Each and every year, a mule deer doe teaches her fawns to make the long journey from their winter range on the valley floor to their summer range in the High Sierra meadows and then back again in the cooler season. You might not know that the journey they take each year through the Eastern Sierra is not instinctual. Wildlife biologists’ research has documented that migration patterns are learned behavior; the doe teaches her fawns, and that leads the herd to the places they can find food and shelter when the weather grows colder. The mule deer use the same migration corridor each year, twice per year, generation after generation.
The survival of migrating species like these iconic mule deer along with pikas and sage grouse is increasingly under threat due to more extreme weather, wildfires, and development shrinking these species’ habitat. And our local Round Valley Mule Deer Herd faces an additional challenge. As herd moves from the high Sierra meadows to the low valley floor in Round Valley, the migration for which the herd is named, it must pass through the bottleneck near Swall Meadows created by Wheeler Ridge to the west and Lower Rock Creek Gorge to the east while navigating a crossing of Highway 395 in between. This narrow strip of partially-developed land is a precious resource for the deer.
The size of our Round Valley mule deer herd has decreased by at least one-third – and possibly by as much as 60% – since the 1980’s. “It’s a concerning decline and one that generally mirrors the decline of mule deer populations throughout much of the western United States,” explains Tim Taylor, Mono County wildlife biologist for California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Taylor has studied this herd and other herds in the area. “Part of this decline can be attributed to the loss and fragmentation of seasonal habitat by urban, commercial and recreational development as well as conflicts with increasing traffic. One of the ways we can help to slow the decline our herds are facing is to conserve lands on the winter ranges and maintain and enhance wildlife corridors for migrating animals. Maintaining habitat connectivity within wildlife movement corridors that link these seasonal ranges is vital to the survival of this iconic wildlife species.”
Our community has worked together to help the deer, and Taylor has noticed. He says, “ESLT is the key here because they work to preserve the mule deer’s critical winter habitat and migration corridors. All the conservation work completed on the behalf of the deer benefits a host of other species as well. Without protecting these lands, we could lose that – this iconic species of the West won’t be available for us to view and enjoy.” ESLT has worked with local landowners to protect 269 acres of private land in the Swall Meadows area to ensure a safer passage for the mule deer on their twice-a-year journey.
On Saturday, March 9th, from 2-5 pm, We invite you to explore a portion of the Round Valley herd’s migration corridor with Tim Taylor (who is quoted above and assisted with researching this article). He will share stories and information about the Round Valley Mule Deer Herd and how they’ve dealt with recent challenges as the group admires spectacular valley views and searches for wildlife.
This free event is open to all ages; for more event information (including meeting location) and to RSVP, please contact Marie, ESLT Education Coordinator and AmeriCorps member, at , or at (760) 873-4554.