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Ungulate migration in a changing climate—An initial assessment of climate impacts, management priorities, and science needs

April 28, 2022

Executive Summary

Migratory behavior among ungulates in the Western United States occurs in response to changing forage quality and quantity, weather patterns, and predation risk. As snow melts and vegetation green-up begins in late spring and early summer, many migratory ungulates leave their winter range and move to higher elevation summer ranges to access high-quality forage and areas with vegetative cover for protection during fawning. Ungulates remain on these ranges until the fall when increasing snowfall and decreasing temperatures trigger them to migrate back to their lower elevation winter ranges. While researchers have begun to assess the effects of physical barriers such as roads and energy infrastructure on migration, less attention has been paid to understanding how changing climate conditions might affect ungulate movements and range habitats. Does earlier spring green-up make ungulates leave their winter ranges sooner? Do persistent drought conditions reduce the carrying capacity of seasonal range habitats or lead to shifts in migration pathways? These and other questions remain largely unanswered but could have cascading effects on ungulate population dynamics and migratory behavior.

In February 2018, the Secretary of the Interior signed Department of the Interior Secretarial Order 3362 (SO3362), “Improving Habitat Quality in Western Big-Game Winter Range and Migration Corridors.” The order, which focuses on elk, mule deer, and pronghorn in 11 Western States, directs the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the National Park Service (NPS), and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to partner with State wildlife agencies on their priorities and objectives for identifying and conserving ungulate migration corridors and winter-range habitat. The USGS Climate Adaptation Science Centers (CASCs) were established to help managers of the Nation’s fish, wildlife, waters, and lands understand the effects of climate change and adapt to changing conditions. To support the recent Department of the Interior (DOI) emphasis on ungulate migration corridors and winter-range habitat, this report assesses current information on how climate change could affect elk, mule deer, and pronghorn migration. The report synthesizes the drivers of migration, outlines what is known about how climate change might affect these drivers, and summarizes management priorities and science needs related to ungulate migration corridors and range habitat.

A review of the literature on ungulate migration shows that the core drivers of spring migration are the timing of spring green-up and snowmelt, and the core driver of fall migration is winter severity. After exploring what is known about how these drivers affect or could be affected by climate change, several pathways through which ungulate migration could be altered were identified: (1) ungulates alter migration timing to better track plant phenology or in response to changes in winter conditions; (2) ungulates change their migration route or distance traveled during migration to accommodate changes in environmental conditions; and (3) ungulate populations that are currently migratory may begin to demonstrate interannual variability in whether they migrate, depending on environmental conditions and density-dependence, and may remain resident for sets of consecutive years.

Through discussions with managers, physical barriers to movement such as roads and fences were identified as a core concern. In addition, the primary research needs of States are the acquisition and analysis of data on ungulate movements, to refine delineation of winter range, summer range, and corridors, and to support a better understanding of how ungulates use these habitats. When it comes to understanding climate effects, managers were more concerned with understanding the vulnerability of winter- and summer-range habitats than the vulnerability of migration corridors because of the influence of summer and winter forage on ungulate condition and reproductive success. Managers were also concerned about how forage quality and quantity might change because of stressors such as drought, wildfire, and invasive species and how they might need to alter habitat-treatment strategies as a result.

More baseline data are needed before effective projections of ungulate migration, at a West-wide scale under climate change, can be made. These data needs include (1) more clearly defined corridors and seasonal range habitats; (2) a comprehensive understanding of the ecological drivers of migration across ungulate species and populations; and (3) the identification of environmental thresholds for key variables that influence migration, above which ungulates alter migratory behavior.

The CASCs have several opportunities to play a role in addressing these needs. The CASCs could initiate projects to identify past and potential future changes and trends in key variables known to affect ungulate migration, such as plant phenology, forage quality, or winter severity. However, it would be difficult to use this information to determine what those trends mean for ungulate migration due to the lack of knowledge about environmental thresholds for ungulates. Additional projects would be required to compare multiple years of movement data with key variables to define thresholds. Once available, information on environmental thresholds could be integrated with projections of key variables to forecast the likelihood that the migration routes or the distance traveled could change—another area in which the CASCs could contribute.

A more immediate role for the CASCs would be to carry out synthesis projects. One such project could summarize the “state of the science” on the drivers of ungulate migration. Although there are dozens of population- and location-specific studies on this topic, collating this information could help highlight trends in migration drivers that span species and geographies: a necessary first step toward determining the extent to which migration drivers could be affected by climate change. A second project could focus on what is known about how climate variability and change affect ungulate life-histories, population dynamics, and migration in the Western United States. The goal of this effort could be to identify knowledge clusters and information gaps that require further investigation. Together, these synthesized products could focus future scientific activities on the most pressing issues of ungulate migration and climate change in the Western United States.