It’s 35 degrees outside. About nine mule deer shuffle through the bitter waters of Fremont Lake. A buck shakes, sending droplets of water flying. He pauses to look back at the herd trailing behind him and then trudges ahead, taking another step along a 150-mile journey to his winter range in the Red Desert.
A camera captures this intimate moment in late October — it’s a moment that a human’s presence would likely disturb. The video, set up by UW student Tanner Warder, is one more piece of information to add to a ballooning archive of data being collected by Wyoming wildlife scientists as they study the world’s longest intact migration corridor.
This new wave of research into migratory animals has positioned Wyoming at a crossroads.
The state boasts dozens of identified migration routes. Scientists have come to consider these ancient routes as critical habitat warranting state protection. With mule deer population numbers hovering near historic lows, the state has been debating how to avoid losing this animal, and others that have become closely intertwined with the state’s identity.
At the tail end of his first year in office, Gov. Mark Gordon released a draft executive order to bolster migration corridor protections. The draft, published on Dec. 23, attempted to thread the needle between the need to preserve precious wildlife and the need to support Wyoming’s lucrative energy sector. Of the eight ungulate species, or hoofed mammals, making up the one million or so migrating mammals across Wyoming, the executive order places special emphasis on two: mule deer and pronghorn.
Since its release, the draft has been lauded by several groups as a winning example of science-based wildlife management policy. Still, others fear it could add one more set of hurdles for energy developers to leap through.
Wyoming’s sagebrush-rich topography coupled with wide open spaces and minimal human disturbances have helped preserve some of the longest intact migration corridors in the world here. The state’s low human population numbers have also helped conserve big game herds, as several migration routes have remained permeable and connected. Wyoming is home to roughly 400,000 mule deer and about half the world’s pronghorn population.
But growing threats, particularly from housing and energy development, have put the future of migrating herds on the line.
“This is a pressing problem,” said Kristen Gunther, a conservation advocate at the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “We only get one chance to do this right and make sure that we protect these critical pieces of habitat. If we lose these pieces, they’re gone.”
More voices at the table
Gordon’s executive order builds on the conservation and research efforts already being led by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. The state agency received a directive in 2016 to designate key migratory routes. In the past few years, the agency announced three migration corridors — Baggs, Platte Valley and Sublette, also known as the Red Desert-to-Hoback.
“That (designation) process is a strongly science-based process,” said Matthew Kauffman, an associate professor at the University of Wyoming and expert on migration corridors. “When a corridor gets designated … the mapping is all driven by what the animals are doing; there is very little room in there for managers to influence where the corridor ends up.”
A team of scientists conducts extensive research and environmental reviews with the aim of making scientifically-based recommendations before development occurs in critical habitat. The state agency currently has two additional corridors in draft phases. But there are also dozens of other migration routes being studied in the state.
“The corridor ends up where the animals tell us it is,” he added. “We just let the animals tell us where they go.”
Yet, in one of the most significant changes proposed by the new executive order, Wyoming Game and Fish Department wildlife managers won’t be the only people at the decision-making table when it comes to migration corridors. And recommendations delivered by Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s scientists won’t be the only factor taken into account when considering the merits of a possible corridor designation.
The governor, who will hold the ultimate decision of corridor designation, will also have help from landowners and others on the ground. The state will support the formation of local working groups to help inform the designation of new corridors. By asking local residents and stakeholders on the ground for their opinions on the migration corridors, the state not only receives helpful feedback from working groups, but it also breeds greater investment in the corridors, the governor’s Migration Corridor Advisory Group reasoned.
Rancher Marissa Taylor was tapped by Gordon to serve on the advisory group and represent landowners from Uinta County in rural southwest Wyoming this year. Taylor’s family ranch sits nestled in Lonetree, a community that hugs Wyoming’s southern border. She believes considering multiple interests and perspectives when making a conservation plan for the state is integral before designating a route.
“If we penalize oil and gas and take away millions of dollars, what does that look like for our school teachers?” Taylor asked. “But if we heavily develop these corridors and continue to operate without regard for our migration corridors and lose large groups of species, what does that mean for Wyoming?”
A mountain of science
Advancements in tracking technology have exploded in recent years. Wyoming scientists now use GPS collars to monitor nearly every move of some migrating animals. Collars can collect location data as often as every hour and can go on collecting data for an extended period — sometimes for years. Collaring studies helped confirm that deer travel from high-elevation summer ranges to low-elevation winter ranges as the seasons change in search of energy-rich vegetation and less snow.
The location data collected from GPS collar studies also informs the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s assessment of potential corridors flowing throughout the state. Researchers compile those thousands of data points on a map to assess where the animal goes in the summer, where it goes in the winter and the exact route it doggedly repeats year after year.
It also can identify where animals linger for longer stretches of time. These safe and restorative spots, known as stopovers, are where migrating ungulates will often spend the majority of their migration. The executive order places more emphasis on protecting these high-use areas along the migration route.
“There are portions of a corridor that are always going to be more critical to protect ... ,” Gunther, the conservation advocate, explained. “That is definitely reflected in the draft.”
Mule deer mothers teach their babies the ancient paths of migratory passages. Research has confirmed just how faithful a mule deer will remain to the same migration route.
“Our mule deer, they are where they are,” Gunther emphasized. “The deer know where they want to go, and we can’t just tell them to go another direction.”
A plethora of threats to migrating ungulates exist in Wyoming from increasing climate alterations, habitat loss and overgrazing. But migration corridors serve as critical habitat and lifeline for the animals, scientists said.
“Mule deer have been declining almost range-wide from a variety of different factors, and loss of habitat is one of those,” Kauffman, the UW scientist, said.
Research conducted by the University of Wyoming has linked the declining health of some ungulate populations to human activity like mineral and wind development, urban sprawl and highways on migration corridors.
“Development of all types that occurs within migration corridors can impair and reduce the functionality of those corridors,” he said. “It is also really important that animals are allowed to move freely so they can forage optimally all along the way.”
Gap in knowledge
Though the research has brought the state closer to finding effective conservation methods, there are still gaps.
“Development has the potential to impede the free movement of animals and thereby reduce the functionality of these corridors,” Kauffman noted. “What we don’t know, and what the research hasn’t really given us, is the threshold of development.”
In other words, it’s still challenging to pinpoint exactly how much development the various migrating herds will tolerate, he said. Those gaps in knowledge have left people like John Espy, a member of the Carbon County Board of County Commissioners, skeptical. He served on the governor’s advisory board for the migration corridor executive order.
“I’m still thinking we’re lacking some science,” Espy said. “What is that threshold of development? (I think we need) to be able to replicate these studies.”
Espy points to a stretch of a corridor in Carbon County where significant oil and gas development could occur, and said operators already have several deterrents to drill.
“A lot of this is already in sage grouse core area so there are already restrictions on oil and gas, due to the executive order,” he noted. “I think we need to use some adaptive management and not pigeonhole ourselves.”
That’s why the governor’s order instills a degree of flexibility, he and several stakeholders noted. The research is ongoing and the policy needs to be malleable enough to amend as needed down the road.
But what’s most vital is for Wyoming leaders to continue taking the best available science into account and then make the most informed management decisions, scientists said again and again.
“What the science points to is the need to be strategic about how we plan,” Kauffman said. “Fortunately, the science really allows us to pinpoint the corridors. Planning for these migrations is really doable if we have good information.”
What about energy?
Not everyone is so convinced the executive order is what Wyoming needs.
Steve Degenfelder is a land manager at Kirkwood Oil and Gas LLC, an independent exploration and production oil company in Wyoming. Though he said the draft order was an improvement from the recommendations put forth by the advisory group, he’s still worried the additional regulations that come with designation could severely hamper vital oil and gas development in Wyoming.
“Kirkwood will be directly affected by the executive order,” Degenfelder said. “It automatically designates three corridors, about 1.2 million acres, that don’t have to go through the process that is set up with the executive order.”
“I have concerns over that, because I know it will directly affect us,” he added.
The stakes for keeping oil and gas development healthy and uninhibited in the state are high, he said. Oil and gas pumped $1.39 billion in taxes into Wyoming’s economy in 2018, much of it funneled to the state’s public education system.
“I’ve lived here for 40 years, and my three kids went through public school. I’ve enjoyed all the fruits that Wyoming has to offer,” Degenfelder said. “The last thing I want to do is deprive that from another generation.”
Conservation efforts beyond the executive order are also already well underway in the state. And the official designation of a migration corridor is not the only way to protect vulnerable ungulates, scientists said.
In fact, according to Kauffman, the mere identification of corridors by scientists has catalyzed widespread conservation efforts across the state.
Conservation groups and wildlife managers have modified fences along roads to make them more wildlife-friendly. Signs have been installed to warn drivers that they are approaching hot spots on roads where there is a high rate of animal mortality. Construction of multiple road structures to help animals cross highways were launched before the three corridors were even officially designated, according to Kauffman.
“Though there is a lot of focus on corridors … we don’t want that to distract from the good work that is already being done by landowners, NGOs and industry to protect and enhance all deer and big game habitat,” Renny MacKay, the governor’s policy director, said. “... The corridors are only one of the habitats that migrating mule deer populations rely on for their survival.”
An executive order does not require a formal public comment period, but the governor will continue to accept feedback from stakeholders on the draft order throughout the week, according to MacKay.
“The Wyoming Game and Fish Department supports the public process that culminated in the Governor’s Draft Executive Order on Migration. Involving the public voice in decision-making is important, and we urge any person or group to submit comments on the draft,” Angela Bruce, Wyoming Game and Fish Department deputy director, said in a statement.
As far as submitting comment goes, “the sooner the better,” MacKay said. The governor plans to sign the final executive order by the end of the month.