Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke chats with Grand Teton National Park employees after a brief press conference at Jackson Lake Lodge. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

MORAN — Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke touted his agency’s new wildlife migration and winter range preservation strategy in Wyoming on Saturday, efforts critics say he has already undercut by selling controversial oil and gas leases.

In Grand Teton National Park, Zinke highlighted the wildlife order he penned Feb. 9. It calls on Interior Department managers to work with western states “to enhance and improve the quality of big-game winter range and migration corridor habitat…” (See order below.)

But Zinke has also issued instructions to increase oil and gas leasing and to reduce the time citizens have to respond to lease sales and protest development. Nevertheless, the secretary said, Interior Department agencies, including the Bureau of Land management that issues federal oil and gas leases, are “very cautious on places we think are wildlife corridors.”

Not so said Lisa McGee, executive director of the Wyoming Outdoor Council, a group that protested the BLM’s mid-September third-quarter oil and gas lease sale. In that sale energy companies bought the rights to develop 9,167 acres in the Red Desert to Hoback mule deer migration corridor, according to an analysis by WOC.

“It is a disconnect — absolutely,” McGee said of the difference between Zinke’s words and his agency’s actions. The outdoor council had asked that 32 parcels in the deer migration corridor be deferred, but McGee said 15 of those ultimately were sold.

The auction of the parcels in question brought $98,343, half of which goes to Wyoming, according to the council. That’s not worth the potential disruption of a now-famous wildlife journey that covers more than 150 miles, she said.

“For about $50,000 we’ve put the world’s longest mule deer migration corridor at risk,” McGee said.

Secretary believes migrations are protected

Zinke was at Jackson Lake Lodge on Saturday, he said, to brief members of Congress on the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act that seeks to address an $11.7 billion public lands maintenance backlog. He also addressed his migration and habitat order and answered questions from reporters.

Zinke’s Interior Department assistant Heather Swift said after the brief press conference that the leases in question were issued with stipulations to safeguard the corridor and that some prohibited above-ground disturbance. The state of Wyoming agreed to the plan, she said. Zinke and Gov. Matt Mead on July 31 announced that Interior was deferring 5,000 acres from the third-quarter sale because of wildlife worries.

Biologists used GPS tracking collars to discover America’s longest mule deer migration from the Red Desert to the Hoback Mountains in Wyoming. (photo by- Joe Riis )

The Interior Department “will prioritize the conservation of a mule deer migration corridor in southwest Wyoming through both deferred lease sales and lease stipulations,” Mead and Zinke announced in the joint press release in July. “By combining lease deferrals, and lease stipulations, we can achieve the right balance on Federal lands,” Zinke’s statement read.

McGee said WOC would not have protested the leases had they been conditioned with stipulations as announced. Instead, unenforceable “lease notices” were attached to the sensitive parcels.

“They call it protective stipulations [which is] absolutely incorrect,” she said. “Had it been a stipulation with protective language we would not be challenging this decision.

“A stipulation is  legally binding,” McGee said. “A notice is not legally enforceable. It’s not like the notice could have been better. It holds no weight.”

A lease notice “rests on the hope that an operator will work with the Game and Fish and the BLM to site the well pad outside the corridor,” she said. “If the company chooses not to, there’s nothing in the notice that would allow the BLM to deny an application for a permit to drill the way a stipulation would.”

The council asked Wyoming to back a deferral of the parcels in question, she said. “The state declined to ask for it,” she said.

McGee found few flaws with Zinke’s migration and winter habitat order itself, she said. “The secretarial order is great,” she said. “It talks about improving habitat and migration.”

It wasn’t correctly applied to the September lease sales however, McGee said. “I wish the BLM had waited to lease in the corridor until [it] had given itself time to figure out what the implementation of the order would be,” she said. “No one believes oil and gas [development] in a corridor would have anything but a detrimental effect.”

$500,000 for migration research

Zinke said his agency will support migration corridor research, pointing to more than half a million dollars in grants recently made to Arizona and Utah to study the issue in those states.

“I had thought we had the science behind migration corridors,” Zinke told reporters Friday. “A lot is working with the state where the wildlife corridors are.”

He bemoaned that many Interior Department scientists are ensconced in Reston, Virginia, not out West. “We all agree we should bring the scientists back,” he said. “We’re lacking the scientists in the [national park] system. We’re going to put the scientists back in the field.”

He agreed that significant research has been done in Western Wyoming on the mule deer route, on the Path of the Pronghorn between Grand Teton National Park and wintering grounds in Sublette County, and on other routes in the Yellowstone Ecosystem. “Wyoming is a little ahead of the pack,” Zinke said.

A national park biologist — Steve Cain in Grand Teton National Park — helped identify the extent of the Path of the Pronghorn, enabling the Bridger Teton National Forest to protect it in 2008 as the first national migration route. But the BLM has not adopted a similar strategy for the southern end of the route through its property.

Pronghorn antelope migrating south for the winter, pass the town of Pinedale. These pronghorn summer in Grand Teton National Park, but must migrate out of the protected area for the winter, passing several highways, fences, and residential areas before they reach their wintering grounds in southern Wyoming.(Joe Riis)

When asked whether the BLM should join the Forest Service, which is an agency in the Department of Agriculture, not the Department of the Interior, Zinke stopped short of agreeing to that move.

“I think it’s time for every department to work together for common purpose,” he said in response to the question.

Zinke’s proposed reorganization of the Interior Department would arrange the agency according to watersheds, wildlife corridors and flyways. Reorganization would create “an ecosystem-based management system,” he said. “What happens upstream affects downstream.”

The Coalition to Protect National Parks, a group of retired Park Service employees whose members have seen other reorganizations, objects to Zinke’s plan. “The goals of such reorganizations were invariably noble, and implemented with good intentions,” group chairman Philip A. Francis Jr. wrote Zinke on Aug. 18. “But the outcome of most all of these efforts was the same – significant money spent, lives of countless employees disrupted, suffocating distractions, and reductions from the basic mission and goals of the National Park Service.

Migration disruptions already approved

Under Zinke’s tenure, the BLM recently approved the 140,859-acre Normally Pressured Lance gas field in Sublette county where Jonah Energy can drill up to 3,500 wells in the next 10 years. It lies astride the Path of the Pronghorn

In analyzing Jonah Energy’s development request the BLM predicted “numerous potential indirect impacts, including … migration disruptions.” BLM approved the NPL field this summer with 7.9 percent less long-term surface disturbance than proposed. As such the agency expects “similar impacts,” to Jonah’s plan “but to a lesser degree.” The NPL plan has been in the works for years, long before Zinke became Secretary of the Interior.

Nevertheless, Zinke saw a different threat to pronghorn than oil and gas development.

“Pronghorn are different,” he said, contrasting them with mule deer. “They go to a fence — they’ll go around 40 miles. They don’t go over a fence.”

Highways, too, are a threat to migrating wildlife that he would address, Zinke said. “A lot of the wildlife corridors have been interrupted by highways,” he said. Interior is “looking at a system for prioritizing our overpasses,” in hopes of potentially even recreating lost migration routes, he said.

Ryan Zinke in Grand Teton National Park.

The Interior Department is moving too fast with leasing, McGee said, including with an upcoming fourth-quarter lease sale scheduled for December. “Leasing is the point at which [without adequate stipulations] the agency gives up the ability to say no,” she said. “We need to learn the lessons of the very recent past.”

That recent past cost conservationists millions to protect the Noble Basin near Bondurant, an important habitat and migration avenue for deer and elk. “The agency told all of us ‘It’s OK — we’ll work it out at the APD [application for permit to drill] stage.’ ”

What emerged was a plan to drill 135 wells. “The public had to raise $9 million to buy out those leases,” she said.

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Mule deer avoid developments, including energy fields, according to a paper by Teal B. Wyckoff, a researcher with the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Department of Zoology and Physiology at the University of Wyoming. “Our results suggested that deer increased rate of movement, reduced time in stopovers, and shifted stopovers in areas of intense development,” a summary of her and others’ research reads. It was published in February in the journal Ecosphere.

As WOC mulls its next step in its protest of the mule deer migration corridor leases, it takes some comfort in a recent federal court decision in Idaho. McGee said the court decided that the truncated comment and protest periods proscribed in Interior’s sped-up leasing plans are too short.

“We’re coming up to the point where they might have to postpone the December lease sale in order to comply with this order,” she said.


Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. The Sweetwater Solar project (the first industrial solar project in the state), is being built in the midst of antelope migration and winter habitat. Despite, as you mentioned, Zinke’s express acknowledgement that fencing and antelope don’t mix. The solar project is even worse than oil and gas development in the sense that it creates a single use landscape inaccessible to people, wildlife and livestock. These migration routes need protected from all development that can’t accommodate wildlife.

  2. Great article as usual by Thuermer. Protecting “game animals” for trophy hunters is the ONLY wildlife conservation issue Zinke has shown any interest in (All of his other actions if anything are contributing to decline of wildlife) and this article shows that his supposedly strong “actions,” like Zinke, are phony! This just became documented Reason 178 why Zinke is the worst Secretary of Interior ever at https://www.wildlifepolitics.org/blog

  3. The mule deer and pronghorn migration corridor in western Wyoming is a national treasure and the fact that Zinke and Mead are promoting a large new natural gas development right in the middle of it is a disgrace. There are suitable areas for energy development in Wyoming, but right in the middle of this vital migration corridor isn’t one of them.