Environmental activists are sounding the alarm over a proposed bill that they say would strip wildlife managers of their ability to protect the land for the good of migrating deer, elk and pronghorn.
A draft bill to be marked up Wednesday by the Wyoming Legislature’s Select Federal Natural Resource Management Interim Committee would give county-level working groups the authority to revise migration corridor designations.
As drafted, the legislation would largely cut the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission out of the decision-making process. It would require the state to start from scratch and reconsider already designated migrations, like the record-long passageway used by mule deer that seasonally venture from the Red Desert to Hoback River basin.
Wyoming Outdoor Council staffer Kristen Gunther said she appreciates the spirit of the effort to bring more people to the table when considering new protected corridors, which can cover hundreds of square miles.
“But not as a replacement to the science-based process that Game and Fish goes through when they’re identifying habitat,” she said. “It points to the fact that this bill is not about the science-based management of wildlife.”
Migration designations under the process prescribed by the bill would be “rooted in science but not dictated by science,” said Sen. Brian Boner, R-Platte and Converse, who chairs the committee crafting the bill.
Boner said his legislation is a “starting point” that is not intended to undermine a concurrent review of migration policy being undertaken by Gov. Mark Gordon. The timing, he admitted, is “awkward.”
A Gordon-appointed working group met this summer, forwarding a recommendation that the governor issue a protective executive order, similar to the policy approach that established safeguards for sage grouse. That order is expected out in December before the Legislature convenes in Cheyenne.
As currently construed, the committee’s migration bill would call for seven Wyoming agencies, including the oil and gas conservation commission, to jointly create a “risk assessment” whenever Game and Fish is seeking to designate a migration corridor. The assessment would include a review of possible impacts on petroleum industries, mining, recreation and agriculture, among other land uses. It would also assess impacts to oil and gas royalties.
The plans would then be reviewed by working groups comprised of county commissioners from each county affected, and by no more than one representative from agriculture, mining, oil and gas, conservation, outdoor recreation, wind energy and municipal governments.
The committee chairman would be the commissioner from the county with the most affected acreage, according to the bill. That person would have broad authority to tinker with the working group’s makeup.
“The chairman may appoint representatives of affected energy industries to the working group as a replacement of members who otherwise would be appointed ... if the chairman finds that the proposed migration corridor will have no effect on an interest listed,” the draft bill reads.
With a two-thirds majority, the working group could then choose to kill a migration designation altogether, amend the protected route or accept it.
Rather than the Game and Fish Commission, the Board of Land Commissioners would be the state body to receive the recommendations. Wildlife officials wouldn’t be cut out altogether, in Boner’s view, because the working groups would “have access to the Game and Fish Commission,” but the agency would have a reduced role.
“I really don’t see how it makes a material difference,” he said. “We’re trying to recognize that there are other agencies in the state that can lend expertise as well.”
Petroleum Association of Wyoming President Pete Obermueller said he supports reducing the role of wildlife professionals in formulating policy for wildlife migration: “We suggested and stand by it, that we don’t think that Game and Fish should be the only decision-maker in the room. They have a role to play, of course, but they cannot have the only role.”
To Gunther, letting county-appointed members of the public manipulate migration science as they see fit and putting Game and Fish in the backseat are “red flags.” Including so many state agencies and layers of bureaucracy, she said, would make it difficult to actually recognize and protect migration paths.
“It would create a system that’s so much like a labyrinth that it would be nearly impossible,” Gunther said. “We really are ground zero for asking some really important scientific questions about migration, and I feel that this bill, if implemented, would essentially turn us around the other way.”
The committee’s draft bill is attached to the online version of this story at JHNewsAndGuide.com. The committee’s discussion about migrations is slated for 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. Although the meeting is in Casper, audio will be posted to WyoLeg.gov/Committees/2019/SFR.