MONTPELIER — On Dec. 18, Idaho Department of Fish and Game finalized two voluntary conservation easements at Rocky Point, south of Montpelier in Bear Lake County, which will permanently protect crucial migration areas for big game on more than 1,800 acres of land in southeast Idaho.
The conservation easements are for property on both sides of U.S. Highway 30 where thousands of mule deer cross on their migration between summer range in the Caribou Mountains and winter range on the Bear Lake Plateau.
Without the easements, future development could obstruct migration of mule deer, as well as elk, pronghorn and moose.
Based on the terms of the conservation easements, the properties will remain undeveloped to ensure that the land remains a big game migration area and that access to winter range is protected. The private owners of the land will also continue to use it for livestock grazing.
“This is a working lands ranch from a working-lands family and we have no intention of changing that,” said Matt Pieron, wildlife biologist and Mule Deer Initiative Coordinator for Idaho Fish and Game. “The current use of this sagebrush-steppe habitat is perfectly compatible with our conservation goals.”
The properties will also be opened to the public for hunting, fishing, trapping, and wildlife viewing, and will connect public lands on either side of the highway.
The group of mule deer that use this migration corridor belongs to one of Idaho’s largest herds, which spend summers in the Caribou Mountains, numbering around 20,000, based on Fish and Game’s aerial surveys. The herd winters in a variety of areas, but about one-third of them cross the short stretch of U.S. 30 at Rocky Point.
“Based on collision reports, staff observations, remote cameras, and electronic collar data, we have a ton of information that shows that these mule deer are migrating through a 3 or 4-mile stretch of highway that borders these easements,” Pieron said.
Partnerships were crucial to securing easement
The total acquisition cost for the conservation easements was $1.275 million, and Fish and Game contributed $576,500 in license monies for the project. The funding balance came from a variety of partners, including the following:
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- Southeast Idaho Mule Deer Foundation/Sagebrush Steppe Land Trust
- SE Idaho Chapter of Muley Fanatics Foundation
- National Fish & Wildlife Foundation
- Greater Yellowstone Coalition
- Knobloch Family Foundation
- The Pew Charitable Trusts
- Idaho Fish & Wildlife Foundation
- Center for Large Landscape Conservation
“We had tremendous support across the board, including from smaller, grassroots, local organizations like the Southeast Idaho Mule Deer and Muley Fanatics foundations,” Pieron said. “These folks are incredibly important, because they are the people who know firsthand how crucial it is to preserve this area to ensure the long-term health of their mule deer population, and in turn, the health of their local economy.”
Every fall, more than 4,000 mule deer hunters visit Unit 76, where Rocky Point is located. These hunters combined spend over 22,700 days hunting for mule deer, and over $2.4 million on supplies.
Without this mule deer migration, the size of the herd would likely shrink, as would hunting opportunity and the local economic benefits associated with the animals’ population.
“This mule deer herd is very important to us, both culturally and economically, and that’s why we supported this project,” Chris Price, chapter president of Muley Fanatics Foundation, said.
Idaho Transportation Department, F&G working together to address wildlife-vehicle collision hot spot
This stretch of U.S. 30 is a well-known hot spot for wildlife-vehicle collisions. According to the roadkill data that Idaho Fish and Game collects, over 100 mule deer are struck and killed by vehicles annually on a 20-mile stretch of U.S. 30, 70% of which have been killed within the 4-mile section at Rocky Point. Because wildlife-vehicle collisions with large animals tend to be underreported, the number of mule deer-vehicle collisions is likely even higher. This makes this mule deer population and the hunting opportunity it supports susceptible to continued decline, and poses a continuing safety hazard to drivers. It is something the local community has been concerned about.
“We lose so many deer on this stretch of highway,” Price said. “We want to do what we can for our deer herds to help them out.”
The conservation easements have opened the door for solutions that will decrease the number of wildlife-vehicle collisions moving forward. Fish and Game and the Idaho Transportation Department are working together to design wildlife crossing improvements for this segment of U.S. 30. Idaho Transportation Department will provide the funding for the wildlife crossings in the area.
“The community will have the opportunity to learn more about this project and provide input on potential improvements that will help wildlife cross the highway,” ITD project manager Tara Capson said. The first opportunity for the community to give input will be in early 2020.