Mule Deer populations in the Eastern Sierra have declined in recent decades. Work is being done to permanently protect the critical winter range of this iconic species.

With spring soon approaching, mule deer will follow their instinct and migrate to the upper summer ranges. Wildlife biologists’ research has documented that migration patterns are learned behavior; a doe teaches her fawns, and that leads them to the places they can find food and shelter, generation after generation.

Their survival is increasingly under threat due to more extreme weather, wildfires, and development shrinking the habitat for these iconic mule deer.

The Round Valley Mule Deer Herd, moving from the low valley floor in Round Valley to the high Sierra meadows, has decreased by at least one-third – and possibly by as much as 60% – since the 1980s.

“It’s a concerning decline and one that generally mirrors the decline of mule deer populations throughout much of the western United States,” notes Tim Taylor, retired Mono County wildlife biologist for California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Part of this decline can be attributed to the loss and fragmentation of seasonal habitat by urban, commercial and recreational development as well as conflicts with increasing traffic. One of the ways we can help to slow the decline our herds are facing is to conserve lands on the winter ranges and maintain and enhance wildlife corridors for migrating animals,” explains Taylor. “Maintaining habitat connectivity within wildlife movement corridors that link these seasonal ranges is vital to the survival of this iconic wildlife species.”

Imagine a wagon wheel where the inner circle represents the valley winter range and the spokes represent the migration corridors connecting to the large circle of summer ranges in the mountains.

When those spokes become severed or conditions altered at either end, it spells trouble for the mule deer’s survival. The winter range, the ‘hub’ of the wheel, is of significant concern to protect as it is estimated to be less than 5% of the size of the summer range and provides food and shelter for the majority of the herd in tough winter conditions.

Conserving the Mule Deer Migration Corridor

Thankfully, work is being done to permanently protect the winter range. Tim sees the impact of that work. He says, “Eastern Sierra Land Trust is the key here because they work to preserve the mule deer’s critical winter habitat and migration corridors. All the conservation work completed on the behalf of the deer benefits a host of other species, as well. Without protecting these lands, we could lose that – this iconic species of the West won’t be available for us to view and enjoy.”

Hunewill Ranch provides a home for mule deer each summer. Photo by Jeff Hunewill

One such land protection project benefiting mule deer is the 4,100-acre historic Hunewill Ranch in Bridgeport Valley with more than 6 miles of rivers and streams. The Hunewill family, seventh-generation cattle ranchers, recently completed a conservation easement with ESLT. With this voluntary agreement permanently in place, sustainable ranching and wildlife conservation will forever work in tandem on the property. Mule deer migrate to the Hunewill Ranch each year, spending summers on the Sierra Nevada slopes of this private ranch. 

Eastern Sierra Land Trust worked with the Hunewill family to craft the conservation easement and secure the federal, state, and local funding needed to complete the project. Funders include Natural Resources Conservation Service, California Wildlife Conservation Board, California Deer Association, and California Department of Conservation

“The Hunewill family’s longstanding care for the land embodies how the strong agricultural tradition of our region works hand in hand with conservation goals,” says ESLT’s Executive Director and CEO, Kay Ogden. “The Hunewill family’s vision for the future of their ranch has been protected by the conservation easement. Working with the family to achieve this result was incredibly inspiring for everyone at ESLT. Preserving Hunewill Ranch is a win for the wildlife who rely on this valley. And it’s a win for future generations who will always be able to enjoy this area’s beauty, history, and peace.” 

Easements as a Conservation Tool

The Land Trust Accreditation Seal

The accreditation seal is a mark of excellence in Land Conservation.

Accredited land trusts, like ESLT, are nonprofit organizations that permanently protect land. One tool they use is a conservation easement. This voluntary agreement between a willing landowner and the land trust permanently protects a piece of land that has important public values, such as clean water and wildlife habitat. In an easement, a landowner agrees to manage their land according to the terms uniquely tailored to their needs. Easements are permanent agreements, and so the agreement, and the responsibilities of the land trust to monitor the land, remain in place even if land is sold. 

Most easements restrict developments or subdivision, as well as industrial use and mining. For private landowners, easements can have tax incentives in addition to the benefits of protecting the land they love. The economic benefits of easements go beyond incentives for landowners.

Outdoor recreation, and the enormous industry it supports, relies on clean water and undeveloped natural spaces. Conservation easements help to ensure that private lands provide a natural buffer to the nearby federal and state lands in which the public enjoys fishing, camping, and recreating.

See the Round Valley Mule Deer Herd

Observe the Round Valley Mule Deer Herd with ESLT and CDFW Human-Wildlife Conflict Scientist, Daniel Taylor, in Bishop, CA. Hear about seasonal migration and challenges the local herd currently faces. The free and family-friendly Mule Deer Migration Corridor Field Trip is an educational tour at the herd’s winter range on Saturday, March 26. Visit the event page for more details.

Time Taylor leading a Mule Deer Migration Corridor Field Trip

Tim Taylor, retired USFW biologist, points out mule deer to attendees at ESLT’s Mule Deer Migration Corridor Field Trip. Photo by Bill Dunlap.

This article was written by ESLT staff and was published by Western Outdoor News, the Inyo Register, Mammoth Times, and Sierra Wave.