Wyoming’s Great Migration

November 26, 2014

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Last evening, as I drove home from work in Boise, it was clear: The deer are here.

Mule deer crossed the road in front of me, browsed in the foothills, moved through new housing developments. They’re moving through my backyard.

Just a few weeks ago, you’d have to look hard in these places to find a mule deer. They were still higher in the mountains, moving to their winter range.

Those of us living in the Intermountain West know that mule deer and other ungulates migrate. When it snows, we expect to see the animals moving out of the mountains, and to begin appearing on the sagebrush flats, in the valley bottoms and in our backyards.

But the reality is, we knew very little about the details of this migration. How far were they traveling? What was their exact route? How did they get past obstacles?

Advances in wildlife technology have filled in a more complete picture. Telemetry has allowed researchers to follow animals over the course of their migration.

And they found that these seasonal movements constitute some of the greatest mammal migrations remaining on earth. Each year, mule deer, pronghorn and other ungulates migrate 150 miles or more in the Intermountain West.

They have likely traveled these routes for millennia, and have continued to do so thanks to the West’s great wildernesses and public lands.

Pronghorn on the move. Photo: © Scott Copeland
Pronghorn on the move. Photo: © Scott Copeland

But the animals face a perilous future, with energy development, subdivisions, roads and other hazards blocking their migrations.

The Wyoming Migration Initiative (of which The Nature Conservancy is a partner) is one effort to research, protect and celebrate these ungulate migrations. The initiative’s excellent web site offers a migration viewer, an interactive way for you to chart the paths these animals take each year.

This video offers a great introduction to the research and focus of its work. It also happens to include some beautiful footage of mule deer, elk, pronghorns, bighorn sheep and moose moving across stunning landscapes.

The video also highlights an important message on wildlife connectivity: Yes, wilderness is essential for these large animals. They wouldn’t exist without it. But wilderness is not enough (as The New York Times also recently reported).

These animals need corridors that get them through energy developments. They need intact private working ranchlands, not subdivisions with their cars, dogs and barriers. They need ways to get over roads.

They need land that’s connected.

The U.S. wilderness and public lands heritage is a tremendous gift – certainly one of the things I am thankful for this Thanksgiving eve.

Efforts like the Wyoming Migration Initiative build on this heritage, charting a future where the deer and the antelope can still have a home on the range.

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