The Importance of Migration Corridors to Healthy Big Game Populations

Conservation can’t just happen at point A or point B, because travel conditions impact the health of species like mule deer

As the great Thanksgiving migration commences on Wednesday, the busiest travel day of the year, it seems like an appropriate time to discuss these intrepid travelers—the mule deer herd that makes one of the longest known annual migrations of their entire species in the Western U.S. Last year, research using global positioning system collars revealed that the deer travel about 150 miles from the Red Desert in south-central Wyoming to the high mountains near Jackson Hole.

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

This month, the University of Wyoming’s Ruckelshaus Institute and the Wyoming Migration Initiative convened more than 160 scientists, wildlife managers, landowners, industry groups, and conservation professionals in Laramie, Wyo., to share more cutting edge science on big-game migrations in the West. I was among the participants gathered to discuss the next chapter for conserving and maintaining these critical migration corridors. Here’s what I learned:

Travel Conditions Matter

If you’re a waterfowl hunter or an avid birder, you know all too well how important migration is for these creatures. You would also know the importance of what are known as “stopover” habitats—places where animals can rest and refuel during their migrations before continuing on their journey from point A to point B. Recent advances in technology have allowed scientists to gather information on the exact location of migration corridors and stopover habitats with far greater accuracy. Researcher Hall Sawyer found that radio-collared mule deer traveling from the Red Desert to Hoback Junction in Wyoming spend up to 95 percent of their migration period in stopover habitat. Without these places, deer might not make it to their winter range in a healthy enough condition to survive the harsh winter. Sawyer summed it up best by asking us to imagine driving a long distance between two cities with no hotels, gas stations, or grocery stores in between.

This just illustrates that you can make every effort in the world to protect and enhance winter range, but it won’t mean much if the animals simply can’t get there, or if they arrive in poor condition.

It doesn’t take too much effort to see why sportsmen should care about the lengths that mule deer go to reach summer and wintering habitat, and the conditions they’re met with in between. I suspect the giant muley buck that my friend Steven Rinella shot this fall moved a good distance between summer and winter ranges and undoubtedly stopped many times along the way. Would he have even seen a buck like this if that migration corridor had been severed by a highway or other barrier five years earlier? Many migration routes have been lost in this way over the past several decades, which could be a key factor in long-term declines for mule deer populations across the West. And of course we know that decreased hunter opportunity translates into loss of income for many businesses in rural communities that are so dependent on sportsmen’s dollars.

Steven Rinella, author and host of the MeatEater, with his public lands mule deer buck taken along a migration corridor. Conservation of these habitats yields greater opportunity and results for sportsmen. Image courtesy of Janis Putelis.

Wanted: Better Data, More Support

More research on migration corridors and stopover habitats is necessary for us to more holistically conserve big-game populations across the West. Most of the information currently available comes from years of observations by biologists, game wardens, and sportsmen, but it’s often anecdotal, at best. Very few migrations have been identified using the latest in GPS technology, which pinpoints animal movements and plots maps with incredible accuracy.

But beyond getting more data, we also need greater understanding and engagement from the people who manage, own, or otherwise impact these lands. The science is helping us understand what we need to do, but landowners, industry officials, and sportsmen will have to champion the effort, like we do for so many habitat challenges. Building trust, clarifying expectations, quelling fears, will pave the path toward finding solutions for protecting these habitats.

Along Comes Policy

Public awareness and good science becomes even more critical when you consider that there are currently no specific policy or management requirements for migration corridors or stopover habitats on federal or state lands open to the public. State wildlife agencies often make recommendations to protect migration corridors and stopovers, but there are no policy guarantees to back them up or hold anyone accountable, including those who negatively impact this habitat. We need greater assurances for the future. At this month’s conference, Under Secretary of Agriculture Robert Bonnie and Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Jim Lyons shared their support for the conservation of migration corridors. Their agencies are exactly who we need to work with to develop a management strategy for migration corridors with policy assurances for the long-term commitment to improving conditions for big game and many other species.

Aldo Leopold noted that “to keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” We’re long overdue for an intelligent plan that does more than just tinker with our big game populations. It’s time to get the wheels turning toward a solid future for the West’s extraordinary big game populations and our uniquely American hunting heritage.

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.

Video: Budget Cuts Besiege Wyoming Sportsmen

Recently TRCP’s western outreach director, Neil Thagard presented the Wyoming Game & Fish Department $10,000 for the Private Lands Public Wildlife Access Program, which benefits all sportsmen who hunt and fish in the Cowboy State.

During the presentation, Neil expressed concerns surrounding the recent mandated budget cuts and what those cuts mean for fish and wildlife management, businesses and sportsmen. In the last budget session, the Wyoming Legislature demanded the Department cut $4.6 million from its FY14 budget. Such cuts will adversely impact fish and wildlife resources and hunting and angling opportunities.

Watch the video of Neil’s presentation below.

Mapping Project Brings on-the-Ground Results for Sportsmen

Montana sportsmen mapping prized areas of the state as part of the Sportsmen Values Mapping Project.

Involving the American sportsman in issues that affect our hunting and fishing heritage is fundamental to maintaining our outdoor heritage. Here at the TRCP we try and ensure sportsman involvement occurs at a level where impacts and results tend to be clear and immediate. To this end, the TRCP has developed a state-specific approach to capture input from local hunters and anglers called the Sportsmen Values Mapping Project.

As part of the project, TRCP staff members meet with sporting groups, conservation organizations and rod and gun clubs to identify “bread and butter” hunting and fishing areas in various states. You might wonder why anyone would reveal a favorite honey. When combined with critical habitat maps already in use by federal and state agencies, this information provides a powerful tool for politicians and decision-makers to use in public lands management.

The project’s goal is ensuring sportsmen are represented in management decisions by highlighting the exact areas they want to see managed for the continued and future use of hunting and fishing.

The success of the mapping project has earned recognition both at home and abroad and is largely held as a case study on how sportsmen can participate in land management and public policy. Recently, TRCP Center for Responsible Energy Development Director Ed Arnett gave a presentation about the project at the Conference on Wind Power and Environmental Impacts. The conference, held in Stockholm, Sweden, was attended by more than 300 people from at least 30 countries.

The TRCP’s Center for Responsible Energy Development Director, Ed Arnett. Photo courtesy of Mark Weaver.

During the presentation, Arnett highlighted the project as tool for wind energy developers and decision-makers to use in identifying key, high-use areas warranting special conservation strategies and in avoiding conflict with sportsmen and other stakeholders. As presented, the mapping project provides valuable and previously unavailable data that will aid in balancing energy development with the needs of fish, wildlife and sportsmen.

As Arnett returns from the international conference, he continues to ensure that decision-makers balance the needs of fish, wildlife and sportsmen with the impacts of land-use management decisions across all economic sectors to ensure a strong economy into the future. The TRCP Sportsmen Values Mapping Project is critically important to achieving that balance.

The project is expected to grow in the coming years.  In Wyoming, Western Outreach Director Neil Thagard will be returning to those communities that participated in the project to present results and develop opportunities for place-based, grassroots campaigns to protect areas important to sportsmen.  The TRCP plans to expand the mapping project to more western states in the near future.

Learn more about the Wyoming mapping Project.

Learn more about the Montana mapping Project.

Get involved today by signing up as a TRCP member.

Putting Sportsmen on the Map in Wyoming

TRCP’s Western Outreach Director Neil Thagard talks about the mapping project.

Maps can be a sportsman’s best friend; sportsmen look for those blank areas – devoid of roads – perhaps where two ridges might funnel game. Even land managers love maps, which allow them to plan out land use. They have unit maps with GIS layers ranging from vegetation type to core habitat for threatened and endangered species. Thanks to the TRCP’s Sportsmen Values Mapping Project, sportsmen now have a say in the development of these valuable maps.

The TRCP’s core mission lies in guaranteeing all Americans quality places to hunt and fish – a mission that compelled us to launch the first of our state-based mapping project in Montana in 2007. Last year, we took our efforts on the road again and kicked off a similar project in Wyoming.

The Sportsmen Values Mapping Project captures hunter and angler input to delineate specific lands and waters important for hunting and fishing. Combined with critical habitat maps already in use by federal and state agencies, this information gives decision-makers an up-to-date look at the places sportsmen value the most.

Neil Thagard, TRCP’s Western outreach director, leads the TRCP’s engagement with sportsmen and mapping activities in Wyoming. Neil spent the past year traveling throughout the Cowboy State and meeting with sportsmen to gather input on the exact areas where they love to hunt and fish – areas they would like to see managed for continued use of hunting and fishing.

The TRCP’s ongoing collaboration and engagement with the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission resulted in the commission offering its support – and last year’s official endorsement – of the project and the TRCP’s efforts to involve Wyoming sportsmen in the mapping effort.

More than 20 meetings and 1,000 sportsmen later, a highly valuable set of maps is available to land managers – both at the state and federal levels – to help guide management decisions regarding resources important to hunting and angling. Neil unveiled the final maps to Wyoming officials, the news media and sportsmen last week. These maps will help accomplish the following:

  • identify trends in hunter or angler usage
  • further maintain or enhance access opportunities throughout the state
  • identify areas needing special conservation strategies to help preserve important game and fish resources

As anyone who has ever spent time in the backcountry knows, a map is only useful if you know where you want to go. The challenge now is to use the input to ensure the conservation of these key areas.

In coming years, the TRCP intends to expand the mapping project throughout the West.

What areas would you like to see conserved for future hunting and fishing – and where should the TRCP travel next to implement the Sportsmen Values Mapping Project? Leave us a comment.

View the map.