Willow Lake conservation easement

The Jackson Hole Land Trust has secured a new conservation easement on a 605-acre parcel in Sublette County, roughly 225 acres of which is within the Red Desert-to-Hoback mule deer migration path.

The relatively new detection of the Red Desert-to-Hoback mule deer migration continues to inspire efforts to conserve the 150-mile passageway.

And the Jackson Hole Land Trust’s acquisition of 605 acres of pastureland straddling the corridor near Willow Lake is among the latest moves to help ensure the designated corridor remains functional in perpetuity. A little over a third of the land conserved — 225 acres — is located within the designated corridor. That land isn’t too far from Pinedale, and locking it up as open space via a conservation easement will be a win for wildlife, land trust staff biologist Erica Hansen said.

“It’s incredible habitat,” she said. “I think the Willow Lake pasture is a perfect example of how working lands can also be great wildlife habitat.”

The parcel, which is grazed by cattle, is mostly comprised of sagebrush-dominated grassland, but it also features some topography and is dotted by a bunch of glacial potholes.

Those ephemeral wet spots hold water like a sponge and keep the forage green, Hansen said. The site is also located within “core area” sage grouse habitat, and is used for chick-rearing in the spring.

A deal conserving the Willow Lake easement closed in late April, and the easement will be administered by the trust’s Green River Valley Program.

Portions of the funding came from public sources, such as Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, a U.S. Department of Agriculture natural resource easement grant program, and the Wyoming Governor’s Big Game License Coalition. Altogether, those public fund contributions totaled approximately $480,000. A portion of the easement’s value was also donated by the Willow Creek Ranch.

The Sublette County acquisition is the largest since the Jackson Hole Land Trust merged with and absorbed the Green River Valley Land Trust in 2016.

“It’s a pretty significant piece that’s relatively close to town,” Pinedale resident and land trust board member Mike Fenn said.

The Red Desert-to-Hoback mule deer migration was discovered by research biologist Hall Sawyer in 2013, after he collared mule deer in the Red Desert that unexpectedly shot north to the Hoback in the springs and summers. It subsequently became the first migration path designated by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

In the six years since, efforts have been made to modify fences, conserve land and take other steps to keep the migration path viable in the long run. But since the designation, many thousands of acres, especially in the southern portion of the corridor, have also been leased out to petroleum companies interested in natural gas deposits that underlie the deer’s migration route.

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067 or env@jhnewsandguide.com.

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them for 7 years. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

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