Big game migration corridors and the concerns of industry about the state’s new measures to conserve them have been in the news recently. This story deserves some more attention and clarity on the issue.
Bottom line, big game migration corridors in Wyoming are vital to healthy wildlife populations. The public needs to know there is an ongoing effort for all stakeholders to work together toward a solution. Migration corridors provide essential links for deer, elk and antelope between their summer ranges — so key for reproduction — to their winter ranges — vital to their survival. Keeping these corridors intact will ensure we have healthy, resilient big game herds well into the future.
It’s that important, and that’s exactly what the Game and Fish Department has done with Wyoming stakeholders. Conservation groups, ranchers and industry such as the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, came to the table and worked for over a year to help craft new definitions and conservation recommendations for big game migrations in our state.
The new migration definitions were adopted last spring by the Game and Fish Commission. This came after months of meetings and revisions completed in good faith and in the spirit of cooperation. These definitions are now included in the Game and Fish Department’s wildlife seasonal range definitions and recognized in the Commission’s Mitigation Policy. Also developed was a process for making recommendations to land management agencies and other decision-makers on how to minimize the impacts to migration corridors caused by various types of development. The Red Desert to Hoback Basin mule deer corridor and Atlantic Rim are examples of where new technology has provided the method to delineate these important links between ranges and habitats. This was completed under the Wyoming Migrations Initiative and by radio collaring animals and using GPS technology. This research has also demonstrated the effects of development on such mule deer migrations.
The Wyoming Wildlife Federation was a major player in this Game and Fish stakeholder effort to craft the migration definitions, and while we would have liked to have seen stronger, more specific recommendations to protect the most sensitive areas along these corridors, we feel we attained two important goals. First, we now have detailed definitions for categorizing migration corridors and their components as well as methods to identify these corridors. Game and Fish is still working on a map for designated corridors that fall within the state, which will be based on the data and the definitions approved by the Commission. Second, migration corridors and their components are now recognized as “vital” in the Commission’s Mitigation Policy. For vital habitats, the department recommended no significant declines in species distribution and abundance, and no loss of habitat function. To WWF, these are simple expectations for such a precious resource. At this point, there have been no management actions tied to these corridors. This is the next step and will come after site risk analysis by the Game and Fish, as directed by the Commission.
To illustrate the importance of science to the issue of migrations, I want to provide you with an example of our land grant university’s efforts and its role in learning more about Wyoming wildlife. Researchers at the University of Wyoming have revealed a migration phenomenon that has been called “surfing the green wave.” As plants green-up through the spring at progressively higher elevations, big game animals move into those “stopover areas,” using them at the optimal time for obtaining nutrition. However, deer do not surf the green wave as well in drought years, because the green-up happens quickly, with a lot of the migration route greening up at the about same time. One researcher, UW Ph.D. student Ellen Aiken, found that the index used to quantify high-quality forage (called IRG) can actually get out of sequence in drought years. This can be particularly troubling with higher elevation stopover areas experiencing IRG earlier in the spring than lower elevation stopover areas. There is no way the deer can track the IRG accurately. With climate change likely to produce more drought years in these key stopover areas in the future, the implications for deer nutrition, fitness, fertility and the long-term welfare of their populations are not good.
Such scientific knowledge along with conservation funding and collaborative efforts for identifying and protecting migration corridors are the actions needed in Wyoming. And these are exactly what the Game and Fish Department, the Game and Fish Commission, UW and stakeholders such as WWF are working toward. The Legislature and other decision-makers need to trust in the science, our wildlife leaders and these collaborative stakeholder efforts.
WWF has long sought solutions to balancing energy development with maintaining healthy wildlife populations. Working together to conserve Wyoming’s migration corridors is the answer.