Protecting the migration corridor for a mule deer herd that twice a year travels between the Red Desert and the Hoback will be a monumental effort, researchers said.
Along a 150-mile route discovered just three years ago, 4,000 to 5,000 mule deer must traverse by and through a host of obstacles, both natural and man-made. They encounter three to five highway crossings, hundreds of fences, reservoir and river crossings, sand dunes, bottlenecks and more than a half-mile in elevation gain.
Hall Sawyer, a biologist with Western Ecosystems Technology, outlined the challenge of coordinating preservation of the route Tuesday evening at the National Museum of Wildlife Art. He displayed a map of the herd’s travels near Pinedale.
“Just in this 30-mile section we have lands administered by BLM, Game and Fish, the Forest Service, the state of Wyoming and various private landowners,” Sawyer said. “This kind of land ownership pattern complicates management obviously, but more importantly creates a lot of uncertainty in terms of future land use.
“The point here is not to be discouraging,” he said, “but to highlight just how challenging management and conservation of migration routes is in these large multiple-use landscapes.”
Other presenters at the well-attended Tuesday gathering included University of Wyoming professor Matt Kauffman and National Geographic photojournalist Joe Riis.
The event was the Jackson public debut of the Wyoming Migration Initiative, an arm of the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. Kauffman, the initiative’s director and cofounder, explained its purpose.
“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,” he said. “So that’s why we created the initiative.”
There is only one precedent for a migration corridor that’s recognized and preserved in its entirety in North America: the Path of the Pronghorn.
The now-famous 100-mile-plus migration of the Jackson Pronghorn Herd takes about 400 animals from the valley floor, through the Gros Ventre Mountains and into wintering grounds in the sagebrush flats and gas fields of Upper Green River. The discovery, publicized broadly, set the stage for the Wyoming Migration Initiative and discovery of the mule deer migration.
“In terms of planning and protection, this is really the only route on the map,” Kauffman said of the Path of the Pronghorn. “Tonight we’re putting a second route on this map, and that’s one of the goals of the migration initiative.”
Sawyer walked the crowd through the route deer follow from the Red Desert to Hoback.
“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.”
Following how the herd got from point A to point B uncovered the obstacles — highways, fences and the laundry list of jurisdictions the deer pass through, Sawyer explained.
“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,” he said.
The opportunity to preserve the muley’s route is a unique one, and a product of Wyoming’s vast wildlands. Riis, who awed the crowd with photos and video, explained.
“Here in Wyoming we have several of the top 10 longest ungulate migrations in the world,” he said.
“It’s fun for me to think about just what we have and how important this state is for this whole world phenomenon — migration,” Riis said. “It’s lost in a lot of places, but it’s still happening here.”
As a conduit between researchers and managers, there’s some evidence the Wyoming Migration Initiative is already working. To aid the migration, the Wyoming Department of Transportation replaced 50-inch-tall fencing along Highway 28, Sawyer said.
“They immediately committed to modifying those fences,” he 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.”