Winter Habitat Selection of Mule Deer Before and During Development of a Natural Gas Field



Increased levels of natural gas exploration, development, and production across the Intermountain West have created a variety of concerns for mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) populations, including direct habitat loss to road and well-pad construction and indirect habitat losses that may occur if deer use declines near roads or well pads. We examined winter habitat selection patterns of adult female mule deer before and during the first 3 years of development in a natural gas field in western Wyoming. We used global positioning system (GPS) locations collected from a sample of adult female mule deer to model relative frequency or probability of use as a function of habitat variables. Model coefficients and predictive maps suggested mule deer were less likely to occupy areas in close proximity to well pads than those farther away. Changes in habitat selection appeared to be immediate (i.e., year 1 of development), and no evidence of well-pad acclimation occurred through the course of the study; rather, mule deer selected areas farther from well pads as development progressed. Lower predicted probabilities of use within 2.7 to 3.7 km of well pads suggested indirect habitat losses may be substantially larger than direct habitat losses. Additionally, some areas classified as high probability of use by mule deer before gas field development changed to areas of low use following development, and others originally classified as low probability of use were used more frequently as the field developed. If areas with high probability of use before development were those preferred by the deer, observed shifts in their distribution as development progressed were toward less-preferred and presumably less-suitable habitats.