Elk NetworkNew Film Explores Barriers to Big Game Migration

General | January 18, 2022

Below is a news release from the University of Wyoming. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation provided major support for the film as well as a traveling interactive, Invisible Boundaries.

A new wildlife documentary puts the spotlight on obstacles that elk, mule deer and other hooved mammals face during their migrations, and how people are working together to help animals keep moving.

Produced by the Wyoming Migration Initiative (WMI) at the University of Wyoming, the short film, “Barriers,” gives close-up views into the struggles of animals, along with the hopeful story of how migration data and maps can help conserve herds long into the future.

The film explores three major types of migration barriers: fences that animals have to jump or crawl under; roadways with busy traffic; and new developments in wildlife habitat.

Animals often risk injury or death when they encounter such barriers. Over the long term, migration barriers can contribute to habitat loss and declining populations.

“Almost everyone who spends time in open spaces has encountered the remains of an animal that suffered from one of these barriers,” says Gregory Nickerson, “Barriers” co-producer. “We hope this film makes clear that research and technology can help us move beyond just accepting these losses. People have the tools to help animals keep moving.”

While WMI produced the film, footage contributions came from dozens of filmmakers and agencies. It illustrates state-of-the-art migration science, corridor mapping and collaborative conservation efforts.

The film draws on years of cooperative research findings from long-term trail camera and GPS collar studies. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department and many other public agencies and nonprofits contributed to these studies. Together, the research has revealed how our growing human footprint can negatively affect migratory populations.

One of the goals of the film is to help the audience visualize the effects of migration barriers as if they were right there with the animals. “Some of the scenes are hard to watch,” Nickerson says.

Viewers will see fawn mule deer and bull elk getting caught in fences, and pronghorn avoiding fences altogether. A clip showing the aftermath of a deadly elk-vehicle collision is overlaid with a graph of the upward trend of such accidents in Wyoming.

Some of the barriers can only be visualized through migration maps. Animations produced by “Barriers” film editor and WMI Research Scientist Patrick Rodgers show how a pronghorn makes an unexpected detour around a 9-mile-wide natural gas field, and how migration data can help site wildlife road-crossing structures.

The film documents the teamwork involved in resolving wildlife barriers, whether it is stakeholders meeting to identify solutions or volunteers retrofitting a fence to be wildlife-friendly. The stewardship on public and private working lands includes ranchers, hunters, outfitters, recreationists, biologists and agency managers.

While much of the film focuses on elk, mule deer and other big game in the American West, the film also shows how biologists around the globe are using similar methods to study and conserve migratory ungulate populations.

Migration researchers worldwide contributed to the film, including footage of caribou in Canada, khulan in Mongolia, wildebeest in Zimbabwe and guanaco in Argentina.

“Barriers” and a companion traveling exhibition were produced with major support from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF).

“Increasing our knowledge of migration corridors and movement areas is critical to ensure the future of elk and other wildlife,” says Blake Henning, RMEF chief conservation officer. “This film highlights the unique challenges faced by wildlife species and helps identify sensitive areas they use. As a result, biologists and game managers can take appropriate actions for the benefit of wildlife, ranching, hunting and other recreational activities.”

Other supporters of the film include the Knobloch Family Foundation and the George B. Storer Foundation. The Muley Fanatic Foundation’s Southeast Wyoming Chapter provided funding for motion-activated cameras to document mule deer interacting with fences and roads.

“Barriers” is available to view on WMI’s social media channels and to stream at:

Vimeo — https://vimeo.com/manage/videos/657991394.

YouTube — https://youtu.be/wv5pzwbfH2k.

To learn more about WMI, go to www.migrationinitiative.org.

(Video credit: University of Wyoming/Wyoming Migration Initiative)