Wyoming seeks compromise on wildlife migration corridors

Migration science has advanced, and the Game & Fish Commission is looking to reassess land use.


This article originally appeared at Wyofile.com.

Sometime on October 26, a mule deer doe stopped grazing in the aspen and pine covered hills along Jack Creek, just outside the Little Jenny Ranch near Bondurant.

The doe turned her nose southeast and set off on a journey, leaving the two-mile square patch of foothills below Tosi Peak where she had spent every day since June.

By Nov. 2, the doe had zipped across 50 miles of Sublette County, swimming the Green River and skirting housing developments near the town of Pinedale. She then waded across the outlet of Fremont Lake. After 12 more miles, she settled in for a few days rest in an open area just south of Boulder Lake, on the slopes of the Wind River Range.

So began the fall migration of one individual deer that scientists from the University of Wyoming captured last spring. During the capture, they fitted the doe with a GPS collar that updates coordinates to a website every few hours. They named her "Jet" and she's been the subject of Twitter and Facebook updates all year.

University of Wyoming researchers collared a mule deer doe they named Jet with a GPS unit, in order to follow her migration.
Photo courtesy of the Wyoming Migration Initiative

"Jet" is just one of an estimated 5,000 deer that annually migrate from the highlands of the Hoback Basin region in summer to the scrubland of the Red Desert in winter. It's the longest known migration of mule deer in the United States, and probably the most studied.

For the doe, the 50-some miles she had traveled were marked by mountains, rivers, plains, and dozens of man made obstacles like fences and roads. To humans, the area is a patchwork of United States Forest Service land, Bureau of Land Management parcels, state and private land.

Each kind of ownership brings different types of uses, presenting a mosaic of political considerations that are perhaps just as difficult to navigate as the physical obstacles along the path.

Through the efforts of scientists and GPS collar studies, the exact routes of wildlife across these jurisdictions can be plotted on maps. Now that science has identified the most crucial habitat areas for migratory deer on the Red Desert-to-Hoback route, the question is whether that science can be used to create conservation policy that works for all stakeholders.

It's a question largely out of the hands of scientists, and one that will be worked out through the political process.

As "Jet" made her fall migration, Wyoming Game and Fish commission met some 300 miles away in Laramie to debate protection for wildlife routes like the one this deer followed.

In 2010, the Game & Fish Department designated wildlife migration corridors as "vital" in a set of policies that federal agencies look to when drafting management plans. Five years later, migration science has advanced, and the Game & Fish Commission is looking to update the definitions.

The new definition, which is in draft form, would distinguish individual animal movement routes, like the one taken by "Jet," from migration corridors that are used by larger herds. Importantly, the new definitions allow management to pinpoint "high-use" areas that are vital for herd movement and rest stops during migrations.

Many of these high-use areas would be candidates for "no surface occupancy," a policy recommendation that precludes new development on federal land. Such a stipulation was adopted by Game & Fish in 2010 and may carry forward if commissioners agree to new migration definitions.

Game & Fish also recommended that mineral development in the 0.5 mile buffer around high-use areas be reduced from four sites per 640-acre section to a single site per section. That's not a number based on a specific scientific finding, but a suggestion that agency biologists believe would benefit wildlife.

"Although there is new science, it cannot, as yet, provide a definitive answer on acceptable levels of disturbance or fragmentation throughout an entire migration corridor or within a portion of it," the draft policy states. "Consequently, caution is the prudent path forward."

The suggested updates wouldn't lead to any change in direct land management by the Game & Fish. That's because the agency is tasked only with enforcing wildlife laws, and doesn't have land-planning regulatory power.

However, the definitions could be used by federal agencies like the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management Rock Springs Field Office, which is currently revising its Resource Management Plan. For example, the new Rock Springs BLM plan could include a continued recommendation for no surface occupancy along high-use migration corridors and stopover sites.

The Game & Fish Commission tabled the new definitions at its recent meeting in Laramie, and will meet in Cheyenne January 28-29 to reconsider the matter.

Migration science and the path to policy

An assortment of conservation groups argue that migration corridors need to be conserved now, while they are still somewhat intact. That's the case Wyoming Wildlife Federation chairman Dave Moody made in a letter to commissioners before their meeting this month.

"We need to take a lesson from the recent efforts required to conserve the Greater Sage-grouse," Moody wrote, "and be proactive about ensuring habitats of mule deer and other big game ... lest those species fall into similar jeopardy."

Reg Rothwell, also a board member for WWF, wrote that many migration corridors in Wyoming are already threatened or impeded by man made barriers like fences, roads, and natural gas wells. Another example is Interstate 80, which stops Red Desert mule deer from migrating farther south to potentially more hospitable winter range.

How far Jet has migrated as of Nov. 23.
Map courtesy of the Wyoming Migration Initiative

"Despite WGFD's attempts to warn the state of these trends and impending conditions over the years, and its work to address these impacts, we seem to have lacked the vision to strike a balance that is so important to the state's long-term well being," Rothwell wrote.

The comment comes as mule deer numbers are declining statewide. Since the mid-2000s, the population has dropped from a previous peak of about 520,000 to a little more than 350,000 today.

"To allow these game species to slip to their current unfortunate status is a testimony to the true nature of the past land stewardship, and demonstrates the lack of regard for the contributions wildlife makes to the state's economy and culture," Rothwell wrote.

Opposition to updated definitions

Several mineral companies and the director of the Wyoming Office of State Lands oppose the new definitions, saying they could potentially impede energy extraction and tax revenue.

Bridget Hill, director of the Office of State Lands, wrote the Game & Fish Commission that any no-surface occupancy policy in migration corridors on federal lands could restrict access and development of minerals on state land parcels.

"The collective effect of these prescriptions will make it hard, if not impossible in some cases, to responsibly manage State trust lands for income generation for our beneficiaries, which we are obligated to do as trustees of this land," Hill wrote.

A representative from Anadarko made a similar case. The oil and gas company owns much of the private land in the "checkerboard" that runs east to west through the Red Desert paralleling the Union Pacific Railroad. The land is a legacy of the original federal land grant the Union Pacific received to build the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s.

In 2000 Anadarko became one of the Wyoming's largest private land and mineral owners by merging with Union Pacific Resources, the railroad's mineral arm. That put Anadarko in the middle of the developing Red Desert migration issue, which involves about 20 miles of "checkerboard" land that is prime winter range for mule deer.

Like the Office of State Lands, Anadarko worries that no-surface-occupancy rules on migration corridors could hamper mineral development. Anadarko regulatory analyst Nick Owens argued that no surface occupancy isn't required for mule deer winter range, so it shouldn't be needed for migration corridors either.

"Anadarko contends that [no surface occupancy] is inflexible and unworkable and more importantly unjustified given the present scientific information available," Owens wrote. He also worried that the idea of protecting Red Desert migration with no surface occupancy could be a strategy adopted to curtail mineral development throughout the state, which abounds with many wildlife migrations.

Migration goes on

On the same day that the Wyoming Game & Fish Commission debated policy changes, "Jet" was continuing her journey south.

On Nov. 6, she left stopover habitat near Boulder Lake. She turned southeast, and over the next few days walked nearly half the length of the Wind River Range, keeping the mountains on her left, the Green River Basin on her right.

By Nov. 11 she had reached the Prospect Mountain area near Little Sandy Creek, where she stopped again and grazed for three days. On Nov. 13, she moved on.

As of Nov. 17, "Jet" was heading south again, nearing the crossing of Highway 28 to South Pass, making a beeline for her usual winter range. On the GPS map showing her route, she moved every few hours, then stopped to graze. She hopscotched her way farther toward the desert, each day providing more data that may inform the politics of conservation.

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