- Associated Press - Friday, February 19, 2016

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - One of the biggest wildlife tracking studies ever undertaken in Wyoming will use the latest technology to pinpoint and map mule deer migration routes in a vast area east and southeast of Yellowstone National Park.

Biologists will begin by collaring 90 mule deer in March, followed by another 90 next year. The collars will provide real-time location data to scientists by satellite.

The data will offer a never-before-seen look at how several herds travel between winter range at lower elevations and summer range in the high country, said Daryl Lutz, Wyoming Game and Fish Department wildlife management coordinator in Lander.

“What I do know is we don’t know a lot. We’re about to be amazed about what we’re going to learn,” Lutz said Thursday.

Wyoming mule deer numbers are down 36 percent since 1990 amid drought, predation, disease, competition from other species and habitat loss. Knowing where the migration routes are could inform efforts to protect habitat used by mule deer on the move, he said.

“The whole mule deer picture, the whole mule deer story, is very complex,” Lutz said.

Until the last decade or so, biologists had to go out in the field to pick up signals from radio collars. Now they can get location updates several times a day from their desks.

Global positioning technology has revealed many previously unknown elk, mule deer and antelope migration routes in Wyoming. They include a 150-mile route traveled by mule deer between the Gros Ventre Range in summer to the Red Desert in winter.

“We used to just view them as these connectors between winter range and summer range. Now we recognize them as important habitat unto themselves,” said Matt Kauffman, director of the Wyoming Migration Initiative, a group of researchers participating in the research.

Mule deer spend two months in the spring and two months in the fall migrating. They rely on habitat along migration routes for a third of the year, he said.

Biologists are especially keen to document bottlenecks in the migration corridors, or areas where the surrounding terrain concentrates mule deer as they travel. They also want to learn more about where mule deer stop to rest and eat.

Habitat at stopover areas plays a crucial role in fawn survival rates, Lutz said.

The study area extends from the Montana line to South Pass. Anecdotal evidence suggests at least some mule deer that winter in Dubois travel as far as Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks in summer, Lutz said.

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