A hunter slinks through the woods, clutching his rifle, darting his eyes. He’s careful not to make a sound, for hours, sometimes even days, as he stalks his big-game prey.
It’s a scene that plays out countless times every year in the sportsmen’s paradise known as Wyoming, a place where the many herds of ungulates outnumber the humans in the least populated of the 50 states.
But the hunters might not know where to look for antelope, deer or elk across the 97,814 square miles of Wyoming’s mostly untamed wilderness if not for the work of Matt Kauffman and his team at the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.
“What they learn about the animals’ migratory behaviors and their winter survival rates is what we utilize in developing the state’s hunting season recommendations each year,” says Tom Ryder, assistant division chief of wildlife for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the state agency responsible for managing wildlife and providing wildlife-related recreation. “Without the Coop Unit, we may not be able to offer as many opportunities to sportsmen.”
Hunters aren’t the only beneficiaries. The Coop Unit’s applied research allows the state to better understand, manage and conserve animal populations, increasing the odds that folks who travel from across the world will spot a moose during their visit, and other research findings assist in identifying key ungulate migration corridors that otherwise could be threatened by energy or rural development and other land uses.
“Energy is a very important driver of our economy—and everybody knows that. But tourism is No. 2,” says Kauffman, leader of the Coop Unit, which is housed in the University of Wyoming’s Zoology and Physiology Department. “The prosperity of our wildlife is critical to maintaining the wildness of Wyoming’s landscape.”
Since its founding in 1980, the Coop Unit has worked collaboratively with the
Wyoming Game and Fish Department on various projects designed to provide useful
information for fish and wildlife
managers. The unit also partners with other state and federal resource management agencies as well as non-governmental organizations. The Coop Unit, whose faculty is employed by the U.S. Geological Survey, also plays a primary role in mentoring UW graduate students for careers in fish and wildlife management.
The current Coop Unit also includes Annika Walters, assistant unit leader for fisheries, and Anna Chalfoun, assistant unit leader for wildlife.
“We play a unique role in Wyoming, because we have a close relationship with a state agency that doesn’t have its own research branch,” Kauffman says. “We don’t have to publish a paper, cross our fingers and hope that the people who need that information will find it. As soon as we find out something useful, we can hand it right to the manager who is going to use it.
“That,” he adds, “is one of my favorite parts about this job.”
The Wyoming Atlas of Wildlife Migration is the Coop Unit’s newest project, a four-year initiative launched in July 2012 that will draw attention to Wyoming’s migratory ungulates and advance the state’s conservation and management efforts. Kauffman envisions the atlas will be a resource for wildlifeminded citizens, sportsmen and state and federal biologists interested in better management of migratory ungulates.
It’ll also be the latest in a string of pivotal research efforts over the past three decades that have helped the state further its understanding of the animals that, in some places, might represent a Wyoming family’s closest neighbor.
“There’s just no question that the research activity of the Coop Unit has been invaluable to the Game and Fish Department’s efforts to learn more about the life and the ecology of our wildlife,” says Ryder, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UW in the 1980s. “We really value our partnership with the Coop Unit and the university. The work they do really has value to the people who live here, the people who visit here and, most importantly, to our wildlife populations.”