BioBlitz comes to state park

Dusty Downey of Audubon Rockies shows a garter snake to participants of Wyoming BioBlitz 2019. (COURTESY PHOTO/Evan Barrientos/Audubon Rockies)

EVANSTON — BioBlitz came to the Bear River State Park over the weekend of June 7-9 and, although it was unseasonably cold that Saturday, 70 campers and nature enthusiasts descended on the park for a few days of learning, work and fun. 

BioBlitz is a community naturalist program co-hosted by Audubon Rockies, the UW Biodiversity Institute, the Nature Conservancy in Wyoming, Wyoming State Parks and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Held in a different location each June since 2008, the Wyoming BioBlitz is a set time period, in this case the weekend, during which biologists and the public work together to seek out and record the plant, animal and insect species in that location. 

The weekend also offered multiple learning opportunities, as participants were able to get firsthand views of scientific research methods and learn about the different organisms being tracked. Kids and adults of all ages were able to register for and participate in the free event, which even offered on-site camping in the Bear River State Park, something not allowed on a regular basis. 

After participants checked in on Friday evening, they were greeted by state park superintendent Tyfani Sager and Wyoming State Parks Southwest District Manager Chris Floyd. Sager shared some brief information about Bear River State Park and the Bear River itself. Established in 1992, the state park is comprised of more than 300 acres and miles upon miles of paved and unpaved trails. The park, which sees about half a million visitors each year, is home to the captive bison and elk, and numerous other species can be found within park boundaries, including moose, pronghorn, deer, several species of birds and more. 

Sager told attendees that the Bear River itself is unique, in that the river is 500 miles long, yet the starting and ending points are within 100 miles of each other. The Bear is also the longest river in the world that does not drain into an ocean. 

Corinna Riginos, with the Nature Conservancy, then offered the keynote presentation for the evening on the Wyoming Wildlife and Roadways Initiative. Riginos said there are two key issues involved when looking at wildlife and roadways. The first is the large number of animals hit by vehicles, with more than 6,000 deer, pronghorn, elk and moose hit by vehicles each year in Wyoming, with resulting damages of nearly $50 million. The average damage from a single collision reaches approximately $10,000 when factoring in damage to vehicles, human injury and loss of wildlife. 

The second issue is that roadways serve as a barrier to animal movements, impacting migration routes and access to necessary food and habitat. 

Riginos said there are solutions to the problem, including crossing structures such as bridges and tunnels, which can be between 80-90 percent effective in reducing collisions. Riginos pointed out that it is rare when speaking of conservation efforts to find a solution that is beneficial to both people and wildlife; however, the costs associated with crossing structures can be enormous, ranging from about $1 million to more than $2 million apiece. 

In collaboration between the Wyoming Department of Transportation and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, studies have been undertaken to pinpoint high-priority locations throughout the state, at which there are a large number of collisions each year. One such high-priority location is on Hwy. 89 North between Evanston and the Utah state line, indicated in red on a Wyoming map of problem areas, where the average is more than seven wildlife-vehicle collisions per mile per year.  

Studies have also been undertaken to look at other possible solutions. Potential solutions that have been considered include speed-limit reductions, especially at night and/or in winter; however, Riginos said those have been shown thus far to be unsuccessful because, although drivers slow down somewhat, they tend to not slow down to the extent necessary to avoid collisions. 

Riginos said statewide agencies will continue to research and work on the problem and reminded guests there is now a wildlife conservation license plate option available in Wyoming, and monies raised through the sale of those plates goes toward constructing wildlife crossings. 

Following the keynote presentation, participants were treated to s’mores around the campfire. Saturday morning began bright and early with bird surveys starting at 6 a.m. Throughout the remainder of Saturday, groups learned about and documented various species of fish, reptiles, plants and insects in different areas of the park. There was also time spent learning about the park’s resident elk and bison, sketching and journaling. The day wrapped up with an optional chuckwagon dinner, more s’mores around the campfire and some stargazing. 

Bird counts continued early on Sunday morning, followed by a mammal survey, a bird mist netting activity and more. 

Jacelyn Downey with Audubon Rockies said numbers are still being tallied regarding the species documented during this year’s BioBlitz, which will be shared with both Wyoming Game & Fish and Wyoming State Parks. Downey said such an extensive survey had not been conducted at the Bear River State Park for more than 20 years, so the information will be extremely helpful to scientists in understanding the biodiversity of the area. The data was also shared as it was collected on iNaturalist, a citizen science tool used for data collection nationwide. 

While the location for the 2020 Wyoming BioBlitz has not yet been determined, Downey said previous events have been held on Nature Conservancy properties, BLM land and private ranches. This year’s BioBlitz was the first to be held at a Wyoming State Park location. 

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