How can we help migrating elk and deer?

How can we help migrating elk and deer?

Contributed by Sara Gregory

Fall is upon us in Central Oregon and for thousands of mule deer in our neighborhood, it will be time to move from the alpine areas where they’ve spent the summer to the lower elevation shrub-steppe and forests to the east. Deer use this migration strategy to avoid deep mountain snow that obscures food and makes movement taxing. It allows them to save valuable energy they need to survive the cold winter and produce their fawns. Recent research conducted by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) followed more than 450 deer in central Oregon for up to 1 ½ years each. They found that almost 90% of the deer they tracked migrated between winter and summer ranges. Of those deer, almost everyone used exactly the same path in each migration. They literally retraced their footsteps each spring and fall. By means which we have yet to thoroughly understand, fawns learn how to navigate this trip either from their mothers or environmental cues, in some cases traveling more than 50 miles in less than a week’s time.

A sample of the migration routes used by deer marked for an ODFW study in Central Oregon. Typically mule deer must cross at least one highway, twice each year as part of their migration between winter and summer ranges.

Before modern human settlement, the primary challenge migrating deer faced was avoiding predators, such as cougars and bears, on their cross country journeys. In the last 100 years, humans have created another set of obstacles to deer movement. We have built roads and fast moving cars that, according to ODFW studies, kill at least one deer each day. Neighborhoods and other developments have compromised habitat and increased deer encounters with domestic dogs, fences, and other seemingly innocuous objects such as tomato cages and hammocks that can have fatal consequences. These factors are among many contributing to a decline in deer populations over the last 20+ years.

Although I’m focusing on deer here, they are just one of the many animals with which we share this landscape. Many other species from frogs to elk are struggling to exist in these new surroundings. They all contribute in their own way to what makes central Oregon great and there are things we can do to help them out.

A few of the challenges facing deer in central Oregon.
(Source: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Simple steps you can take around your house:

  • Consider wildlife-friendly fencing
  • Remember that animals are moving around more than usual in the spring and fall. Be extra vigilant when driving, especially around dawn and dusk. If you see one deer cross in front of you chances are there is another one behind.
  • Remove items from your yard which can entangle deer:
    • rolls of wire or rope
    • tomato cages
    • hammocks
  • Hang holiday lights higher than 6 ft.

On a wider scale, consider learning about and commenting on local land use proposals that could impact wildlife movements. For example, the City of Bend is currently considering options for expanding its Urban Growth Boundary and the Oregon Department of Transportation is planning to expand local highways. Help them keep wildlife values in mind with your comments. Stay up to date on land use actions proposed through the Deschutes County Planning Commission and the federal government (US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management) and advocate for options that will minimize negative impacts to wildlife habitat. There are also several local nonprofit groups advocating for the protection of our natural resources. Choose one with a message that agrees with your values and support it.

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