New Public Lands Rule to Benefit Mule Deer & More

The federal Bureau of Land Management stewards 245 million acres of public land that provide habitat for 3,000 wildlife species and more than 300 threatened or endangered wildlife and plant species. Many of those species depend on healthy, intact landscapes for their survival. Species such as the greater sage-grouse, elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, and mule deer depend on healthy, unfragmented landscapes managed by the federal government. Mule deer, for example, need to travel great distances between winter and summer ranges to survive – often covering well over 100 miles in a single migration and spanning tens of thousands of acres.

Degradation of Public Lands

But in recent years, millions of acres of public land have been degraded by drought, large wildfires, invasive species, and development, which means they often no longer offer the habitat and resources wildlife need to thrive. Some mule deer populations have been in sharp decline because of deteriorating habitat exacerbated by harsh weather events. 

Fortunately, the recently finalized Public Lands Rule will help the federal government conserve these lands, reduce further degradation, and restore unhealthy landscapes and watersheds on public lands – benefitting mule deer and countless other species. The Public Lands Rule will help the agency identify, restore, and conserve these areas, so that wildlife, outdoor recreation, and rural economies will flourish for future generations. When the rule was proposed last year, more than 22,000 National Wildlife Federation members wrote in to offer their strong support.

Several mule deer (gray-ish with darker patches on their foreheads, some have antlers) move through a prairie landscape.
Mule deer. Credit: BLM

The Bureau of Land Management’s mission has always been “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.” But for far too long the agency’s emphasis was on “productivity” rather than to “sustain the health” of the lands. This new rule will properly rebalance the way the agency manages the land so that conservation is considered an equal use in the agency’s multi-use mandate. By conserving and restoring the landscape—in collaboration with states, local governments, and Indigenous communities—the agency will ensure that biodiversity is bolstered across public lands and beyond.

Leasing Reforms

The proposed rule also contains a new way to steward lands by issuing restoration and mitigation leases. This would allow conservation groups, state agencies, or other entities to enter into an agreement with the federal government to restore wildlife habitat. This doesn’t alter the “multiple use” mission and won’t stop responsible energy development, mining, grazing or timber harvests. In fact, it will help the lands thrive well into the future.

For example, a conservation group could obtain a lease to improve a segment of a mule deer migration corridor by removing unnecessary fencing or eliminating old asphalt on unused roads. Or an angling group could obtain a lease to conduct streambank restoration or remove blocked culverts to improve fish habitat. A restoration lease could also be used to remove invasive grasses such as cheatgrass so that native plants can thrive and risks of mega wildfires are reduced. Restoration leases will provide real opportunities for public-private partnerships to collaboratively restore fish and wildlife habitat and improve recreational access. 

A tan colored fish with a bright red stripe along its side can be seen.
Interior redband trout. Credit: USFWS

The Public Lands Rule will help address biodiversity loss by improving the amount of forage for wildlife – even during extremely cold winters or hot summers. It will safeguard migration pathways that wildlife need to survive. And it will restore public lands so they are more resilient in the face of drought and a changing climate. That’s a win-win for wildlife, for recreation, and for all people who enjoy connecting with nature.

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Published: May 17, 2024