It’s time we appreciate the importance of protecting Wyoming’s big game migration corridors. We have long known the value of winter and summer range. Now we must embrace the third element: the land connecting the two — the migration corridors.

Data from the Wyoming Wildlife Migration Initiative has produced precise maps of several mule deer and antelope migration corridors. As a result, the Sublette, Platte Valley and Baggs mule deer migration corridors just received state protection with Gov. Mark Gordon’s signing of Executive Order 2020-1, “Wyoming Mule Deer and Antelope Migration Corridor Protection.”

I now hope the Wyoming Range Mule Deer Corridor and the Bureau of Land Management portion of the Path of the Pronghorn between the Upper Green and Rock Springs will soon be reviewed and receive similar designation. We must support their designations. (The northern portion of the Path of the Pronghorn from Teton Park to the Upper Green has already received protection as the first national wildlife migration corridor.)

The importance of migration corridors extends beyond providing safe passage between winter and summer ranges. Effective corridors also provide forage for the migrants — “trail food” for their journey. They also include “stopover” areas where animals spend up to 95% of their migration time foraging and regaining energy to continue their journeys, some of which extend for 150 miles or more.

Stopover areas are particularly important during spring migrations, when the much-needed, nutrient-rich “green-up” vegetation emerges. An often overlooked detail is that roughly 90% of the adult females are carrying and growing the next generation in their wombs. They are truly walking and eating for two, or three if they’re bearing twins. That nutrient-rich spring vegetation is critical to the condition and survival of the soon-to-be newborns.

It‘s reasonable to ask: Why don’t deer and antelope simply detour around obstructions? Researchers have concluded that antelope and, to an even greater extent, mule deer, have a strong fidelity to their corridors, the details of which appear to be passed from one generation to the next by the females. Slowly, over thousands of years of trial and error, these corridor maps have become deeply embedded within each herd’s DNA. As a result, they appear to have a very limited capacity to adjust to habitat changes, particularly man-made impediments that appear from one season to the next.

The Game and Fish Department manages Wyoming’s wildlife but has limited authority over what happens to migration corridors on private and federal lands. It can make recommendations, but it cannot impose final decisions.

This new emphasis on protecting migration corridors has generated pushback from the energy industry, which fears that such action will interfere with energy development. To be clear, designation does not mean “no” to energy development. Drilling rigs don’t have to be atop corridors to retrieve underlying energy reserves. In most cases, technology allows the resource to be extracted with directional drilling, a technique that can place drill rigs 4 to 6 miles away. Industry leaders predict that soon that distance will be doubled. Corridor designation does not mean an end to energy extraction.

Yes, there will be higher costs that will be passed on to consumers. I for one am willing to pay a few extra pennies per unit of energy purchased if it helps protect our deer and antelope herds.

I thank Gov. Gordon for signing the executive order that immediately protects three migration corridors and sets forth a process for protecting additional corridors.

The order affects executive branch agencies only: the Game and Fish, Agriculture, Environmental Quality and Transportation, to name just a few. It states that agencies shall exercise their “legal and regulatory authorities to protect the annual movement of mule deer and antelope between seasonal ranges in their respective designated migration corridors.”

The order cannot direct federal agencies, but it establishes a strong, science-based, executive-level foundation that will provide the state with greater leverage when negotiating with federal agencies and representatives from the energy industry.

The order explicitly does not apply to “actions taken by landowners on their private land.”

Studies consistently report that Wyoming’s wildlife contributes significantly to the state’s economy — an estimated $300 million in 2018 alone, and when combined with wildlife watchers that figure more than doubles.

Whether wildlife is appreciated through a riflescope or spotting scope, protecting it makes more then sense, it makes dollars. Recent opinion polls show Wyomingites overwhelmingly support the protection of wildlife corridors.

For wildlife to thrive it needs unobstructed, year-round access to sufficient and productive habitat. To ensure this, we must protect our big game migration corridors. Wyoming wildlife: a truly sustainable future.

Franz Camenzind is a 49-year Jackson resident, scientist and conservation advocate. Guest Shots are solely the opinion of their authors.

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