A Wyoming policy held up as the national gold standard for protecting big game migration corridors is gathering dust nearly three years into its existence, frustrating wildlife advocates who fear critical habitat is being degraded and lost.
Conservationists worry the governor is playing favorites with the energy industry, and slow-rolling a protective designation that is warranted by the policy, but would be problematic for a $17 billion gas field. Wildlife officials and advisors for the governor say there’s no one reason for the delay.
From 2016 to 2018 migration corridor protections had momentum. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department designated migration paths on its own, recognizing and safeguarding routes used by mule deer in the Green River basin, Platte Valley and the Baggs area. But in the spring of 2019, the state agency pumped the brakes.
Action on its fourth planned designation, a path used by pronghorn that dwell in and pass through several Sublette County gas fields, including one that’s under development and being litigated, was put on hold. The delay came after industry groups, from oil and gas to sheepherders, expressed concerns in a letter.
In an effort to better include industry stakeholders Gov. Mark Gordon assembled an eight-person committee to advise migration protection policy. The group recommended Gordon sign an executive order prescribing a designation process to replace Game and Fish’s strategy. Gordon did just that, but in the 36 months since Wyoming has not pursued any new migration corridor designations even though there are dozens of identified but undesignated routes to choose from.
The slowed pace under the executive order has conservationists, like Upper Green River Alliance director Linda Baker, reading between the lines.
“I’m not a politician, and I’m not in state government,” Baker said. “But I can only guess that this [inaction] is a consequence of political caution in stepping too far into the idea of conservation in a state that simultaneously says they believe in conservation, but fights it almost at every turn.”
State wildlife officials and advisors for the governor say delays are more complicated than political will. For starters, in the time since Gordon signed off on the new plan, the COVID-19 pandemic struck and upended normal government operations. Additionally, the pre-existing designations were run through an abbreviated version of the new process first, delaying consideration of new designations.
Jill Randall, Wyoming Game and Fish big game migration coordinator, updated the Game and Fish Commission at its November meeting. The Pinedale-based biologist told WyoFile that another cause of the delay is that the next corridor in the pipeline, used by the Sublette Pronghorn Herd, required movement ecologists to GPS collar animals and pioneer a method to translate their movements into scientifically supported corridors.
“The gaps that we had in the existing dataset were definitely a component for the Sublette pronghorn timeline, because we were investing tens of thousands of dollars into 90 GPS collars,” Randall said. “We didn’t want to go through this whole process and not even include that data.”
The study was strategic, she said, and focused on the whole herd’s movement ecology, whereas previous studies have focused on just one herd component or another. The federally recognized pronghorn migration path through the Bridger-Teton National Forest that connects Jackson Hole to the Green River basin, for example, is one component of the Sublette Pronghorn Herd. Southerly portions of that migration that fall on Bureau of Land Management property escaped federal designation because of political pressure, according to a 2014 academic paper.
Later attempts at designating the route through the state’s process were also met with resistance. Paul Ulrich, vice president of government affairs for Jonah Energy, did not respond to WyoFile’s requests for an interview, but he was vexed by the possibility of a pronghorn migration corridor in the region when speaking about it in a 2019 Game and Fish meeting.
“If you’re not familiar with Pinedale and Sublette County, [the migration] cuts down the spine of the sixth-largest natural gas field in the country and then dumps into the eighth-largest natural gas field in the country,” Ulrich said. “I’m questioning why we’re talking about a draft corridor and a migration corridor for pronghorn in two of the most intensely filled fields in the country.”
The two existing fields he referred to were the Jonah field and Pinedale Anticline field, discovered and developed in the 1990s and early 2000s. One research paper found that pronghorn are avoiding and even abandoning altered areas in the Anticline, debunking a presumption that the native tawny-and-white species was adaptable to and tolerant of gas fields.
A third gas field that overlaps with the likely Sublette pronghorn path is the Normally Pressured Lance gas field, a 3,500-well development south of the Jonah field that has been authorized, but not yet built out. That field has been the target of litigation from environmental groups concerned about impacts to pronghorn and sage grouse. The NPL field encompasses the largest-known sage grouse winter concentration area in Wyoming. Plaintiffs in the case, which include Baker’s Upper Green River Alliance, were dealt a blow in April 2022 when U.S. District Court Judge Scott Skavdahl rejected their concerns, but the conservationists subsequently appealed.
Since the BLM approved the NPL in 2018, Jonah Energy has submitted 18 applications for permits to drill (APDs) in the 141,000-acre field, according to BLM Deputy State Director Brad Purdy. Eleven of those applications have been approved, he said.
“The remaining seven are still under analysis,” Purdy said.
The pronghorn migration route, which lacks state and federal designation, was not accounted for as BLM assessed the well pads that were approved, Purdy said.
“Seeing as that it’s not designated,” he said, “we wouldn’t have a special stipulation or anything on it.”
Given the sensitivities surrounding the designation of the Sublette pronghorn’s migration, some wildlife advocates have called on Game and Fish to turn the page and move its attention to another route.
“We just want to see something move forward,” said Nick Dobric, Wyoming field manager for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “I asked the governor, ‘If you guys are really stuck in trying to figure this out, why not go somewhere else?’”
Other migration paths have been well mapped by the University of Wyoming’s Migration Initiative and by Game and Fish biologists. Dobric threw out some suggestions: “Why not look at Dubois or the Shoshone Mule Deer Herd?”
There are several dozen scientifically documented big game migrations in Wyoming to choose from.
On Thursday, the U.S. Geological Survey published its third set of maps showing where hoofed mammal herds migrate in the western United States. Including routes mapped in the first two editions, released in 2020 and spring 2022, there are now 40 mapped migrations in Wyoming, according to author Matt Kauffman, who leads the Wyoming Migration Initiative.
“There could be a couple dozen more that are yet to be mapped,” Kauffman said.
There are benefits of mapping migrations beyond designating the corridors. The data, Kauffman said, can inform where to locate highway crossing structures and the most beneficial places to conserve private lands for ungulates through easements.
Notably, private lands are exempted from the migration order. Several controversial Sublette County developments within the likely Sublette pronghorn migration corridor are underway.
It’s unlikely that Wyoming will ever designate all of its migrations. Randall, the migration coordinator, said that some routes will likely be proposed, but then die on the vine during an early-stage “threat evaluation.”
“If we determine there’s already a lot of protections in place and minimal threats, [the migrations] might be to the point where we want to identify them, but not go through the entire designation process,” she said.
That process is protracted. Its lengthy nature was the subject of criticism during a Nov. 4 forum about the migration policy that the Wyoming Outdoor Council hosted in Pinedale, according to staffer Meghan Riley.
“There were public comments from folks in the audience, a sense of dismay over the length the designation process could take,” Riley said.
A flowchart Randall walked Game and Fish commissioners through at their November meeting showed 15 steps in the designation process. Ultimately, Gordon will make the final decision.
Game and Fish is sticking with its plan to designate the Sublette pronghorn herd’s migration next, Randall said. The agency will not pursue two designations simultaneously, she said. After that in the queue is the Wyoming Range Mule Deer Herd migration, the second of the proposed routes that were slowed by the letter from the alliance of industry groups, triggering the new policy.
There was more to the decision to press pause three years ago than heeding industry groups alone, said Renny MacKay, the governor’s policy director. Wildlife groups, he said, were equally calling for “a better system.”
MacKay doesn’t think it’s fair to characterize the migration policy as being at a standstill.
“There is progress being made,” he said, “in that there’s a lot of good science being done.”
Randall doesn’t have a firm timeline for when the Sublette pronghorn migration process will officially restart. The hope, she said, is to initiate the process within months, not years. Once it starts, it’s tough to say how long it’ll take. There are steps within the designation process — such as local working groups vetting designations — that are out of Game and Fish’s hands.
Still, Randall said, “we do feel that there’s an urgency.”
“Trust me,” she said, “our managers are really wishing that we had this corridor in a designated status right now, but it’s not the point we’re at.”
Not all stakeholders are urging Game and Fish to hit the gas. Jim Magagna, executive vice president for the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said that he’s heard the anxieties about the slow implementation of the updated migration policy, but he discounted the idea of an imminent threat.
“You know, these corridors have existed for decades,” Magagna said. “We support making sure they continue to exist. It’s not as though every identified corridor that doesn’t have an executive order [designation] is subject to being lost. In some places there are virtually no risks.”
Still, the years-long lag has others confused and frustrated. Green River businessman Dan Stanton, an avid big game hunter, is in that camp. Along with seven others, he helped craft Gordon’s migration policy through his role on an advisory group the governor appointed.
“I still like to have pride in the work that we did and the solution that the governor put forward,” Stanton said. “I don’t think it’s too late, but he needs to have some movement. Let’s use this tool that we developed.”
Muley Fanatic Foundation president and co-founder Josh Coursey said the optics of continued inaction amid a gas field being built out in the potential Sublette pronghorn migration route are not good: “There are certainly powerful entities in this state that carry a tremendous amount of clout,” he said.
“Let’s not just say we want to do this and continue to talk about doing it,” Coursey said. “Let’s actually do what we need to be doing.”