Three coalitions of conservation groups have made a last-minute plea to halt the sale of more than 15,000 acres of oil and gas leases that overlap a 150-mile mule deer migration corridor that ends in the Hoback.
The requests to defer leasing in the migration path, among the longest traversed by mammals in the continental United States, are part of larger protests of statewide oil and gas leases the Bureau of Land Management’s Wyoming office is set to auction off starting Sept. 18.
One quartet of protesters faulted the BLM for not considering an alternative sale that would have protected the migration path by excluding it entirely from the lease sale. The BLM opted instead to defer five parcels in the deer corridor and to attach a “special lease notice” to the remaining 34 parcels of potential leases that overlap.
“In electing this approach the BLM failed to disclose the substantive limitations of the lease notice, failed to consider applying a much stronger lease stipulation, and failed to develop an alternative that would have deferred leasing within the corridor,” the National Aubudon Society, Wilderness Society, Wyoming Outdoor Council and Wyoming Wilderness Association wrote in a protest dated Aug. 11.
“This needlessly narrow approach to a pressing resource management concern,” the groups wrote, “utterly fails to satisfy NEPA’s requirement to analyze alternatives to ‘any proposal which involves unresolved conflicts concerning alternative uses of available resources.’”
The environmental watchdogs also scolded the BLM for allegedly breaking federal law by not assessing the sale’s effect on wilderness-quality lands and adjacent wilderness study areas, and for failing to develop an alternative plan that pulled leases in top-notch “primary” sage grouse habitat.
Two other protests were filed with the BLM before an Aug. 13 deadline.
The WildEarth Guardians’ standalone protest did not specifically appeal the migration corridor leases, but alleged broad violations of federal environmental laws relating to all 350 parcels and 355,000 acres of leases being auctioned statewide.
The Center for Biological Diversity’s protest proclaims that the “vast majority” of the proposed parcels for sale in September will adversely affect mule deer and pronghorn migrations and winter range. The letter, cosigned by the Sierra Club, Upper Green River Network and Western Watersheds Project, asked for the deletion of 33 leases overlapping the Hoback deer migration that weren’t already being deferred.
After criticism from Wyoming and Sweetwater County the U.S. Interior Department adjusted the lease sale in early August to partially spare the migration corridor. Some 5,000 acres of leases were deferred, but another 15,000 will still go to auction with “special lease notices” attached.
“By combining lease deferrals, and lease stipulations, we can achieve the right balance on federal lands,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a statement touting the lease adjustment.
Some conservationists were quick to call the deal inadequate to protect the segment of the Sublette Mule Deer Herd that ventures twice a year from the Red Desert to Hoback River drainage high country.
“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,” Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership staffer Nick Dobric said at the time.
Neither the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership nor the Wyoming Wildlife Federation protested the sale, though both groups have urged more robust protections for the mule deer’s broad and braided migration path. Jackson resident Dwayne Meadows, who heads the federation, said that the Interior’s concession was one step in the right direction.
“With the third-quarter leases, what we have is a Department of the Interior that’s actually recognizing the Red Desert-to-Hoback migration route,” Meadows said. “We obviously asked for more than 5,000 acres, but we’re happy to see a response from the administration.”
The National Aubudon Society and its collaborating protesters worry that anything short of deferral won’t be enough to protect the deer migration.
“Importantly, the mitigation measures relied upon by BLM to ‘protect’ big game crucial winter range have been proven to be ineffective,” the groups wrote. “A recent BLM-funded study of mule deer in the Pinedale area conducted by Hall Sawyer, et al., demonstrated that despite the application of on-site mitigation required by BLM, population effects to the herd were ‘considerable’ and ‘not fully offset through mitigation or best management practices.’”
Federal land managers will likely issue their response to the lease protests the day before or on the sale date next month, BLM-Wyoming spokeswoman Courtney Whiteman said.
“They’re working on them now, but it takes time to go through them,” Whiteman said.
If BLM personnel detect “substantial” new information in one of the protests, Whiteman said, the agency could pull specific leases from the auction.
Although rare, that has happened before in Wyoming. Four days before a December 2007 sale, the BLM yanked 13 parcels totaling 28,500 acres in the Upper North Platte Valley. At the time there was broad opposition, including from then-Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal.
Gov. Matt Mead has taken a different tone with the migration-route leases being contested by environmental and hook-and-bullet advocacy groups. In the Interior Department’s press release, he thanked Zinke for heeding Wyoming’s requests.
“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. “Wyoming will continue to work with the Department of the Interior to strike that balance.”
BLM’s auction Sept. 18 to 20 will be hosted by EnergyNet.com. Parcels will be open for bidding for a two-hour period. The bidding process is viewable and technically open to the general public, Whiteman said.
“Technically anyone can bid,” Whiteman said, “but we do have the requirement if you do bid on a parcel you must have an intent, at some point, to develop that parcel.”
Intent, she said, is difficult to determine at the time of bidding.
“It’s a good-faith thing,” Whiteman said.