A highly anticipated showdown last week between Wyoming’s executive and legislative branches over wildlife migration corridor policy was effectively over in the opening minutes.
The five lawmakers on the Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee discussed the controversial issue and took public comment — the majority in opposition to lawmaker meddling — for nearly six hours, but it was clear from the outset that they were intent on advancing a bill, whether anyone liked it or not.
In May, Gov. Mark Gordon appointed a Migration Corridor Advisory Group. It’s been working since on ways to protect ungulate migration routes in the state. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has officially designated three migration corridors, and two more are being studied.
The advisory group submitted its report to the governor in September and recommended that he address migration corridor policy with an executive order. Renny MacKay, Gordon’s senior policy director, said the governor will release a draft of such an order in December, then finalize it in January after a public comment period.
Concurrently, and in a move that can only be described as a power grab, the select legislative committee has been crafting a bill to minimize the state’s wildlife professionals’ authority to designate migration corridors and give more of that discretion to energy developers, other state agencies and county commissioners.
Since the Legislature doesn’t convene its budget session until February, Gordon asked the panel to hold the migration corridor bill until lawmakers can review his proposal.
It was a reasonable request, given that the governor’s advisory group was a textbook example of how to reach consensus on a divisive issue. The group brought all major stakeholders together: Game and Fish officials, energy developers, agriculture, conservation organizations, outdoor recreation, sportsmen’s groups and local governments. But the committee pushed forward anyway.
Co-chairman Sen. Brian Boner (R-Douglas) said early on at last week’s meeting that a legislative back-up plan is needed — making clear how the day would play out.
“We don’t look at this as preempting the governor’s executive order,” Boner said. “I’ve heard that narrative, and it’s inherently false.”
In another hint to where the exercise in wasted time was headed, GOP legislators peppered their comments with jabs at environmental groups. Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Sheridan) accused conservationists of not wanting to allow any development at all, preferring to turn the state into a national park.
And at the end of the marathon session, just before voting, Boner spelled out the committee’s intent in no uncertain terms.
“We recognize the ability of these corridors to be used as a weapon against extractive industries. Whether it’s intentional or not, it already has and is currently being used [as a weapon],” Boner said. “We need to have this as a back-up plan in case there’s something in the executive order that needs hemmed in.”
What could the senator be afraid of in the order? A mandate that allows professional wildlife experts to do their jobs? An insistence that science and best practices take priority over politics and cronyism?
“Our job — and we need to keep it — is to protect wildlife,” said Game and Fish Commissioner Pat Crank, who added that designating a migration corridor “isn’t rocket science.” He said it’s simply a matter of identifying those crucial time-worn paths used by wildlife for centuries to travel from summer to winter ranges. Still, he said, it’s something his agency is uniquely qualified to do.
What’s not so simple are the challenges facing migrating ungulates: The risks posed to corridors by urban sprawl, fences, highways and minerals and energy development.
Wyoming’s precious wildlife is being damaged at an alarming rate. According to the Green River Alliance, the Sublette pronghorn herd has declined by 60% over the past decade. Meanwhile, deer on the Pinedale Anticline gas field and wintering ground south of Grand Teton National Park have declined by 43%.
“No other agency in Wyoming has the expertise to draw the conclusions that we draw to protect these species,” Commissioner Crank said. “Designation of corridors is a science-based, common-sense observation kind of thing that the department does, and I submit that we do it very well.”
Under the framework envisioned by the governor’s committee, Game and Fish would coordinate working groups to conduct risk assessments and make recommendations to the governor for an executive order.
The committee’s bill outlines a much more bureaucratic process, one that would be controlled by county commissioners who govern the areas surrounding proposed migration corridors. Under the bill, commissioners would select working groups with up to seven members.
Risk assessments on all proposed migration corridors — including the three that already have been designated by Game and Fish — would be conducted by the Departments of Revenue, Lands and Investments, Transportation, Environmental Quality, as well as the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
While the bill originally called for Wyoming’s five statewide elected officials to have final authority over migration corridors, it was amended to give the governor that control.
The goal of both the governor’s advisory council and the select legislative committee is ostensibly the same: Craft a migration corridor policy that mirrors the sage grouse management plan developed over many years by a working group. (That plan, the result of a difficult but solid collaborative effort, ultimately staved off a federal endangered species designation of sage grouse and is widely considered a model. It allows energy development and other economic activity to continue while still preserving critical habitat for the iconic bird.)
At last week’s meeting in Casper, lawmakers seemed instead to believe their job is to protect the interests of the extractive energy industry and counties. The irony, though, is that representatives of both joined with conservation groups, landowners, agriculture, Game and Fish, outdoor recreationists and others to tell the committee to back off and give the governor a chance to write his executive order.
Marissa Taylor, a rancher who served on the advisory group, urged legislators to press pause.
“I feel it is premature to put forward a piece of legislation before we give the system of adaptive management a dry run,” she said. “These systems are complicated, and they are very hard to change.”
Few people in attendance thought it was a good idea. Even two of the four Republican legislators who voted in favor of the measure openly questioned why the committee would approve a draft bill so vague and devoid of actual solutions to the fundamental problem of balancing wildlife protections and natural resource development.
I understand concerns that given unfettered control, Game and Fish could designate dozens of migration corridors throughout Wyoming, and have an adverse impact on the energy industry, agriculture, recreation and other land uses. But that’s not what I see coming out of the advisory council’s recommendations to the governor. I’m not the only one.
“No one wants the implications of a designation to go too far,” Gordon’s policy director MacKay said. He noted that under the current process, the Game and Fish Department proposes a corridor designation and it goes to the Game and Fish Commission for approval. In other words, adequate checks and balances already exist.
Legislating a system that disempowers the Game and Fish Department and gives county commissioners authority to guide the designation process will only serve to alienate different interests, not bring them together to find solutions.
The overriding issue here is balancing wildlife preservation and the state’s economic interests. I don’t think that can be accomplished by relying more on politicians than the state’s own wildlife experts.