We had not seen a deer in our yard for three weeks, and I guessed they had gone into the Paulina unit east of U.S. Highway 97, but then they showed up. It was the same crippled doe we had seen for three straight years, her fawn of the year and another female.
She labored through crusted snow and emerged into our neighbor’s driveway. Behind her, the other deer put their feet in her prints. They shook themselves and looked around for something to eat.
The mule deer migration is studied in terms of winter and summer locations. We tend to think of migration corridors, but the data reveals fan-shaped dispersal as the deer take their own paths.
In Central Oregon, mule deer tend to live in summer from the top of the Cascades, out into the desert in the Paulina Unit, south into the Fort Rock, Sprague and Silver Lake units. U.S. Highway 97 runs right through the summer range.
These deer travel from 40 to 120 miles from summer range to winter ground. Deer that summer near Tam McArthur Rim might head north into the Metolius unit. South of Bend, many deer move east into the Paulina unit and into the Wagontire. South of La Pine, deer move southeasterly from the Cascades all the way to Silver Lake.
When they return to summer range, deer fan out, crossing state Highway 31, U.S. Highway 97 and U.S. Highway 20.
Corey Heath, a regional biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, has long characterized U.S. Highways 97 and 20 as walls of death for mule deer. As traffic has increased on both highways, he now speaks in terms of their eventual impassibility.
The Oregon Department of Transportation and ODFW count the traffic on U.S. Highway 97. Every day during the peak travel season, 20,000 vehicles pass Lava Butte. Last Fourth of July the total was 25,000. When that number reaches 28,000, Heath considers that the point where deer (and elk) won’t cross.
This crisis has been building for years, but there is work being done to make a difference for mule deer.
In 2012, ODOT completed a project that widened U.S. Highway 97 from milepost 149 south to milepost 153. The project included a wildlife fence (four miles long and eight feet high), two underpasses and four wildlife escape ramps.
By all accounts the project has been a success.
In 2016, a fledgling group formed to raise awareness of the plight of mule deer. Led by Suzanne Linford, Protect Animal Migration is making a difference by educating diverse groups in what we can do to help mule deer get from point A to point B and back again.
PAM’s message is simple. Mule deer habitats are shrinking into patches due to development and loss of cover. And the deer are in danger of losing connectivity between their summer and winter habitats. When muleys migrate, mule deer/vehicle collisions are going to happen. But we can reduce the number of deer fatalities and make a difference.
According to PAM, nearly 1,000 animal vehicle collisions per year occur in the Bend area. It’s hard to put a number on the cost to the driver/insurance company, but one estimate is $6,584 per incident. Any reduction in animal/vehicle collisions is a win for both animals and the public.
The fence and wildlife crossings south of Lava Butte have reduced wildlife/vehicle collisions by 90 percent. And the Bend chapter of the Oregon Hunters Association has stepped up to maintain the fence.
The efforts are paying off in a way that can be demonstrated every time a deer crosses through the underpass and a car speeds along on the road above.
Oregon is not on the cutting edge of wildlife crossings. Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and British Columbia are way ahead of us. We can do better.
In a joint effort of ODOT, ODFW and the Forest Service, three more underpasses are proposed farther south on U.S. Highway 97.
“These crossings pay for themselves,” Linford said. “They support the sportsman’s economy, they reduce taxes and insurance. And they prevent the animals dying broken, in horrible pain.”
Everyone can be part of the solution by being more aware of the barriers to migration.
See a deer on the side of the highway? Slow down and watch for the rest of the herd. Honk to warn deer and turn on emergency flashers to alert other drivers.
In the yard, ask yourself if that hammock or those hanging baskets could get caught in a buck’s antlers. Is that fence a barrier to passage?
I thought about that tough little doe in our neighborhood. We see her and her offspring all year long. The truth is some mule deer don’t migrate. Some don’t need to, but it comes down to what they were taught by their mothers. When a doe is killed by a car and a yearling is left without an experienced doe to follow around, it tends not to migrate. And a little biological diversity is lost.
— Gary Lewis is the host of Frontier Unlimited TV and author of Fishing Central Oregon, Fishing Mount Hood Country, Hunting Oregon and other titles. Contact Gary at www.GaryLewisOutdoors.com.