The fluid mineral industry’s immense influence in Wyoming was on full display Thursday as the state’s top five elected officials finalized a controversial gas lease in the pinch point of a world-famous pronghorn migration path without the wildlife protections requested by two state agencies.
At issue was “Parcel 194,” a 640-acre tract of state school trust land that the Office of State Lands and Investments auctioned to Kirkwood Oil and Gas for $19/acre an acre in July. Conservation groups and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department had stalled the lease’s completion after the July auction, citing concerns that the lease spanned a bottleneck in the famed “Path of the Pronghorn” where thousands of animals cross the New Fork River each year during their fall and spring migrations.
On Thursday, the State Board of Land Commissioners, grappling with what to do with the lease, heard requests to tack on a new stipulation, which would prohibit drilling activity during flexible migration periods in the spring and fall.
“In consultation with Game and Fish, we came up with the draft stipulation,” Office of State Lands Director Jennifer Scoggin told her governing board. “The idea was to address the need for the lessee to coordinate with [Wyoming] Game and Fish to ensure surface disturbance did not occur during critical migration periods.”
Angi Bruce, deputy director for Wyoming Game and Fish, emphasized the ecological importance of Parcel 194, explaining how it’s relied on by animals headed south in search of less snowy landscapes.
“They’re crossing through this particular area in the spring and the fall,” Bruce said. “This became even more apparent this last severe winter. My local biologists talked to me about the antelope in the area, and those that were able to migrate through this area had a much higher chance of survival than those that didn’t.”
The proposed additional stipulation, No. 149, would have required Kirkwood to defer to Game and Fish and “avoid surface disturbance” and to “maintain habitat functionality within the ungulate corridor.” State wildlife managers would have determined the restriction dates annually.
The stipulation would have added onto others attached at the time of the auction: A stipulation for “big game crucial winter range” barring industrial activity from Nov. 15 to April 30, another providing a 300-foot buffer from the New Fork River and a stipulation geared toward preventing the spread of aquatic invasive species. Another stipulation concerned Wyoming’s sage grouse core area policy.
Absent, however, was stipulation No. 146, which reflects Wyoming’s ungulate migration policy, and imposes rigid disturbance thresholds and instructs developers: “All attempts should be made to avoid and minimize impacts in order to maintain habitat functionality.” The stipulation wasn’t in play because Wyoming has dragged its feet on designating the Sublette Pronghorn migration route, often called the Path of the Pronghorn, for nearly 3.5 years following opposition from industry groups.
A handful of professional conservationists addressing the State Board of Land Commissioners — a panel composed of the governor, secretary of state, treasurer, auditor and superintendent of public instruction — asked for even more aggressive protections: a no-surface-occupancy stipulation or even denying the lease to Kirkwood.
“It’s important that we, as a state, come to the table, work in partnership and identify when there are reasons to compromise,” said Josh Metten, the Wyoming field manager for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “This is an example where I truly believe we should compromise and conserve this area.”
Renee Seidler, the executive director of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation, spoke to her earlier life as an ecologist studying how pronghorn are affected by Sublette County’s Jonah and Pinedale Anticline gas fields. The research, she said, is clear: Pronghorn avoid gas field infrastructure just like they do natural predators, except that the industrial equipment is ever-present and the impacts chronic.
“Past research has shown very clearly that this migration bottleneck that actually goes right through Parcel 194 is really important to those animals in severe winters,” Seidler said, “and they need that landscape to be able to survive.”
Meghan Riley, of the Wyoming Outdoor Council, asked the board for pronghorn relief after her organization’s initial plan of attack failed. The Lander-based nonprofit had hoped to secure the rights to the parcel at auction, but its $18/acre bid was ultimately exceeded by Kirkwood’s $19/acre offer.
“Bottlenecks represent the most sensitive habitat within a migration corridor because the movement is constricted [and] the animals don’t have a lot of wiggle room to go other places,” said Riley, who formerly worked as a biologist. “At some point — even if there’s existing development — there is some threshold that could be crossed — and I think we want to be really careful about crossing that threshold.”
But two industry representatives who spoke were not interested in altering the terms of Kirkwood’s lease. Pete Obermueller, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, said that there’s already a process in place for designating migrations.
“Then and only then is when management prescriptions for wildlife migration corridors should be put in place,” Obermueller said. “If this lease is issued with the stip[ulation] put on after the fact, the message that sends to all my other members is the [migration policy] cannot be relied upon.”
A representative for Kirkwood, Steve Degenfelder, also asked the board of four to strip out the added stipulation. His daughter, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder, recused herself from voting on the matter and left the room at the onset of the agenda item.
Steve Degenfelder reasoned that other leases in the area are not subject to the same seasonal restrictions, and he worried for the precedent that would be set if the rules changed because of third party groups’ protest.
“I encourage you to approve the lease, as it was bid at auction with the stipulations that were identified at the auction — and not with the additional stipulation, 149,” Degenfelder said.
On a motion from Secretary of State Chuck Gray, the State Board of Land Commissioners did exactly that. Gray, State Auditor Kristi Racines and State Treasurer Curt Meier voted in favor. Gov. Mark Gordon cast the lone vote against after the three other votes had been verbalized, effectively finalizing the lease without additional protections.