SHERIDAN — Research on spring migration of elk, mule deer, pronghorn and other big game has revealed the natural and man-made obstacles these species encounter. Wyoming Migration Initiative atlas text editor and University of Wyoming Haub School of Environmental and Natural Resources communications coordinator Emilene Ostlind spoke Wednesday at Sheridan College about the research, what it has already prompted and where it’s going.
Ostlind, who has worked with publications including National Geographic magazine, Wyoming Wildlife magazine and High Country News, teamed up with wildlife photojournalist Joe Riis to study pronghorn migration for multiple seasons.
Ostlind said Riis left motion-censored cameras in migration routes to capture candid shots of the animals during migration while she observed and recorded her findings.
“We started to understand better how it works, how the older antelope teach the corridor to the younger antelope year after year,” Ostlind said.
She said they also gained more insight into just how difficult natural obstacles were, such as river crossings. But while these challenges still take their toll on the population, she said the species has evolved to overcome them over thousands of years.
“But there’s other challenges that they face on their migration that are a lot newer on the landscape and that they haven’t had much time to adjust to,” Ostlind said.
Ostlind said even fences that are wildlife friendly, with a higher bottom bar without barbed wire, slow animals down, costing them time and energy to figure out how to pass. She said some routes have hundreds of fences, including those with fewer people living on them.
Another new obstacle comes with energy development. She said natural gas development overlaps with big game winter range in the Rocky Mountain West at the lower elevations between the mountain ranges.
She said after natural gas development started just south of Pinedale, mule deer population dropped 35 percent.
“So even when the energy companies are really careful to mitigate their impact on the landscape to the extent possible, it can still have an influence on the populations,” Ostlind said.
Another challenge Ostlind said the animals face while migrating is residential development, which she said can’t be mitigated like energy development.
“In most places, people can build houses, subdivide properties and there’s not a lot of attention paid to how that’s going to influence or impact with migrations in the area,” Ostlind said.
Lastly, she said highways are a huge challenge for migration.
Ostlind said her research and award-winning story, “Perilous Passages” for High Country News in 2012 helped spark some community concern. At the same time, she said other conservation efforts were happening.
Ostlind said Kniffy Hamilton, who worked for the Bridger-Teton National Forest at the time, was instrumental in creating the first national migration corridor. It outlined a section of the migration path that was in the national forest she supervised and amended the forest plan to say anything that happened in the border should not affect the migration.
Ostlind said there was also an effort at a highway crossing near Pinedale. In 2007, more than 100 mule deer were killed on the stretch of highway. They decided a pronghorn overpass would be ideal for both animals and drivers, but the cost was more than $1 million.
She said an engineer from Wyoming Department of Transportation did an economic analysis which compared the cost of two overpasses and six underpasses with the possible savings from averting crashes. It concluded the over and underpasses could be paid off in just over a decade from the savings.
As a result, in 2012 WYDOT built an overpass at Trappers Point. Ostlind said they weren’t sure how the animals would react.
“But that fall…they knew exactly what to do, they didn’t even break pace,” Ostlind said.
Ostlind said right now there’s no data in the Bighorn Mountains but expects more areas in Wyoming to continue studying the migration.
While Wyoming Game and Fish Department wildlife management coordinator Tim Woolley said currently he doesn’t know of any changes to hunting regulations based on research, Ostlind said it’s a topic that’s been coming up as they work on the Atlas of Wildlife Migration that Game and Fish takes seriously.
Ostlind said while there’s people who think the species can manage with challenges that come from humans, she said there’s something bigger at stake.
“What we’re trying to protect here is the phenomenon of these migrations which represents true wildness,” Ostlind said.