Landmark Mule Deer Study
Scientists study migration in Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and partners are undertaking a landmark study to map mule deer migration corridors over the entire eastern portion of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. It will be one of the largest collaring efforts ever conducted in Wyoming, focused on multiple herds and spanning an area from the Wind River valley to the Bighorn Basin.
The study is a unique collaboration between TNC, Wyoming Migration Initiative, and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Researchers and managers increasingly recognize the importance of intact migrations for healthy, abundant mule deer herds.
Tracking Migration Corridors
Wyoming is home to the longest-known mule deer migration in the lower 48 states, a 150-mile journey that stretches from the Red Desert to the Hoback. The trek ranges from lowland sagebrush steppe in winter to lush mountain ridges in summer.
This mapping project will document in detail the migration corridors of several key herds in the Greater Yellowstone that have never been the focus of the latest tracking technology. All 90 animals captured are being fitted with “real-time” GPS collars that send data back to researchers every three days. That represents a vast improvement over previous GPS studies that required researchers to recover dropped collars to download the data after one to three years.
A Public Approach to Wildlife Research
The real-time data from these collars allow researchers to do something new for wildlife research in Wyoming: They will share what they learn with the public as collared deer make their migrations through one of the wildest areas of the continental United States.
From late March through mid-summer the collaborators will post maps of these migrations weekly on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #wyodeer.
Matthew Kauffman, Wyoming Migration Initiative director and zoology professor at the University of Wyoming, says the study is timely. It follows on the recent decision by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission’s to define additional aspects of migration corridors as “vital” habitat.
“In order to plan for these migrations across the many habitats they require, you need to have detailed maps of the critical corridors and stopover areas, and knowledge of where the obstacles are,” Kauffman said. “This study will help Game and Fish, other wildlife researchers and conservation groups pinpoint potential trouble spots and specific conservation opportunities, and that should benefit Wyoming’s struggling mule deer herds.”
Detailed Maps Generate Optimism for the Future
Since 1990, mule deer populations in Wyoming have declined 36 percent due to various factors including weather, habitat, competition, predation, and disease.
For decades TNC has preserved big-game winter range through conservation easements along the eastern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
“This part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is a critical area for our land conservation, and protecting big game migration corridors has become a priority for TNC Wyoming,” said Holly Copeland, Conservancy ecologist in Lander. “Since detailed maps of these corridors don’t yet exist, we were keen to partner in this research that can guide our work to conserve these critical corridors.”
This research will make a significant contribution to TNC's efforts to protect 4 million acres of resilient lands in North America that are identified as connected corridors with high biodiversity.