Monday, November 17, 2008

Here Come The Deer

At first, the signs are subtle: A hoof print in your backyard, a small herd of deer moving into the foothills, a solitary animal crossing the road. But, soon, places absent of deer for the past five months will suddenly be alive with them. The deer are on the move, heading towards lower elevations.

The past two blogs have explored winged migration--but throughout Idaho, it's also the season for a hoofed migration.

Each year, mule deer--and elk, moose and pronghorn--migrate from the mountains to the valleys to escape heavy snow. In the low-elevation sagebrush, they find better weather, and, at least in the past, better nutrition and less stressful living conditions.

Idaho is blessed with large tracts of public lands which support animals that need a lot of space to thrive, like mule deer and elk. But many of those public lands are not viable for the animals in the winter and early spring.

Yellowstone National Park, for instance, is known as a haven for wildlife--but its high elevations make it an inhospitable place in the winter. And so big game moves out. Five of the twelve longest large mammal migration routes on earth are located in the Greater Yellowstone area.

And what do wildlife need when they get to their winter range? Good nutrition, for one thing. Sagebrush is very important to the diets of deer and pronghorn, comprising as much as 90% of winter nutrition in some areas. Bitterbrush (pictured above) and similar shrubs complement this diet nicely. (Some ecologists call bitterbrush "deer candy").

Unfortunately, cheatgrass and other non-native weeds start a fire cycle that eventually eliminates these shrubs. Deer will eat green cheat grass, but it's not as nutritious and often provides very little cover. Some deer herds have disappeared when the sagebrush vanishes, as in the case of the foothills around Twin Falls.

In addition to good, nutritious shrubs, deer (and other big game) need areas free of disturbance. Right now, that often means working farms, ranches and private forests. Many of these lands offer "funnels" for animals to migrate from one public land area to another. As an example, elk and pronghorn migrate out of Yellowstone using a funnel at Henry's Lake, which then leads them to winter range on Saint Anthony Sand Dunes or Montana's Madison Valley. Develop that funnel, and the animals' ability to migrate is in jeopardy.

Big game animals can't burn precious calories during a tough winter, and farms and ranches offer them plenty of space. Cover those lands with houses, and deer suddenly have to contend with more roads, more dogs and more recreation.

The Idaho Working Lands Coalition is dedicated to finding solutions to protect these private lands. The coalition has a new web site, and you can sign up to become a Working Lands Advocate. With your support, we can work towards providing incentives that keep farmers, ranchers and forest owners on the land--and keep mule deer and elk on their winter range, too.--Matt Miller


Anonymous said...

"In addition to good, nutritious shrubs, deer (and other big game) need areas free of disturbance. Right now, that often means working farms, ranches and private forests."

Is this a joke ? "working farms, ranches, and private forests" are more often than not ecologically bankrupt monocultures - often worse for wildlife corridors than well-planned development. In other words, they're hardly "areas free of disturbance". Diversity of habitat is what makes for wildlife habitat and happy wildlife populations - otherwise you're just engaging in the agricultural production of a few particular big-game species. is that what we want ?

"Working farms & ranches" often deplete ground water reserves via wasteful irrigation in arid & semi-arid environments inherently at odds with the crop under production. This diminishes springs, seeps, and streams further down the watershed - water sources that a host of diverse wildlife need to thrive and survive ! this is to say nothing of the chemicals and soil loss/sedimentation that gets washed further down given the activities. And the fences ! Fences are among the worst factors obstructing wildlife migration - they also fundamentally alter wildlife behavior --- example: making prey species overly susceptible to predation, etc.

Livestock grazing is among the most pervasively destructive use of Western landscapes - being the largest contributor to non-point source pollution of our waterways. Grazing is also the largest contributing factor to imperiled species and habitats - contributing to a full 22% of ESA listed and threatened species in the West (that's almost as much as logging and mining combined - which is 23%). Grazing is also the single largest land-use responsible for the spread of invasive species - like cheat grass that you mention in this post ! but also medusa-head, and a host of other invasive weed species. That's because livestock disturb the soil more than any other land-use, carry and distribute weed seed, selectively graze native species away giving weeds competitive advantage, alter the soil chemistry with their wastes throwing the bio-chemical properties into levels more favorable to weeds, etc. etc. etc.

Monocultural crops are not good substitutes for rich and diverse wildlife habitat !

"Working landscapes" do not prevent development - it's just plain simple economics - the argument doesn't "pencil out". If one wants to work to prevent the negative impacts of development (which is a worthwhile endeavor, no doubt) then the place to do that is at the local and county level --- work toward passing zoning ordinances that deter out-of-control development & ensure conservation-minded limitations. Pass bonds that put landscapes into conservation easement - easements that matter by keeping them in perpetuity and providing enforcement of scientifically justifiable conservation objectives. Economic incentive to remove disturbances - not perpetuate them.

Our Western landscape is too precious and inspirational - a function of its diversity and dynamism - to suggest that we need to graze and cultivate it in order to protect it. It's just not true.

TNC-Idaho said...

Thank you for your comments. Conservation easements are a powerful conservation tool, as are funding mechanisms. But many of the best lands protected by conservation easements are also private working lands.

Our public lands and their diversity of habitats are a treasure, but private working lands are also important for wildlife. The fact is a lot of big game winter range--and salmon spawning habitat--is currently located on farm, ranch and working forest lands. And we all rely on these lands for food production.

When these lands are developed, the big game winter range and other wildlife habitat is lost.

I encourage you to visit for more information.