The mule deer population in Wyoming has dropped 31 percent since 1991. Mule deer are a vital part of the Wyoming experience and economy for residents as well as tourists; the dramatic population decline should be a concern for everyone.
Unfortunately, in our divided times, the responses to the news are more ideological than scientific.
Several years ago Arthur Middleton, a wildlife biologist who has conducted research on ungulates in northwest Wyoming for many years, completed a study of the Clarks Fork elk herd in northwestern Wyoming and its declining numbers. He presented his findings at the Center of the West in Cody. Many viewpoints were represented in the audience — conservationists, hunters, anti-wolf people, etc.
Some predicted heated debate during the Q&A period. Professor Middleton generally said “it’s complicated,” noting the elk were facing not one but rather an array of challenges — wolf predation, grizzly bear predation on newborn calves and climate change that has shortened the protein rich spring-summer grazing in Yellowstone. When he finished there was surprisingly little argument. We had all learned about both the complexity of these problems and the importance of science in addressing them.
The mule deer’s decline is also, most certainly, a complex problem — increased development sprawl, chronic wasting disease, and predation, to name but a few challenges. It would be all too easy for different groups to hunker down on their respective positions on the ideological continuum. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all put aside our normal divisions, get the best possible science, and work together to apply it?
We have more than a little of that science now, thanks to the work done by the University of Wyoming and the Wyoming Migration Initiative. Simply stated, one key to promoting healthy deer populations is protecting their migrations and their migration routes. Wyoming’s Office of State Lands and Investments recently deferred issuing drilling permits in the world famous Red Desert-to-Hoback migration corridor signaling its understanding of the importance to the deer.
Now the BLM is considering and granting leases for oil and gas wells in mule deer migration corridors including the Red Desert to Hoback. At a recent public forum, Wyoming Game and Fish Department leaders announced that they will have new scientific research within six months that will better capture the precise level of development that mule deer can tolerate in and around their migration routes.
The State of Wyoming, specifically the Wyoming Game and Fish, should request that the BLM delay issuing those particular permits until it receives and analyzes that research. The six-month delay is a small price to pay for the best information about how much development the deer can tolerate as they migrate and how much would be too much, compromising the deer migrations and further challenging the future of the mule deer in Wyoming.