Wildlife Depend On Open Space

By Jeff Gearino

CASPER, WY–Animals generally don’t respond to those pesky boundaries placed by human society–they pretty much move among private, state, federal and tribal lands across Wyoming.

But ask a wildlife biologist, rancher or farmer, and they’ll all say the same thing: Private lands play a hugely important role to Wyoming’s wildlife, mostly by providing seasonal range for big game.

A recent University of Wyoming-sponsored “Open Spaces Initiative” report showed private lands are critically important to herd size and viability for Wyoming’s six major big game species–Elk, Moose, Antelope, Bighorn Sheep, Mule Deer and White-tailed Deer.

“Clearly, something in the neighborhood of 70 percent of the wildlife in this state spend part or all of their time on private lands,” said Bob Budd, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust board. “Development tends to break that landscape up, and when you do, that has an impact on a lot of species.”

Budd pointed out that residential development can have a more lasting impact than oil and gas production or mining. While the disturbance from energy development can be significant, those lands eventually are reclaimed.

“Housing and land conversion for those purposes tends to be pretty permanent,” Budd said. “You have a certain amount of space, and as it gets taken up by a use that’s a little less friendly to wildlife, that’s a problem.”

Maintenance of open spaces on private land is important to the state’s hunting economy as well. Private lands have supported more than $58 million in hunter expenditures each year for Wyoming’s six big game species since 2000, according to the report. That’s just under 50 percent of the $120 million total spent by resident and nonresident hunters annually in Wyoming.

The UW report said big game animals in Wyoming that traditionally spend the summer on public lands in the higher elevations can also often be found on private lands at lower elevations, particularly during winter. Budd said more than a century of ranching has altered the landscape in many ways, and some of those ways are beneficial to certain species–for example, alfalfa fields provide forage for Mule Deer.

The overall importance of private land is greater for some big game species than others. For example, White-tailed Deer habitat generally occurs in bottom land along rivers, areas mostly privately owned. The study said about 80 percent of White-tailed Deer seasonally range on private lands. Bighorn Sheep, on the other hand, have the least amount of seasonal range on private lands, about 7 percent.

And it’s not just big game that depend upon open spaces. Budd said that while residential development benefits birds, including robins and sparrows, that adapt well to human presence, other bird species tend to diminish. And Prairie Dogs–which live in “towns” that can cover well over 40 acres–are harmed by development. –Casper Star Tribune