Researchers Map Migration Routes With An Eye To Protecting Wildlife

Mar 7, 2014

Wyoming has some of the longest wildlife migration routes in the nation.
Wyoming has some of the longest wildlife migration routes in the nation.
Credit Joe Riis

Wyoming has some of the longest wildlife migration routes in the U.S. Animals travel in some cases over 100 miles from summer ranges to winter habitats. Protecting the migration routes is important for maintaining healthy populations. But land managers and other decision makers often don’t actually know where the animals travel. Now, scientists are tracking their routes. Wyoming Public Radio’s Willow Belden reports.

(Sound of deer walking along streambed)

WILLOW BELDEN: That’s the sound of mule deer migrating. They walk single file along a sandy streambed, pausing occasionally to look around. The audio is from footage that National Geographic photographer Joe Riis took near the Wind River Range. He and a team of scientists have been documenting the trip these deer take between their summer and winter habitats. It’s part of a project called the Wyoming Migration Initiative. Matt Kauffman at the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit is one of the people in charge.

MATT KAUFFMAN: Migration is essentially the way these animals sort of make a living in Wyoming.

BELDEN: In other words, migration is critical to their survival. The animals fatten up in the summer on nutritious plants in the mountains. In the winter, the snow is too deep for them to stay, so they have to travel to lower elevations. But their routes in between can get blocked by development. Fences go up. Oil and gas wells are drilled. Roads are built.

KAUFFMAN: If those migration routes were cut off, then it’s going to be much harder for these animals to make a living … and we should expect that populations will diminish and will become smaller.

BELDEN: Everyone from energy companies to environmental groups says they want to protect healthy migratory populations. But that’s hard, because they don’t always know where they are. Kauffman launched the migration initiative to find out.

KAUFFMAN: The broader goal of the initiative is to start to understand where are the corridors, where are the most important ones – the ones that are used by the most animals – and which are the ones that are most threatened?

BELDEN: Kauffman’s team is using data from GPS collars to map the paths that the animals follow. But the project isn’t just about collecting data. It’s also about getting that data to the right people.

KAUFFMAN: The typical model is that when research is done by a specific researcher, they own the data and it sits on their servers in their database systems, and someone else who’s working on the same chunk of land … they might not even know that the data exists, or they might know it exists but don’t have access to it.

BELDEN: In contrast, the migration info will end up in a database. The BLM, the Game and Fish Department, energy companies, and environmental organizations will all have access. Julia Stuble with the Wyoming Outdoor Council says having that data will help her group’s conservation efforts.

STUBLE: This kind of data shows us where a corridor might be or where the stopover points on the corridor, where the animals stop and forage, and that those are the place we need to focus on.

BELDEN: State and federal agencies also have plans for the data. Dennis Saville with the BLM says it will help create land use plans that are wildlife-friendly. He says in the past, they took summer and winter ranges into consideration...

DENNIS SAVILLE:  But a lot of times we might not know what the movements between those ranges would be, and land use plans might of went ahead and delineated areas in between that might be very important for wildlife but they might have identified them as wide open for oil and gas leasing with very few restrictions.

BELDEN: Saville says there are additional ways the BLM could use the migration information.

SAVILLE: We’re getting more and more of these large scale projects that send a pipeline from, say, Casper all the way to Oregon, or a transmission line from wind developments in Rawlins all the way to Las Vegas. So it would help, at least on the Wyoming side of that scale to know are these projects being placed in the path of migrating animals that way and if so, where, and is there a way we could modify those things?

BELDEN: Even agencies like Game and Fish, which do a lot of wildlife research themselves, say the initiative will help. Bob Lanka is in charge of biological services for the department.

BOB LANKA: To be able to pull all these data sets into one place and be able to view them in GIS format is a very, very powerful tool, compared to what we used to have to do, where you drew lines on a piece of Mylar, overlaid that on a map, and said, ‘They kinda move through here.’

BELDEN: The database is expected to be up and running within a year, and after that, researchers plan to publish a migration atlas for the general public. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Willow Belden.