We're doing poomkah Poomkah OK, altogether whenever you guys are ready I'm ready to poomkah Poomkah Ridiculous I can keep a smile on my face soaking wet I think we got it tho I think we're gonna do fine Did you think she was gonna be here? We've got a great team of people that are all really ambitious We'll make it- we'll make it happen How she moved in the past and how it's like... movement is really typical of animals so i'm actually like pretty familiar with a lot of these areas and could cut across... So for the next nine days starting tomorrow morning we're gonna follow the path of doe 139.
That's Sam Dwinnell. She's a research scientist for the University of Wyoming. She studies a herd of mule deer that call western Wyoming home.
Sam works with a team of scientists to put radio collars on does and their fawns. These big-eared beauties are an iconic western species, and over the last 50 years, with an increase in human presence on the land, the population has been in decline. Sam and her colleagues are studying what about an animal's environment determines their survival.
Ever since I started on this project I've wanted to follow the migration of one of our study animals. Also, like, I thought it sounded like a really sweet adventure. We're gonna go on this ridge and just, I mean we wanna be safe.
Sam recruited me —my name is Tennessee Watson— and her friend Anya Tyson along on this journey. But the real star of the show is deer 139. Deer 139 is a badass for sure. She undergoes this really incredible journey during migration, going from winter range that's really dry desert and she moves north into the foothills on the east side of the Wyoming Range and just kind of bounces back and forth in and out of the foothills up and over ridges, goes up into Horse Creek and then that's when she starts her climb up and over the crest of the Wyoming Range, cruises from Blind Bull down into the Greys River where she then traverses north again, goes up into the headwaters of Murphy Creek, pops over that where it overlooks Star Valley. There's like a beautiful alpine cirque up there that she spends her summer at.
The most mind blowing detail about that whole journey is 139 does it on the verge of giving birth. Deer 139 takes 6 weeks to migrate. Sam wants to bang this out in 9 days. Struggle Round two of the struggle We're gonna climb, pack raft, and ski our way 85 miles from deer 139's winter range to her summer range.
You got it I don't know Sound ridiculous? You got it It is ridiculous. Do you need help? Oh no I've got it I'm just gonna wait on that I'm pretty sure I can do it It's about science and our desire for a crazy adventure. It's just really heavy I'm going on this expedition with Anya Tyson.
She is a field naturalist and maybe the most charismatic person I know. Yeah I'm not gonna lie that uh an outdoor adventure with my buddy Sam Dwinnell is something that I wouldn't pass up. Tennessee Watson, a really talented investigative reporter.
I am by no means an expert on wildlife or nature but I'm a generally curious human being so I think that's my special role in this trip. The only reason why Tennessee is coming honestly is because she made a deer costume for the trip and we just need her as, like, you know, the obligatory deer acting out what we think deer are doing. It's not bad. I can't pick it up, but I can walk. Poomkah! We have everything? Skis, boots, poles? Clean underwear? Clean underwear. You don't wear underwear though.
I'm excited to be completely surprised by something. I think that this week might change my life, and I don't wanna put too heavy of expectation on it but I just think to go out in the woods to really get off of trails... I've always followed a path that other humans have walked. I'm also honestly concerned that maybe we'll do it and it'll be easy, and we'll be like, huh, alright, that was cool. Oh mother f****r You got to be f***ing kidding me Yeah walk it out Walk around on it a little bit I wish I had a wild fruit to offer you What the hell did I even trip on? I think I just rolled my ankle Um, the car is right there where we started This is supposed to be the easy part of the journey.
These rolling, sage covered hills are more hospitable than the rugged mountains we're headed towards. Deer hang here in the winter living off of dwindling fat reserves and sage twigs because that's better than chest deep snow. But this land has some limitations. Deer 139's winter range has a lot of energy development on it. There's overwhelming science that shows they don't like it, they don't react well to it.
As we cross extensive networks of hoof prints it's clear how deer are packed into these spaces in the winter. You might see them near rigs and wellpapds and assume everybody's playing nice, but the reality is that these deer have nowhere else to go. Their survival depends on being loyal to a specific patch of land. Familiarity with its contours feeds them. When a rig pops up the deer will steer clear limiting their access to available food.
The mark of people on the land continues beyond energy development. Well... we're just gonna have to pass our packs over. That wouldn't feel good. Oh, s**t, oh, hold up. Oh look at that.
Am I am I twerking? Is this twerking? Whoo! Oh man Well yeah the fences are a pain in the ass, that's pretty apparent. Yeah deer can jump over them but they don't always make it. Land owners can space wires so animals can get through.
That linear movement is capturing her moving alongside this fence. Some even lay down their fences during migration. And it's still, I mean, every time we approach a fence it seems like uh, I mean we obviously don't panic, but we're just like, ugh, god, another fence that we have to deal with.
Ugh it's such a pain. And I would imagine that the animals are kind of the same. Who else thought that was gonna be just a mellow field. We actually wanna be just like on the other side of this here. Yeah sorry I was following... OK
So, yeah, what do we want to do? We can hop up on this Black Canyon Road here and then just cut back. After traversing only 7.5 miles of relatively flat terrain each step came with doubt about completing deer 139's six-week journey in just nine days. Are you worried about this Sam? Uh yeah I am worried about it. I mean I've sprained, I've sprained my ankle before, but it's never been in a situation where I haven't been able to rest it.
Got a rig worker pulling up. Morning. Someone said you had a little fire? Uh we didn't have a fire. Yeah we used gas cook stoves. We got gas wells here and if that drifts over and you have any kind of open flame OK it wouldn't be a good deal.
OK You guys are fine here but I just wanted to let you guys know that something could possibly happen if there was anything. Just be careful. Awesome, thank you.
Alright you guys take care, Yeah, you too. Have a good one. OK Done? Think so. I feel like I kinda like... Here's some phlox coming up.
There's quite a bit of diversity out here. Yeah it's surprising actually. All this lichen, Likin' it. Get it? Yeah she's not here.
Did you think she was gonna be here? Well maybe I though there was a chance we could hear her. This is definitely where one of her stop-overs is, and she was up on top yesterday but can't hear her now and she's probably just hunkered down somewhere in the snow. It's not that she's left? It's that she's like in some place where you can't hear her? Yeah exactly. OK 1, 2, 3. So we don't have to play hide and seek anymore? No hide and seek anymore.
OK Yeah It was fun glassing from this spot. It's pretty cool to see a moose up here. We're miles behind schedule and we call in support as the reality sets in that we've got lots to learn from 139 about how to pace ourselves. Sorry I couldn't help more. Uh because we moved, yeah from there to there is all we were able to do today.
Do you guys know how to be maybe slightly more efficient maybe? We probably wanna... It's a big mountain so maybe we can only make it to there? We could get there then if we did one, two, three? Uh we're gonna end up breaking this expedition up into two parts Mostly we're moving so much slower than we thought. We had planned 13-mile days. We're breaking all of our days in half. Uh you know if we were just trying to ski and just trying to hike we'd just put our heads down and walk If we stuck with plan A like we'd really would be going through terrain, like snow depths that she doesn't deal with and we'd be way ahead of her and I think it's cool to be able to come back and revisit that second half of the journey when 139 is actually, like, close to being in that terrain. Um, so yeah, since we're not going to be skiing in this part I think we'll ditch our skis, which sucks.
You're disappointed about this? I'm very disappointed about it. Yeah, we have some disappointment, but we're being true to the deer. We're trying to tell the story of this place, essentially we're just...
By splitting our trip in two We're actually more in sync with deer 139's movements. We get to slow down and experience the land's transition from winter to spring. This is the crème de la crème for deer.
Geranium is what comes out like number one in their diets throughout the summer. Super nutritious, high digestibility, high protein content. Oh, tastes terrible. Yeah Don't eat it.
Yeah Actually, I wouldn't recommend it I'm gonna do it despite... Oh wow that is really bad. We have to actually go this way first cause she kinda goes north... We're here to learn from the path, not to conquer it. ...wrap around that peak that's just above the aspens there. The angle of the light makes a total difference on how easy it is to see the tracks.
This is the good one. How David Attenborough does sometimes... uhm, I wish I could do an English accent. Out here in Wyoming we have mountain lions and deer and they're at an arms race to outrun the other. I don't think that's really David Attenboroughy.
Alright They were following this track here. See some pretty good prints Here so we've got mom, mom's print is right here. So momma mountain lion here, you can see her kitten track here, and her track again here, and she's moving off that way and very near where 139 will move uh right along her path. I would presume that predators can key in on animal movements and sorta target these animals along their migration corridors It is risky for these animals. We see a slight uptick in the mortalities. They're not only trying to find the good green up, but they also have all of these constraints for where they can go like predators, as well as just trying to escape people.
The only way they can exist out here is by being connected and essentially having the knowledge of the landscape that we, we no longer have as humans. Anya is that a double fence? For sure? Frickin' double fence. Why? Guys? Hey guys! Just jump over it. No, too high. Go under? Uh I'd have to take my backpack off Can you help me? You did it! Yay! I pictured Wyoming's rich wildlife populations in the mountains But most wouldn't exist without the sage.
I mean for me as a scientist it's important to see migration firsthand and it does just give me a better understanding of all of the moving parts that they're trying to balance. It's been really nice for me to get out of the saddle of 'we need to make miles' and just be like we're moving at the pace that we're moving and we're learning more about this landscape and appreciating it more and breathing more. I can't imagine what it's like for the deer, swimming across these rivers. Tell me when you're ready. I think the point that was where I, like, felt my heart race and my like armpits get extra sweaty, some like dumb panicky stuff, was that first time that we pack rafted. Should we take the ice axe off before we put it in the boat? Holy shit. That's a good idea.
Just because it feels so stupid to cross moving water when the sun is going down. Where are the, where's the big group that's close to the river right now? They are, like, they came down from the conifers here I don't know, I just saw a few of them I don't know if they... All morning we've been seeing waves of different groups of animals moving through this hillside, and we clearly timed it right where we're moving with a lot of these animals right now. It's pretty cool to see.
We watch a steady stream of deer pick their way toward us. Maybe one of them is 139. It seems like we're getting things right.
It kind of locks it in. This isn't just a silly thing we're doing. We're really witnessing an event that is so important to this landscape. Got some freshies. We're hot on the trail guys. Oh yeah, pretty hot.
It's bath, bath water warm. Deer 139 would take us into the mountains. I'm not sure who it is but I think it's maybe deer 89 cause she summers right in this area in the Thompson Peak area. 139 goes through this same area but she doesn't stop here, she just keeps, keeps on going. The reason why she takes the path that she does is because it's the path that her mom taught her and so she follows that.
And so if she, if she dies and her fawns die, then essentially this route could blank out of existence. We puzzled often about deer 139's route. There's sort of in my mind... it's far more interesting these animals that live in these completely disparate habitats in different times of the year.
The walking wasn't easy and there was no food for the deer here now, but spring is a time of drastic transitions. Somehow, deer know this and time their movements almost perfectly with the pulses of food that emerge from receding snow lines. What I don't get is why she chose to avoid the road further up but then during this whole stretch she just cruises right along the road. Is any section of the road less well traveled? There are far fewer of those little canyons that have those nice conifer aspen mixes, and I wonder if that could be part of it too. Just the forage is better up high away from the road so she chooses to go that route up there, but down here, maybe she just, she's like, "ah, I just want the quickest path at this point.
There's not much good eating here anyways." You think that the thought crossed her mind that you know... "Someday, a group of silly women is gonna follow in my footsteps and I'll just give them a break for a couple miles." Uh you know, I could see her being considerate like that. Actually, yeah, that's probably it, gotta be it. Mystery solved.
What about the migration paths predating roads? There's a magic to how we're navigating this terrain, too. You guys got that one ok over there? Without much discussion, tents go up, water gets filtered, meals get made. Because Wyoming spring is still freezing cold, we've got the backcountry all to ourselves. Once again that athleticism component comes in.
Just wow, that is one thing I've learned is that they crush through terrain in a really powerful way. My assumption was that like there'd be a certain flow to it or a certain ease and the thing that's really interesting about this is that there's nothing predictable about this route. Is that another fence? Yeah At least it's busted.
I mean, aside from the fence, beautiful views. Which way? Down that way is our next river crossing. 3, 2, 1... dropping!
Yeah you've got it. You've got it Anya! We were amused at first, but the snow just kept going, and going, and going. Yeah this is definitely my vagina.
Snow, snow up to the vagina. Being injured, I can't do the things that I normally can do. I get frustrated when I'm like gah! I know I can do this. Anya is really great at helping us navigate uhm tricky situations. She blazes these amazing bushwhacks.
She told me yesterday that she loves moving across the land like an animal. There's something out there that looks a little like a skull. (laughing) Tennessee doesn't give you a hand, she just walks around you. I'm really appreciating not being in the driver's seat and experiencing things that you couldn't engineer for yourself.
It's really nice to just see what deer 139 has in store for us. Even when we think things will get easier our descents are covered in downfall and snow. Ugh, branch. Yo, hold on, you have like an entire branch...
Are we on day 5? 6? 4? 7? Holy shit, day 7. Oh man, that goes to show how good of a leader I am. Responding to our environment and situation made it so we actually moved alongside the migration. We were in the heart of it. I've seen how many species are all moving together— elk and pronghorn and deer all moving together. It's something that for whatever reason I'm kinda surprised by.
I figured this is just a deer migration corridor and it's what deer use, and elk and pronghorn, they kind of, they all have their own little routes. But actually, a lot of them use the same areas, which for me is pretty important when thinking of landscape conservation and productivity. I was just appreciating each mule deer more as an individual. Hiking a single doe's route has helped me develop an eye for them.
We were like in her company for a while and then moved ahead of her. When we come back at the end of the month, we're gonna be close to synced up with her again. Phase two is the part of the trip that I was most looking forward to. It's the most adventurous part.
Honestly I'm more afraid of the second part of this trip. I know the terrain is going to be a lot gnarlier. I, I have no idea how she or other animals deal with it. Uh I don't think so...
Is there anybody else it could be? Uh 103, it could be 89. Uhm let me turn the labels on here. Wow! That's 139? Yeah. What!? That meant that 139 passed us when we were at camp. Yeah. So that's her 6:00 am point and that's her 8:00 am point.
And we were camped like right there. So on the night of the first, at 6:00 on the night of the first... So like when we were pack rafting the river, she was crossing the river? That is so good! Oh my god that is insane! We just, we passed her.
We didn't even know. Maybe she heard us talking about her the whole time. That's so funny! Yeah exactly. She's like how the hell are they gonna get across the river? So this is the part of the trip that I am looking most forward to.
I'm feeling great, yeah. Ankle is mostly healed. Anya is mostly recovered from giardia. Good to go. And Tennessee is just always ready for anything, right Tennessee? Yeah.
The snow is receding fast. It's full on spring. Even though Anya got giardia during part one of this adventure and was wiped out for a good part of our three-week break, she's powering through.
And somehow, we still trust her to treat our water and cook all of our food. We're right back into the swing of things. Oh that was not close. That's why I, like, try, I try to do like the whole body... I gotta aim though. You got it! And we're back in sync with the flow of migration.
Right where we're crossing there were several deer tracks I think from this morning crossing right here where we are crossing. We followed the tracks in the snow and you could see them going up on the other side over there. Since we don't want to be wet all day we're all gonna de-pants. I didn't wear underwear before this trip but Sam gifted me a beautiful pair of blue Hanes Her Way granny panties. Full coverage, lots of benefits, you can tuck your t-shirt into them to minimize chafing from your hip belt. We dip our toes into the cold and mighty Horse Creek.
Just on the other side is Blind Bull Pass. In no place has migration been so visible. For many deer other than 139 that snow is the final push before splitting off into their summer homes.
Sort of an aha moment for me, like I always had this idea of wow, how are these animals still plowing through this snow when they're going over these mountain passes? And I think the reality of it is they wait for the snow to firm up. Again, they're so connected with this landscape they wait for those isothermic conditions and then they decide to cruise across down the snow. At this point, we're just trailing behind deer 139 by a couple days. I'm trying to channel 139.
Pretty, I'm trying to be pretty faithful to that. I just know that she wouldn't go up there to look at whatever giant predator left those tracks, and I, I think at this point I might be the only one that's actually still on mission. Sick guys. Actually, a disproportionate number of our animals summer in this drainage. Like this is the greatest density of our collared animals.
I guess the reason is cause it's pretty lush, and there's a lot of good eatin'. So good. Do I have any in my teeth? Their summer ranges are established by where they're born, so their mom basically gives birth to them in these areas and that that becomes their home, that becomes the place that they come back to year after year. And she cruises up this hill and I guess we will, too. All these wildflowers and this dance party worthy scenery might have lulled us into thinking that healthy wildlife populations are a given in a place like this, but there were reminders to the contrary So that down there, there used to be willows and green things, and I used to see moose there all the time. And then last year they put this.
Now, no more moose. Sam's like the Lorax of the Wyoming Range. Habitats can't be considered in isolation. There is a purpose for each of the habitats that they use along their path. Making sure that we connect those landscapes is so critical for the survival of the population. What might seem like a beautiful undisturbed ecosystem, at a closer look tells a different story.
This area was hit pretty hard by sheep grazing. And the sheep don't find this plant tasty so they eat everything around it and mow it down and take care of its competitors, so it comes back even stronger. And unfortunately this plant is also not palatable to elk or mule deer.
What's the plant called? Mule's ears. Mule's ears, not beneficial to mule deers. Humans aren't the only thing that alter a migratory path.
A few months before our journey the Greys River Road was wiped out by a landslide. It dammed the Greys River and left a thick, chunky mess. Traversing this is like crossing a giant bowl of gooey chocolate chip cookie dough, but not delicious. There's no shortage of wetness to traverse this portion of the trip. Apparently 139 is one hell of a swimmer.
These young people running around with their booty shorts. They don't know what's proper! This is proper river attire right here. What number bird are you on? 70. And what is it? Common night hawk. Nice.
Good bird. I like that bird. Is that impressive? Is that a good sign? Of the 20 birds that are new to this section 2, 3, 4...18...are migratory birds? Yeah, wow. That is so cool.
You know, I'm a nerdy naturalist so for me it's important to know the names. Looking for the gray catbird. Oh who's that? We've got a pine siskin! Oh yellow warbler action. I mean, that's often what we do as people. We ask "Oh hey, what's your name?" The next thing you ask is "Where are you from?" It's cool that the bluebirds that I saw over Christmas in New Mexico could be the same ones...
I didn't even think about that Like how they're just settling in to their summer areas, too. That curiosity just is an opportunity for us to build a relationship with the world around us. Science attempts to keep us in touch with what's going on. We're so far removed from a time when intimate knowledge of a landscape literally spelled life or death. That's that.
And so that would mean that we're going to the left? But now, we rely on scientific inquiry to understand the natural world. I thought I heard some phantom beeps, but uh I'm not hearing her here so she may be up on summer range already. Who knows? With only four miles left, we settled in for the night in the valley of Murphy Creek. Trench foot. These little crinkles that are troublesome because they feel like blisters.
All so pretty crinkly. Not here. Hopefully she's on summer range.
I think it'll be, it would be a really nice end to our journey to finish it meeting her on her summer range. Uh well, I'm not gonna go the way that 139 goes. It's, it looks pretty gnarly. Her next push, looked like a 3,000-foot climb. I bet she just follows it like —bzzzzzt— more so that way. Bzzzzzt. She makes siskin noises when
she goes up? The terrain that she covered, you know that we could see today that we know she covered was really impressive. Yeah, there's a lot of cliffs. We could just go up this because it does look... Like go to that point and then that ridge. I wonder if we should walk closer and size that up? OK, let's do that.
You and Anya are like ready to just follow her exact path. The packs are really heavy though. We got an early start because there was no telling exactly what deer 139 had in store for us. So we've got steep, but uniform, lean-into-the-hill, huff and puff. Yeah It's like the animals go right there.
I don't know, I was worried that I wouldn't feel a connection with her but I think we were literally walking in her tracks. I never should have doubted 139's instincts. Every move along the path is deliberate.
It's not random, it's learned, passed from mother to daughter from generation, to generation. And while it would've been easier with hooves her route still worked for us. This is it guys. (howling)
Yeah! We did it! Heck yeah! Overlooking her summer range we knew that she had to be just on the other side of the mountain top. C'mon 139! Hopefully we'll hear her. I thought for sure we'd hear her. There was no doubt in my mind that she wouldn't be here. I gotta get the angle.
Oh, like that. I was like, oh she's definitely gonna be down there. It's gonna be so beautiful. I'm gonna whip up the telemetry, listen to her, and you know, kinda give the the, hey, what's up 139, we're here, we've arrived.
And yeah, for me, it's it is like well of course she's not gonna be there. I thought she would be just right on the other side but she's probably further along here. Like of course she's going to defy my expectations and do something that I wasn't expecting, cause that's just, I mean, one it seems like that's what she does, and, two, there is still quite a bit of snow. Where there isn't snow, the vegetation is just beginning to emerge. In response to that, she knows there's good food down canyon. But there's still enough snow for us to cash in on carrying these skis all this way.
Maybe 139's not here because of all the guns we brought along. So while 139 is gallivanting where the grass is greener we take a run. Following deer 139 changed how we think about our landscapes. They're more than just places for us to play. They're places around which wild animals shape their complex and intricate lives. As humans, we each wield some power over the long-term fate of wildlife like 139 and the intact landscapes they need to survive.
Anya, holy shit, I think that's deer 139. Yeah. Oh, no, no that's not her. That's not her. Before we loaded up and officially ended this journey Sam listened for 139 one more time.
Finally, some beeps. Finally! There she is. Up there. Yeah. Woo hoo! Cheers 139! Cheers 139! What you doing up there? Yeah. Of course we hear her from the car.
Yeah I know, typical 139. We should've just driven over here. It would have saved us a lot of time and miles.
There goes 139's fawn. Feisty little gal. Do you think you broke it? Uh no.