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Western Public Lands

Wyoming summit explores mule deer declines, ways to rebuild populations

Fremont Lake is a top concern for mule deer migration, where an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 mule deer must cross the outlet or Pine Creek in a quarter-mile surrounded by human activity. Photo by Lew Carpenter

By Lew Carpenter

A recent gathering in Pinedale, Wyo., explored the declining populations of mule deer and how to increase public support for conservation and management of the popular Western big game species.

The group, known as the Wyoming Mule Deer Coalition (WMDC), is a consortium established by Bowhunters of Wyoming, the Mule Deer Foundation, Muley Fanatic Foundation, Wyoming Wildlife Federationand the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. WMDC met with the Wyoming Game and Fish Departmentand other stakeholders in the hope of establishing a network of sportsmen and conservation organizations, businesses and individuals to work together to ensure the future of Wyoming mule deer populations.

“To make things happen on the ground that require high level decisions by our commission (Wyoming Game & Fish Commission) there has to be public support,” said Brian Nesvik, chief of the Wildlife Division for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, WGFD. “Meetings like this, and information sharing, all of it helps to inform the public so that we can generate support for the initiative that are important – both to the consumer, who is out hunting mule deer, and to those folks who are charged with managing it.”

Nesvik’s main questions were: “What is going to happen on the ground? How do we measure whether we are successful? And what is the link between having a meeting like this and actually seeing something happen on the ground?”

Joshua Coursey, president of Muley Fanatics, noted that the importance of having the information is being able to use that information on the ground moving forward. He said that from the Muley Fanatics position, it is very evident that folks involved from the outside have a perception that is reality for them, and there is a growing perception that the WGFD is mismanaging mule deer.

“For us,” Coursey said, “it became very frustrating to know that that ignorance was elevated to the top in an element of our communication with people that were just sideline sportsmen but really had a value in wanting to have their opinion be heard. So for us it was a matter of fact that they (WGFD) needed to bring science to the forefront.”

Nesvik sees the WMDC and WGFD coming together in a beneficial manner – sharing information collaboratively, learning exactly what all the key variables are with regard to mule deer, their declines, how to make improvements and action on the ground.

“To put this in perspective, if we are going to identify several habitat projects and try to apply commission funds to that or funds from all the groups in this room, there has to be public support for that,” Nesvik said. “People have to buy into and be a part of the process to make that decision that it’s important to spend large amounts of money on habitat work on the ground. I think this group can really help out the department in a couple of different ways. Number one, helping us define what the vision is, and helping us define exactly where we want to go in improving mule deer populations or at least arresting the decline. Number two, helping to inform the public so that they can have a better understanding of all the stuff we have already learned about mule deer. And lastly, help us with funding.”

One extremely important project in play that can help is the Wyoming Migration Initiative (migrationinitiative.org). The initiative was formed by a team of researchers, including University of Wyoming scientists who have documented the longest migration of mule deer ever recorded - the latest development in an initiative to understand and conserve ungulate migration in Wyoming.

The Wyoming Migration Initiative highlights a newly discovered, longest ungulate migration corridor in the lower 48 states, right in Wyoming’s backyard. Unveiled this past spring by the University of Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, the program details a 150-mile mule deer migration that starts in the Red Desert just east of Rock Springs and extends to the Hoback Basin in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. The newly documented migration has more than 4,000 mule deer that use portions of the route dubbed the Red Desert to Hoback (RD2H).

Matt Kauffman is director of the Wyoming Migration Initiative and head of the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit where he is an associate professor in UW’s Department of Zoology and Physiology. He says: “Our aim is to make research about Wyoming’s ungulate migrations more accessible - and more useful - to people working to manage and conserve these herds and their habitats.”

During the course of the past 10 or so years, researchers and managers have been collecting spatial information on wildlife using GPS radio collars.

“We have the science. Now we need to merge it with management on the ground,” Coursey, said. “What are the bottlenecks and how do we relieve those? This migration corridor has healthy vegetation systems that support does and fawns and as a sportsman it breeds those big bucks we like to see on the landscape.”

Following the Mule Deer Summit, a small group toured nearby areas of concerns laid out by the Migration Initiative (highlighted in the map image of the Finger Lakes Segment). The areas of concern visited by the group included: Fremont Lake, a top concern, where an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 mule deer must cross the outlet or Pine Creek in a quarter-mile area surrounded by human activity; Boulder Lake, where thousands of mule deer migrate through a narrow bottleneck less than a half-mile wide  at the outlet of Boulder Lake and the upper reaches of Boulder Creek - and managed by the BLM for recreation; and Elk Fencing along several elk feeding grounds near Soda Lake and Muddy Creek, whose 8-foot height are difficult for mule deer to navigate.

The Wyoming Migration Initiative highlights many areas of concerns along the RD2H, which can be viewed at migrationinitiative.org. Future meetings of the WMDC have yet to be scheduled.

The Finger Lakes Map provides a clear example of challenges faced by the newly-discovered Red Desert to Hoback mule deer migration route. Map provided courtesy migrationinitiative.org.


Monday, September 1, 2014