Exciting things are underway in the southeast corner of Idaho that will make travel safer there for humans and wildlife. More than 100 mule deer die each year from vehicle collisions along a short section of U.S. Highway 30, jeopardizing the long-term survival of this population and its historic migratory behavior. The collisions also pose a significant risk to drivers.
In response, Idaho Fish and Game and the state Transportation Department are working together to design a solution to help wildlife safely cross this segment of Highway 30 at Rocky Point, 9 miles southeast of the town of Montpelier. This project could protect thousands of mule deer and other big game by eliminating a significant impediment along their migration corridor. In a vital first step, the state collaborated with private landowners and conservation groups to protect surrounding land.
Roughly 6,000 mule deer cross Highway 30 at Rocky Point as they move between their summer range in the Caribou Mountains and winter range on the Bear Lake Plateau, which is a mix of private property and public land. This herd is a subset of one of Idaho’s largest mule deer herds, numbering roughly 20,000 animals. Mule deer are a key piece of southeast Idaho’s economy, drawing millions of dollars in annual spending by hunters and wildlife watchers.
In milder winters, with more accessible food and easier travel, some deer may cross the highway dozens of times per year, taking advantage of available winter habitat adjacent to the highway. New technologies, such as GPS-enabled collars that allow biologists to track animal movements in real time, have dramatically enhanced experts’ knowledge about where and when large ungulates such as mule deer, elk, and pronghorn move. The study of wildlife corridors has shed light on how development, including roads, energy exploration, and residential construction, can impede or block vital routes for numerous species.
Mule deer numbers are decreasing across the vast majority of the western U.S., while wildlife-vehicle collisions are increasing in frequency nationwide. These collisions are among many obstacles, including recent harsh winters, droughts, declining aspen forests, and increasing development, that the animals face during their annual migrations.
In December Idaho Fish and Game finalized two voluntary conservation easements at Rocky Point, on both sides of Highway 30, that will permanently protect crucial migration areas for big game on more than 1,800 acres of private land.
Conservation easements—in which landowners agree not to develop property, and in some cases open it to the public—are important tools in protecting places of natural, cultural, or historical value.
In this case, the easements preserve sagebrush-steppe rangeland along the mule deer migration route and winter range. The properties will also be open to the public for hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, and other activities, and will connect public lands on either side of the highway. Without the easements, future development could obstruct migration of mule deer, as well as elk, pronghorn, and moose. With the easements in place the agencies can now plan and develop safe wildlife crossings.
The Idaho Fish and Game and Transportation departments have forged an important partnership to secure the easements at Rocky Point. The Pew Charitable Trusts joins a diverse range of groups supporting the easements and the wildlife crossings. These groups include the Southeast Idaho Mule Deer Foundation, Sagebrush Steppe Land Trust, Southern Idaho Chapter of Muley Fanatic Foundation, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Knobloch Family Foundation, Idaho Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Center for Large Landscape Conservation.
Once complete, the Rocky Point project will help Idaho and the U.S. Department of the Interior achieve key priorities for wildlife conservation. Pew supports this project and provided technical comments on it to the Idaho Transportation Department.
Matt Skroch is a manager and Nic Callero is a principal associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation team.