Earlier this year, Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke took a promising step for Idaho’s big game by signing an order that commits his agencies to identify and conserve migration routes and crucial winter habitat for deer, elk and pronghorn. This action was applauded by the sporting community, who had become anxious for Interior to act on critical wildlife habitat conservation measures.
Zinke’s order, “Improving Habitat Quality in Western Big-Game Winter Range and Migration Corridors,” sets in motion a strong collaboration between federal and state agencies for the benefit of big game species, and subsequently big game hunting opportunities. If Zinke makes this important initiative a priority for implementation, this is good news for Idaho’s wildlife populations that face increasing challenges during their seasonal migrations and on their wintering grounds.
The Idaho Wildlife Federation has worked closely with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to support many of their efforts to improve habitat: from post-fire sagebrush restoration projects in Southern Idaho to forest legacy acquisitions in North Idaho. Our hope is that this new strategy builds on the great work IDFG and local partners have accomplished and safeguards quality habitat which is a necessity for healthy wildlife migrations.
Twice a year, most of Idaho’s big game ungulates make their seasonal passage between summer and winter homes. These migrations, which can take months, wouldn’t be possible without the large stretches of publicly owned lands that provide so much of what these animals need to survive. With the aid of new technologies game managers are just beginning to fully understand wildlife migrations. Using GPS collars that give real-time information on animals’ locations, we are discovering the extent of seasonal wildlife movement. Only in the past couple years did scientists learn that mule deer in Wyoming travel more than 300 miles round trip every year, from the low-elevation winter range of the Red Desert to the mountain slopes of the Hoback Basin — one of the longest known terrestrial migrations in North America.
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Here in Idaho we have our share of impressive migrations. Central Idaho’s pronghorn travel a whopping 160 miles round trip from the base of the Pioneers passing through Craters of the Moon on their way to the Beaverheads. The route crosses BLM, USFS, state and private land navigating bottlenecks, highways and crossing multiple fences. Around the corner in the Lost River Range, the Donkey Hills house some of Idaho’s most important elk calving habitat as thousands of animals rely on this territory for safe calving in late winter and early spring before migrating to higher elevations.
Just to the east, the Sand Creek Desert is the wintertime home of more than 10,000 big game animals migrating west from Yellowstone. Elk, deer, and moose utilize this pathway from Yellowstone National Park into Eastern Idaho crossing USFS, BLM, state and private land on their way to critical low-elevation wintering habitat. This wintering elk population is the largest in North America.
When Secretary Zinke announced this new big game conservation initiative, he called on state wildlife agencies to identify priority habitat areas and work closely with the Interior Department on a range of conservation actions, including habitat restoration. This offers a significant opportunity for Idaho to take Secretary Zinke at his word and work hand in hand with the Department of Interior to restore and protect Idaho’s migration and winter habitat. The next several months will tell us whether he is serious about big game habitat conservation efforts or not.
As the voice for Idaho’s sportsmen and women, our hope is that this this new policy will facilitate collaborative efforts between the state and feds to protect and strengthen our big game herds for Idaho’s hunters and future generations.
Brian Brooks is executive director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation.