Runner Gives Human Perspective To Mule Deer Migration

Jan 15, 2021

In 2018, a Wyoming research scientist ran 92 miles in just three days. His goal? Highlight the challenges of the seasonal migration for mule deer; a well-known species in Wyoming, but also one that's been in decline. A movie called 92 Miles is set to come out in the next few months about his journey. Wyoming Public Radio's Cooper McKim spoke with Wyoming Migration Initiative research scientist and runner Pat Rodgers on the importance of his trek.

Pat Rodgers: So, the idea for the run kind of stemmed from this personal desire to find some sort of outreach related component of my graduate research... studying mule deer migration ecology, specifically looking at buck mule deer migrations. As I started my project, I really wanted to have some sort of way of sharing what we were learning and what the science was finding with the general public. And kind of getting that information out there in a way that folks could really kind of relate to what was going on with mule deer migration, and in a hope that would help them understand this issue. So I thought, well, what a better way to do that than to follow one of the migration routes of one of these animals myself and to tell that story on the ground.

Copper McKim: Folks who've been in Wyoming have likely seen mule deer maneuvering about. So what is important about providing information and filling in some of the empty spaces of research on these creatures?

Pat Rodgers on his 92 mile trek following the migration path of a collared buck.
Credit Ben Kraushaar

PR: So really, there are a host of threats and disturbances that mule deer face to them, like migrations, things like roadways and human developments and a list of infrastructure that comes with those developments. And mule deer populations in particular have declined quite significantly in the last 20 years or so, the latest figure showing about 42 percent. So managers and biologists are really trying to do their best to get a grasp on the ecology of migration to one,understand what is it that drives these animals to move? What are the factors that influence their movements? And what habitats are most important to migrations, because as this list of threats is growing, and I guess, open expanses, and connected landscapes that these deer rely on or are changing with the ground growing human footprint, it's important for managers and biologists to understand the ecology of migration, so that when new issues or new threats, potential threats arise, or management decisions seem to be made, they have a better understanding of that biology that can help guide those decisions.

CM: What were some of the perspectives you gained of mule deer migration that you didn't have? Having done the research prior?

PR: Right. So I think one of the dangers of being a research scientist in the 21st century is that we can kind of get sucked into spending a lot of our time sitting at a computer. Setting foot in your study area as a scientist, I think provides a lot of perspective.

So this was, in many ways, an excuse for me to get out into the field was to do this run. And to follow this route, and to really try and spend time on the land, I'm trying to understand what these habitats look like.

I also notice that there are a lot of fences, they still have to cross fences [which] can be a huge obstacle in some areas where migration uses [are] high. An average of one deer per mile of fence are killed every year.

CM: Aside from the research, tell me about some of the biggest challenges on the run itself.

PR: I think, just the overall physical exertion of running in that rugged of terrain for three days. The first day took me about seven and a half hours, and the second day, I lost the trail and hit that bark beetle kill and that day took me almost 12 hours. So, some pretty long days. On the second day, I crawled into my tent at night, and my body was just so sapped from the run, I couldn't... I was completely bundled in all my gear and my sleeping bag, and I was still just, like, shivering and shaking just because my body was so drained from the physical exertion.

CM: Well, the last piece was something you mentioned early on in the film, which is the importance of science communication for you, and how that was a big component of your interest in the run. So, if you could leave the average person with just one takeaway on mule deer in migration, what might that be?

PR: I think if there's one takeaway from the run for your average person to try and communicate an important issue on migration, it would be that migration isn't necessarily... migration isn't straightforward. One, from a scientific standpoint, for researchers and managers who are trying to understand these, like, complex movements at times. And not only that, but for deer, it's not as straightforward as perhaps deer have evolved with when it comes to migration and what's on the landscape. These landscapes are really changing, and at a pretty rapid pace. So for a deer who, one year, migrated to an area to come back to the next year, and there'll be a roadway or some kind of development.

It's challenging. Deer aren't always able to reroute their migrations. They have really high fidelity to these routes, so they follow them year after year. So if there's some kind of disturbance, what some of the research is showing is that instead of going round, they try and move through the disturbance and just pick up their pace to get through that. And so that can lead to loss of nutrition, or that means they're running into more dangerous fences and possible collisions with vehicles and things like that.