Mule deer migration path in danger

Wyoming Migration Initiative
Photo Credit: Wyoming Migration Initiative

Protecting a newly discovered mule deer migration corridor in western Wyoming will be a tremendous yet necessary task, wildlife researchers said.

Each fall and spring, between 4,000 and 5,000 mule deer migrate 150 miles to Grand Teton National Park from their winter range near Pinedale, Wyoming. 

The route was just discovered three years ago. An arduous trek, the mule deer must traverse highways, fences, a reservoir, rivers, sand dunes and climb more more than a half-mile in elevation. 

To spread awareness and rally support to manage and conserve the corridor, the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit launched the Wyoming Migration Initiative

Matt Kaufman, the initiative’s director and cofounder, explains the importance of the effort: “We had this recognition that our work wasn’t getting into the hands of the people that needed it to do the best conservation work on the ground. So that’s why we created the initiative.”

At the recent Jackson public debut of the initiative, Hall Sawyer, a biologist with Western Ecosystems who co-authored a 2014 report on the corridor for the Wyoming Migration Initiative, outlined the route. 

“It’s a discovery that takes us on a 150-mile journey,” he said, “from the sand dunes and badlands and basins of the Red Desert all the way up north…to the high mountain slopes of the Hoback Basin and the surrounding mountain ranges where these deer spend most of their summer and fall.”

Exploring just how the herd traveled from start to finish revealed a number of challenges. 

“It became clear that the second part of this story was going to be highlighting the challenges that these animals face every spring and fall,” Sawyer said.

Sawyer pointed out that one 30-mile section near Pinedale presents a particular challenge as the land is administered by BLM, Game and Fish, the Forest Service, the State of Wyoming and various private landowners.

“This kind of land ownership pattern complicates management obviously, but more importantly creates a lot of uncertainty in terms of future land use,” Sawyer explained. “The point here is not to be discouraging, but to highlight just how challenging management and conservation of migration routes is in these large multiple-use landscapes.”

Right now, there is just one precedent for a migration route in North America that is recognized and preserved in its entirety, a corridor aptly named “The Path of the Pronghorn.” This 100-mile route takes about 400 pronghorn from the floor of Jackson Hole, through the Gros Ventre Mountains and into the Upper Green River valley.

“In terms of planning and protection, this is really the only route on the map,” Kauffman said. “Tonight we’re putting a second route on this map, and that’s one of the goals of the migration initiative.” 

The opportunity to protect the mule deer corridor is indeed unique, and despite the tremendous challenges entailed, researchers and managers have dedicated themselves to the cause. In fact, there is some evidence that the Wyoming Migration Initiative is already working. To help ease the migration, the Wyoming Department of Transportation has already replaced the 50-inch tall fencing along Highway 28. 

“They immediately committed to modifying those fences,” Sawyer said, “And they did that about a month ago.

“I know that as biologists we tend to focus on the tangible things like taking a fence down, modifying a hunting season or maybe improving some habitat,” he said. “Those are all great and certainly part of the solution, but for a large-scale issue like this I really think that we’re going to have to challenge ourselves to better understand the policy framework and policy solutions.”

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