In the American West, high-profile big game species including mule deer, antelope, elk, moose, bison and bighorn sheep use large landscapes to migrate between winter and summer habitats to obtain the resources they need to survive. The big game species are a vital part of the West’s ecology, economy, and culture and are valued by local, national, and international stakeholders. Thanks to large parcels of private and public land and a low human population, many parts of the American West still provide some of the best big game habitats in the world. But these vast, intact landscapes are under threat by ongoing habitat loss and disturbances to seasonal and migratory habitats that result in declines in big game population and the disappearance of migrations.

Addressing the challenge of conserving big game populations and the endangered phenomena of seasonal migration across large landscapes in the American West will require dynamic, innovative, and flexible legal approaches. Those legal approaches should recognize the biological needs of the species themselves and reflect economic policy analysis of conservation in landscapes with multiple land managers. Considering both integrated biological and economic decision frameworks and incentive-based tools to define and implement legal and policy structures can produce migratory species conservation more efficiently than less integrated approaches.

Conservation of big game migrations is now a growing priority and initial conservation efforts are beginning to emerge, including the Department of Interior Secretarial Order 3362 “Improving Habitat Quality in Western Big-Game Winter Range and Migration Corridors” and state policies including the Wyoming Game and Fish Department Ungulate Migration Corridor Strategy. This interdisciplinary paper evaluates those emerging policies and finds that the policies miss opportunities to provide higher levels of conservation of migratory species by failing to address key ecological characteristics of migratory species and to incorporate economically efficient hierarchies of management and policy. We conclude by offering thoughts on how future conservation polices might be designed to incorporate both ecology and economics to better conserve migrations.

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