A diverse committee charged with shaping Wyoming’s policies for safeguarding ungulate migration is asking Gov. Mark Gordon for an executive order that will keep designated routes largely unscathed.
The eight-person group, handpicked by Gordon, met for the last time Tuesday in Pinedale, and they walked away unanimously supportive of asking for an order. That’s the same regulatory structure in place to govern use of habitat occupied by the Equality State’s sage grouse. The exact language of the order — and whether Gordon agrees to do it — is uncertain, but its essence would be to keep migration routes functional and healthy.
The eight Gordon appointees had disparate backgrounds — representing oil and gas, agriculture, mining, hunters, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission, conservation and counties. Jackson Hole resident and recreation representative Max Ludington was a part of the group, which has convened over six days since late June.
Hammering out their recommendations, the members strayed crossways on some issues. Among the points of contention was whether to completely shut the door on oil and gas pads in critical mule deer “stopover” habitat by stipulating “no surface occupancy” for petroleum producers.
Mike Schmid, a Game and Fish Commission representative whose business relies on the oil and gas industry, put the deer first. He pushed for requiring NSOs to ensure that industrial development steers clear of the corridors.
“If we lose it, it’s gone,” Schmid said from a conference room in the Bureau of Land Management’s regional office. “We talked about it yesterday: How much [habitat has] been shrunk up. And we still want to keep pecking away at it, after we’ve got all this research and have spent all these hundreds of thousands of dollars to get these answers.
“And then we’re just going to piss it away anyway?” he said. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”
The appeal for the restrictive provision didn’t win over Kevin Williams, who was at the table standing for oil and gas.
“It has connotations of absolutely not being able to do anything,” Williams said. “I agree with the science, no doubt. You avoid [development] if at all possible.
“If a field the size of the Anticline or the Jonah was to be discovered and it just happens to be under a migration corridor, it just won’t be developed,” he said. “And that’s going to be millions and millions of dollars of lost revenue to the state. I’m not putting human life over deer life ... but I’ve made my whole living off of oil and gas.”
Common ground didn’t pan out on leaving the door cracked open for development in mule deer stopover habitat, but the group did come together around more conceptual language. Developers must prove that they won’t affect the functionality of the critical areas before being allowed to drill, the members agreed.
The policy that emerges from the advisory group’s recommendations will eventually replace the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s interim migration strategy, developed in 2016 and revised in January.
So far, Wyoming has formally designated a mule deer migration route spanning between the Red Desert and Hoback, and others in the Baggs and Platte Valley areas. The process is underway to designate the southern part of the Sublette Pronghorn Herd migration — also known as the “Path of the Pronghorn” — which currently stretches from Jackson Hole to the Green River Basin’s sagebrush flats. The state has also proposed a Wyoming Range mule deer migration route to be protected.
The stakeholder group is recommending that wildlife managers flip their current script for the order of making designations. Today, a route is proposed on paper using GPS location data and then a “threat assessment” is developed, but the group advised reversing the process, Gov. Gordon wildlife adviser Renny MacKay explained. With every proposed designation, a stakeholder group would be assembled and then consulted.
Other recommendations that emerged from the advisory group address private land and ranching, highways and wildlife crossings, recreation, research, hunting, mining, pipelines and powerlines, and renewable energy. One idea that will go to Gordon’s desk is to fully fund the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, which provides ranchers with money to modify fencing and water infrastructure to best suit migrating wildlife on lands where regulators have the least control.
On the oil and gas front, the recommendations going to Gordon ask that the most narrow, “bottlenecked” portion of migration corridors be totally off-limits to extractive industry activity via the NSO stipulations. The recommendation is to keep development outside the entire corridors, but especially within the highest-use areas.
Gordon is open to the idea of using an executive order, MacKay told the group.
Committee members shared departing thoughts about the process before walking away and roundly dubbed it a success.
“Nobody here got everything they wanted,” oil and gas representative Williams told his counterparts, “but that’s what compromise is about.”
Ludington thanked the group for moving the needle toward protecting the migration paths on which Wyoming’s wildlife depend.
“I’m glad to see the state prioritizing the health and well-being of these corridors,” he said. “They’re incredibly important.”