Social science reveals the contours of wildlife migration’s human dimensions
On an early June morning, I found Jessi Johnson and her hunting partner loading up a bright red pickup, deep in discussion about the best spot to scout for bedded-down deer. They settled on Red Canyon, where Jessi had her first solo hunt a few seasons ago. I clambered into the back seat of the truck, notebook and binoculars in hand. This scouting trip would be my first glimpse into a world I had been studying from afar for months.
As we rumbled through the canyon, Jessi began to spot well-hidden mule deer. Hours later, I was starting to get the hang of it, picking out a doe nestled underneath an awning of juniper. She held my attention for 10 minutes at least, but as Jessi’s hunting partner put the truck in gear to leave, I noticed Jessi still craning her neck, keeping the animal in view as long as possible. With a small smile she settled back into her seat and remarked, “I could have watched that deer all morning.”
Jessi was one of the first of over fifty people whose deep investment in mule deer became the focus of my summer. I was a graduate student researching a long-distance mule deer migration from the lowlands of the Red Desert to the mountainous Hoback Basin, 50 miles west of Red Canyon. However, the focus of my work was not the deer themselves but the human stakeholders whose values, goals, and conflicts will decide how wildlife migrations are managed. As a social scientist, I had come to Wyoming to map the human dimensions of the Red Desert to Hoback migration: who cares about the migration and why, what problems they see facing it, and what they think we should do about these challenges. In wildlife management, conflict between human stakeholders is increasingly recognized as a major barrier to good policy. My research aimed to help stakeholders better understand the social and political barriers to sustaining the migration for future generations.
I began my quest to map the cultural landscape underlying the Red Desert to Hoback migration as a master’s student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies in Connecticut. I had never seen a mule deer and was planning to conduct my thesis on land conservation in New England. But one October morning, my advisor mentioned the Red Desert to Hoback migration in passing during a lecture on human-wildlife coexistence. That same afternoon, I was making plans to travel to Wyoming.
In the following months of preparation, I discovered that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s wildlife migrations are masterpieces of ecological choreography. Every spring, thousands of mule deer—a ghostly grey species that is both more rugged and more graceful than the eastern white tail—leave the low-elevation sagebrush deserts where they have weathered the harsh Wyoming winter in pursuit of fresh graze in the mountains. Any old-timer will tell you that deer migrate seasonally from the deserts to the uplands. What makes the Red Desert to Hoback migration special is its length—150 miles from start to finish—and the fact that it persists despite the increasing fragmentation of Wyoming’s landscape. Highways, subdivisions, and energy development have all restricted the movements of big game species like mule deer, elk, and pronghorn. Scientists and historians believe that wildlife migrations on the scale of Red Desert to Hoback might once have been common, but today, they are practically unheard of.
University of Wyoming biologist Matt Kauffman sees the Red Desert to Hoback migration as a crucial opportunity. “There is probably a tipping point in the amount of development that can occur along the length of the migration [before the route is lost],” he observed early in our conversation. Kauffman was quick to add that science is a long way off from pinpointing that tipping point. But, the cost of losing migrations—the ecological pulse of the west and a cornerstone of the region’s cultural heritage—is at the forefront of his thoughts. The implication that we have already reached that tipping point and lost many, many wildlife migrations hung heavily over our meeting.
In 2011, biologists using advanced GPS collars first documented mule deer traversing the 150 miles between the Red Desert lowlands and Hoback Basin. A ground-breaking analysis of biological and physical threats to the newly documented corridor was quick to follow these initial studies. Acting on this work, conservation organizations placed key private parcels along the migration corridor under conservation easement, ranchers modified miles of fences to ease wildlife crossings, and Wyoming Game and Fish drafted new regulations to protect corridor habitat. However, these successes fall short of a comprehensive approach to managing the Red Desert to Hoback migration—or any other migration—for the long-term.
Just about everyone wants to see the Red Desert to Hoback and other migrations continue. But, stakeholders have very different ideas of what obstacles must be surmounted to get there. My research aimed to bring these diverse perspectives into focus. Out of 50 conversations and then some, 45 yielded comprehensive interviews that I was able to analyze in detail, painting a picture of how the migration’s stakeholders understand “the problem” facing it. As it turns out, there is not just one concept of the problem where this migration is concerned, but four.
Early in the summer, I drove to Jackson to speak with someone who could get me acquainted with the physical challenges facing the Red Desert to Hoback migration. Chris Colligan works for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, an environmental nonprofit in Jackson, where he advocates for issues ranging from wildlife migrations to endangered species status for the grizzly. When we met to discuss the Red Desert to Hoback migration, Chris defined the problem as making sure that the corridor remains physically passable for migrating deer. He highlighted the progress in this arena: “[The NGOs] are working with the conservation district to do a lot of fence modification,” he noted, “[but] the piece I’ve been most interested in has been the highway-crossing element.” Chris went on to explain that additional highway wildlife crossings along the Red Desert to Hoback corridor would not only ensure the persistence of that migration, but could also benefit other wildlife species that move along roughly the same route.
Before visiting the Red Desert to Hoback corridor, I doubted the relevance of engineering fixes like overpasses and fence modification in the grand scheme of safeguarding a long-distance migration for posterity. Chalk it up to the academic hubris of an untested social scientist. A short drive down Scab Creek Road south and east of Pinedale expanded my perspective. Scanning the desert for the telltale ears of resting mule deer, a flash of white against the grey-green of the high plains seized my attention. I stepped out of my car to regard the bleached bones of a deer leg hanging limp between two strands of barbed wire. The rest of the unfortunate animal’s skeleton lay splayed out beneath the fence, picked clean by ravens and magpies. Faced with such a grisly scene, the physical hurdles that migrating deer must traverse—and that human stakeholders must find ways to mediate—are impossible to ignore.
A focus on the physical barriers to migrations was a common thread throughout my summer. In addition to Chris, 15 more of my 45 interviewees shared this orientation. They listed a dizzying array of obstacles along the corridor—and potential solutions. Ranchers reported that migrating wildlife routinely got stuck in their fences and saw help from NGOs installing wildlife-friendly fencing as an opportunity to collaborate. Department of Transportation officials proudly cited the speed at which they had responded to requests from the scientific community to install wildlife-friendly fencing along the migration corridor. Energy industry representatives pointed to the role that funding from their companies played in making technical fixes to obstacles along the migration corridor. However, the physical barriers to migration were not the only challenges that stakeholders identified during my interviews.
A few weeks after my conversation with Chris, I caught up with a biologist from an oil and gas firm operating along the corridor to discuss a different angle on the migration. The biologist preferred that I not report his real name, so, we’ll call him Nate. Over the course of our conversation, I began to get a sense of the complex social landscape that stakeholders invested in the migration must navigate. In my experience, finding anyone working in energy willing to talk with a graduate student studying migrations had proved challenging. But to my surprise, one of the first things that Nate wanted to discuss with me was this very reticence. As it turned out, Nate and I had both attended the same public forum on the Red Desert to Hoback migration during the previous November. And, we had both been struck by the near absence of energy industry representatives at the event. Industry representatives had been invited to the forum, Nate clarified, but many chose not to attend because, “we generally don’t show up to events where we anticipate heckling.” However, Nate wasted no time in stressing that he believes that this elusiveness is a mistake. “In a state like Wyoming,” he observed, “relationships are very, very important.”
And yet, my interviews underscored just how difficult maintaining working relationships around a topic like migration can be. Across my interviews, feelings of mistrust and disrespect were evident. Ten more interviewees in addition to Nate, running the gamut from NGO and agency staff to die-hard back-country hunters, highlighted the challenges that encouraging collaboration between disparate factions posed to the migration. With this tension clearly in mind, Nate summed up his perspective on the key obstacle facing the Red Desert to Hoback migration as “the fact that you don’t have a lot of people in the middle.” This struck me as a grim perspective on the long history of conflict between development interests and conservationists in the West, and a contentious one in its own right given the mule deer’s popularity. As Nate sees it, fence modification, overpass installation, and even implementing new conservation policies will remain slow going until social tensions can be resolved among stakeholders with different ideas about how to manage migrations.
Perspectives on the physical and social challenges facing the Red Desert to Hoback migration seem to have little in common at first glance. But there is one key similarity: both conceptions of “the problem” facing migrations assume that the overarching policy process that will decide the migration’s fate is fundamentally sound. As my summer neared its end, one final conversation revealed how this very assumption of fair governance is among the challenges facing the migration.
“Wyoming has a problem,” proclaimed Sarah (who preferred that we not share her last name), “with people outside of Wyoming trying to dictate what we should do.” Sarah and her husband both come from ranching families and run an outfitting business just north of Pinedale. They have been making their living guiding elk and mule deer hunters into the Bridger-Teton National Forest for decades. Big game is a livelihood for Sarah, giving her a clear stake in how species like mule deer are managed.
The interests of outsiders are another matter. For Sarah, the problem is not about fences, about bringing people to the table, or about helping polarized voices reach common ground. Rather, it is about making sure that the players involved in deciding the migration’s fate have an honest stake in the matter. As Sarah bluntly put it: “If you don’t live here, why should you be the one who has a say in what goes on here?” Having a right to comment on an issue like the Red Desert to Hoback migration, in Sarah’s opinion, is contingent on understanding how the issue impacts the people for whom it is a part of every-day life. Sarah worries that in Wyoming outside interests are shaping wildlife policies that have local consequences, with the potential to disenfranchise the people most directly invested in the state’s wildlife. Similar perspectives, focused on a perception of lopsided distributions of power in the governance of Wyoming’s wildlife, cropped up among an additional 10 interviewees as diverse as state officials and local newspaper reporters.
Physical, social, and governance problems comprised the majority of my interviewees’ perspectives, but not all. What challenges did the last seven see facing the migration? Much to my surprise, none. As one state employee put it, “We have a great resource here, so it’s kind of hard to mess up a good thing.” These stakeholders saw no disparity between current conditions and desired conditions for the migration. Although this non-issue perspective was the least common in my interviews, it does contribute to the complex social and political landscape surrounding the Red Desert to Hoback migration.
Without question, Wyoming is burdened with an abundance of polarizing issues. But, the state’s landscape and wildlife are powerful reminders of the importance of making a go of it, despite the different priorities and values of its human inhabitants.
Each night, as I set out my camp on public land backlit by sun sinking behind the Wyoming Range, I found a kind of balance. Wrestling with tent stakes or my bear bag, I would work over my day’s interviews, often perplexed by the dizzying array of perspectives I was uncovering, and always tired. But by the time I spread my sleeping bag and bedded down in the sagebrush—not unlike a mule deer—my confusion would have given way. I found it impossible to dwell on the differences that sometimes seemed to define this migration and its human stakeholders, when faced with the landscape that we all found ourselves working on, in, and for.
A thousand miles and change on the rented Nissan Leaf. Fifty conversations and then some, and night after night camped out along the migration corridor. From the vantage point of these experiences, I no longer see the Red Desert to Hoback migration as a single management challenge, but as a series of related problems that twist and turn together like a braided rope. It is the lifeline that keeps a great mule deer herd intact in an unforgiving landscape. It is a perilously narrow stretch of undeveloped land crisscrossing highways and fences along the foothills of the Wind River Range. It is a spider web of stakeholders, at times with precious little in common holding them together. And it is a vivid reminder of the fact that not all who feel they should have a place at the decision-making table believe their voices are being heard.
If my observations from a summer along the migration corridor have any potential to help, I think it stems from this insight: while the challenges facing the migration are diverse, they need not be divisive. As it stands, stakeholders across southern Wyoming share a fundamental value where the Red Desert to Hoback migration is concerned—they want to see the migration survive and thrive for future generations. The diverse problem definitions they adhere to exist because of their diverse experiences of this common concern.
Two weeks before my return to New Haven, I found myself working over these intertwined conundrums while coming to terms with the fact that I was lost in the Hoback. The aspen-dotted slope of some nameless mountain rose gently against a bluebird sky, and acres of hay glowed in the late afternoon light. A movement at the edge of the hayfield caught my attention. Timidly, a mule deer doe stepped onto the two-track ahead of me. Her oversized ears swiveled in my direction, and her body tensed. As she turned her head to fix me with her wide, wild eyes, I spotted a thick black GPS collar on her neck. I reached for my camera as the doe sprang away. But, she left a lingering impression. Even when the way forward is unclear, the deer at the heart of the Red Desert to Hoback migration are a tangible reminder of our common cause.
Text by Joshua Morse, artwork by Mary Katherine Scott
Joshua Morse earned a master’s degree in environmental science from Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies for his work on the Red Desert to Hoback migration. He is now pursuing a PhD at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Natural Resources, where he studies the ways that hard-to-quantify benefits from ecosystems are represented in policy. Mary Katherine Scott teaches for the Honors College at the University of Wyoming and creates multimedia artwork about people and place. See more of her work at marykatherinescott.com.