Posted 6-4-18, Kelsey Dayton, WyoFile — Mo the mule deer was in good shape in December. She weighed 140 pounds with 13.78 percent body fat.
By March, 98 days later, she weighed 136 pounds and her body fat had dropped to 6.74 percent — poor, but typical for the end of winter, Matt Kauffman, director and co-founder of the Wyoming Migration Initiative said.
And on March 17, Mo, pregnant with twins, was once again on the move and thousands of people were following along online.
Named for movement and the moment, Mo is a social-media spokesdeer and a live-action teaching tool for the Wyoming Migration Initiative. The initiative tracks her throughout the year and broadcasts her whereabouts — a couple of weeks delayed — on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as she navigates roads and fences, crosses rivers and forages for food.
Mo makes the epic journey from her winter range near Superior to her summer range in the Gros Ventre mountains each year. The migration route, first documented in 2012, is one of the longest known mule deer migrations in the world.
People post pictures of deer they’ve seen, or the landscape Mo recently crossed and ask questions about wildlife and migration.
Migrations often seem nebulous, mostly hidden from the sight of the general public. When people do see migrating animals, the sight typically offers only a brief snapshot of their long journeys. That the deer crossing through their backyard might have already traveled 100 miles, or have another 100 to go, is invisible to most casual observers Kauffman said.
That’s where Mo comes in.
“We felt there was a much broader migration story that the public wasn’t really aware of,” Kauffman said. “We let the animal tell the story.”
Mo’s fans watch her 140-mile migration play out week-by-week on social media. The Migration Initiative uses that interest to serve other facts about migration and wildlife biology. A recent update, for example, explained the challenge of negotiating bottlenecks —areas where a migration corridor is narrowed by topography and development — as Mo approached Pinedale.
It’s a way to educate people and also get them invested in conserving disappearing migration corridors, Kauffman said.
“So few of these migrations still persist,” Kauffman said. “They have been lost elsewhere in the world and even elsewhere in the American West.”
There are many tools to help preserve the last migration corridors and one of them is public education. Deer like Mo help people understand how hard migration is for the animals, the threats they face and conservation solutions in use.
“The more information the public has, the more engaged they are,” Kauffman said.
The Migration Initiative started using a single deer to tell the story of migration in 2015 with a deer named Jet. Scientists and wildlife managers diligently avoid naming and anthropomorphizing wild animals, but Jet was named accidentally.
Graduate student Brett Jesmer, labeled a collar he helped make with his nickname — Jet — before it was placed in the field. Jet received the collar. It was eventually switched, but the tag, with what would become the animal’s name, remained.
It was quickly apparent that peopled related to Jet more strongly because the deer had a name, Kauffman said. People wrote Facebook posts like “Go, Jet, go,” Kauffman said. They talked about how impressed and shocked they were watching Jet’s migration.
“The public is genuinely impressed that these animals make these long migrations,” he said.
After conversations with Wyoming Game and Fish, Jet’s name was fully embraced. Delayed updates on Jet’s whereabouts were posted online. Finding her exact location required telemetry and challenged the researchers studying her.
But they worried about the reaction when Jet would eventually die. What if a poacher killed her, or she was hit by a car? How would people respond?
But death is part of the mule deer’s story. Jet died in December 2016 during a historically harsh winter.
People wrote messages like “RIP Jet,” and the Migration Initiative used her death to talk about why winter is so hard for mule deer. They started following Mo last fall after collaring new animals. Mo wasn’t just a replacement for Jet, but also a reminder about the larger story.
“Although we follow Jet or Mo, the story is about the entire herd,” Kauffman said. “Jet died, but the herd goes on.”
To track Mo, follow the Wyoming Migration Initiative on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/migrationinitiative/.