By Ambassador Jess Johnson / @jesscjohnson_
We are living in the time of mule deer, but that time might be running out. They are a familiar western icon with big ears, bigger antlers, and in my opinion, a bigger mystique than their smaller counterpart, the whitetail. Mule deer evolved on a relatively similar timeline as humans; they are our familiars but where humans are experts at adaptation the mule deer is a specialist. A species reliant on a very specific habitat under a precise set of conditions. The mule deer and its existence on the western ranges of the North American continent is a masterpiece of ecology and fragile tapestry that could disintegrate in our hands. This animal, both a familiar and a mysterious presence to the hunter, drives even the sanest of us to embark on expeditions in an effort to connect to and understand the lives of the grey ghost.
September 1st is my favorite day of the year and the opener for Wyoming’s general archery season. I am prepared to spend the next week with my hunting partner Jared in the high alpine habitat of a Wyoming Range basin, amidst the lush forage and summer range of the big mule deer bucks that most people dream about. For as long as humans have been in existence we have been fascinated and dependent on the movement and migrations of animals. Our own expansion into this continent was inspired by following our prey across the Bering Strait ice bridge. We go where the food goes and that concept hasn’t changed much over the age of humanity. Though as I gasp for air on a rare flat piece of ground I wonder if perhaps four legs and flexible hooves are a far superior adaptation than the flat inefficient feet of humans.
Having donned what must have been a 50lb pack we steeled our resolve for a grueling hike into the high country. Jared and I have spent a few days of each archery season trekking into a high, remote, never-to-be-named basin. What starts as a leisurely incline soon gives way to an often hands and knees scramble over slick unstable scree to the peaks of the Wyoming Range. What drives us up into these impossible places, into the thin air accompanied by blisters and breath-taking views? A simple answer, the Odocoileus Hemionus or more commonly named mule deer. Following mule deer has become an obsession of mine, a connection far deeper than that of a careful observer. Walking in the steps of migratory mule deer bows in hand we climb.
Not all mule deer are migratory. Some populations occupy the same habitat year-round and others embark on journeys that end nearly 250 miles away from their start. Migration is a survival and foraging technique, following the green up of grasses and forbes as the snow melts from the high country the deer utilize the plants at their point of highest nutrition to pack in calories for the upcoming rut and winter. This journey that many deer take is ingrained in them; taught by their mothers, the mule deer fawn will follow the exact path they are shown for the rest of their life almost to the exact footprint. It is not lost on me that my feet are treading a path that has been walked by hundreds of others.
As we climb into the summer range of a mule deer herd Jared and I watch the landscape around us turn a lush verdant green as wildflowers dot the open spaces in the bottom of the basin. A doe and a fawn turn their gaze to us, unsettled by the appearance of two-legged creatures in this remote place. We walk quietly, trying to minimize our presence and quickly set up camp. We will spend the next 4-5 days here hunting the high country.
Like hunting, migration is an ancient knowledge that is passed down. Different family groups of deer have their own pathways and stopping places but the routes never change. There is evidence of humanities reliance on these migration corridors in the presence of archeological sites along some of the path. A testimony to our lasting fascination and at one-time dependence on knowing the paths of wildlife. We spend the evening glassing those worn pathways high on the slope of the peak. Game trails weave through the basin and almost like clockwork our optics pick out a few tawny coats trekking to some unknown destination. Still in velvet, the bucks cut a silhouette on the skyline and leave our view. I go to sleep that night wondering how many other hunters have followed deer to this basin and if this is an experience that may disappear to the generations to come.
Migration corridors are extremely resilient to natural disturbance (wildfires, floods, etc), their weakness lies in the disturbance created by humans. Ungulates have existed and flourished for ages with the existence of predators and nature’s movements, it is humanities rapidly changing footprint and development that challenges their ability to adapt. It is a blink of an eye and a miscalculation in a narrow spot of the corridors (sometimes not even a mile wide) that could end a pathway that has existed for ages.
What would this incredible basin look like without its migratory residents in the summer? Is it only the absence of the antler and hoof or would losing a migration path be like losing a part of our own history?
We spent 4 days in that basin. We left calling it the High and Lonesome and with a pack not weighted by a harvest. As we drove from the trailhead we took back roads that brought us near the route many deer have taken into different parts of the Wyoming high country. From rolling sagebrush steppe to the high peaks still dusted with a little snow, some of these animals travel a dizzying mileage to find the resources to exist.
The sagebrush ecosystem is essential to the existence of mule deer and its delicate balance is easily disturbed and hard to regain. We pull over on a dusty dirt road and watch a group of resident flatlander deer forage in the evening light. One doe lifts her head and stares through us, she is uncomfortable with our gaze and we quietly pull away. I send a silent thank you to the Wyoming that has fought hard to keep these animals on this landscape. And I am thankful for the researchers and dedicated people who know that if we lose a migration we lose a lot more than just the movement of animals: we lose a piece of the fading tapestry of the west.