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Ungulate Pathways of the West: Challenges and Opportunities for Conserving Ungulate Migrations in the Western U.S.

Andrew Fotinos, Jose Gonzalez, Erika Hasle, Elizabeth Nysson, Greg Sampson, Diane Sherman

Advised by Professor Julia Wondolleck and Professor Steven Yaffee


Project Overview


Historically and ecologically important long-distance migrations by herd-living mammals, such as ungulates, have been lost in a growing number of places around the world, including North America. These journeys are phenomena of ecological significance and are an area of priority for conservation work. With the ecological value of migration clearly established in the scientific community, it has become well accepted among conservation biologists that increased connectivity across landscapes benefits other species. Until the recent fragmentation of landscapes by human settlements, most species lived in habitats with a high degree of connectivity. Understanding linkages between areas used by animals throughout the year is critical to their effective conservation because it allows efforts to be directed at critical breeding and wintering sites.


Thus the question, how are long-distance, terrestrial migrations being conserved? By taking an in-depth look at current conservation strategies and challenges associated with three contemporary efforts to conserve ungulate migrations in the Western U.S, this study aims to add a ground-level analysis to the current universe of more general recommendations currently provide in literature for the successful conservation of overland migration corridors. Through a case-study approach, the goal of this study is to provide insight into on-the-ground best practice techniques and tools which could improve migratory species conservation efforts.


Our conclusion involved additional analysis to identify the key challenges and best practices for conservation of ungulate migration corridors. Despite the challenges and constraints faced by governmental and non-governmental organizations, the study found opportunities for conservation and we present examples of an array of successful conservation strategies being carried out on private and public land.




To answer our research questions, we chose to follow a case-study approach, first selecting three long-distance ungulate migration corridors in the Western U.S. to examine. In order to identify conservation strategies being employed within each case study we used a literature review, interviews, and additional research. We next completed a variety of cross-case analysis chapters examining threats to the migrating ungulates in our case studies and the conservation strategies and challenges being applied to address these threats. Our conclusion involved additional analysis to identify the key challenges and best practices for conservation of ungulate migration corridors.


Key Findings: Challenges and Best Practices


The purpose of this study was to examine contemporary, on-the-ground efforts aimed at the conservation of long-distance ungulate migrations in the Western United States to identify challenges and opportunities for ensuring their long-term continuation of ungulate migrations. Ten central challenges and corresponding best practices were developed and distilled from the strategies and challenges identified in the cross-case analysis chapters. The best practices derive from the most successful strategies utilized by managers and non-governmental organizations in the case studies and are intended to identify opportunities and inform the efforts of individuals, organizations, and agencies concerned with conservation of over-land migration corridors.


• Challenge: Prioritization of the critical habitat
From an ecological standpoint the winter range is the most critical habitat because species use it when they are most resource-limited. In all of the case studies portions of the winter range face potential for private development.
Best Practice: Habitat managers should, and do, focus their restoration and forage improvements efforts first on the winter range. Similarly conservation organizations, such as land trusts, should focus their habitat protection campaigns on critical winter range. Birthing areas are also of critical importance and should likewise be prioritized over other areas.


• Challenge: Management for bottlenecks
Ungulate migration corridors are, for the most part, wide enough to allow the
animals to select routes that limit their contact with stressful anthropogenic
stimuli. Migratory bottlenecks are the exception to this rule. These narrow
stretches often force ungulates to navigate potentially harmful impediments to
complete their migrations. Bottlenecks often result from the interactions of
topographic features and human infrastructure. Wildlife managers lack the tools
to address these threats directly.
Best Practice: The first step in addressing migratory impediments is the identification of current
and potential future bottlenecks. Through the application of knowledge about the
“areas of effect” of anthropogenic structures, managers can precisely define the
boundaries of these bottlenecks and implement mitigation strategies to alleviate
the pressure on migratory ungulates


• Challenge: Access to critical ecological and management information
Ecological and management data is collected at a local level, but it is often
applicable at a landscape or even regional level. Managers are currently
duplicating each other’s efforts, needlessly utilizing valuable resources.

Best Practice: There is a need for authoritative organizations to act as leaders in the push for the standardization of research methodology. Leaders can organize the disparate efforts of locally focused actors into a common framework, thereby decreasing duplicative research and incongruent methodologies.


• Challenge: Reconciling single species and ecosystem management
There is little debate that ecosystem management is superior, from an ecological standpoint, to traditional single species management. Comprehensive approaches allow managers to better understand the underlying processes that are responsible for simplified measures of population viability, such as herd counts.
Best Practice: The results of our study suggest that single species management remains the best strategy to address some of the issues unique to long-distance migration. Management for biodiversity alone is incapable of addressing the concerns unique to migratory ungulates. In order to sustain long distance migration routes, connectivity concerns must at times outweigh directives to maintain the highest quality habitat. However, we found many single species management practices borrowed heavily from ecosystem approaches. The active adaptive management of a population necessarily entails collecting data on a wide variety of ecological information, which is used to address ecosystem-level management concerns.


• Challenge: Management under uncertain conditions
Wildlife managers are faced with ever-increasing uncertainty as development and climate change irreversibly alter the ecosystems migratory ungulates depend upon. There is a feeling of helplessness in the management community, stemming from an inability to address the root causes of these threats.
Best Practice: Our review of adaptive management strategies reveals that current monitoring and modeling techniques can rapidly incorporate new information into management plans as it becomes available, providing managers with a powerful tool to address ecological uncertainty. Adaptive management allows managers to proactively incorporate predictions of future climate and development scenarios into their plans. Our analysis of legal and policy mechanisms available to address development reveals that the tools exist, but capacity and political will may be currently lacking.


• Challenge: Resource limitations
NGOs, state and federal agencies, and academic institutions are universally constrained by resource limitations. These constraints can generally be classified as limitations in money, knowledge, and/or capacity.
Best Practice: Each of these organizations possesses a unique suite of capabilities. Forging bilateral partnerships and multilateral coalitions allows each partner access to the pooled resources of the group. These partnerships can efficiently and effectively address problems that are either too complex or too large to address individually.


• Challenge: Working within multiple-use mandates to prioritize wildlife
The multiple-use mandates under which the USFS and BLM operate are broadly-enabling and gives these land management agencies discretion to determine what land uses to prioritize in specific areas. The legal mandates do not, however, dictate when agencies have to prioritize specific uses, such as wildlife, so this choice is left to individual offices of both agencies.
Best Practice: Management strategies implemented by individual offices of both the USFS and BLM indicate that both agencies have flexibility within their mandates to prioritize wildlife as a use in designated areas, specifically, to prioritize important habitat for migrating ungulates. The best practice associated with this flexibility is the leadership and innovation of individual managers in deciding to address recognized threats to migrating ungulates.


Challenge: Addressing impacts to migrations from residential development
Local planning bodies operate under specific state directives that may expand or limit their ability to address the impacts of residential development on wildlife. These laws may, for example, require a planning body to include mitigation measures or create exemptions for certain types of development from regulation. Additionally, the relative permanence of residential development and the possibility that climate change will alter habitat availability heighten the need for taking sufficient action today.
Best Practice: The best practice is the resourcefulness of planning bodies to work within their directives to either require mitigation when possible or to seek out the cooperation of developers in achieving habitat conservation goals.


• Challenge: Conflicting values and objectives
There is a broad array of stakeholders involved in the conservation of species that move long distances. Challenges arise when the objectives of groups are incongruent. These conflicts can lead to stalled conservation efforts, frustration, and even hostility between groups.
Best Practice: In cases where differences in groups’ values and management objectives prevent either from achieving their objectives, a third party may be able to provide an option or additional flexibility that makes cooperation possible. When beginning efforts such as these it is important to employ strategies in which everyone can share in the success.


• Challenge: Communicating the need for conservation to the public
Many of the ecological concepts associated with the conservation of migratory ungulates are difficult for the public to comprehend. People frequently see traveling ungulates and may therefore assume their migration routes to be functional.

Best Practice: Conservation issues should be made concrete to the public through interactive and engaging techniques that take people to the resource. This includes presentations, volunteer opportunities, and field trips. Community members respond positively to participatory activities that allow them to visually experience the impediments that migratory ungulates face. Educational activities can be particularly useful to foster an early interest in conservation for children and they can serve to positively affect the image of the organization.



The full report is also available in a single document (note that this is a large file).



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