The long, strange trip of Deer 255

Standing in a thick patch of pine and fir, mosquitoes swarming her face, Anna Ortega lifted a radio receiver into the air, angling it back and forth as she listened for the blip, blip, blip of a mule deer collar.

A zoology graduate student at the University of Wyoming, Ortega was tracking Deer 255, a doe that had braved road crossings, fences, wolves and other hazards to get here. Somewhere in this forest near Island Park, Idaho, a dozen miles west of Yellowstone National Park, Deer 255 was laying over for the summer.

Armed with bear spray, binoculars and datasheets, Ortega and two field assistants followed the blips among trees dappled with early July sun. They picked their way through knee-high grass and shrubs, the occasional snap of a twig underfoot as startling as a slamming door. The blips were strong and clear: Deer 255 was close.

While not all mule deer migrate, some travel a hundred miles or more between their summer and winter ranges. With a one-way migration of 242 miles, Deer 255 holds the record for the longest-documented land migration in the Lower 48, traveling even farther than her herd-mates, all of which winter in the Red Desert of southwest Wyoming.

Her trek to Idaho from the Red Desert exemplifies the surprises scientists are still encountering with this well-studied ungulate. And as mule deer populations throughout the West remain below target levels, it underscores the need to protect the wide tracts of landscape that sustain migrating wildlife.

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