BLM wildlife

Antelope line a ridgeline on BLM land in central Montana.

Montana will get a share of almost $11 million raised through the U.S. Interior Department to improve its big game migration corridors.

On Monday Interior released $2.1 million in federal funding, which leveraged another $8.6 million from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and ConocoPhillips. The program stems from former Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke’s Secretarial Order 3362, released in February 2018.

“The epic migrations of elk, mule deer and other large mammals in North America is one of nature’s most spectacular phenomena, often involving vast herds of wildlife traveling 100 miles or more between wintering grounds and summer habitats,” NFWF Director Jeff Trandahl wrote in an email. “But these iconic animals face ever-increasing impediments to movement from highways, residential development, fencing and other factors.”

Migration zones differ greatly from more common wildlife refuges or seasonal habitat ranges. Elk, mule deer and pronghorn antelope often have well-defined routes between summer and winter ranges that they may only use a few days or weeks a year as they pass from one to the other. Such routes can be less than a mile wide but dozens or hundreds of miles long.

They frequently cross heavily developed features such as highways, railroads and river corridors. And they’re different from the linkage areas used by grizzly bears and wolves to travel between large chunks of safe habitat: movements that might take place at any time of year.

Such work is possible now because of big improvements in wildlife science, according to Joel Webster of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Older radio tracking collars helped biologists find where an animal was at the moment. Newer collars precisely record the animal’s movements, often within a few feet.

“For a long time when they were researching pronghorn in the Madison Valley, they didn’t know where they were going,” Webster said. “Now we can map the exact location of corridors, determine where crucial parts of the range are, and see where routes might be blocked or fragmented in ways that can totally disrupt seasonal movements.”

Another thing the federal money may do is pay for analyzing hard drives full of wildlife movement data that no one’s had the time or computer resources to digest.

“If we can refine that data, it will help drive decision-making,” Webster said. “We can find the places where we need to prioritize conservation, where places aren’t that important, and where development might be appropriate.”

Western Landowners Alliance Director Cole Mannix said the program would also benefit ranchers as well as wildlife.

“They have a lot to do with whether critters can utilize an area,” Mannix said of agriculture operations. “Things like weed control can make habitat more desirable and help ranchers stay in the black.”

Migration issues include how ranchers can modify fences so wildlife can clear them safely, how energy prospectors might time activity to avoid disrupting animal movements or modifying roadways with under- or overpasses so large animals can safely cross.

In Montana, Interior has listed a voluntary project headed by the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance Inc. and private landowners to improve or modify fencing in corridor areas. And the nonprofit FWP affiliate Montana Partners for Fish and Wildlife will work with a ranch in the Big Hole Valley on habitat improvement projects for pronghorn, elk, mule deer, moose and greater sage grouse.

Elsewhere in the West, the Interior grants will fund wildlife fencing in Colorado that should help elk and mule deer cross U.S. Highway 160 between Durango and Pagosa Springs. The Missoula-based Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation will assist in securing 2,100 acres in Nevada’s Ruby Mountains to protect the migration route of the state’s largest mule deer herd.

“This is a relatively small amount of money,” said Montana Wildlife Federation Director Dave Chadwick. “Many of us are looking at how thorough is this commitment to migration.”

For example, Chadwick cited a study by the Center for American Progress indicating that almost one of every five energy exploration leases the Department of Interior offered recently has been in a spot identified by a state wildlife agency as a priority migration zone or winter range.

“It’s a different discussion from what we’re doing to protect wilderness and roadless areas,” Chadwick said. “What does it mean when they put a couple million dollars into habitat work while the Energy Dominance Agenda is leasing the heck out of these areas?”