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Energy development affects mule deer’s ability to forage 

Mule deer on the winter range in southwest Wyoming.
USFWS Mountain-Prairie
Wikimedia Commons

A new study out of the University of Wyoming shows that mule deer miss out on some of their best eating because of energy development.

Researchers from UW and the U.S. Geological Survey followed a herd of mule deer for 14 years in Wyoming’s Atlantic Rim region, which is near Rawlins, and during this time the area saw an increase in natural gas development.

Researchers found that as more gas wells went up over the years, the deer paused their spring migration, causing them to largely miss out on “surfing the green wave,” which is when mule deer migrate through the spring to find the most nutritious plants, allowing them to recover from cold, hard winters. The ability for mule deer to “surf the green wave” declined by 38.65 percent.

“Even after the development kind of halted, it wasn't continuing to really intensify, we really didn't see any evidence that deer could kind of acclimate to this change,” Ellen Aikens, the lead author of the paper, said.

This can result in population declines and even a loss in historical migration patterns for mule deer.

“This new research provides the most convincing case, so far, that efforts to minimize development within migration corridors will benefit their long-term persistence amid changing landscapes,” said Matt Kauffman, a co-author of the paper.

Aikens said she hopes this study will encourage development outside of relatively narrow migration corridors.

“There's plenty of places that might be good for development that are outside of that, and maybe focus on those areas first,” she said.

She added that there are efforts statewide and nationally to map wildlife migration corridors, which will ideally help with further development planning.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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