Grand Teton's Senior Wildlife Biologist Reflects On Career

Feb 6, 2015

Grand Teton National Park
Credit Kim Seng, Flickr Creative Commons

The senior wildlife biologist at Grand Teton National Park is retiring after 26 years on the job. During his tenure, Steve Cain worked with state and other wildlife managers to improve conditions for wildlife, not just in the park, but across the 22-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Rebecca Huntington has more.

HUNTINGTON: When Steve Cain first came to Grand Teton in 1989, he was the only biologist, alongside a fisheries expert, overseeing the park's wildlife. The tools he had to work with were pretty limited.

CAIN: There was no such thing as Internet. I had the only computer in the entire park at that time. So that's a little indication of how things have changed in 25 or (2)6 years.

HUNTINGTON: What was the highest priority conservation issue on your plate when you first got to the park?

CAIN: Bald eagles were still on the Endangered Species List as were peregrine falcons. Wolves were nowhere in the picture at that point because this was pre-Yellowstone reintroduction. Grizzly bears were rare.

HUNTINGTON: Cain had to hike deep into the backcountry to spot a grizzly. Today, he says, all those species are doing well in the park and tourists can even frequently spot wild grizzlies from their cars.

CAIN: That along with wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone and then wolves coming down here into Jackson Hole and starting to breed in 1998 has been really fun and gratifying to see that conservation change, and what I call a re-wilding of the park.

HUNTINGTON: Grand Teton is unusual because it has an elk hunt in the park. What are your thoughts on having an elk hunt in a national park?

CAIN: Some people have said that the hunt is outdated, it's going on 65 years old, why do we still need it. And it really is because all the factors still exist that they did back then. Now what has changed is we have a much higher degree of natural regulation because of wolves and grizzly bears. So instead of giving out 2 or 3-thousand permits a year, the park gives out about 600. That's a huge benefit, the reduction program is much less intense, but until we can break the tie between these large elk herds and the feeding in winter it's going to have to be occurring at some level.

HUNTINGTON: The elk feeding happens on lands outside the park, but tell me what it means for elk inside the park?

Before retiring, Grand Teton's Senior Wildlife Biologist Steve Cain worked on a study tracking the migration of mule deer. The study showed mule deer from Grand Teton migrate to areas around Cody, which could provide a possible route for spreading Chronic Wasting Disease, a fatal brain-wasting disease in deer and elk.
Credit Steve Cain

CAIN: It's not what we call a natural ecological system. The winter feeding has a huge effect on what elk do. So basically, almost 100 percent of the elk that summer in the park in Grand Teton, winter on the National Elk Refuge. Of course, they have high survival. They have high reproductive rates, that contributes for the need to have an intensive hunting program.

HUNTINGTON: Cain says he'd like to see wildlife managers experiment with phasing out winter feeding alongside efforts to bring back historic elk migration routes. He says spreading elk out on natural ranges might be one of the only ways managers can cope with Chronic Wasting Disease. Concentrating animals on feedgrounds is like putting kids in daycare, diseases spread more easily. And Cain says new research on mule deer shows the fatal wildlife disease is heading this way.

CAIN: We marked some deer in the north half of the park that we anticipated would cross the hydrological divide in the Tetons and go to the West and winter in Idaho. And instead they went to the East, ended up both in the town of Dubois and just west of Cody, Wyoming and both of those areas are immediately adjacent to areas where Chronic Wasting Disease in mule deer has been documented. So there's a very plausible route to bring it into Jackson Hole through that mule deer migration.

HUNTINGTON: Technology has come a long way since Cain's first days at the park with no Internet. Using GPS collars, Cain collaborated with other researchers to map out how pronghorn move from summer ranges in Grand Teton to winter ranges around Pinedale.

CAIN: So what that did is it gave interested parties an actual polygon, something you could see on the map and say, 'OK, this is what we need to focus on.' That focus as well as the conservation efforts mostly by the Wildlife Conservation Society eventually resulted in the Forest Service protecting that corridor. So the path of the pronghorn became the first federally protected migration corridor in the United States history.