By Nick Reynolds
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CASPER — Gov. Mark Gordon is pulling together a citizen’s group to help find a happy medium between energy and conservation interests seeking regulatory certainty around migration corridors in the southwestern quadrant of the state, his office announced Tuesday.
In a statement, Gordon called on Wyoming residents representing industry, agriculture and conservation to find a state-level solution to maintaining migration corridors for the state’s deer, elk and pronghorn herds on federal lands recently targeted by the federal government for increased oil and gas development.
The group — which will include representatives of oil, gas and mining interests, agriculture, county commissioners, conservation groups and sportsmen groups — will have three months to produce recommendations for the governor’s desk, in an effort to study state conservation policies that “have implications on energy development that need to be understood.”
Gordon noted Wyoming’s pride in its big game and public lands, and he expressed a desire to preserve the state’s natural assets while maintaining its energy and agricultural industries.
“Wyoming is about solutions and our people have shown again and again our ability to find the way to ensure wildlife can coexist alongside responsible development,” he said in a statement.
Gordon’s efforts continue an initiative begun last summer by then Gov. Matt Mead in finding a balance between stakeholders in industry and the state’s non-governmental organizations and the interests they serve, creating a unique opportunity for both groups to develop a cohesive policy in a more collaborative setting.
“There’s been some nuance between what the industry wants, as far as wanting regulatory certainty,” said Dwayne Meadows, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation. “As the NGO community, we want some regulatory certainty that our deer herds are going to keep going, because we like to hunt and fish and enjoy the outdoors. I think that’s where we’re all at and it’s good that we can all sit down at the table together, because we don’t often do that.”
Wyoming has been at the forefront of conservation for migration corridors, going as far to implement an extensive plan to protect those corridors in 2016.
“We essentially have an operating compromise already that hasn’t really been proven not to be working,” said Pete Obermueller, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming.
Recent developments in federal land management policy, however, have changed the conditions those plans were drafted under, creating an environment where finding balance is difficult — and often highly controversial. Extensive research from the University of Wyoming’s Migration Initiative has shown that the species utilizing these migration corridors are highly sensitive to environmental changes.
Though the Trump Administration has been keen to highlight the positive economic impacts of rolling back regulations for producers, conservation groups have questioned whether or not those migration corridors are being properly protected.
In early 2018, the United States Department of the Interior announced it would be leasing more than 700,000 acres of land at the southern end of a more than 150- mile long migration corridor in the Red Desert. The announcement immediately drew the scrutiny of sportsmen and conservation groups, as well as groups like the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, which argued the implementation plan for leasing in the region was hastily planned without the proper regard for the science behind migration patterns seen there.
Opposition to leasing in the region has remained steadfast: a December lease sale was contested based on concerns over interfering with a migration route and sage grouse habitat before the land was pulled — and later leased again — this winter, netting the state $44 million.
Despite an announcement last summer that the Department of the Interior would work with Mead to reduce conflicts between drilling interests and wildlife, the watchdog group Center for American Progress alleged in a recent report that approximately 20 percent of all oil and gas leases permitted by the federal government coincided with protected habitats or migration corridors.
But leasing does not always equal development, Obermueller said, and might not be as big an issue as some maintain. The bigger concern, Obermueller said, is increasing regulatory certainty in the areas where those leases occur.
“It’s not really the correct place to be focusing,” he said. “If you lease heavily in an area that’s in a migration corridor, if you lease in a sage grouse core area, you know what you’re getting into as an operator, and you do it with eyes wide open. I think people have in their minds that if an acre is leased, then that acre will be developed, when a very small amount of leased acres are actually developed. It’s not the leasing stage that’s the critical stage.”
Figuring out what the “legitimate” migration corridors are, he said, is something still needing to be addressed.
“When you’ve got a corridor that is pretty clearly defined, and you’ve got the data where the sensitive issues are, you can certainly work with that to ensure operations in or around that area protect the viability of that corridor,” he said. “But when you’ve got areas where some species wander this way and that and the corridor is many, many miles wide, and the data might not show where those sensitive areas are ... to halt all leasing is a sledgehammer where a scalpel is probably needed.”
Meanwhile, the state has recently moved forward with the designation of additional migration corridors – which pass directly through areas designated for lease by the BLM.
Tuesday’s announcement marks a continuation of a contentious compromise facilitated by the Mead administration last summer between drilling interests, outdoorsmen, and conservation groups.
The state’s Game and Fish Department, which manages Wyoming’s mule deer population, has substantial input on decisions made on land managed by the BLM. Permitting authority, however, rests solely with the federal government. However, the federal government has expressed a willingness to listen.
Last summer, the DOI stated it would be working in “complete collaboration” with state governments to enhance big-game winter range and migration corridor habitats on federal lands in a way that recognizes state conservation efforts and private property rights, while ensuring the “best available science” would be used to inform energy development on those lands.
Meadows said he was optimistic that whatever plan the group produces is listened to by the federal government.
“This Department of the Interior has been very vocal in taking account of how the state wants to manage the land, and I think they would probably act on what the state asks them to do,” Meadows said. “At least I would hope so.”