Migration corridors: WGFC approves identification strategyWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Cheyenne – On Jan. 28, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission (WGFC) voted to adopt a strategy for conserving ungulate migration corridors, which are considered vital under Commission policy.
The vote also added the vital classification to bottlenecks and stopover areas, two key components of migration corridors.
The vote took place in Cheyenne during a public meeting of the WGFC after Scott Smith, Wyoming Game and Fish Department Wildlife Division deputy chief, shared information about the strategy with meeting attendees.
“New research, particularly GPS technology, continues to reveal details about big game and ungulate migration corridors throughout the state. As the state’s wildlife management agency, it’s important WGFD uses this emerging science to improve both management decisions and conservation acts,” Smith stated.
Strategy development has been ongoing, and WGFD has been gathering information from interested stakeholders to determine the best way to preserve and conserve migration corridors in Wyoming.
“We have seen quite a bit of information in directed letters since we last discussed this in November,” he remarked, noting that changes were made to the draft strategy.
Specifically, bottlenecks and stopover areas were classified as vital, enabling WGFD to make recommendations based on striving for no net loss of habitat in key areas.
“We want to make sure that these newly identified corridors, wherever they may be and for whatever species, can maintain that habitat function, or the ability of animals to use that path across the landscape to go from winter to summer ranges and points in between,” Smith explained.
Adopting the strategy, the WGFC agreed to a number of action items, beginning with designation ungulate migration corridors as defined by standardized definitions of seasonal wildlife ranges.
“It starts at the field level. Field managers take a look at the data that’s been gathered through radio telemetry studies. They look at that information, make sure they understand it and ensure it accurately depicts animal movement across the landscape,” Smith described.
The review process then moves up through the chain of command before being designated with a final approval and placed on the corridor database.
Once an area is designated as an ungulate migration corridor, the next action item of the strategy involves a risk assessment to determine possible management strategies for maintaining permeability of the corridors.
“In addition to our field assessment, WGFD will work with the stakeholders who have been working with us all along throughout this process to review existing information and take input on what they view as risks,” he noted.
Existing protections and appropriate management actions will also be evaluated.
Once risks and management strategies have been identified, WGFD will work cooperatively with stakeholders to implement steps to conserve ungulate migration corridors.
“Finally, we also need to take the step of evaluation to make sure the money we invested and the projects we implemented on the ground are successful in maintaining these corridors,” Smith continued.
Working with each project on a case-by-case basis was also identified as an important element of the strategy, ensuring that stakeholder feedback and comments are considered for all project areas, regardless of how they pertain to federal project designation.
“We will consider all stakeholder input when we are developing our recommendations,” Smith emphasized.
Many comments were submitted to WGFD after a draft of the strategy was presented at a public meeting in November.
Addressing some of the concerns from stakeholders, Smith noted, “We went away from the prescriptive approach. We are going to let our folks at the field level make recommendations. This strategy lays out the framework of how we are going to move forward when a newly identified migration corridor comes in.”
He also explained that resources will be prioritized toward corridors that face more extreme risks and that the case-by-case approach for recommendations is designed to determine areas of greatest concern.
“We were also asked to provide a definition of “interested stakeholder,” he remarked. “We intend to be inclusive and very transparent. Stakeholders can be anyone who’s interested in the migration corridor. We aren’t limiting it to one group or another, so a definition would be anyone who has an overall interest in the big game migration corridor.”
Comments also stressed the importance of scientific research behind corridor designations and evaluating existing management programs, such as where migration corridors overlap with Greater sage grouse habitat.
“If we already have a sage grouse core area designation, the first evaluation our field folks will makes is whether current efforts are adequate enough to maintain permeability in that corridor,” assured Smith.
Although the newly adopted strategy formalizes a mitigation protocol, efforts have already been initiated across the state to preserve migration corridors. Various research projects have been completed or are underway and scientists have been looking at the migration routes of pronghorn, mule deer and other big game species.
“For example, our field folks worked with Wyoming Department of Transportation (WyDOT) to construct a project for highway overpasses. They put in two overpasses along one corridor to aid in maintaining permeability at the bottleneck at Trapper’s Point,” Smith mentioned.
“Our field folks also worked with landowners at the forest boundary in the Bridger-Teton National Forest and the Upper Green River. We worked with landowners to modify fences so pronghorn literally move through the subdivision and continue their migration south,” he added.
In the Platte River Valley, mule deer are currently being studied, and WGFD has taken steps to hire summer field technicians to assist their permanent habitat biologist to conduct risk assessments.
“I have committed that we will speak again in March and talk about how we are doing with moving these steps forward. This is a continual process to discuss and plan how we are going to address research projects and conservation actions in the future,” Smith said.