In her own words, it was a harebrained idea: Make a film about three women following a scrawny, pregnant mule deer on its spring migration from its wintering grounds near LaBarge, Wyo., over the Wyoming Range, to an alpine cirque in the Salt River Range — about 85 miles.
Samantha Dwinnell, who lives half the year in Victor, is a wildlife research scientist at the University of Wyoming and has been studying mule deer populations in the Wyoming Range since 2013 with the help of the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources at the university. From GPS tracking collars, she knew that the mule deer covered a lot of ground during the spring migration. Some travel from Wyoming’s Red Desert all the way to Island Park — about 240 miles.
But she wanted to see it firsthand. She assembled an all-women team to follow a particular collared deer — “Deer 139.” The film documents the trip during the spring of 2018. Their efforts were chosen as a finalist in the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour. Dwinnell plans to be at the festival showing in Idaho Falls on Jan. 25 to introduce the film.
“We wanted the film to be one part fun adventure and two parts on the study of the ecology of the animals,” Dwinnell said.
The adventure part involves carrying skis, pack rafts, food, tracking gear and camera equipment over mountains and across Greys River.
“It was loaded with unexpected events,” Dwinnell said. “I rolled my ankle in the first 5 minutes of the trip. Later on that summer I learned that I had broken it. So, I did the whole thing on a broken ankle.”
On the scientific side of things, the women wanted to see what Deer 139 went through on its migration and how it connected with landscapes, whether wild or human-changed. The Wyoming Range is just east of the Idaho-Wyoming border near Star Valley.
“Deer 139 is a true badass,” Dwinnell said. “She has made this migration for many years and passed on her route to her fawns.”
She said with current GPS technology, her study has been able to track the children and grandchildren of does to see how the animals learn their migration routes. Mule deer rarely deviate from a route learned from mom.
“Since 2015 we’ve been doing this fawn survival project where we are tracking now generations of deer,” she said. “We just collared our third-generation fawns. Basically, a mom was collared, we collared her fawn and once it became a 2-year-old it gave birth to another fawn, so we collared that fawn. With longitudinal data like that across generations we are now able to investigate things like migration patterns, how migration is being learned, and how it is or isn’t passed on from mom to offspring – how it develops across generations.”
While the true star of the film is Deer 139, Dwinnell’s study is also in focus. She was happy to share the limelight with friends Anya Tyson and Tennessee Jane Watson. Watson is a journalist who reports for Wyoming Public Radio and Tyson is naturalist and outdoor athlete. Behind the cameras and directing the film were Jayme Dittmar and Morgan Heim.
“We all wanted Anya to be the star of the movie,” Dwinnell said. “She has the personality. But (the filmmakers) said it was my project so I should be the focus. But I don’t think one person is the focus.”
One highlight of the adventure was seeing certain corridors tromped down by the tracks of hundreds of passing deer.
“It was cool watching waves and waves of mule deer passing through the pinch points on the migration path,” Dwinnell said. “Some days we would see a hundred or more in one day. Then later we would see a coyote following in their tracks.”
Besides entertaining people, Dwinnell hopes the information in the film will reach some of the smaller communities in the region.
"I’m happy to see this film going to smaller communities that are normally not exposed to this information,” she said. “People have been interested in the science and ecology of this mule deer study.”
A trailer for the film can be seen online at www.deer139film.org/watch