that sends out sound in the water. They have learned where the fish spawn and where the schools congregate and how best to kill them. They have learned that spawning sites for lake trout are relatively small and defined areas.

“They have to go to those spots, and they have to spawn and reproduce young on those small areas,” Koel said. “We see that as being a key toward being able to suppress the population and keep the population low over the long term at a reduced cost.”

Koel said biologists are developing ways to kill eggs before they hatch by reducing the oxygen in the water. One successful method is to drop decomposing dead fish or small pellets of organic matter over the spawning sites. As the things decompose, oxygen is depleted and the eggs die. After decomposition, oxygen returns.

“I want to get to the point where we’re treating these spawning sites every fall to cause the mortality of the embryos in these specific areas and then reduce the amount of the young produced by those,” Koel said. “So then we can really cut down our netting program during the summer to a fraction of what it is moving forward.”

One challenge to attacking spawning sites is Yellowstone’s early winters. The lake can freeze over in late October.

“The lake trout’s peak spawning is at the end of September, and we have about a two- to three-week window and then into October to treat these spawning sites, and then we have to leave the area and get off the lake because it gets too dangerous,” Koel said.

Todd Koel

Todd Koel, fisheries supervisor in Yellowstone National Park, has spent decades working to recover native Yellowstone cutthroat.

With the depletion of cutthroat in the lake, the ecosystem surrounding the trout changed dramatically. Bears, eagles and otters, who once dined on spawning cutthroat, changed their habits or disappeared. Osprey nests declined.

“By 2007-2009, grizzly bears had shifted to alternative prey, and the proportion of cutthroat trout in their diet had declined to zero,” researchers wrote in the scientific journal “Science Advances” on the Yellowstone Lake situation. “Elk then accounted for 84 percent of all ungulates consumed by bears in the Yellowstone Lake area, suggesting lake trout had some level of indirect, negative impact on migratory elk using this area when spawning cutthroat trout were rare.”

With the trend upward in cutthroat numbers, Koel said the ecosystem is slowly righting itself.

“The bear activity in the spawning streams is trending upward,” he said. “It’s nowhere near where it was 30 years ago, but at least the trends are in the right direction.”

Koel says he doesn’t expect lake trout to be completely eradicated but must be held in check.

“I’m not going to say we’re out of the woods yet,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to do. All the indicators are up, and we’ve got some good technology. We’re trying to reduce long-term costs and make it sustainable for the future. Lake trout are always going to be there. We can’t get rid of those. Any let up in the program and they would just rebound. That is obviously not acceptable.”

Forest Service studies evolving landscape through ‘retake’ photo project

Think of it as a low-tech time machine.

The Bridger-Teton National Forest recently posted some of its efforts to illustrate an evolving landscape on a new website app titled “Historic Photography Retake Project.”

The project shows photographs of locations around Jackson Hole, Wyo., taken at the turn of the century in 1900. These photos can be easily compared to photos of the same locations from the 1970s, as well as between 2015 and 2018. This “repeat photography” allows land managers, biologists and ecologists to study the changes.

The project was the inspiration of George Gruell, a wildlife biologist for the Teton National Forest in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He saw it as a way to assess the condition and trends of the landscape.

“He went around and found all these historic pictures from the turn of the century from all the people who came here, then he spent a summer or two going out and trying to recreate pictures from where the picture was taken from,” said Andy Norman, a forest fuels specialist for the Bridger-Teton National Forest. “He did a technical publication in the ’70s on his work.”

Gruell took about 100 photos repeating the older photos. Those photos of Gruell’s have recently been taken again by Mike Merigliano of Driggs, who works with the national forest.

“So now we have photos from the turn of the century, 1970s and now 2015-18,” Norman said. “The difference between the ’70s and now is that we have other ways to display the data.”

That new way is found on the Forest Service’s website.

The site brings up an interactive map with pinpoints showing photo locations. When you click on a pinpoint, a display gives you information on ecological zones shown in the photo, years the photos were taken and all three photos individually and side-by-side. Another feature of the app gives viewers a sliding overlay for a detailed side-by-side comparison of the landscapes of past and present. Right now, there are 21 retake photos on the app, but plans are to eventually put all 100 or so photos on the website.

“Gruell was mostly interested in wildlife habitat and also how the vegetation had changed in the past 100 years,” Norman said. “More than anything he was interested in the effects of fire suppression. In the turn of the century, the Forest Service pretty much had a policy of fire exclusion.”

Although ecological change is constant, it generally moves at a slow pace. Taking a long-range look through retake photography gives land managers and scientists another tool for study.

The higher the elevation, typically, the slower change occurs, Merigliano said in a Jackson Hole News and Guide story.

“Up in the alpine,” he said, “the pictures I’m taking there, it looks like the guy was there yesterday. It just doesn’t change very much because it’s so cold.”

Other areas have shown bigger changes over time caused by road building, grazing, fire and even a dam break.

Merigliano told the Jackson Hole News and Guide that in studying the change in vegetation, invasive species such as cheatgrass have shown up in the latest photos.

The Forest Service app says the Jackson Hole area is ideal for this type of retake photography project.

“Wildlife habitat, especially for elk, and watershed protection were important priorities a century ago, and they remain so today,” the site says. “There are typical land management activities such as livestock grazing and timber harvesting, but some areas have never been grazed by livestock, and much of the landscape doesn’t have roads or timber harvest.”

Norman said the Forest Service plans to eventually put all of the retake photos on a database accessible by the public.

The project was partially funded by The Teton Conservation District.