CSU scientists join first global initiative to map mammal migrations

pronghorn migrating

The new effort builds on conservation successes that were made possible through the mapping of migrations, including CSU Professor Joel Berger’s work on the Path of the Pronghorn, one of the longest large mammal migration corridors remaining in South and North America. Photo: Berger

Colorado State University Professors Joel Berger and George Wittemyer are world-renowned experts on wildlife conservation for large mammals.

The scientists are part of a newly formed international team of more than 90 researchers and conservationists who will create the first-ever global atlas of ungulate — or hooved mammal — migrations, working in partnership with the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, an environmental treaty of the United Nations.

The Global Initiative on Ungulate Migration was launched with the publication of a commentary, “Mapping out a future for ungulate migrations,” in the May 7 issue of the journal Science.

Creating pathways, tracking migration corridors

More than 15 years ago, Berger’s research with the Wildlife Conservation Society led to the creation of The Path of the Pronghorn, a 6,000-year-old migration route that connects summer range in Grand Teton National Park with winter range far to the south in western Wyoming’s Upper Green River Valley. In 2008, the U.S. Forest Service established the route as the nation’s first federally designated wildlife corridor.

Berger has worked closely for years with the WCS, where he is a senior conservation scientist.

headshot of George Wittemyer, CSU researcher
Professor George Wittemyer has conducted research on mule deer migration in Colorado and has studied African elephants since his college days. Photo: CSU Photography

Wittemyer has conducted research on mule deer migration in Colorado and has extensive expertise in Africa, where he’s studied elephants since his college days. He works with organizations, including Save the Elephants – where he serves as chair of the scientific board – to identify migration corridors for the endangered species and has been involved in novel approaches to improve pathways.

Lead author Matthew Kauffman, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Wyoming, previously released the first attempt at a North American map, with an aim to start aggregating as much information as possible about mammal migrations.

“We want to start to integrate the same type of information across other continents and get more scientists involved to truly create a global map,” said Wittemyer.

The international team has partnered with the Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals to create the new initiative. The CMS is a unique treaty that brings countries and wildlife experts together to address the conservation needs of terrestrial, aquatic and avian migratory species and their habitats around the world.

Maps will help with decision-making for land managers, policymakers, communities

headshot of Joel Berger, conservation biologist at Colorado State University
Berger said migration is one of those essential ecological processes that must be conserved if we want species on the ground.

Detailed maps of the seasonal movements of herds worldwide will help governments, Indigenous people and local communities, planners and wildlife managers to identify current and future threats to migrations. The team also hopes the maps will advance conservation measures to sustain them in the face of an expanding human footprint around the world.

“A global migration atlas is urgently needed because there has never been a worldwide inventory of these phenomenal seasonal movements,” said Kauffman. “As landscapes become more difficult to traverse, the maps can help conservationists pinpoint threats, identify stakeholders and work together to find solutions.”

Wittemyer said migration for mammals is threatened at a level never before seen.

“Because these animals have such large spatial requirements for year-round survival, they tend to be more susceptible to changes humans are causing on the landscape,” he said. “Through this atlas, we hope that we can motivate people and government officials to recognize and protect important areas and corridors.”

Berger said migration is one of those essential ecological processes that must be conserved if we want species on the ground.

“We need to be out in front – discussing with people on the ground and with agencies and policymakers – to do active conservation, otherwise we will lose out on more and more wildlife in the future,” he said.

Migratory mammals that are represented in the atlas include Mongolian gazelles and saiga antelope in Asia, wildebeest in the Serengeti, guanacos in South America, Arctic caribou and wild reindeer, mule deer and elk in North America, red deer in Europe and many more.

These species are an essential part of natural ecosystems and help, as prey, to sustain prey for the world’s carnivores. The migrations also contribute to local and regional economies through harvest and tourism and are woven into the culture of numerous communities.

The new effort builds on conservation successes that were made possible through the mapping of migrations, including Berger’s work on the Path of the Pronghorn, one of the longest large mammal migration corridors remaining in South and North America.

Mary Guiden, CSU science writer, contributed content to this story, originally developed by the U.S. Geological Survey. 

CSU University Communications Staff