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Industrial energy development decouples ungulate migration from the green wave

Abstract

The ability to freely move across the landscape to track the emergence of nutritious spring green-up (termed ‘green-wave surfing’) is key to the foraging strategy of migratory ungulates. Across the vast landscapes traversed by many migratory herds, habitats are being altered by development with unknown consequences for surfing. Using a unique long-term tracking dataset, we found that when energy development occurs within mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) migration corridors, migrating animals become decoupled from the green wave. During the early phases of a coalbed natural gas development, deer synchronized their movements with peak green-up. But faced with increasing disturbance as development expanded, deer altered their movements by holding up at the edge of the gas field and letting the green wave pass them by. Development often modified only a small portion of the migration corridor but had far-reaching effects on behaviour before and after migrating deer encountered it, thus reducing surfing along the entire route by 38.65% over the 14-year study period. Our study suggests that industrial development within migratory corridors can change the behaviour of migrating ungulates and diminish the benefits of migration. Such disruptions to migratory behaviour present a common mechanism whereby corridors become unprofitable and could ultimately be lost on highly developed landscapes.

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Fig. 1: Study area map.
Fig. 2: The influence of development on time spent along segments of the migration route of mule deer in south-central Wyoming, USA.
Fig. 3: Route-level influence of energy development on green-wave surfing by mule deer in south-central Wyoming, USA.
Fig. 4: Migratory movements of mule deer became increasingly mismatched with the green wave over time.

Data availability

GPS locations and energy development footprints can be found in the following Dryad Data Digital Repository: https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.7d7wm37z5. MODIS data are available from the U.S. Geological Survey LP DAAC (https://lpdaac.usgs.gov/).

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Acknowledgements

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Geological Survey Wyoming Landscape Conservation Initiative supported this work. Special thanks to: S. L. Garman and J. L. McBeth, US Geological Survey, Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center who assisted with collection and development of well pad data and to J. A. Merkle who provided derived NDVI and IRG products. GPS collaring was funded by the Bureau of Land Management, Anadarko Petroleum Company, Warren Resources and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. E.O.A. was supported by the Wyoming NASA Space Grant Consortium Graduate Fellowship (NASA grant no. NNX15AI08H). Any use of trade, firm or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US Government. We thank G. Chong and N. Latysh for feedback that improved earlier versions of the manuscript.

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E.O.A., T.B.W., H.S. and M.J.K. conceived the work. H.S. collected the data. E.O.A. and T.B.W. analysed the data. E.O.A., T.B.W. and M.J.K. wrote the manuscript and all authors contributed to revisions.

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Correspondence to Ellen O. Aikens.

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Competing interests

Like the state (Wyoming Game and Fish Department) and federal (Bureau of Land Management) agencies who supported our research, Anadarko Petroleum Company and Warren Resources helped fund a portion of the study. Neither company had any role in the study design, data interpretation or the preparation of the manuscript. Similarly, H. Sawyer is an employee of Western Ecosystems and, like other co-authors employed by academic institutions, government agencies and NGOs, has no conflict of interest (financial or otherwise) with the study. H. Sawyer collected most of the data, led earlier research efforts in this study system and brought valuable technical expertise to our manuscript.

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Aikens, E.O., Wyckoff, T.B., Sawyer, H. et al. Industrial energy development decouples ungulate migration from the green wave. Nat Ecol Evol 6, 1733–1741 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-022-01887-9

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