LARAMIE — A documentary combining outdoor adventure and mule deer migration is now available for viewing online.
In “92 Miles: A Migration Story,” Pat Rodgers runs the 92-mile migration path of a buck mule deer in south-central Wyoming. The 30-minute documentary is available for viewing at www.trcp.org/92miles.
Rodgers is now an associate research scientist with the Wyoming Migration Initiative, but in 2018 he was a University of Wyoming graduate student with the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit in the Kauffman Lab studying buck mule deer migrations.
He was inspired to make a documentary in order to share the challenges migratory animals face and the stakes of their journeys.
“I wanted to do a project that connected people to these animals,” he said in an earlier interview.
His graduate research focused on the differences in migratory behavior between male and female mule deer, which involved capturing and outfitting 95 buck mule deer near Baggs with satellite collars to track their movements. Most studies had looked at female movements.
Rodgers decided to run the length of a migratory route as a way to illustrate the physical hardship of the travel. Like migratory big game, a runner travels slowly, taking in food along the way and facing challenges as they arise.
“You can cover so much country running slowly,” he said. “It’s amazing how far you can go.”
The documentary was produced by Cold Collaborative and sponsored by YETI and Sitka. It was shot and co-produced by UW alumnus Benjamin Kraushaar. Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership was a partner in releasing and promoting the project.
As Rodgers was in the beginning stages of the project, his dad was diagnosed with melanoma. Rodgers put the project off as his father died in late 2017.
When he returned to the documentary, it had taken on a deeper purpose because his father was one of his biggest supporters.
“My dad was a huge part of my desire to do wildlife research and follow a path to conserve wild places and wildlife,” he said.
As he ran, remembering his dad helped him push through the long miles.
“Loss is an inescapable part of life’s grand migration and, without a doubt, I will have to grapple with that reality for the rest of my life,” he said. “Yet, as I navigate this beautiful life, at least I know I’m not alone.”
Rodgers followed a route that started in mule deer summer range in the 11,000-foot-elevation Mount Zirkel Wilderness in northern Colorado. He traveled north from there into high desert winter range near Baggs in southern Wyoming.
He chose to cover the route in three days of about 30 miles each, instead of pushing through without stopping, which would require running overnight.
“That’s not what deer do,” he said. “They don’t blow through the country. They take their time to stop, refuel and prepare for their next movement between stopover sites.”
With a crew of family and friends in support, he followed the route of a single deer until it merged into a migration corridor, and then followed a path that allowed him to run on trails or roads while avoiding private land, which doesn’t constrain a migrating deer.
The film showcases the science of migrations and challenges deer face such as highway crossings, housing development, barbed-wire fences, food scarcity and predators. He also found lush stopover sites with plentiful forage.
“Mule deer seem to possess a transcendental ability to keep their heads up and keep moving, as if their lives depend on it — which they do,” Rodgers said.
He said he hopes his journey would illustrate the value and vulnerability of open space.
“What is a connected landscape?” he said “What constitutes enough openness and connectedness?”
Rodgers finished a zoology degree at UW in 2014 and earned his master’s degree, also in zoology, in 2020. Research on the Baggs herd has led to two publications in scholarly journals.