Free-roaming wildlife and vast open spaces are central to the pride and identity of the American West. And twice a year, wildlife such as elk, pronghorn, and mule deer cross the western landscape, making a seasonal passage between their summer and winter homes. These great migrations, which can take months, wouldn’t be possible without the contiguous stretches of publicly owned lands that provide so much of what these animals need to survive — particularly the vegetation on which they feed.
But these open spaces are under threat, in part because of population increases across the West during the past decade and the accompanying roads, fences, and subdivisions, all of which have encroached on habitat not only for elk, mule deer and pronghorn, but for greater sage-grouse and hundreds of other species.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signaled his intent to address this growing problem through a secretarial order on improving wildlife habitat quality in western big-game winter range and migration corridors. In February, he directed Interior Department agencies, which manage much of our country’s western public domain, to conserve the wildlife corridors that allow these migrations, and to protect lands that animals need for their winter forage.
Now comes a big test: How well will Zinke and the Interior Department agencies implement this directive?
One way to accomplish many goals of his wildlife migration order would be to fully implement the 2015 plans for sage-grouse habitat on Bureau of Land Management lands. This broadly backed blueprint — which the Interior Department recently reopened for change — ensured that lands necessary for sustaining sage-grouse populations would be managed to carefully balance conservation and development. The lands are also important to 350 other species, including the deer, elk, and pronghorn that are the focus of Zinke’s migration and winter habitat policy. As governors of both parties have argued, leaving the sage-grouse plans intact would go a long way toward protecting big-game habitat as well.
Federal and state wildlife managers have historically lacked guidelines for conserving migratory pathways, leaving some routes at risk of adverse effects from roads and other development. But with recent and ongoing advancements in the science of big-game migrations, officials should be able to provide that guidance.
Although wildlife biologists have studied migrations for years, only in the past decade have scientists had the technology to understand the scope and significance of these movements. In 2011, Wyoming researchers used GPS-enabled collars to track mule deer as they trekked more than 300 miles round trip, from the lower-elevation winter range of the Red Desert to the mountain slopes of the Hoback Basin. It’s the longest known terrestrial migration in the lower 48 states and involves thousands of animals.
In tracking the mule deer, the researchers learned that the animals are forced to cross multiple highways and more than 100 fences on this annual out-and-back journey. That’s the type of data Zinke has directed the agencies to gather as they map migration routes and provide land managers with information on the location of herds and their seasonal movements. If done right, this process will improve public land management by equipping decision makers with the scientific information they need to protect wildlife corridors, and in turn to help avoid resource conflicts with the various users of public lands.
Zinke’s wildlife migration policy has the potential to be an important advancement in conservation policy. That policy, along with properly implemented 2015 sage-grouse plans, could provide a model for striking a balance between development and conservation throughout the West. By safeguarding unbroken stretches of public land, Zinke would preserve habitat for millions of animals, along with huge areas for recreation, far into the future.