She made the initial portion of her journey with her mom, just like most yearling deer for millennia. They left an area near Bear River in the southwest part of Wyoming in mid-April 2018 and arrived on the mother’s summer range northeast of Cokeville a month later.
But then deer F210, as she’s been numbered, went on what can only be described as a walkabout.
She began at her summer range near Cokeville, skirted around Electric Peak, up and over the south end of the Salt Range, through the foothills of the east side of the Wyoming Range, popping into sagebrush country before finishing in the Hoback area, wandering through some of the toughest terrain Wyoming has to offer.
The 58-mile journey took her 10 days.
When she reached a spot about 17 miles south of Bondurant, on a Monday morning, she turned around and walked her exact route back through sagebrush country, along the foothills of the Wyoming Range, up and over the Salt Range, around Electric Peak to her mother’s summer range near Cokeville. In total, she climbed and lost more than 23,000 feet in elevation.
F210 then followed her mother’s route another 61 miles back to the Bear River area.
The young doe’s precision walkabout was unique enough to warrant an entire paper recently released by the journal Ecology. It adds to a growing body of work helping to better understand – and ultimately conserve – the state’s iconic Wyoming Range herd.
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The fact that mule deer are capable of migrating incredibly long distances over mountains, across valleys and through deserts is not new. Researchers discovered the Red Desert to Hoback migration in 2012 – documenting more than 150 miles of plodding up an expanse of western Wyoming.
Then in 2018, tracking collars revealed an even longer migration from the desert to Idaho’s Island Park. It was almost 250 miles in total spanning months of travel.
Deer, like other large mammals including elk, pronghorn and bighorn sheep, migrate varied distances to follow what has been coined the “green wave.” As snow melts and grass greens, they follow the calorie-packed vegetation into the mountains. Then in the fall, as snow begins to pile, they wander back down to winter ranges at lower elevations.
More research has shown the importance of stopover points – those places deer pause to rest along their journeys – to their overall survival. Most of the work has been done on female adult deer. But recently researchers began to follow fawns to understand their movements and perils in their early lives. And that fawn research has also offered researchers a glimpse into the lives and movements of young deer.
Rhiannon Jakopak, a master’s student at the University of Wyoming and lead author on the paper, noticed F210’s movements when she was far away from the mountains of southwest Wyoming. She was in an office in Laramie, disseminating thousands of data points from dozens of fawns as part of a multi-year study looking at fawn survival in the Wyoming Range.
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It was only later, in conversations with UW associate professor and advisor Kevin Monteith, that they realized just how strange it really was.
“The fact that she was able to walk almost 60 miles in one direction and turn around and walk that same path back shows that something neat is going on here,” Jakopak said. “And calls attention to how smart mule deer are and how much we don’t know about them.”
Jakopak knows doe deer will sometimes run off their yearlings in the summer, especially if they are preparing to give birth again. Their movements can be downright aggressive, even running at their offspring, trying to kick them with their front legs and making noises at the young animals.
But what those deer do once they leave, where they go, researchers really weren’t sure. The time has been coined “the lost years.”
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Jakopak, fellow UW researcher Tayler LaSharr and even Wyoming Game and Fish Department wildlife biologist Gary Fralick are quick to say one deer’s movements do not speak for an entire species or even herd, but it does offer a glimpse into what the animals may be doing.
And that matters because wildlife managers have been struggling for years to understand why the iconic Wyoming Range deer herd has struggled to regain its once-robust numbers.
“It is giving us that insight we so desperately needed in understanding those migratory patterns and also in understanding the importance of those routes that will be etched in the brains of those mule deer for their lives,” said Fralick.
The more researchers, wildlife managers and land managers know about the way deer and other animals use a landscape, the more they can plan protections. Common highway crossings, for example, could eventually turn into over or underpasses. Bottlenecks between development and lakes could be set aside for conservation.
This also shows that while previous research suggests big game likely learn migration from their kin, deer may only have to travel a route once to know the exact way back, Jakopak said.
Researchers still need more data points. Collaring fawns is tricky work – researchers must implant radio frequency transmitters into pregnant deer that fall out during childbirth, then track down the days-old fawns before they can stand and run away. The project currently has 12 adult animals that were collared as fawns online being tracked, and hope for more in the next few years.
F210 returned to her summer range again this year, and had her own fawn about a mile away from where she was born. She didn’t go on her walkabout again.
But what she and the others continue to do, researchers agree, will add to the growing set of information about one of Wyoming’s most valuable resources.