As Gov. Mark Gordon finalizes an executive order to protect wildlife migration corridors, he wants lawmakers to hit pause on a controversial bill that would supersede his efforts by revamping the state’s corridor designation policy and challenging existing migration protections and protocols, his policy director said Friday.
The comments come as the Legislature and executive branch both race to answer the question: Who should determine Wyoming’s approach to migrating wildlife and the broad resource-management implications it will entail?
Gordon supports a legislative look at big game migration corridor protections, according to Senior Policy Director Renny MacKay. Legislation could “add durability to the state-led approach he favors,” MacKay wrote WyoFile in an email.
But the governor “would like lawmakers to hold off on crafting details at this time,” MacKay wrote. That’s because Gordon’s Migration Corridor Advisory Group has been working for months on how to protect ungulate migration routes.
The stakeholders’ advisory group in early September recommended Gordon issue an executive order to protect the routes. Gordon’s staffers are studying public comments on the report, which were due Oct. 11, and “are working on a draft executive order that will be out by December,” MacKay wrote.
“That process will be done before the legislative session,” MacKay wrote. The Legislature begins its biennial budget session Feb. 10, at which non-budget bills need a two-thirds majority vote for introduction.
The governor wants lawmakers to back off work on their draft bill “out of respect for the process he started and that many, many people from across Wyoming and from across interests spent significant time participating in,” MacKay wrote.
Gordon’s administration staked out its position just days before tomorrow’s Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee meeting in Casper, where lawmakers are scheduled to consider the draft “Designation of migration corridors” bill. In its current form the draft bill would establish a new process for evaluating proposed corridor protections, require Game and Fish to reconsider existing protected migration corridors using new criteria and give counties sweeping authority in the designation process.
No turf war?
In a press conference last week Gordon downplayed any conflict with lawmakers.
“I have been in conversations with leadership in the Legislature,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a turf war. I think it’s a cooperative effort.”
An executive order, like Gordon’s existing one protecting greater sage grouse, could map core or vital habitat, big-game “stopover areas” and corridor bottlenecks and instruct state agencies to limit intrusion into those areas, among other things.
Gordon’s advisory group recommended an executive order direct development outside of corridors “as a first priority.” The goal inside corridors is to ensure “the continued functionality and health of the corridors as well as the big game.”
The recommendations support continued multiple-use of public lands and an assessment of risks to wildlife, economic and other interests before designation of a corridor. Today such assessments come after designation.
Public involvement should ensure “dialogue in advance of designation is robust and inclusive and not perfunctory,” the working group wrote.
The governor’s advisory group “specifically considered whether or not there should be a legislative involvement,” and decided, instead, on the executive-order strategy, said Kristen Gunther, Wyoming Outdoor Council conservation advocate. She criticized the lawmakers’ draft bill, which she said “specifically hampers Game and Fish” and shunts the agency to “the back seat.”
The lawmakers’ bill would require the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to reevaluate three existing corridor designations under new rules that give county commissioners new authority over the process. The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission designated those routes — the Red-Desert-to-Hoback, Baggs and Platte Valley mule deer routes — as vital habitat through a process that included scientific studies and public input.
The Baggs route stretches 60 miles in southern Wyoming, the Platte Valley corridors run up to 40 miles south of Rawlins and the Red Desert-to-Hoback extends more than 140 miles from Jackson Hole to Interstate 80. The Game and Fish Department has recommended two other routes to the agency’s governing appointed-citizen commission, one covering the Path of the Pronghorn, partly protected as the first federally recognized migration route in the country, and a mule deer route through the Wyoming Range.
The designations allowed the wildlife agency to recommend restrictions on oil and gas leases, among other things. Typical restrictions prohibit disturbing the landscape in a corridor or limit when development might take place and the extent that habitat can be altered.
Politicians vs. professionals
Under the draft legislation, county commissioners would appoint seven-member panels that include representatives from agriculture, mining, oil-and-gas, conservation, recreation and wind-energy interests. The panels would seek information about potential economic and other impacts from the Office of State Lands and Investments, the departments of revenue, transportation, environmental quality and the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
The county panel would forward its recommendations to the Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners, which would adopt any protective measures. Recommendations would flow from that board to federal agencies, like the Bureau of Land Management, to be considered in management of property it controls. The new process would apply retroactively to “any active and current migration corridor previously designated by the department,” the draft bill states.
Conservationists have attacked the measure. The lawmakers’ bill would create a multi-leveled process, including “a lot of layers of bureaucracy this [gubernatorial advisory working] group did not recommend,” Gunther said. “It seems like a big waste of resources to send the three designated corridors all the way back to the drawing board and through this laborious process.”
Linda Baker, director of the Upper Green River Alliance, said the bill would “illegally … allow county commissioners, who lack the expertise of the Game and Fish, to overstep their governmental responsibilities and allow them to manage wildlife.” Lawmakers are “looking to grab the power from Game and Fish … the people with the expertise,” she told WyoFile. “I think that’s unconscionable.”
Some county commissioners, including a southwest Wyoming coalition, have protested Game and Fish Department’s Ungulate Migration Corridor Strategy, which the agency adopted in 2016 after what it called an “inclusive process.” Local governments were left out of discussions, they said.
Game and Fish “did not take the Coalition’s comments to heart,” Kent Connelly, Chairman of the Coalition of Local Governments, wrote in a letter to Gordon earlier this year. His group is made up of Lincoln, Sweetwater, Uinta and Sublette counties and conservation districts, plus the Little Snake River Conservation District of Carbon County.
“[T]he Coalition … noted that WGFD strategy assumes land management authority over federal and private land that it does not have,” Connelly’s Feb. 28 letter reads. “The migration Strategy would close thousands of acres to energy development, burden existing federal [oil and gas] units and leases, especially in the Golden Triangle, and remove high potential energy and minerals for future development with no recognition to the costs to the affected communities or the States’(sic) revenues,” he wrote.
Too many restrictions?
The Petroleum Association of Wyoming “is satisfied with the existing designation process from 2016,” association Communications Director Ryan McConnaughey wrote in an email. But the agency “began seeking blanket lease deferrals,” he said, which are “unnecessary and unsupported by the science.” Those deferrals, based on scientific mapping of migration routes, temporarily remove parcels from BLM lease auction lists.
“The science is not clear on how different species of large ungulates migrate, and what level of impacts negatively affect their movements,” McConnaughey wrote. “More data is necessary to clearly understand these issues, and work is still being conducted in this field.”
PAW’s policy recommendations seek to require industry to “take reasonable measures to avoid and minimize impacts,” according to a PowerPoint presentation to the legislative committee earlier this year. The group said stipulations prohibiting “surface occupancy” in natural bottlenecks are appropriate but that disturbance of up to 3% in other parts of corridors was OK.
PAW had joined other groups earlier this year in opposing the designation of the two new proposed migration corridors. Game and Fish did not consider private property or mineral rights, PAW and others said, creating a potential taking without compensation.
But conservationists argue that wildlife are on the ropes, and disturbing migration routes might be a knockout punch. “Migration corridors are crucial and irreplaceable,” Baker said. “They are components of a larger range-wide habitat. They are the connective tissue for all of the seasonal environments.”
It’s clear that oil and gas developments “have already caused unmistakable declines in our ungulate herds,” she said.
Report: national parks ‘spoiled’
The impact of oil and gas development on migrating wildlife helped land Grand Teton National Park on the National Parks Conservation Association’s recently published “Spoiled Parks” list.
Wildlife territories don’t end at the park boundaries, the report stated. “The future of wildlife migration into Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks is dependent on the preservation of their historic travel corridors,” Steve Iobst, former deputy superintendent of Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, said in the group’s statement. “Today, massive levels of oil and gas leasing in southwest Wyoming threaten these routes and leasing in these critical areas needs to be stopped to protect our mule deer and pronghorn migrations.”
The Green River Alliance’s Baker said the Sublette pronghorn herd has declined by 60% over the last decade. “That includes the pronghorn that are present in Grand Teton National Park,” she said.
On the Pinedale Anticline gas field and wintering grounds south of Grand Teton, deer have declined by 43%, Baker said.
Further, industry has provided no evidence that avoiding migration corridors will pose any risk to their operations.
“Directional drilling is already a proven strategy and the operators have committed to it,” she said. The technology allows energy companies to access underground oil and gas reserves from surface drilling sites that can be miles away. Accessing reserves from sites away from a corridor is “not going to be any more of an impact to their bottom line,” she said.
PAW’s McConnaughey wrote that the NPCA “Spoiled Parks” report unfairly fixed blame on oil and gas. He called the release a “sensational claim” that is “misleading at best.”
Oil and gas operators have developed and employed directional and horizontal drilling to reduce impacts, McConnaughey said, and studies centered on older gas fields shouldn’t be applied to today’s energy fields.
Residential subdivisions, cheatgrass invasion, reservoirs and other developments also fragment ungulate habitat, McConnaughey wrote, quoting from a Game and Fish report. While some drilling sites can be reclaimed, “subdivisions are subdivisions,” he wrote. “There is no going back.”
His industry wants to preserve the functionality of migration corridors, McConnaughey said. Conservationists aren’t convinced.
Corridors are “a determining factor of an ungulates ability to maintain itself over the long term,” Baker said. “They are thousands of years old, traditional habitat used with unfaltering fidelity.
“Our pronghorn and mule deer don’t just go around when their migration corridors are blocked,” she said. “When corridors disappear, pronghorn and mule deer decline.”
Noting recent tough times in the oil patch, she said, “I don’t believe we should allow an industry that’s failing to continue to degrade migration corridors and winter range that will ultimately cause Wyoming’s wild ungulates to decline further than they have.”
Both the executive order and legislation have merit, PAW’s McConnaughey wrote. An executive order provides flexibility while legislation “allows for consistency across administrations,” his email reads. PAW seeks “a clear and achievable standard that would end these blanket lease deferrals.”