Members of a governor-appointed working group are among those blasting attempts by a Wyoming legislative committee to undercut wildlife managers’ authority to protect migration corridors.
One of those working group members is La Barge resident and Wyoming Game and Fish Commissioner Mike Schmid. He’s made a living for four decades servicing well pads and pipelines for the same industry pushing the legislation he’s now resisting.
“I would like to see the Legislature back off,” Schmid told the News&Guide. “Let’s see if the process that the migration committee came up with will work.”
Gov. Mark Gordon appointed the migration committee to come up with recommendations to guide protections for big-game movements between summer and winter ranges in Wyoming. After meeting over the summer the committee resolved to ask Gordon to draft an executive order, the same tactic used to conserve sage grouse habitat.
That process was well underway, with a draft order due out in December and a final version in January. But on Oct. 23 the Legislature’s Select Federal Natural Resource Management Interim Committee voted to advance a bill that would largely cut the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission out of the decision-making process for designating migration paths.
Schmid said he’s irked by the legislative committee’s move, which was also criticized by the governor and several advocacy groups.
“We spent our summer at three different meetings for two days apiece working on this, and I think we worked on this very diligently,” he said. “I think that we ended up in a good place.”
The Sublette County resident, who founded SOS Well Services, said it’s “natural” for the oil and gas lobby to “push back on anything that affects their operations,” but he thinks that the industry missed the mark by pushing for a draft bill, which, as written, lets counties gut protections.
“There’s no drilling within a half-mile of the centerline of the Oregon Trail, but yet there’s oil and gas wells throughout that country,” Schmid said. “We leave the Oregon Trail alone, but we still get to the resources underneath. We can do the same with wildlife corridors.”
Jackson resident Max Ludington, who represented recreation on Gordon’s migration committee, was also disappointed with the draft legislation. Ludington, Schmid and four other members of the governor’s committee wrote legislators on behalf of six of its eight members requesting that lawmakers back off.
“There are elements within that bill that are positive and that are supportive of what we’re trying to do,” Ludington said, “but on the whole, as currently written, it undermines the process.”
“Specifically, it strips authority from the Game and Fish Commission,” he said. “It also deemphasizes the science that the Game and Fish puts into the designations.”
As it was first drafted, 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 composed 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, bringing in an additional oil and gas representative if he or she saw fit.
With a two-thirds majority the working group could then choose to kill a migration designation altogether, amend the protected route or accept it.
The bill also would require the state to start from scratch and reconsider already designated migrations, like the path used by animals from the Sublette Mule Deer Herd that venture from the Red Desert to the Hoback Basin. Mule deer migrations near Baggs and Platte Valley also have been designated, and the governor’s working group put the brakes on two other draft designations: the Wyoming Range mule deer’s migration and the route used by the Sublette Pronghorn Herd (aka the “Path of the Pronghorn”).
Game and Fish Commissioner Patrick Crank testified in Casper before the committee, expressing a particular displeasure with the part of the bill that rewrites past work.
“I think it would be a horrible waste of time and effort to make us go back, as the bill proposes, and do this whole process and set up working groups and look at corridors that are already out there,” Crank said at the meeting. “At the very least, I would hope that does not go forward.”
Energy workers, the Game and Fish Department and the governor’s staff also urged lawmakers to hold off on the legislation, according to a report in the Casper Star-Tribune. The board of county commissioners from at least one affected county, Sweetwater, also tried and failed to get the seven-man legislative committee to hit the brakes.
Despite stiff and broad opposition — the migration discussion dragged for six hours due in part to public comments — there are proponents of the bill. The Petroleum Association of Wyoming has advocated the legislation.
The association’s president, Pete Obermueller, told the News&Guide 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.”
Digital slides from the association that the Wyoming Legislative Office posted to the committee’s website contends big game corridors are “emerging as a landscape-level” issue that could take 10 million to 15 million acres off the table for development.
The association takes issue, according to the document, with a goal from the statewide working group that Gordon’s policy allow for “zero impact” within a migration corridor. The point was to stem population declines due in part to lost habitat, which loses its functionality when it is cut up by gas pads, pipelines and roads. The zero-impact goal was agreed to by the working group’s oil and gas representative, Oak Ridge Natural Resources Vice President Kevin Williams.
The Legislature’s Select Federal Natural Resource Management Interim Committee Chairman Brian Boner, R-Platte and Converse, said that after the Casper meeting, he thinks the bill now more closely emulates the order that’s expected to come out of Gordon’s office. Instead of the having the Board of Land Commissioners sign off on any new migration designation, he said, the decision will now be left to the governor himself as a result of feedback.
“I think we got closer to the governor’s plan,” Boner said, “but ultimately this is just a backup plan to whatever comes out in the executive order.”
The migration corridor legislation, which doesn’t have a bill number, won’t come up again until the state of Wyoming’s 65th Legislature convenes in Cheyenne this February.