First-Ever Atlas of Big Game Migrations Published

USGS Cooperative Research Unit Corner

First-Ever Atlas of Big Game Migrations Published

The first-ever atlas of ungulate migration was released this week, detailing the ecology and conservation of migratory big game species including mule deer, elk and pronghorn in Wyoming, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and adjacent western states. Wild Migrations: Atlas of Wyoming’s Ungulates is a result of a six-year collaboration between wildlife biologists at the University of Wyoming, the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, and cartographers at the University of Oregon. The book also draws on the long-time experience and expertise of wildlife managers with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and other experts and historians from around the West. The project uses cutting-edge animal movement data with innovative cartographic methods to visualize the migrations of animals across complex and changing landscapes.

Wild Migrations Book Cover

Over the last two decades, technological advancements in GPS satellite tracking collars have made it possible for researchers to track animals, plotting locations with pinpoint precision every couple of hours for multiple years and greatly improving scientific understanding of wildlife migration. Now, the maps in Wild Migrations draw on dozens of such GPS collar studies revealing the animals’ finely choreographed movements as they migrate in response to weather and environmental conditions, season by season.

“To me a theme that emerges from the hundreds of maps we created for the atlas is how these animals have perfectly tuned their movements to the landscapes and seasons where they live,” said lead author Matthew Kauffman, a U.S. Geological Survey researcher based at the USGS Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Wyoming.

Maps and associated infographics show how mule deer time their migrations up to the mountains with the pace of the spring green up, how the cultural knowledge of moose tells them how long to wait for snow to melt off their high-elevation summer ranges before starting migration, and how Yellowstone bison re-fashion their movements in winters when they encounter heavy snow. These are just a few examples of the new ecological understanding illustrated through beautiful maps in the book.

"Throughout this project, I have been amazed at how many different factors shape the ways these animals move across Wyoming's big landscapes," said Jim Meacham, the lead cartographer on the project. "The challenge for our team was to figure out which elements of the landscape, and of the animal's movements, needed to be on each map to best tell the story the science had revealed." The resulting maps, created through close collaboration between Meacham’s team and wildlife biologists, tell story after story of scientific discovery and management challenges, making the emerging understanding of migration accessible to a broad readership.

The landscapes of the American West are changing, as the book makes clear. Maps in the threats chapter depict how roads, fences, subdivisions, and energy development are incrementally cutting up vast landscapes and sometimes creating barriers to wildlife movement.

"Our primary impetus in creating this book was to help inform the conservation challenge that lies ahead," says Kauffman. "Wild Migrations grew out of the idea that if we made better maps of the migration corridors these herds depend on, we could do a better job of conserving them."

In addition to the compelling illustrations, Wild Migrations uses stunning color images from National Geographic photographer Joe Riis, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Mark Gocke, and other photographers along with written accounts to tell the larger story of Wyoming’s migratory herds. A series of essays by natural history writer Emilene Ostlind, who once famously hiked the 100-mile Path of the Pronghorn, are woven throughout the book. Her essays paint scenes that are hidden within the book’s maps—a hunter on a crisp fall morning, a deer migrating home for winter, the conservation ethic of a local rancher.

Many of the research projects illustrated in Wild Migrations are a result of a long-standing collaboration between researchers at the USGS Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and biologists with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Biologists at Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, The Nature Conservancy, and many others contributed data and expertise to the project as well.

Coauthors of Wild Migrations are Matthew Kauffman, Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit Leader; Bill Rudd, former Wyoming Game and Fish biologist and cofounder of the Wyoming Migration Initiative; Jim Meacham and Alethea Steingisser, cartographers at the University of Oregon InfoGraphics Lab; Hall Sawyer, research biologist with Western Ecosystems Technology; and Emilene Ostlind, editor and science storyteller at the Ruckelshaus Institute of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming. Renowned novelist and former Wyoming resident Annie Proulx — a keen observer of the state’s people, wildlife, and wild places — contributed the book’s foreword.

For more information and updates, follow the Wyoming Migration Initiative on Facebook, Twitter @wyo_migrations, or Instagram @migrationinitiative or visit

The ONB features articles from Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units across the country. Working with key cooperators, including WMI, Units are leading exciting, new, fish and wildlife research projects that we believe our readers will appreciate reading about. Matt Kauffman is Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit leader and the lead author of “Wild Migrations: Atlas of Wyoming’s Ungulates”.

November 16, 2018