Elk migrations of Greater Yellowstone

This Wyoming Migration Initiative map shows the migration patterns of elk herds throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Some environmental advocacy groups are worried about the impacts of an oil and gas lease sale to a migration corridor used by the Clarks Fork Herd, in pink on the northeast side of this map.

An oil and gas lease auction set to start Tuesday has environmental groups worried about potential impacts to Yellowstone ecosystem elk that migrate through and winter on blocks of land up for sale.

The quarterly Bureau of Land Management online auction, which is scheduled to run through Wednesday, offers 160 parcels spread statewide over 173,000 acres — an area that, taken together, is more than half the size of Grand Teton National Park. On-the-market acreage that doubles as big game winter habitat east of Yellowstone National Park attracted opposition from the National Parks Conservation Association, which protested the lease sale while it was being vetted this fall.

“A top priority for [the National Parks Conservation Association] is protecting the resources within parks [and] the larger landscape in which they are embedded,” the organization wrote in a November protest letter, “including wildlife populations found both within national park units and on their connected landscapes.”

“Poorly planned” oil and gas fields adjacent or connected to national parks, the letter said, can “significantly impact” park resources, from the diminishing of viewscapes and water quality to a rise in air and light pollution.

Specifically, the organization took issue with 23 parcels located due north of Cody near the Montana border, spread over thousands of BLM-managed acres east of the Shoshone National Forest and the Absaroka foothills.

Jerry Otero, the association’s senior energy analyst, said work by the University of Wyoming’s Migration Initiative made him concerned for Yellowstone elk that summer on the high plateau within the park but winter at lower elevations to the east.

“In doing that work, we understand how the animals move in and out of the park, and we know that they don’t just say, ‘Oh, we’re in Yellowstone,’” Otero said.

“The issues in Wyoming are far beyond a quarterly lease sale,” he said. “It’s a systemic process that seems to have faltered, and really puts a lot of national park values at risk when it comes to wildlife connected to two iconic parks in the state: Grand Teton and Yellowstone.”

The Clarks Fork Elk Herd roams the country where the 23 parcels are for sale, according to Wyoming Game and Fish Department job completion reports. That herd last numbered about 17% below its 3,300-animal objective, but its migratory animals are faring the worst, producing low numbers of calves relative to their nonmigratory counterparts that eschew the high mountains.

Although they’ve been detected by researchers, elk migrations on the east side of Yellowstone National Park have not yet been designated by the state of Wyoming and thus are not subject to special protections.

Purchasing the rights to a parcel is not an entitlement to drilling, and oil and gas producers still must submit applications to drill and clear the development via National Environmental Policy Act review.

At the end of fiscal year 2018, about 50% of the 12,780 existing leases in Wyoming had been drilled, according to an environmental assessment for the BLM’s lease sale. The other half — encompassing more than 4 million acres — were vacant, though leases typically are valid for 10 years.

The BLM lease sale triggered letters of protest from a variety of other advocacy groups.

The National Wildlife Federation and Wyoming Wildlife Federation asked the BLM to withdraw the 48% of leases that overlap priority sage grouse habitat.

The Wilderness Society, National Audubon Society and Wyoming Outdoor Council jointly protested, asking the agency to disclose impacts of leasing to more than 31,000 acres of crucial mule deer winter range put up for sale. More than 24,000 of those acres are used as winter range by the Sublette Herd of mule deer, a population Game and Fish last assessed at 38% below its population objective.

The Saratoga-Encampment-Rawlins Conservation District protested a parcel that overlapped a grazing allotment that has been the site of a rangeland monitoring project for more than 20 years, and that also borders Game and Fish’s Red-Rim Grizzly Wildlife Management Habitat Area.

The BLM has adapted its lease sale somewhat in response to the concerns of wildlife and mineral managers. Three parcels that overlapped with the Baggs Mule Deer Herd migration route were deferred in part or entirely. One 493-acre parcel within the route is still being offered for sale with a special “lease notice” requiring producers to work with Game and Fish to keep the migration functional. Three other parcels were deferred because they overlapped active coal leases, BLM spokeswoman Courtney Whiteman said.

BLM’s final decision and response to the protests had not been published as of midday Monday, but Whiteman anticipated that the document would be posted ahead of the lease sale, which starts at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday on EnergyNet.com.

She did not anticipate changes to the offerings.

“We’re not planning on making any changes to those,” Whiteman said.

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067 or env@jhnewsandguide.com.

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them for 7 years. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

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