Migrating Sandhill crane The long-distance migration of Sandhill crane is one of the greatest spectacles of nature. © © Richard Lee

Stories in Idaho

Top Five Must-See Idaho Migrations

By land, air and stream, Idaho's critters are on the move.

Chinook Salmon Adult chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) jump up waterfall on their journey home to spawning waters. © Jeffrey Rich

Animals of the world are in motion again — flying, swimming, running and crawling to their seasonal homes and breeding grounds. The Nature Conservancy is celebrating these annual pageants of nature with a listing of the “Top Five Must-See Migrations” in Idaho.

The Top Five Must-See Migrations for Idaho 
1. Chinook Salmon

The Pahsimeroi and Lemhi rivers are waters that salmon, quite literally, will die for. Each year, these rivers and their tributaries mark the end of a 900-mile journey from the Pacific Ocean for the salmon. When they get to the small streams of central Idaho, they spawn and then die. After hatching and growing, young salmon—called smolts—will begin their own migration to the sea. Many salmon, unfortunately, return the full 900 miles only to be stopped short of their final spawning area by insufficient water or irrigation diversions. The Nature Conservancy works with landowners and partners to remove those barriers.


While salmon can be difficult to see in large rivers, you can carefully watch them as they move up small streams, such as at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s Wildlife Management Area along the Pahsimeroi in May, Idaho. A spectacular place to see the salmon is at Dagger Falls, on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Around July 4th, the salmon can be seen leaping up the falls—a dramatic sight.


2. Pronghorn 

Pronghorns are the only large mammals remaining from the Pleistocene—the time period when woolly mammoths, cheetahs and giant sloths roamed North America. Their migration routes are literally millennia old. One such migration was recently tracked in a study by the Wildlife Conservation Society and Lava Lake Land and Livestock. Each fall, the pronghorns migrate from the low-elevation, sagebrush lava beds of Craters of the Moon National Monument, through private ranches in the Southern Pioneer Mountains, over expansive public lands to the north and into Montana. It’s a migration of 180 miles—one of the longest mammal migrations in North America. In the spring, the pronghorns return to Craters of the Moon, and are very visible in the wide-open sagebrush country.


3. Waterfowl

At any time of year, large flocks of waterfowl can be seen somewhere in Idaho. In January, more than 300,000 ducks and geese—mainly birds that spent the summer in the Arctic--spend the winter on open waters like the Snake River. In the spring, huge flocks of snow geese, tundra swans and other species rest in wetland areas before continuing their journey. Cinnamon teal, canvasbacks and coots lay their eggs here, then depart for Mexico for the summer. Check out any wetland, and you’re sure to see a colorful variety of waterfowl species. Great places to visit include The Nature Conservancy’s Silver Creek Preserve near Picabo, the Conservancy’s Ball Creek Ranch Preserve and Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge near Bonners Ferry, and the Thousand Springs state park complex near Hagerman.


4. Raptors

Each spring, raptors return from Mexico and Central and South America to nest in the rocky canyons of the Snake River. They find the sagebrush plains that surround these canyons to be the perfect place to spend the summer, due to one of the highest densities of ground squirrels in the world. Golden eagles, prairie falcons, ferruginous hawks, burrowing owls and other species build nests in remote canyons, but they can often be seen out hunting in the mornings and afternoons. Spectacular interactions—golden eagles stealing meals from prairie falcons, red-tailed hawks fighting over territory—can often be observed. A great place to catch the action is the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, located near Kuna. As you watch raptors, keep an eye out for badgers, too, as this area has one of the world’s largest populations of this interesting mammal.


5. Mule Deer, Elk and Moose

These three members of the deer family are symbolic of high mountain meadows and expansive wilderness. That’s true, but in the winter those mountains are covered in ten feet of snow—making it impossible for animals to feed. The mule deer and elk migrate into valleys to spend the winter. Unlike mountains, these valleys are often not protected, but conservation easements on private farms, ranches and forests provide important habitat for big game. Healthy sagebrush habitat also provides important nutrition for deer and elk, helping them to survive tough winters. Idaho is fortunate in that it has many areas where large mammals still migrate, including the Kootenai Valley in northern Idaho, the Henry’s Lake area in eastern Idaho near Yellowstone and the Boise National Forest area near Boise. Please keep your distance from these animals, as even minor disturbance can cause them to burn calories. But you can safely observe their spring time migration from a distance. Great places to see Idaho’s thundering herds include Flat Ranch Preserve, Boundary Creek Wildlife Management Area, Silver Creek Preserve and the Boise River Wildlife Management Area.