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Connectivity for Adapting to the Unexpected

On May 16, I stood at Bryce Canyon’s Yovimpa Point looking through my breath at a dusting of new snow covering the pink slopes. The weather was expected to get worse, with snow above 6,500 feet statewide. My initial plan was to follow the route of an individual deer from her winter range near the Utah/Arizona border to her summer range near Cedar City, Utah. This particular leg of the trip was going to end here in Bryce, but the discouraging forecast made it clear this was not going to be possible within our timeframe.

Photo: William C. Gladish

This adventure kicked off the initial research for my Environmental Humanities master’s thesis at the University of Utah. I chose to study this mule deer migration because it is one of the longest in Utah, with some deer moving as far as 100 miles twice a year. I would follow MD17F0104, a female mule deer collared by the Utah Department of Natural Resources, hoping to find out why she chooses the same exact route year after year. I would be tracing the deer’s journey over a three-month period, breaking up the route into three separate trips.

By following her, I might learn, from an on-the-ground perspective, what makes up a healthy wildlife corridor. And by highlighting MD17F0104’s story, she might be revealed to be the protagonist in a story of seasonal movement and possible shifts in suitable range. The individualization of this animal would hopefully make her story—and, by extension, other animals’ stories—more impactful to humans. But first I needed to change her name. MD17F0104 is pretty cute, but it’s hard to remember, so I began to refer to her as Magdalena.

By following this deer, I might learn, from an on-the-ground perspective, what makes up a healthy wildlife corridor.

Mule deer are known for faithfulness to their migration routes. In the book Wild Migrations: Atlas of Wyoming’s Ungulates, Matthew J. Kauffman et al. says that “even more than other ungulate species, [individual mule deer] migrate along the same paths to the same seasonal ranges each year” (Kauffman et al., 17). Since they are less adaptable than white-tailed deer or elk, the corridor I chose to walk made an ideal case-study. Magdalena and the rest of her herd might represent a population particularly vulnerable to roads, fences, human encroachment, and climate change. My goal became to understand this vulnerability through literally walking in Magdalena’s footsteps.

Tracing Magdalena’s Journey

A deer path in a healthy piñion/juniper ecosystem.
Photo: Ben Kilbourne

My friend Chris joined me on this trip. Together, we walked up Buckskin Mountain in dumping rain and temperatures in the low 40s, peering back occasionally at the Paria Plateau, which was half-veiled in dark streaks of rain. Through chattering teeth, Chris explained his interest in following Magdalena’s journey. He hoped that by following her, he could reconnect to the instincts that live in all of us, those which may lie dormant and unused. Excitedly, I said that I hoped so, too. I realized then that my adventure was partly an effort to not reduce animal intellect to instinct, while simultaneously allowing the possibility of reducing my own intellect to instinct. We would just have to see which came first.

I checked the GPS occasionally to make sure we were still moving toward the waypoints that indicated the place where Magdalena had wintered. We passed through areas where piñion and juniper had been removed, inundated now with cheatgrass and other nonnative grasses. No waypoints there. We passed under high voltage power lines with occasional dead trees beneath them. No waypoints there, either.

When we arrived at the winter home of the deer, a story emerged from the landscape. We left the road we’d been walking along and moved down a wash, arriving at the first waypoint where, over a month ago, Magdalena stood on the edge of the wash protected by piñion and juniper trees. The wash was dry, but provided substantial windbreaks from the winter winds and likely contained water when snow melted. We observed sagebrush, bitterbrush, rabbitbrush, willow, and various berry species in the area, all suitable forage for winter range.

Another deer path wending through piñion and juniper.
Photo: Ben Kilbourne

We continued down the north side of Buckskin Mountain toward the highway, and about a half mile from the road, we dropped our packs in the wet soil and made camp. Trucks sounded like they were barreling down on us where we sat boiling water and snacking on chocolate. The next morning, we walked toward the road, and Chris and I tossed our trekking poles through the wildlife escape ramp before climbing up and lurching through the weeds. Then we waited as cars sped past from both directions.

On the other side of the road, under a juniper, we found the remains of a deer; some pink was still visible on the gnawed, white bone. That one didn’t make it, but most deer cross safely since the Utah Department of Natural Resources improved this four-mile section of Highway 89 with fences, wildlife escape ramps, and underpasses. This has drastically reduced wildlife-vehicle collisions, and apparently allows Magdalena to cross easily and safely each year.

That second day was cloudless and warm. We followed the deer through open pasture, across which she moved very quickly. She led us into treed hills where she lingered while browsing on bitterbrush and forbs. Hoofprints transected thick, black biocrusts, and everything was blooming and sweet-smelling. She led us to two flowing springs where she likely drank. I wondered how critical these springs are to this migration. Will there eventually be a time when the smell of water is absent in this area? Can the area survive without these springs, or do they hold the whole ecosystem together?

Connectivity and Climate Change

On the third morning, it began raining as soon as we hoisted our packs. When the clouds finally cleared away in the late afternoon, we could see Bryce Canyon in the distance. Snow still covered the pink slopes. The megadrought induced by climate change was not materializing as expected this year, so I found myself contemplating how the unexpected effects of climate change could alter ancient migration patterns. Could deer migrate too early and find themselves in mountains where spring has yet to come? Or even find themselves post-holing in chest-deep snow in June? The erratic weather caused by climate change could pose challenges for Magdalena and other animals that I hadn’t even considered. The permeability of landscapes is important for every possible scenario. Species need to be able to adapt.

A fence between Highway 89 and the Vermillion Cliffs on the Utah/Arizona border. While fences can prevent migration, they can also guide wildlife to overpasses, underpasses, and escape ramps.
Photo: Ben Kilbourne

A study by Joshua J. Lawler et al. argues that “the uncertainty in climate-change projections makes it difficult for conservation managers and planners to proactively respond to climate stresses” (Lawler et al. 588). Other studies agree, with most concluding that general connectivity has the potential to solve problems we are unable to foresee.

According to the study “Achieving Climate Connectivity in a Fragmented Landscape” by Jenny L. McGuire et al., increasing connectivity between protected areas will indeed allow species to adapt to climate change. In the western United States, only 41% of natural areas have suitable connectivity, and only 2% of land in the East is suitably connected.

Increasing connectivity between protected areas will indeed allow species to adapt to climate change.

The study found that “increasing climate connectivity is critical for allowing species to track rapidly changing climates, reconfiguring habitats to promote access to suitable climates” (McGuire et al. 7195). After stepping over many barbed wire fences, observing precarious springs, and crossing countless dirt roads and two major highways, I can see the potential to improve Magdalena’s corridor so she and others can adapt to climate change.

On the last morning, we woke to three inches of snow and temperatures in the low 30s. Clouds clung to the tops of the White Cliffs. It was the end of May at an elevation of about 6,000 feet. Sagebrush drooped heavily, looking confused. I thought of Magdalena somewhere in the high plateaus 3,000 feet above us, nosing through snow to reach the forage beneath.

Further Reading

Kauffman, M. J., Meacham, J. E., Sawyer, H., Steingisser, A. Y., Rudd, W.J., Ostlind, E. (2018). Wild Migrations: Atlas of Wyoming’s Ungulates. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press.

Lawler, J. J., Shafer, S. L., White, D., Kareiva, P., Maurer, E. P., Blaustein, A. R., Bartlein, P. J. (2009). Projected Climate-induced Faunal Change in the Western Hemisphere, Ecology, 90(3), 588-597.

McGuire, J.L., Lawler, J. J., McRae, B. H., Nuñez, T. A., Theobald, D. M. (2016). “Achieving Climate Connectivity in a Fragmented Landscape”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113, 7195-7200.

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