Federal officials have called off some oil and gas leases earmarked for sale in a migration corridor used by mule deer that summer in southern Jackson Hole, though some wildlife activists worry the adjustments aren’t enough.
U.S. Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke’s press office sent word Tuesday that the Bureau of Land Management has been directed to defer nearly 5,000 acres of leases that overlapped with the Red Desert-to-Hoback migration route, the first such wildlife path officially recognized by Wyoming. The parcels, specifically requested by oil and gas companies, are slated for auction during the BLM’s third-quarter sale, which starts Sept. 18.
“By combining lease deferrals, and lease stipulations, we can achieve the right balance on federal lands,” Zinke said in a statement.
Zinke also instructed the BLM to consult with Wyoming on drilling in another 15,000 acres of leases slated for auction this fall. Those leases also bisect the migration route but have not been deferred. Another 6,000 acres of fourth-quarter leases in the migration route are scheduled for sale in December.
So far, Zinke’s directive would block sales for about a quarter of the leases within the migration route that are slated for auction.
One conservationist described Interior’s deferral as “encouraging,” but said he wished it was broader in scope, at least until the BLM’s Rock Springs office finished updating a management plan for the area. The current plan was developed long before researchers detected the migration route, the longest mule deer migration in the world.
Not discovered until 2012, the migration takes hundreds of mule deer on a 300-mile round-trip journey that skirts the southwestern slopes of the Wind River Range. At least one animal from this cohort travels farther, pushing through Jackson Hole and summering in the Island Park, Idaho, area, researchers have recently discovered.
“Hunters, anglers and other stakeholders have participated in the land-use planning process for years, and broader deferral would allow for a full range of appropriate management options to be considered,” said Nick Dobric, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s Wyoming representative.
“Being cautious now, as we are still learning the significance of this corridor to the world’s longest mule deer migration, will ensure that we are making the best possible plans for the future of our wildlife,” Dobric said in an email statement.
Another conservationist, who criticized the sale initially, also had tempered praise for the partial deferral.
“We’re happy to see that Secretary Zinke’s working for a little bit of balance,” Wyoming Wildlife Federation Director Dwayne Meadows said. “It’s a step in the right direction. Obviously, we asked for a heck of a lot more, and we still have the fourth-quarter lease sale to go.”
The changes made to the lease sale in the migration corridor came directly from Wyoming, with no modifications, BLM-Wyoming spokeswoman Courtney Whiteman said.
Gov. Matt Mead thanked Zinke in the Interior Department’s press release, also distributed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
“This decision gives the public and those involved in the Rock Springs Resource Management Plan Revision time to work on steps that balance wildlife needs with energy development needs,” Mead said.
Mike McGrady, a policy advisor for Mead, said that the criteria for deferring a lease or not was whether 90 percent of a parcel fell within the designated migration route.
“We worked with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to analyze this, and based on their recommendation, we feel this is a good path forward,” McGrady said.
A map made by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership shows that, in places, leases still up for sale could sever major threads of the migration.
Recent Wyoming research shows that gas fields impact deer populations. The Pinedale Anticline gas field’s deer population fell by 36 percent over a recent 17-year period, and hunting was curtailed as a result.
The “special lease notice” the BLM is imposing on the remaining 15,000 acres of third-quarter leases in the migration route will require energy companies to work with state and federal managers during the application-to-drill process, Whiteman said. The restrictions, she said, will prohibit drilling during the migration periods in the spring and fall. There will also be limitations on the amount of surface disturbance allowed, although the lease notice does not put numbers to this.
“They’re basically general limitations, at this point,” Whiteman said.