The best way to get a sense of what the world is like for wildlife that
migrate is to migrate with them. Last fall I set out with Joe Riis, a
24-year-old photographer from South Dakota, to walk the celebrated Path of the Pronghorn. Starting in Grand Teton National Park and ending 150 miles or more southeast in Wyoming’s Red Desert, this particular population of these endearing antelope – with their protuberant eyes, black, white and fawn coats, and narrow-boned legs designed for running up to 60 miles an hour – each fall and spring go on the longest documented terrestrial migration of any mammals between Argentina and Canada.
For the last two years, the Path of the Pronghorn has been the focus of Joe’s life. By normal yardsticks, it would qualify as an obsession. He lives in the back of his beater pickup, which he drives from one pronghorn area to another, and under the foam mattress he has a life-size cutout of an antelope that he uses as cover to get close-ups. Potentially, the more effective tools in his pickup are his infrared-triggered camera traps. No one has successfully made close-up photographs of the pronghorn during migration, and Joe feels these images could bring broader awareness to the vulnerabilities that threaten the migration corridor.
For Joe to get his photographs, our trek needs to coincide with the migration that begins each year between late September and early November – it seems to be triggered by cold weather. But my very “un-wild” life as an executive at Patagonia means I had to schedule our nine-day walk in advance. We start in early October, following game trails across the sage flats on the east side of Jackson Hole, and even though it’s morning, we’re comfortable wearing T-shirts. The sky is blue, and our sweat is glistening. We pass several groups of pronghorn grazing alongside a herd of at least 300 bison; from my human’s eye view, the pronghorn look very content doing what they’re doing.
By the end of Day 1, we’re out of the Grand Teton National Park and into the Bridger-Teton National Forest, which just last year gave the Path of the Pronghorn official “wildlife corridor” status, the first such designation in the United States and, as such, a model for other parks and public lands. On Day 2, it clouds over, but then it rains instead of snows – still too warm to trigger the migration. We enter a constriction above the Gros Ventre River where the narrowing canyon funnels the migration route to a single game trail worn deeply into the bare hillside. We find two locations with bends in the trail that would provide full views of any migrating animals, and set up camera traps. Joe will come back after our trek to check results.
Joe wants to photograph the migration, but he also wants to document the threats facing the migration corridor. So far we’ve been hiking across public lands that proactively protect the migration corridor, but on Day 5 we leave the national forest and cross into BLM land leased to ranchers, where we find the first impediment to the migrating pronghorn: fences. Pronghorn legs are too spindly to jump over them, so they have to crawl under. But that provides a solution: pronghorn-friendly fences with a no-barb bottom wire at least 16 inches off the ground. Last year a local land trust won a million-dollar grant to help ranchers retrofit their places with new fencing.
An even greater threat is the proliferation of houses and ranchettes pushing the pronghorn out of open valleys, where they feel most comfortable, and into closed forests, where they feel most vulnerable to predators. Joe has already photographed these developments, as well as the gas fields at the southern end of the migration corridor, during two aerial surveys. Here the solutions aren’t as easy as switching out fencing, but there are new ways to at least mitigate the impact: directional drilling, which allows wells to be clustered 25 or more on a single pad; and piping instead of trucking out the fluids produced in the wells, which saves tens of thousands of truck trips a year.
On Day 8, Joe and I are one stage away from Trappers Point, where the migration corridor funnels into its most narrow constriction. That will be the end of our trek. Other than a few scattered animals, however, we haven’t seen any migrating pronghorn. But it’s starting to snow, and the temperature is starting to drop. Next morning we wake to two feet of cold powder. We hide behind sagebrush next to the game trail used by pronghorn. Within an hour, we see them coming. First a group of 20, then 40, then 60. We rush to Trappers Point, where Joe sets up a remote-controlled camera and gets photos of the pronghorn crawling under the pronghorn-friendly fences that were recently installed.
By the end of the day, Joe and I have counted over 700 migrating pronghorn. Or I should say, I counted antelope while Joe ran around like a dervish getting hundreds of photographs. “The best ones yet,” he says, and I consider how in Joe’s case that means the best ones of the one-twelfth of his life span he has committed to this project. Next day he drives me to the airport so I can return to my scheduled life, and he hikes back in to check his camera traps. He calls later to tell me he’s got the shots.