News of 90 kangaroos released in Wyoming as part of “Project Sage Hopper” spread like wildfire across the internet on April 1. The web-based news outlet, County 10, serving northern Wyoming, broke the story.
“Our COO, Fabian Lobera, came up with the idea because he remembered the photo of the mule deer release,” said Joshua Scheer, County 10 director of content. “We do some kind of April Fools Day story every year.”
County 10 got the Wyoming Migration Initiative to play along with the prank, going as far as quoting the WMI director, Matt Kauffman. An image showing the release of a kangaroo was edited from an image of WMI releasing a mule deer as part of their migration research.
“Last year we did a lot of mule deer captures along the eastern edge of greater Yellowstone,” said Gregory Nickerson, WMI writer and filmmaker. “County 10 approached us this spring with the April fools spoof with the kangaroo idea.”
County 10 went so far as to include plans for other new species introductions in Wyoming: the koala, wallaby and Tasmanian Devil.
Scheer reached out to Kauffman initially just to ask for use of the mule deer image and offered them the opportunity to play along and they accepted. Kauffman helped build the quotes in the original release, Scheer added.
“We were surprised by the response to it in terms of just the numbers of people who saw the post,” Nickerson said. “And the people who thought it was funny or even genuine.”
People in Australia are one day ahead of the United States so they saw the post on April 2, making it much more believable than for those who read about it on April Fools Day.
“We were really heartened by how many people contacted us to express their support for native game animals,” Nickerson said. “And their concerns for introducing non-native game animals.”
A site in Utah also played along, stating the kangaroos released in Wyoming were beginning to cause them problems, Scheer added.
“We are really grateful WMI played along,” Scheer said. “They do some great work for Wyoming.”
WHAT IS WMI?
The Wyoming Fish and Wildlife Cooperative Research Unit is a branch of the University of Wyoming conducting research to resolve management and conservation challenges in the state. Matt Kaufman, director of a WFWCRU lab, along with Bill Rudd, launched WMI to look closer at migration research and share new knowledge with the public.
“We work closely with the Wyoming Game and Fish,” Nickerson said. “We are a separate entity but we collaborate a lot.”
Undergraduate and graduate students currently work with WMI to help complete the migration research.
“We are not a conservation group in the typical sense of advocating for policy’s or weighing in on land management issues,” Nickerson said. “We are here to collect the data and share it with the public, managers and stakeholders, and then they come up with the policy ideas.”
WMI is strictly an education and research unit, Nickerson added.
“We are here to support native animals,” Nickerson said. “And would never do anything to upset that balance by bringing in kangaroos, much less wallabys and koalas or anything else.”
WMI is currently tracking the migration corridors for five different mule deer herds in northwestern Wyoming along the eastern edge of Yellowstone. These migration patterns have never been officially documented, Nickerson added.
“Last year we placed collars on 90 mule deer,” Nickerson said. “We ended up finding some really dramatic migration corridors that start in the foothills of these working ranches and then go up through national forest land and, in several cases, end up in the national parks.”
Many private landowners and ranchers in these areas have played an integral role in this project. They helped with the capture of the mule deer so WMI could put GPS collars on them and track their migration.
“It is really exciting to see how much support there is among private landowners and ranchers to have these migrations work in tandem with cattle production,” Nickerson said.
WMI was also part of the group that discovered the Red Desert to Hoback Basin migration, recorded as one of the longest mule deer migrations in history at 150 miles going one way. These deer spend four months out of the year traversing between their summer and winter grazing land.
“There have been a lot of nonprofit organizations working with private landowners to do a lot of fence retrofits to make them wildlife friendly,” Nickerson said.
WMI is also working on an atlas project to put Wyoming migration maps into a reference book to keep data and research in one place for release in 2018.
“We have an online migration viewer,” Nickerson said. “People can animate them and watch the (deer) move across different landscapes. It is one of the first of its kind, at least in Wyoming.”
WHY TRACK MIGRATION?
The people who are out working on the land everyday see these animals moving through their area but might not know where they spend their summers or winters. With a third of the year spent migrating, these cover a lot of Wyoming ground.
“Migration is not typically when animals just zip through from one place to the other,” Nickerson said. “They usually stop along the way and are accessing important habitat and timing their feeding times with the green-up of the grass.”
These animals move up in elevation as the weather warms up. By knowing the migration patterns, it becomes easier to protect these habitats and corridors to keep these animals migrating, Nickerson added.
“For generations, Wyoming ranchers have been crucial to maintaining migratory habitats for big game,” Nickerson said. “Stewardship of working lands is an essential part of keeping these migration corridors intact, and eventually reversing the decline in mule deer populations.”
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