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Scientists are examining the behavior of creatures like mule deer—and how we can get out of their way.
This story was originally published by Wired and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
In late spring, as the days begin to lengthen, the mule deer of central Wyoming begin to “surf” the sagebrush landscape. Their break is found in the low flats where they spend their winters. That’s where the first buds of greenery erupt, offering a fleeting burst of food that’s rich in protein and easy to digest. These tender shoots go away quickly, but the bloom keeps moving, rising steadily uphill as the spring warmth reaches the harsher climes. As this “green wave” of vegetation crests, the mule deer ride it. Sometimes they’ll travel hundreds of miles until they reach their summer range. Ideally, they’ll time their journey perfectly, storing up enough fat on their rumps to last through the brown summer and barren winter ahead.
But in recent years, at least one group of mule deer has found this wave harder to catch. They set off with the first greenery, but then the journey halts; they dawdle for days as the budding flora gets ahead of them. The culprit, according to research published last week in Nature Ecology and Evolution, is humanity. Specifically, the development of two natural gas fields along the deer’s route, which created a din of activity, including drilling, explosions, and trucks. Even though the animals only spent a brief time near the rigs, the researchers found, the disruption had an enormous effect on their crucial spring transit—one that the researchers expect to translate into less fat, fewer babies, and higher mortality.
What surprised the researchers is how hard the deer have found it to adapt. Even though conventional wisdom holds that the disruption of oil and gas development should abate after the initial sounds of exploration and drilling go away, the deer seemed to be continually bothered by the ongoing activity. They also appeared to have difficulty picking a better route around the new obstructions. They had learned the ideal path of migration, and they stuck with it. “They’re sensitive,” says Ellen Aikens, an ecologist now at the South Dakota Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit who led the study. “They’re not so flexible in where they go.”
The study examined the individual movements of dozens of mule deer, captured over the years using helicopter-mounted net guns and flown to a location to be fitted with GPS collars. “It’s no small undertaking to get a collar on an animal,” says Teal Wyckoff, a coauthor of the study who now works for the Nature Conservancy. The goal, she says, was to shed light on the movements of populations that had been inscrutable to researchers, in an area where the researchers were anticipating a rapid boom in development. The tracking project began in 2005, just as companies were descending on Wyoming to extract methane from the region’s coal beds.
As a species, the mule deer of the American West are not particularly threatened. But they play a key role in what Mark Hebblewhite, a researcher at the University of Montana, calls “resource flow.” As they migrate, the deer chomp on fast-growing plants that would otherwise choke out other flora, and they themselves become prey for the charismatic species that people are more likely to rally to protect, like the gray wolves and grizzlies found in Wyoming’s national parks. Their abundance also makes them a useful tool for research, offering lessons for other migratory mammals whose movements scientists know even less about.
“We forget that migration isn’t like commuting from your house to the office,” says Hebblewhite, who wasn’t involved in the research. “It’s like you have to commute for a month and eat along the way or else you die. This study shows that you’re not going to get there, or you’re going to arrive at your office starving to death.”
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