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U.S.’s longest mule deer migration discovered in Wyoming
First Published Apr 24 2014 07:23 am • Last Updated Apr 24 2014 02:52 pm

Laramie, Wyo. • In the winter of 2011, a team led by biologist Hall Sawyer put tracking collars on 40 mule deer near the Leucite Hills in Wyoming’s Red Desert. Given Sawyer’s previous knowledge, he didn’t expect these deer to migrate far from the Red Desert in the course of the year. But instead of tracking a sedentary herd, Sawyer uncovered an extraordinary animal journey that has ranged across wide open spaces of Wyoming since time immemorial.

When spring came, half of the deer set off to the north. The animals crossed sand dunes and sagebrush-covered mesas, traveling some 40 miles until they reached an area on the southwest edge of the Wind River Range. They didn’t stop there.

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The deer worked their way along the foothills of the range over the next several weeks, traveling some 60 miles. They spent 95 percent of their time at "stopovers" — foraging areas that provide rest and recovery from the hungry winter months. At each step the Red Desert deer grazed on the first shoots of green grass, mingling among 4,000 other deer that winter in that area. The whole herd continued moving north and up to higher elevations as the snow melted, following the "green wave" of lush forage.

In time, the Red Desert deer reached the Finger Lakes east of Pinedale. They crossed an outlet below Boulder Lake. Some swam across Fremont Lake before making their way out of the Green River Basin.

By late July the Red Desert deer migrated into the Hoback Basin and up into the mountains, traveling up to fifty miles more. Some climbed into the Wyoming Range and the Snake River Range. Others moved above timberline in the Gros Ventre Mountains.

As the August sun dried out the grass in the valleys below, the deer were still grazing on lush spring grass emerging from the melting snow above 10,000 feet.

All the while, Hall Sawyer and his team were tracking the progress of the deer by locating their radio collars with occasional fly-overs in a helicopter. When they gathered the collars from the field in 2013, the GPS data showed that the mule deer migration traversed 150 miles from the Red Desert to the Hoback. They had discovered the longest ungulate migration ever recorded in the lower 48 states.

Migration studies

The discovery of the long mule deer migration adds to the growing body of migration studies coming out of the University of Wyoming’s Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit in Laramie. The so-called "co-op unit," led by biologist Matt Kauffman, has produced a series of groundbreaking studies on the behavior of migrating animals in western Wyoming.

In the past 15 years, advances in GPS technology have enabled Kauffman, Sawyer, and a team of graduate students to trace the mysterious movements of large mammals across the landscape. They have studied migrations of moose in the Wyoming Range, bighorn sheep in the Tetons, and elk in the Greater Yellowstone region, among other projects.

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"These migrations are a feature of the landscape," Kauffman said. "They are the animals’ way of solving how to forage across the landscape they are living in."

Critically, migrations allow animals to maximize access to the most nutritious feed right after "green up," when plants first emerge in the spring. Rather than eating spring forage for just a few weeks in any one place, ungulates can make the season last for several months by chasing springtime up to higher elevations. It’s as if they follow a moving oasis.

At the same time, migration allows animals to reduce the risks of drought and harsh winter weather by moving to places with better conditions. It’s much easier to winter in the dry Red Desert than in five feet of snow in the Hoback Range.

"It’s this optimization or evolutionary process, where over hundreds or thousands of years they are figuring out the best place to go," Sawyer said.

Perhaps most widely known migration in Wyoming is the "path of the pronghorn," a 120-mile migration from the upper Green River Basin to Grand Teton National Park. That route, first traced in a study by Sawyer and subsequently documented by writer Emilene Ostlind and photographer Joe Riis among others, was thought to be the longest ungulate migration in the lower 48 states.

The revelation that mule deer from the Red Desert travel even farther than the pronghorn opens up a new chapter in the story of Wyoming’s unique migrations. The discovery comes at a crucial time when mule deer populations are dropping.

"We’ve had deer declines all over Wyoming and the West," Sawyer said. "There are a whole laundry list of contributing factors to that, and one of those certainly could be the deterioration of migration routes. This highlights the importance of maintaining these migration routes so we can sustain the deer numbers."

Launching the Migration Initiative

On April 22, Kauffman and Sawyer are hosting an opening of a photography exhibit at the Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center at the University of Wyoming. The exhibit features images by Joe Riis showing the journey of the Red Desert mule deer and the obstacles they face along the way. The event coincides with the public launch of Kauffman and Sawyer’s Migration Initiative, an effort to share the science of migration studies and inform decisions about how to best manage wildlife.

The Migration Initiative has four main projects. The first is the Migration Atlas, a work-in-progress, which summarizes the findings of migration research coming out of the University of Wyoming. The partners in that project include text editor Emilene Ostlind, and a team of cartographers from the InfoGraphics Lab at the University of Oregon.

The second major part of the initiative is the online Migration Viewer, a visual interface providing much of the data collected in dozens of radio-collar studies. With this online tool, scientists and members of the public can see animations of where individual animals traveled over time, while leaving ownership of the data to the scientists. Together, the Migration Atlas and the Migration Viewer allow for sharing of knowledge about these migrations in a way never before seen.

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