Scientists are still figuring out how, exactly, development impacts mule deer and other migratory species. But as the harms associated with disruption become increasingly clear, Wyoming policymakers are turning to the advancing research to inform the state’s approach to conservation.
“Wyoming is really at the center of the universe for North America’s megafauna, including many migrating wildlife species, and this state has taken the responsibility to manage these migrating wildlife seriously,” said Matt Skroch, a project director for conservation at the data-focused thinktank Pew Research Center.
Skroch is the lead author of a Pew report released Tuesday on the practical significance of that growing understanding. Its aim, he said, is “to bridge the science of wildlife migration with management and policy for wildlife.”
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The report draws on increasingly abundant data on migration patterns — much of it collected in Wyoming, often made possible by improvements in GPS tracking technology — and highlights the major sources of disruption the findings have revealed.
“The data that is streaming in from that technology is incredibly valuable and useful to analyze and to use in formulating best practices for managing these migrating wildlife,” Skroch said.
Roads, private lands and energy projects rank among the top culprits responsible for impeding animals’ movement between summer range and winter range. But Wyoming, I have noted, is working to address all three, often with the federal government’s support.
The state is investing in wildlife crossings to improve road safety for both humans and ungulates and programs that help private landowners install safer fencing and minimize other obstacles, and has taken steps to keep energy projects out of known migration corridors.
“There’s so much positive momentum and collaboration around protecting Wyoming’s wildlife,” Skroch said.
He hopes that momentum will enable Wyoming to keep pace with the evolving knowledge about migrating species’ needs — and continue to serve as a model for other states’ management strategies.
“Currently, there are only three migratory corridors identified by the state for formal conservation,” he said. “There are dozens and dozens of identified corridors throughout the state utilized by migrating wildlife. And so we have work to do in front of us to formally identify those additional migratory pathways and to work with communities on collaborative solutions to maintain their functionality.”
On the scientific side, the University of Wyoming is at the forefront of those advancements, Skroch said.
Days before the Pew report came out, a peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature Ecology & Evolution published an extensive study investigating the relationship between energy development and mule deer migration, led by researchers from the UW and the US Geological Survey.
It found—even more clearly than its authors anticipated—that encountering energy development throws off the careful timing of mule deer migration.
Mule deer “surf” the wave of new vegetation that emerges each spring, said Matt Kauffman, a zoology professor at the University of Wyoming and one of the authors of the study. Uninterrupted, their migration north aligns almost exactly with the emergence of the most nutritious forage.
“If they’re too early, there aren’t enough plants around, because things just haven’t started coming up yet. If they’re too late, everything is large, has grown up, is fibrous and hard to digest,” Kauffman said.
The researchers, who tracked mule deer for more than a decade, discovered that the drilling of new wells interrupted the animals and slowed their progress.
“They didn’t improve in the subsequent years,” Kauffman said. “Even after 14 years, they still had that behavior of holding up at the development and becoming mismatched from the wave of green up that passed them by.”
The study, he added, brings researchers one step closer to understanding exactly how much development migrating wildlife can tolerate in their migration corridors.