Draft bill would add layers to wildlife corridor management

PINEDALE – The Wyoming legislative committee looking at the process of designating and managing wildlife migration corridors requested a draft bill in August that is posted and will be studied at its upcoming Oct. 23 meeting in Casper. 

Past discussions about the future of migration corridors before the Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee included Wyoming Game and Fish – and also the Petroleum Association of Wyoming weighing in next to the Governor’s Office. 

One important element of the draft bill –the very last section – would require Game and Fish to go back to the drawing board “for any active and current migration corridor previously designated by the department.” 

This would include the Sublette Mule Deer Migration Corridor, Hoback to Red Desert Migration Route and Platte Valley Mule Deer Migration Route. 

And while most parties agreed that the Game and Fish designation process needed to be rearranged, the new draft legislation adds many layers and levels. 

Energy has one of three seats at the table with Gov. Gordon and Game and Fish. At the Select Committee’s Aug. 27 meeting in Casper, the Petroleum Association of Wyoming presented legislators with “Big Game Migration Corridors – A Case for Both Energy Development and Wildlife Protection.” 

It reminded legislators that the energy industry has contributed more than $5 billion in economic activity and more than $1.39 billion in state revenues to fund public schools, the General Fund and Wyoming infrastructure, although revenues declined noticeably since 2008. The same chart shows that tourism and agriculture revenues have remained consistent although lower than energy through 2017. 

PAW used the Pinedale Anticline as a “case study” that funded 12,685 students’ entire K-12 education, comparing that to an average Wyoming family’s property tax bill of $1,558 to fund one student from kindergarten through third grade. 

The presentation ended with the title, “Seeking a Balanced Solution,” listing PAW’s top priority in the balancing act – “Wyoming’s economy depends upon resource development.” 

In second place: “Wildlife conservation is a Wyoming value industry supports.” 

It suggested that energy might agree on “lease stipulations to avoid and minimize impacts at project development” as well as wildlife highway crossings. The industry’s key interests are to protect private property rights, existing units and lease holdings, “highest value corridors without precluding future developments” and “flexibility in stopovers.” 

After Game and Fish identifies a science-based migration corridor, PAW envisions the governor making the final designation decision with input from involved counties’ local working groups. Questions should answer if “this identified migration corridor (should) be managed as a ‘designated ungulate migration corridor’?” 

If no, PAW proposes “existing landscape activities” with no additional stipulations. 

If yes, Game and Fish would conduct a risk assessment with “backstop corridor protections in place” and a local working group deciding about stipulations, restrictions or exceptions “to meet Wyoming’s interests (both wildlife and economic).” 

Gov. Mark Gordon convened his migration corridor advisory group last summer that repeatedly requested the most stringent protections possible for development in or near migration corridors. The recommendations public comment period that ended Friday, according to senior policy advisor Renny MacKay. 

Members also recommended local working groups and county-level involvement to designate and protect the routes. They also asked Gov. Gordon to craft an executive order “with teeth” to protect important wildlife migration routes. 

“We are moving towards a draft executive order and we hope to have a draft out by December,” MacKay said. 

The Wyoming Legislative Services Office wrote the draft at the Select Committee’s request of Aug. 27. 

“There are some similarities on this bill and the (Governor’s Advisory Group) recommendations, but they are not completely aligned,” MacKay said. “The committee asked for this bill to be drafted at its last meeting. I was in attendance and have spoken with the chairmen about it, but I did not ask for this legislation.” 

The role of Game and Fish for designations seems reduced in the draft, with a corridor proposal moving to the Board of Land Commissioners – Office of State Lands and Investments, Department of Revenue, Department of Transportation, Department of Environmental Quality and the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. The draft bill also provides the Select Committee more options for gubernatorial control over migration corridors.

Game and Fish would propose a corridor based “on scientific data” and “forward any proposed migration corridors and their boundaries to the board of county commissioners of every county where the proposed migration corridor is located,” the draft says. 

First Game and Fish must complete a risk assessment of “existing threats and risks to ungulate populations” and habitat, review existing protections and management action in the corridor and review impacts of recreation, oil and gas, transportation, mining, infrastructure, residential and agricultural uses. 

The risk assessment must also include “an analysis on impacts on tax and severance tax revenues if the proposed migration corridor is designated.” 

Game and Fish would consult with the Board of Land Commissioners, which would review and analyze it. Game and Fish then forwards the proposal to appropriate counties for local working groups. 

An LWG will decide if a proposed corridor should be designated, its boundaries and mitigation strategies with one year to submit its recommendation, with two-thirds’ support, to the Board of Land Commissioners. 

LWGs then “cease to exist” unless called back by the county or governor. The draft bill suggests the committee could discuss members’ compensation. 

The Board of Land Commissioners then analyzes the proposal for existing protections, potential threats, management, conservation actions, land use and tax impacts. 

Game and Fish would not work with Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service to recommend deferred leases – only the governor, the draft says. It also suggests “the Select Committee may wish to consider the following language as an alternative… (k) The governor shall oversee overall management of a migration corridor designated under this article. …”