Following the food: Migration is critical for big game

Muley migration

Mule deer need to travel between seasonal ranges to capture greening vegetation in the spring and to reach their winter range in the fall. Photo courtesy of Joe Riis.

When I started in the wildlife profession a few decades ago, all I wanted to do was study big game and work with the iconic “charismatic megafauna,” as large mammals often are called. I made that dream a reality and worked on deer, elk and bighorn sheep projects as an undergraduate student and concentrated on bighorn sheep for my master’s degree. I read all the scientific literature diligently and learned many things in the field while spending countless hours with our magnificent big game animals.

I thought, as most students do, that I knew a lot – not all there was to know, but a lot. But when it comes to understanding nature and how the biological world works, one adage rings true: “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

I distinctly remember one key lecture in a wildlife management class from a pioneering mule deer researcher, Dr. Richard Mackie at Montana State University. Dr. Mackie once was in a camp of deer biologists who believed winter range was the sole factor responsible for sustaining mule deer populations in Montana and across the West. But in that lecture, after presenting his pioneering research on winter range as a major limiting condition for mule deer, Dr. Mackie pronounced, “We were wrong!” Had it been 2013, he might have proclaimed, “We didn’t know what we didn’t know.” He then told our class about the complexities of nature and how we have learned that several different factors influence deer populations and their ability to survive in different environments. It was an eye-opening lecture I’ve never forgotten.

Fast forward to present day. Land managers still focus heavily, and in some cases almost exclusively, on winter range as the key to protecting deer populations in the West. Winter range is important, but big game habitat use and needs during different seasons goes far beyond just protecting winter range.

One thing we’ve learned from the science on big game is that nutrition on summer and fall range is absolutely vital and that those animals entering winter range in poor condition simply won’t make it, no matter how much winter range there is or how good of a shape it’s in. But we also know that big game animals like mule deer, elk, pronghorn and caribou migrate between areas where they spend their summers and winters. What we don’t always know are the intricate details of migrations, and, in many cases, we don’t even know which populations migrate or how far.

That’s key in a new study released by the University of Wyoming Cooperative Research Unit and the Wyoming Migration Initiative. Research biologist Hall Sawyer recently set out to study a deer population near Rock Springs, Wyoming, that was thought to make only short-distance movements between seasonal ranges. To everyone’s surprise, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. Global positioning system collars (that recorded each marked deer’s location with pinpoint accuracy every three hours) revealed the longest known migration of any mule deer population – 150 or so miles from the Red Desert to the high mountains near Jackson, Wyoming.

WMI Event

On Earth Day, April 22, 2014, the University of Wyoming and Wyoming Migration Initiative held an open house to release their report on the longest mule deer migration in North America. Photo by Ed Arnett.

Why is this important for mule deer? Sawyer said it best when he likened migration to driving long distances between two cities with no hotels, gas stations or grocery stores in between. Migrating animals need to freely pass through the landscape and stop occasionally to fuel up and rest. These places, called “stopover” habitats, are very important, because without them, deer could unnecessarily burn fat stores just trying to get to their winter ranges. Migration is all about finding and conserving body energy when trying to get from point A to B.

Barriers to movement or procuring food will cost some animals in the long run as they endure long, cold winters in the West. The Wyoming study identified several barriers and other management issues along this 150-mile corridor that could negatively impact mule deer. This study can help guide the management and protection of these important habitats while also pointing out the highest priority areas to target conservation dollars for easements, habitat enhancement and other management projects. That’s good news for this herd if state and federal agencies, private landowners and stakeholders work together to protect and conserve this migratory corridor. But what about other migrating herds of big game?

By learning more about what we didn’t know, scientists have solidified the need to think far beyond just one or two seasonal ranges or habitat types for mule deer populations. A more holistic view and management strategy with policy to back it is needed.

Migration corridors and habitats where big game animals rest and forage during migration are critical pieces in a complex habitat puzzle that is key to the health of populations of mule deer and other big game animals. But the science on migration has yet to make it into policy. Bureau of Land Management resource management plans do not identify migration corridors, stopover habitats or provide for their management. Now, with work like this there is an opportunity to get those lines on the map and start incorporating them into planning. That’s why the TRCP will keep working with partner groups, land managers and other stakeholders to ensure our big game populations are managed for long-term sustainability. If we do not manage and conserve key habitats on all seasonal ranges and the migratory passageways between them, big game populations likely will decline and impact both our outdoor traditions and our hunting-based Western economy.

Watch a video of the mule deer migrations:

Thanks and Good Luck

Thagards with Wyoming mule deer.

The Thagards with a mule deer taken on National Forest land in Colorado. Sportsmen’s dollars are the most significant contributor to state fish and wildlife agencies funding. Photo courtesy of Neil Thagard.

When my wife Catherine and I look for places to hunt, “off the beaten path” is near the top of our criteria list.  Public lands where we can backpack and not see another human soul for days are a magnet to us.  Recently we found ourselves hunting an area of National Forest which contained both the mule deer we were seeking and a popular hiking trail to a spectacularly scenic waterfall. We decided that we’d willingly share the canyon with others for the opportunity at one of the big bucks we knew were there.

Shortly after sunrise we were sitting at a great glassing spot near the trail when we heard human voices approaching. As the hikers came into view we saw a large group wearing the trendy clothing of the young and environmentally conscious; Catherine and I were in full camo with weapons in hand. I saw my wife inwardly brace for the anticipated disapproving stares and “Bambi-killer” accusations.

We made a point to be friendly, commenting on the beautiful day.  After some small talk on the trail conditions, I heard the inevitable question, “Are you guys hunting?”

“Yes,” I answered as Catherine held her breath, “We are looking for deer.”

“Well,” said the apparent leader of the group, “thanks and good luck.”  Then they headed off down the trail.

That was it – thanks and good luck. Could the complex interconnectedness between hunters and anglers, and the communities in which they pursue their game be summed up in that simple sentence? I’d like to think the young hiker we met that day on the trail understood the essential role that hunting plays in conservation and local economies, and that he was directing his thanks to us for that.

While hikers, mountain bikers and other nature lovers are able to enjoy that spectacular canyon and the wildlife it contained for free, we spent hundreds of dollars on the tags and licenses required for the opportunity to hunt there. Our money goes directly to the state game and fish agency and pays for a wide spectrum of conservation programs.

Sportsmen’s dollars are the most significant contributor to state fish and wildlife agencies and support everything from habitat improvements and fish stocking to scholastic educational programs and disease research. Through their financial contributions, hunters and anglers even support non-game and endangered species management efforts.

However, when we look at the big picture of hunting’s impact from an economic perspective, it’s not just about what hunters spend on permits. It’s also about the local motel that relies on pheasant hunters to extend their season.  It’s about the mom-and-pop coffee shop that sees a significant proportion of their business in the early morning hours as deer hunters head out. It’s about the jeweler who specializes in elk ivory, the taxidermist putting his kids through college and the second generation fly-shop owner carrying on the family business. It’s about the rancher who receives compensation when he loses livestock to predators and the countless other ways in which sportsmen’s dollars directly and indirectly bolster local economies.

In my home state of Wyoming, the hunting and fishing industry contributes $1.1 billion annually. That’s second only to oil and gas, and is no small number when you consider there are only about a half a million people in the entire state. In a state like Wyoming that is dependent upon the oil and gas industry, our abundant wildlife helps to provide a diversified economy that is able to withstand the booms and busts associated with natural resource extraction.

Most people do not realize that the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has not had a hunting license and tag fee increase since 2008, even though the cumulative inflation rate since then has been 8.5 percent. They have also been required to spend more of their existing budget on legislatively mandated costs, such as health care for employees. The 2013 Legislature rejected the agency’s request for a modest fee increase, forcing a multi-million dollar budget cut. This has hit Wyoming families and the small businesses that depend on our outdoor industry the hardest.  It’s not hard to see how these severe funding cuts limit the state’s ability to actively manage fish and wildlife, which in turn reduces the number of visitors to the Cowboy State whether they are hunters, anglers, birdwatchers, nature photographers or simply conservationists.

The good news is that we have the opportunity to restore what has been lost, and with it the jobs and economic strength Wyoming derives from our outdoor industry.  Two bills have been introduced by the Travel, Recreation and Wildlife Committee of the Legislature to provide a modest fee increase that keeps pace with inflation, and to share some of the financial burden of the Game and Fish Department with the non-consumptive user.

Both bills will need to pass the budget session in February, and I encourage every Wyomingite to contact their legislator and express your support for the bills. But it’s not only locals who hunt and fish in Wyoming – sportsmen come here from across America to experience our world-class hunting and angling opportunities. Every sportsman who has ever even dreamed of chasing Wyoming elk, antelope, bighorn sheep or cutthroat trout has a stake in how these resources are managed – contact the Wyoming state legislature today and let them know you are a sportsman who supports the bills.

50th Birthday Wish

A note from TRCP’s Ed Arnett:

Greetings all,

One of the things I really like about the TRCP family is sharing our great experiences on public lands hunting and fishing.

I’m down off the mountain for a day and wanted to share one of the more special moments in my life as a hunter.  This is my cousin, Larry Lanter and I after he took his very first buck and first mule deer on public lands in Wyoming.

Wyoming Muley

Sharing a great experience on a public lands hunt. Photo by Ed Arnett.

There are too many stories to tell, but there was snow, extreme mud, lots of hiking and a little drama at the end with an evening hit on the deer that yielded a tracking exercise this morning.

It took me two hours — often on my hands and knees looking for blood and the right tracks — to track him down, but we found him! He’s no monster wall-hanger, but a magnificent trophy for a first time mule deer hunter, and fair chase on public lands.

Larry and I are one month apart in age and both turned 50 this year (don’t look a day over 49 though now do we…) and this was our treat and wish for the half-century mark. My main goal was to get him a buck and I’m so happy as this is the first time he and I have hunted big game together.

I wanted to share the moment with my TRCP friends.  Also, notice our headgear. We’re promoting as we tour Wyoming!  Now we’re off to hunt pronghorn.

More later,

ea

 

Public Lands Yield Iconic Game and Pristine Backcountry

This past August, I had the opportunity to hunt deer with archery equipment in central Nevada. This would be my first Nevada mule deer tag and I was able to hunt in a pristine backcountry area with abundant deer and little hunting pressure. I was blessed to have the opportunity to hunt this iconic animal in such a spectacular setting.

One reason Nevada consistently provides outstanding opportunities for hunting and fishing are the large areas of intact and undeveloped backcountry on Bureau of Land Management lands. Most people don’t realize it, but just over 86 percent of the land in Nevada is public land. It is these large intact areas of backcountry land that provide the core habitat that gives us some of the finest big game hunting in the West where trophy mule deer, elk, antelope and bighorn sheep are taken every season.

Large intact areas of backcountry land provide the core habitat that gives us some of the finest big game hunting in the West. Photo by Dusan Smetana.

Unfortunately, throughout the West some of our best public lands are threatened by a massive wave of new energy development and deteriorating habitat conditions. Here in Nevada, poorly planned wind energy projects and transmission lines could threaten to further fragment prime fish and wildlife habitat. In other parts of the West, oil and gas developments are being proposed in some of the best remaining big game habitat.

As development pressures continue to grow, the TRCP and partners are working to maintain the high quality fish and wildlife values of our public lands. Western hunters and anglers are working through local land use plans in Colorado, Nevada and Oregon to conserve intact fish and wildlife habitat and are calling on the BLM to manage high value areas as backcountry conservation areas or BCAs.

BCAs would provide BLM land managers with clear guidelines that would help conserve our best wildlife habitat while protecting public access and at the same time would allow common-sense activities to restore habitat and honor existing rights like ranching.

Learn how you can help conserve backcountry and hunting and fishing heritage today.