Utah BHA Leads Miles for Muleys Project for Paunsaugunt Mule Deer Herd


Well, here we go!' I thought, standing in the sunny Southern Utah desert, watching the convoy of trucks, Jeeps, and OHVs slowly depart from the campsite to their assigned destinations in the backcountry for the day’s work. I was excited to see all the preparation finally come to fruition. It was May 18, 2024 – a day the Utah Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers had been anticipating for quite some time. The ‘Miles for Muleys’ event kicked off in full force with volunteers chomping at the bit to reach their destinations and get some miles in the backcountry, all in the spirit of mule deer conservation.

There are few places like Southern Utah. With copious red rock, hoodoos, and desert pink sand, visitors need to constantly remind themselves that they are still on planet Earth as they traverse the surreal landscape. Situated in the center of Southern Utah, the 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (GSENM) is home to the famed Paunsaugunt unit mule deer herd. Each year, these deer embark on an extensive 50-70 mile migration from the Paunsaugunt Plateau to the Buckskin Mountains on the UT-AZ border. Throughout this migration, they must navigate several obstacles including highway 89 and a vast network of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) barbed wire fencing intended to separate grazing rangelands. Much of this fencing is aged and degraded. Its construction long precedes the Utah Division of Wildlife’s (UDWR) advanced collaring migration data program and modern knowledge around wildlife-friendly fence design, making it potentially hazardous for these mule deer in fence crossing hotspots. Before making any improvements to this fencing, taking inventory of the fencing, including its condition and signs of crossing areas, is critical. The fencing itself is scattered throughout the unit and much of it lies in exceedingly remote and difficult-to-reach areas. This is where Backcountry Hunters and Anglers comes in.


Under a grant awarded by National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Wildlands Network coordinated multiple partners, including the Utah Chapter of BHA, on a multi-year project to address this issue for the Paunsaugunt mule deer herd. On May 18th, Utah BHA gathered over 30 volunteers on the GSENM for the “Miles for Muleys” event; a weekend of walking fence surveys throughout this area. In small groups, these individuals surveyed over 80 miles of barbed wire fencing throughout the migration corridor across challenging terrain using UDWR’s recently developed data collection mobile app, Field Maps. Volunteers mapped fences while also taking notes and photos of fence conditions and measurements. They also collected important feature data including notable structures along the fences, damaged sections, and wildlife signs, such as hair caught in the fence, game crossings, carcasses, and for the lucky few, shed antlers. This survey work performed on the GSENM served as an initial pilot for a much greater citizen science effort to collect this type of data for the UDWR statewide through utilizing volunteers in the field.

Data collected from the May 18th project weekend, in combination with the UDWR’s collaring data from the Utah Wildlife Migration Initiative, is imperative to inform strategic decisions on prioritizing fence lines for retrofitting. Later stages of the project will include replacing at least 10 miles of existing sections of barbed-wire fencing with smooth-wire wildlife-friendly fencing according to measurement specifications ideal for wildlife passage. The treatments will then be monitored by trail cameras to study the effectiveness of the retrofitted fencing. Utah BHA aims to be involved with boots-on-the-ground volunteerism throughout the remainder of the project. Other partners on the multi-year project include Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, UDWR, BLM – Kanab Field Office, and Mule Deer Foundation.

Photo by Jay Peery

After a long, hot day in the sun, we wrapped up the evening wild game potluck in the field. I admittedly put little effort into planning the potluck other than telling volunteers to bring a dish to pass, the reason being: I have never been to a BHA wild game potluck that failed… and I have been to many. To no surprise, volunteers came through with exquisite dishes featuring a plethora of wild game including elk, mule deer, antelope, moose, caribou, and one of our volunteers visiting from Australia even brought kangaroo. It was a memorable end to a great day of hard work.

Professionally, I am not a wildlife biologist. I am an accountant. Yet I found myself as the BHA project leader for the most logistically complex stewardship project our chapter has ever endeavored on. In the months leading up to the project, nailing down details such as remote communications, route planning, app testing, volunteer education, and camping plans was all consuming.  Given the sensitive nature of the Monument, making sure we had a large enough area with minimal impact was critical. In the project preparation phase, I worked closely with chapter leaders, the UDWR, the BLM and Wildlands Network to sort out details, overcome various challenges, and craft the volunteer experience around this project. During the surveying day, one of the volunteers asked if wildlife management was my full-time career, to which I responded with a chuckle and a “no”. While spreadsheets, audits, and QuickBooks are my day-to-day reality, this is one of the main reasons I love being involved as a volunteer with BHA: you don’t need to have a degree in wildlife management to be a conservationist. We are grassroots volunteers whose diverse talents, varying skillsets, and unwavering passion for wildlife make us a true and unique force in conservation.

While drawing the Paunsaugunt mule deer tag would be a dream, it is statistically unlikely to be a reality for me in my lifetime. Nevertheless, as a passionate Utah hunter and conservationist, the experience of being one of the many pairs of legs to get out there and gather this data for the betterment of this renowned herd is a worthwhile trophy. It has been a real honor to do my part as Utah big game hunter and play a role in this larger effort to improve the Paunsaugunt migration corridor. I can’t wait to get my hands dirty with the remaining stages of this project and to see the positive impacts on mule deer in this iconic area.

Utah BHA would like to send sincere thank you to all our dedicated volunteers for getting after it in the backcountry on these surveys, to the Wildlands Network for including us in this important work, and to the other project partners for moving the needle on migration corridor improvements. Additionally, we would like to thank our project sponsors that helped make this project possible and for investing in conservation: ZOLEO, Peak Refuel, Cowboy Cauldron, onX Maps, and Epic Brewing. Lastly, many thanks to photographer Jay Peery for documenting this project through photographs. You can check out more of Jay's work here.

If you couldn't make it out for this event we hope you'll join us soon! Check out upcoming stewardship events and fundraisers on the Utah BHA event page


Photo by Jay Peery

About Caitlin Curry

Caitlin is a public land owner and BHA chapter leader that loves all things outdoors, with special passions for bowhunting Western big game and trail running.

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