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New survey maps help protect U.S. ungulate migration

The intricate migration of ungulates, the hooved mammals wandering the vast landscapes of the western United States, has been meticulously charted in the latest release from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

Consequently, this fourth installment in the ‘Ungulate Migrations of the Western United States’ series showcases the migration patterns of 33 herds. These herds include mule deer, pronghorn, and elk.

This collaborative effort brings together wildlife agencies from states including Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Washington, Wyoming, and for the first time, Oregon and Colorado, as well as the Pueblo of Tesuque in New Mexico.

182 ungulate herds

The detailed maps presented in the report expose the critical routes and ranges these animals traverse, enhancing our comprehension of their geographical movements.

Additionally, with this volume, the series now encapsulates the migrations and seasonal habitats of 182 distinct herds across ten states. This provides invaluable data to scientists and conservationists alike.

Diverse ungulate migrations across the America

Matt Kauffman, the lead author of the report and a wildlife biologist with the USGS Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Wyoming, shared his enthusiasm about the project’s progress.

“We’ve now mapped nearly two hundred migrations of mule deer, pronghorn, elk, and other ungulates,” said Kauffman. These migrations span diverse landscapes, from the high alpine Rocky Mountains to the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest and the desert ecosystems of the American Southwest.

Additionally, he praised the collaborative efforts of the team, highlighting their adoption of standardized methods to produce these detailed migration maps.

Navigating nature’s obstacles

The seasonal migrations of these ungulates are motivated by their search for nutrient-rich plants and to avoid deep snow.

However, as human activities and developments encroach upon their habitats, these species face increasing challenges.

These include new subdivisions, energy developments, barriers like fences, and busy roads that intersect their migration paths.

Ungulates conservation through collaboration

Blake Henning, chief conservation officer at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, emphasized the significance of this mapping work.

“To best conserve and protect the habitat used by migrating elk, mule deer, moose, and pronghorn, we have to know exactly where these species move across the landscape,” Henning stated.

Consequently, he strongly supported the ongoing efforts, recognizing their importance for the animals’ future health.

Maps making a difference

The utility of these migration maps extends beyond mere documentation. They are crucial for conservation and management efforts in an ever-changing landscape.

For instance, the presence of solar farms in an ungulate’s range can disrupt their habitat and movement.

Moreover, these maps have been instrumental in informing decisions related to oil and gas leasing. They are increasingly vital for siting future renewable energy projects in ways that minimize their impact on critical habitats.

Ungulate migration data to protect wildlife

Jeff Gagnon, statewide connectivity biologist at the Arizona Game and Fish Department, highlighted the practical applications of this data.

“By using these migration maps and data, the Arizona Game and Fish Department was able to have informed conversations with landowners and solar developers about managing for wildlife corridors through a planned solar facility,” Gagnon explained. He expressed optimism that these efforts would allow ungulates to continue their seasonal migrations without disruption.

Furthermore, this ongoing project exemplifies the robust collaboration between multiple states and tribal entities, emphasizing their shared dedication to preserving the migratory traditions of these emblematic species of the American West. Such efforts are crucial to ensuring their continued prosperity for future generations.

More on ungulate migration

Ungulates are a diverse group of large mammals most commonly known for their hooves. These animals include several species that play crucial roles in ecosystems across the globe. Here are some key details about ungulates:


Ungulates are broadly classified into two orders:

  • Artiodactyla: Also known as even-toed ungulates, which includes animals such as deer, cattle, giraffes, camels, and pigs. They are characterized by an even number of toes, usually two or four, with the weight of the body borne equally by the third and fourth toes.
  • Perissodactyla: Known as odd-toed ungulates, including horses, rhinos, and tapirs. These species bear most of their weight on one toe—the third toe.

Physical features and habitat

Ungulates are generally herbivorous and are known for their hooves, which are hardened keratin coverings around their toes. They often have robust bodies and well-developed limbs to support their weight, aiding in mobility and evasion from predators.

Ungulates are found in a variety of habitats, including grasslands, forests, savannas, and even arid deserts. Their distribution spans globally, except for Antarctica, with various species adapted to specific environmental conditions.

Ungulates play a critical role in their ecosystems as grazers and browsers. They help in nutrient cycling through their diets and defecation, which fertilizes the soil. Predators depend on them for food, making them integral to the food chain.

Cultural and economic importance

Many ungulate species are under threat from habitat loss, poaching, and conflicts with human activities. Conservation efforts are crucial to maintaining their populations and involve habitat preservation, legal protections, and in some cases, breeding programs.

Besides their ecological roles, ungulates are significant to humans culturally and economically. They are a source of meat, leather, and other products. Additionally, they hold spiritual and cultural significance in many societies.

Ungulates are fascinating for their adaptability and variety, playing essential roles both ecologically and culturally across the world.


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