More mahogany for mule deer

Bulletin photo

The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service have come together to tackle a declining mule deer population. The two organization's goal is to manage for mahgony, which is a main food source for mule deer.

Drive south from Buffalo toward Kaycee and you’ll cross hills, skirt fence lines and roll over river crossings. Then, as you pass Interstate 25 mile marker 270, you will enter one of the per-mile deadliest sections of road for mule deer in Wyoming. There, the interstate cuts a dividing line between two local herds: the North Powder River to the west and the Pumpkin Butte to the east.

The next 15 miles are one of the top-10 priority wildlife crossing locations in the state, according to the Wyoming Wildlife Roadways Initiative Team, which brought representatives from the Wyoming Department of Transportation, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and several conservation groups together in 2017 to set priorities and discuss strategies to reduce vehicle-wildlife collisions.

At a July 16 meeting, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission voted unanimously to dedicate as much as $750,000 to a Buffalo-Kaycee highway fencing project aimed at collecting information about how to better protect both the area’s ungulates and its motorists.

The commissioners expressed support for work on all three of the wildlife crossing projects presented but asked agency staffers to prioritize work on the Buffalo-Kaycee segment. 

In any given year, vehicle collisions can kill up to 4% of Wyoming’s total mule deer population. Local mulies are already struggling. The Upper Powder River herd hasn’t hit its objective population level in more than a decade, since a 2006 fire destroyed significant portions of its habitat.

The accidents also cause financial harm. According to WYDOT, the average animal-vehicle collision costs roughly $11,600 in injury and property damage, and there are more than 6,000 such crashes across the state every year.

Several years ago, highway collisions turned up as one of the top concerns in a survey of the perceptions about the local herds. The result was a bit of a surprise, according to Game and Fish terrestrial biologist Todd Caltrider.

“We started looking more into it, and there was definitely a lot of deer getting whacked there between Kaycee and Buffalo,” he said.

Some segments of Wyoming roads are inherently dangerous for mule deer because they bisect seasonal migration routes. That’s not the problem at the Buffalo-Kaycee crossing, where collisions seem to be more related to feeding habits, Caltrider said. 

Grass along the edges of the interstate gets watered by runoff from the road and comes back green and tender. The young growth attracts deer to the road’s shoulder, and sometimes out onto the blacktop.

“We often saw a lot of mortality in the late summer or fall when they mowed the roadways,” Caltrider said. “I think we’re really honing in on those spots.”

Frequently, wildlife crossing improvements involve new under- or overpasses, which are expensive and time-consuming to construct. The Buffalo-Kaycee stretch of I-25 conveniently already has underpasses built in where county roads or the forks of the Powder River and Crazy Woman Creek pass beneath it. The trick is getting animals to use them.

Fencing can keep deer off the highway, but without alternate crossing opportunities, it risks bisecting a herd’s habitat. Underpasses specifically designed to accommodate wildlife are considered a reliable solution, but there hasn’t been much research into whether animals will use pre-existing structures as readily, Caltrider said.

That’s the knowledge gap he hopes to narrow. The proposed project would fence both sides of several 1.5-mile stretches of the interstate. Data from deer already fitted with GPS collars and images from wildlife cameras installed on the underpasses would allow researchers to monitor whether the fences incentivize deer to use the crossings already in place.

It will take about two years to collect enough data to see the full spectrum of results, Caltrider said. The agency has been collecting the “before” data since 2018.

The current project design would cost about $2.4 million. The commissioners voted unanimously to start with a $500,000 contribution but also to appropriate an additional $250,000 to be used as dollar-for-dollar matching funds for private donations from community or conservation groups.

The Johnson County commissioners fully supported the project and offered any in-kind contribution they might provide, said Game and Fish Deputy Director Angi Bruce at the July 16 meeting.

“It’s a lot of realigning gates and creating fences, so I think there’s a real good opportunity that their contribution could go quite a ways,” said Jill Randall, the agency’s big-game migration coordinator.

Recent legislation smoothed a path for contributions to wildlife crossing projects. A trio of bills passed during the 2020 budget session authorized direct donation opportunities alongside hunting license and conservation stamp fees, car registrations and permit fees for state parks or recreation sites. The new donation options went into effect July 1. 

Since the beginning of 2019, Wyoming drivers have also been able to purchase a special license plate that helps fund conservation efforts. The initial price of a plate is $150 with a $50 renewal fee each year. Gov. Mark Gordon laid out a challenge to get 2,020 of the special plates on the road by the end of 2020.

 

Mara Abbott joined the Bulletin as Report for America corp member in 2019. She covers energy and natural resources. Mara’s work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Runner’s World.

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