In a year marked by hardships, this conservation opportunity gave sportsmen and women reason to celebrate
It should come as no surprise that conserving the seasonal habitats and migration corridors used by big game herds across the West was a top priority for conservationists and state and federal agencies in 2020. With all the news generated by this issue in the past year, it’s worth revisiting some of achievements made possible by dedicated agency staff, outspoken sportsmen and women, and elected officials who follow the science when it comes to fish and wildlife.
Public opinion shows strong support for this important work: according to polls conducted this year by the Pew Charitable Trusts, an overwhelming majority of voters in both Oregon and Nevada—around 90% in many instances—agreed on the need for new conservation measures to safeguard migration corridors. Likewise, these respondents would like to see wildlife highway crossings prioritized as a means of facilitating big game migration and keeping motorists safe.
So too, does this work have the strong support of wildlife professionals. In New Mexico and Colorado, groups of scientists, former agency leaders, and other natural resource experts penned letters to their respective governors thanking them for the progress made already and urging them to show continued leadership on this issue.
Secretarial Order 3362
Big game migration gained prominent attention across the West when the Department of the Interior issued Secretarial Order 3362 in February of 2018, directing federal agencies within the Department to prioritize habitat quality in Western big game winter range and migration corridors. Since that time, the state and federal government have worked together to conduct research on big game movements and looked to prioritize habitat improvement projects.
In August of this year, the Department released a report on the progress made since the enactment of S.O. 3362. Most impressively, 11 Western states have received $6.4 million from the Department to address state-defined priority research projects and the mapping of elk, mule deer, and pronghorn migrations and habitat use. Additionally, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Partners for Fish and Wildlife programs have provided nearly $10 million, matched with more than $30 million from other partners, for habitat improvement and fencing projects.
Among the most notable of these efforts was the release in November of Ungulate Migrations of the Western United States: Volume 1, a USGS report that maps more than 40 big game migration routes across Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, and Wyoming. These maps will provide critical guidance to state and federal agencies as well as various other stakeholders as they work to conserve these important habitats and the big game herds that depend on them.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Park’s work to conserve and enhance seasonal big game habitats reached a significant milestone late this year with the release of a strategic plan on wildlife movement and migration developed in close consultation with landowner and conservation groups. The document both clarifies how big game migration is already prioritized in the agency’s ongoing management and also identifies areas where this work can be further strengthened. Much of the strategy’s strength comes from its recognition and emphasis on the ways in which private landowners and working lands are central to this conservation opportunity. All things considered, sportsmen and women should be encouraged by the state of Montana’s leadership on this issue and the spirit of collaboration that has guided the agency’s work.
In February of 2020, Governor Mark Gordon signed an executive order prioritizing the conservation of big game migration corridors. The EO followed recommendations from a citizens’ advisory board tasked the previous summer with deliberating various strategies to address the threats to the corridors on which Wyoming’s big game herds depend.
Since that time, sportsmen and women in the Cowboy State have continued to work with the governor, state and federal agencies, and other stakeholders to see Gordon’s order implemented successfully.
In November, Governor Gordon announced the formation of the first local working group for the Platte Valley mule deer corridor in southeast Wyoming. The group had its first meeting in mid-December and the TRCP will be reaching out to Wyoming hunters in the new year to engage in the process.
Oregon has developed an action team on migration made up of around a dozen conservation groups working to advance Secretarial Order 3362 and other priorities in the Beaver State. Over the summer, the team organized an interagency migration meeting to bring together more than 30 participants and discuss strategies for reducing barriers to migration and maintaining big game populations in Oregon.
Oregon’s newest underpass for wildlife crossings, near Gilchrist, on Highway 97 was completed in August of this year. The directional fencing, which relies on private funding, is expected to be installed in spring of 2021 to complete the project. To date, almost $800,000 has been raised out of the $900,000 required. Around $185,000 of that money was funded through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Department of the Interior through S.O. 3362. Another crossing project is in the works as well on Hwy 97 just south of Sunriver and is expected to be completed in 2022.
In 2020, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the state’s sportsmen and women continued to build a strong foundation for the future of migration management in the state.
A year ago, the Department, with financial support from multiple partners, secured conservation easements on the private lands where wildlife crossing structures will be built along Highway 30 in southeast Idaho. The crossing structures are slated to be built in 2025, but the easements are a critical step to maintaining the connectivity for 6,000 mule deer.
In September, IDFG released the latest version of its migration action plan, which lays out the state’s long-term priorities.
Finally, in December of this year, the Army Corps of Engineers collaborated with the Department and considered sportsmen input when deciding not to construct a new mountain bike trail in crucial winter range that supports about 3,700 mule deer near Boise.
Following Governor Jared Polis’ 2019 executive order to prioritize migration corridor conservation, Colorado Parks & Wildlife released a status report in May of 2020 that provides the public with the best-available science regarding Colorado’s migratory big game populations. The report also details ongoing research and identifies areas for further study, as well as makes recommendations to address various threats to big game migration in the state.
In the fall, after a lengthy process to revise its mission, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission approved a slate of new regulations that, among other things, now direct the agency to safeguard migration corridors against negative impacts that might result from drilling and exploration. Operators will be required to consult with Colorado Parks & Wildlife when proposing development within big game migration corridors and will be required to prepare mitigation plans that maintain the functionality of these habitats.
Top photo by Gregory Nickerson and Travis Zaffarano/Wyoming Migration Initiative.