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Game and Fish considers adding protections to big game migration routes

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Game and Fish considers adding protections to big game migration routes

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Nearly all of Wyoming’s big game animals migrate, and in much the same way. They wander from lush, green mountains in the summer to dry, windswept prairies in the winter.

And recent mule deer research has shown their movements are surprisingly precise. Pathways trickle together like county roads that merge into highways before becoming interstates.

Those paths, with food-rich spots along the way, allow Wyoming’s elk, deer and pronghorn to take advantage of the best seasonal vegetation available in an arid, high-elevation state. It’s what keeps them healthy, with their numbers in the thousands.

Research shows the high-use areas and stopover points are critical to the animals’ futures. As a result, some say they should be protected.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission discussed Friday changing its policy to recognize these big game interstates and stopovers and recommend no oil and gas development on federal lands within them. If it passes, Wyoming would become the first state in the country to formally recognize some of the most cutting-edge big game research.

Sportsmen and conservationists say that this is a critical move to protect some of Wyoming’s largest deer, elk and antelope herds. Energy companies and agricultural interests, on the other hand, are concerned this could be another example of unnecessary government overreach.

“In order to be sustained for the long term, (migrations) have to be sustained for their entire length. If any one part of the corridor becomes so degraded animals can’t or won’t go through it, it puts the entire corridor at risk,” said Matt Kauffman, director of the Wyoming Migration Initiative at the University of Wyoming. “We absolutely should expect that if we lose these migrations, we will have far fewer animals in our big game herds.”

Part of the controversy, and enthusiasm, behind migration research is its relative infancy. Only in the last 10 to 15 years have GPS collars allowed researchers to continuously track movements of elk, deer, and pronghorn. And only in the last several years has it become part of the public debate.

The longest migrating mule deer herd in the world was discovered in 2013 in southwest Wyoming by wildlife researcher Hall Sawyer. The herd, he found, migrates more than 150 miles from the Red Desert in the winter to the Hoback Basin in the summer. About 5,000 animals complete all or a portion of the trip. The discovery garnered national interest with features in the New York Times, National Geographic and Field and Stream.

As researchers learned more about the importance of these corridors, routes and stopover points, wildlife managers have begun to realize they should update their policies to try to lessen human impact on those landscapes.

The proposal Game and Fish Department officials offered the commission on Friday included an update to add bottlenecks – places where animals move through restricted areas – and stopovers into policy language. It also suggested Game and Fish recommend no oil and gas development such as well pads on the surface in the animals’ high-use corridors and stopover points.

Even if the policy is adopted, said Scott Smith, Game and Fish’s deputy chief of the wildlife division, it applies only to recommendations to the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service. Game and Fish ultimately has no authority to decide where development can and cannot occur.

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