Elk and Deer Migration Routes

Before long, mule deer will begin migration to winter ranges. This isn’t haphazard. They typically use specific routes to get from summer to winter homes and back.

Many years ago, when I was radio-tracking mule deer in Eastern Idaho as part of my university studies, an early October storm, similar to the one we have just experienced, dumped about a foot of snow on the summer ranges. Over the next week, all of the marked deer vacated the higher elevations and started on their migratory paths. Thick muddy trails cut through the snow indicated that the radio-collared deer were not the only ones to move. Within short order, the mountains were empty of mule deer and the lower country seemed like a hunter’s paradise.

Once the storm moderated though, most of the marked deer stopped migration, waiting instead for weather to encourage them to move on to winter range. This way, they could continue to take advantage of forage that would soon be unavailable, saving winter range forage for the tough times ahead.

What has been fascinating to witness over the years as more animals have been marked, is that the animals have definite migration corridors. A corridor is a reasonably wide swath as opposed to a trail or a path that might conjure up visions of a single track. It is often a ridgeline or a canyon or some other geologic feature or combination thereof. Within a corridor, animals may wander to take advantage of new resources or avoid obstacles and developments. A corridor may be several miles wide. Interestingly, within the corridor, individual deer often used exact places, say a grove of aspens, year after year, demonstrating a high fidelity to their own route. Corridors were often used during both spring and fall migrations.

Elk do the same thing. When winter weather (research shows that it takes about 17 inches of snow) forces them to move off summer ranges, they have a definite location or winter range that they are headed to and they have a specific way to get to it.

A question arises; what happens when a single storm drops several feet or more? Can animals become trapped? Certainly, a major snow dump can prevent them from crossing a major pass on their corridor. For instance, a doe mule deer radiomarked at Sand Creek was found summering on the west side of Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park. It is certainly conceivable that an early storm could force her to find winter range elsewhere. She might hook up with other deer that make the long journey to Wyoming’s Red Desert or perhaps she will find her way to the feed ground at the National Elk Refuge north of Jackson.

Bucks tend to be less traditional than does. They may change winter or summer ranges, especially when they are younger. They are less likely to hang with momma and more likely to seek the company of other males, following them to new home ranges.

One thing is sure. The more radio-tracking collars are placed on more animals, the better biologists understand animal movements. There are usually plenty of surprises when animals move unexpected directions. For example, the mule deer wintering at Tex Creek east of Idaho Falls typically head south and east in the spring time. However, research that repeated my own work with more and better equipment found that a small contingent actually goes northeast, crossing the Snake River near Clark Hill. Without the collars, this movement would have never been detected and management could suffer for it.


Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from Nature-track.com!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho