Over 100 years ago Abner Luman created the Green River Drift, a grazing system where he moved his cows more than 100 miles each way from near La Barge to the upper Green River near Union Pass, and then back again. The cows grazed slowly up the Green as the grass greened up in the spring, spent the summer in high meadows, and grazed slowly back down to La Barge in the fall. The grazing during the trip, both up and down, was a crucial portion of the annual feed for his herd.
The Green River Drift is still in place today, though not quite as long. Today’s ranchers tenaciously protect the integrity of the feed and ease of passage along the Drift, as they are a critical part of their annual forage.
Biologists have recently discovered that a large number of mule deer follow a similar seasonal pattern. They migrate more than 150 miles between their summer range in the Hoback Basin and wintering areas in the Red Desert near Rock Springs. Here, too, the ability to move freely and have access to rest and good feed along the way is critical to the health of the population.
The mule deer, however, face more obstacles than do the cattle. Fences and other development activities restrict or otherwise interfere with their freedom of movement and sense of security. In the upper Green deer herds have already declined 40 percent in the last 20 or so years since the recent increase in energy development.
Mule deer habitat in the migration corridor and on winter range needs to be protected as tenaciously as habitat for cattle on the Green River Drift.
The location of this migration route has been accurately defined. Proposed new energy development in the southern part of the Hoback-to-Red-Desert migration corridor is threatening to further disrupt deer activity, increasing stress in both the corridor and on critical winter range. The Bureau of Land Management is issuing leases for energy development during the next year or so, and some of the proposed lease area is within these critical habitats. Sage grouse core habitat also is at risk. At present, rules and policies in place are not adequate to prevent harmful activities on these leased lands.
Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has directed the federal government to work with state governments to protect big game (Secretarial Order 3362, “Improving Habitat Quality in Western Big-Game Winter Range and Migration Corridors”). The BLM needs to defer any leasing within mule deer migration corridors and critical winter range until, working with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and other interested collaborators, adequate management policies and legally binding protective lease stipulations (lease notices don’t do it) are in place to protect these critical habitats.
We know the science, and Wyoming has the political directive; let’s get ‘er done!