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. 

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“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.

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. Wyoming is losing this battle on all fronts… Wyoming wildlife should have the factor of consideration in all this, not the riches of human greed… Today, I watch a huge amount of our beautiful wildlife destroyed by the Interstate system, not by wolves, rifles, bows or overpopulation in those specific species… Why, because we don’t look at these animals only the money… So let us talk money, those creatures create well over 4 billion dollars in revenues, from tourism, hunting industries, outfitting, photography, industries, clothing industries, recreational vehicles, camping gear, packing gear, souvenirs and list just goes … Based on Wild Life, yes Wyoming Wildlife contributes not only to these industries but a majority of small-town communities in Wyoming throughout the year, otherwise why come to see Wyoming, it is not for Wind Turbines, Fracking decks, oil rigs, draglines, and a vast majority private service trucks tearing up the habitat of Wyoming not caused by Wyoming Wildlife,but greed of Lobbying System…
    What is the purpose of the Wyoming Wildlife Trust fund, I for one thought the intended purpose was to protect our unique system of Wildlife, not to feed the governmental coffer of the chosen projects or the cloak of ranching habitat improvements…
    Hypocrites talk about the reason Wildlife corridors would hurt Wyoming, yet that same Hypocrite would scream if the Interstate 25, or 80 corridors were changed or close at a specified time over a week to allow passage of construction equipment… I noticed when adding the new Electrical Transmission lines over the interstate at Fort Steel changed that corridor was not close for that time period, to say the least…
    So, in reality, use the Wyoming Trust Fund to establish wildlife easements, overpasses, underpasses, improvements to their corridors… For a true investment in Wyoming’s future will never be found in Old ways of fossil fuels but in a time-proven resource, known as Wyoming Wildlife…

  2. During the Advisory Committee meeting held at the Pinedale BLM office, this exact outcome was being telegraphed to the participants and onlookers. Not only did an industry representative personally attack and denigrate a wildlife expert for his scientific presentation – in front of the committee and totally filled conference room – the Governor’s facilitator did not call the paid lobbyist on his unprofessional behavior and allowed the harangue to continue.

    The meeting’s “agenda” listed an opportunity for public comment with the names of known industry mouthpieces already typed in!! Talk about a slap in the face to the actual “public” who showed up to provide comments. Then, the female oil/gas defender stated in her comments that her organization did “not think the Wyoming Game & Fish needed to BE AT THE TABLE” during discussions of migratory corridors. When pressed on her point, she conceded that “we’re not scientists”… Correct, you’re not. You’re a paid shill for an industry that balks at any attempts to protect the landscape and wildlife of Wyoming, yet, wants to control a migration process for which you have no expertise.

    Yes, these companies provide revenue to Wyoming’s coffers. But, there are multiple instances where these same businesses won’t pay their full taxes, fight local governments over asset valuation and, in the case of some, pollute the air and water, poison employees with toxic substances, then abandon town and dump their mess into the hands of the left behind community and taxpayers. Heaven forbid, we ask them to pay their full share. I just hope Gov. Gordon will let the experts, ie WY G&F, make game management decisions without improper influence by those who do not have wildlife at heart.