TravelTraveler Magazine

Preserve the Parks: Grand Teton Wildlife Migration

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—the freedom to travel is the greatest freedom of all.

Most of us take it for granted—we walk, drive, fly and ride wherever we please. Sometimes a road gets blocked for construction, or a flight gets cancelled—perhaps we get annoyed and frustrated, but in the end, we usually always get where want to go.

Ironically, that is not the case for so much of the wildlife in my country. Busy roads, man-made boundaries, and worst of all—fences—all prevent animals from traveling freely and safely.

For the last 6,000 years, pronghorn (as well as bison and elk) have roamed freely across Wyoming, up and down the wildlife corridor just east of the Rocky Mountains. It’s only in the last hundred years that have we humans we’ve managed to block off their path with our highways and barbed-wire cattle fences. This is a particular problem in Grand Teton National Park, which unlike other national parks, was formed piecemeal through the various buying up and repurposing of area ranches.

To this day, several ranches remain close to, or within the park boundaries, which means there are endless miles of cattle fencing that stretch right across one of the most important wildlife migration corridors in the country. The result is blocked migration, and tangled, snared or injured animals.

Enter Nature Valley with their “Preserve the Parks” Initiative, which identifies and supports vital volunteer efforts to restore our national parks. Thanks to your votes, I traveled to Grand Teton National Park for my very first volunteer project: retrofitting cattle fences at Wyoming’s North Elk Ranch.

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Many hands make light work as part of Nature Valley’s Preserve the Parks volunteer project modifying ranching fences in Grand Teton National Park. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

It was (literally) a freezing morning, and although I wore layers of thick clothing under my coat, I found myself alongside dozens of fellow volunteers, all shivering in the wind and blowing into my gloves.

Some of the other volunteers had done this before, the rest of us were total novices, but I was impressed with how quickly the leaders from the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation explained the day’s work and instructed us on each task.

I soon found myself kneeling in the sagebrush and frosted mud, pulling out rusty stapled and yanking away yards and yards of spiky barbed wire. Many hands make light work and within minutes, we had managed to remove a hundred yards of the lowest line of sharp wire. Then we removed another line of the barbed wire, then raise the remaining two strands. Lastly, we strung a bottom rung of smooth “clean” wire at a height of 18 inches—high enough (according to local biologists) for pronghorn to slide under. Though the animals are amazing runners (the fastest sustained runners in the animal kingdom) and incredible jumpers, they prefer going under fences than jumping over.

It’s that easy, I thought, stepping back to admire our quick work. For however many decades, this rusty fence kept wildlife from passing through, and now, within the space of an hour, we opened up a new path for them.

Next, we began moving large 13- and 16-foot lengths of pine logs and installing them as a top rail over the barbed wire. Though it looked impassable, our newly-installed top rails were solid and visible, allowing bison and elk to jump the fence without getting tangled in the barbed wire.

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The finished fence includes these pine log top rails that withhold cattle but allow bison and elk to jump over. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Not only did our modified fence look nicer, it represents a compromise between humans and animals. The new fence keeps cattle inside their grazing areas, while letting wildlife pass over and under safely.

I counted some 35 volunteers at our Saturday project, and together, we worked a solid six hours from start to finish. I met so many locals from nearby Jackson Hole, who simply love the wildlife in their area and felt a responsibility to get out and help. Some of them help modify fences all year long by volunteering every time they’re needed. Other volunteers came from much further away, like Andy, an unemployed schoolteacher from Ohio, who had only come to Jackson Hole the week before. He read the notice for volunteers in the paper, and decided to come along and help out. Together, Andy and I carried pine logs, drilled holes into fence posts, and hammered the timber together.

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A volunteer from Chicago saw excess lumber from the modified fences in Grand Teton National Park. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Neither of us is a carpenter, and neither of us has ever built a fence before, but suddenly, for a few hours, building a fence is exactly what we did. It was not easy work, but it was fun and easy to mark our progress. Looking back at the end of the day, I could clearly see our contribution to this stretch of wildlife-friendly fence, leading all the way to the mountains. For the cars of tourists passing by, the adapted fence likely went unnoticed, but I imagine for the animals in Grand Teton National Park, the fence is like a flashing neon sign, reading, “NOW OPEN”.

So far, this project to protect wildlife migration corridors (under the partnership of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation, National Parks Conservation Association, and Nature Valley) have successfully removed or altered 165 miles of fencing. If it wasn’t for volunteers like those I met in Grand Teton National Park, there would still be 165 miles of wilderness that would be off limits, dangerous, or fatal to wildlife.

The next day I returned to the work site on my own, and sure enough, there was a herd of pronghorn, nibbling on sagebrush in the open flatland between the mountains. A few minutes later, I looked back at the animals and noticed that some of the pronghorn had moved—to the other side of the fence, just like that. My heart jumped a little.

“It worked!” I thought, amazed at the significant success of my little contribution. No longer did I think of this as just a volunteer project or some feel-good community initiative. Instead, I realized that I had just helped animals travel safely—in a small way, I was personally involved in undoing some of the harm that humans have done. I had helped wildlife roam freely in their natural habitat.

This is how travel changes us. I will never look at any of these animals the same—bison, pronghorn, or elk. I will never consider Grand Teton the same, either, because simply by volunteering for a day, I feel forever invested in this national park and the animals that call it home.

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Mission accomplished, our modified fence allows free movement of wildlife across Grand Teton National Park. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)