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 Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments leased several tracts of school trust land within the undesignated migration corridor of the Sublette Pronghorn Herd during its July 12 lease sale. Conservation groups are especially concerned about the leasing of Parcel 194, in a bottleneck crossing the New Fork River, though state officials approved the lease unchanged. (Mackenzie Bosher, The Wilderness Society. Sources: Energy Net, Esri, USGS.)

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 herd of pronghorn nibbles at sagebrush shoots sticking through the windswept snowpack in the Green River Basin in April 2023. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

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.” 

Sagebrush dominates a Wyoming school trust parcel that’s heavily used by pronghorn migrating south off the Pinedale Mesa. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

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. 

Gov. Mark Gordon in the Wyoming State Capitol in February 2022. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile) 

“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.

Mike Koshmrl reports on Wyoming's wildlife and natural resources. Prior to joining WyoFile, he spent nearly a decade covering the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s wild places and creatures for the Jackson...

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  1. How utterly disappointing. Industry can’t back down on a critical square mile of land because it might “set a precedent”? Maybe the “precedent” should be to not degrade critical habitat? At the very least, if development is going to happen, stipulation 149 seemed a rational compromise. So very tragic for wildlife that use this corridor.

    And I agree, everyone with half a brain should see the Governor’s “no” vote for what it is. Political necessity and gamesmanship, pure and simple.

  2. Hopefully the pronghorn can withstand the greed and Gen Z does a better job. What a legacy we are leaving.

  3. This is such a disappointing decision! There were reasonable compromises proposed to allow leasing while protecting the pronghorn migration and this proposal would have balanced interests. When will we learn that reasonable steps to protect wildlife should be taken, especially now when they face so many challenges from climate change, development, etc.?

  4. Dan Neal is correct – a travesty, especially after western Wyoming pronghorn and mule deer populations were annihilated by 2022-2023 winter conditions. Governor Gordon’s lone vote against finalizing the lease without stipulations is nothing more than a sham by “Wyoming’s governor for nobody” so that he could appear to favor protections for migrating ungulates. Quite convenient for Gordon to vote no after first hearing how the others voted. MAGA Republican Wyoming Governor Gordon has sat on his ass for over three years failing to designate this as an official migration corridor. Perhaps this was exactly his plan to begin with so that he didn’t take the heat from the oil & gas industry had he done the right thing for Wyoming’s imperiled mule deer and pronghorn populations and officially designated this migration corridor.

    During the run-up to the 2020 election, Kristi Racines and Megan Degenfelder along with Senator Lloyd Larsen attended the 2020 Wyoming Wildsheep Foundation banquet in Lander. Racines and Degenfelder were there to pledge their support for Wyoming wildlife and hunters if elected and appointed to the State Land Board. Lied to again by Wyoming Republicans who claim they support Wyoming’s wildlife and hunters. Racine voted for the lease sale and Degenfelder effectively cast a yea vote in her decision to recuse herself. Shame on both of you!

  5. All of this commentary is bemoaning a political loss by activists. In actual practice, if developers don’t actually build an antelope tight fence (like an airport fence), and those antelope decide to migrate, nothing else they build will actually stop a migration. They will avoid structures if they can, but it won’t stop them. Last winter they were migrating right through the middle of the towns and highways because that is where the snow had been plowed and they could travel there.

    1. You are correct. I worked that area many years and the migration happened… matter the human activity.

  6. So let me get this straight, so I can understand the Degenfelder philosophy.

    The science says saving the Pronghorn requires some mitigation but that might set a negative precedent so the Pronghorn are sacrificed for a principle. – Steve D.

    There is absolutely zero evidence that school choice works so Wyoming is going to destroy public schools by enacting choice. Megan D.

    Way to go WYO!

  7. Would you be as upset if this was a solar farm or wind farm built in the middle of their migration corridor? I believe it is coming also and will most likely disturb more of the sage grouse, antelope, birds and other aspects of Wyoming habitat over part of central and southwestern Wyoming. Just wondering would that upset you as much as this does? These these companies bad guys also? What about all the old windmill depree, where do you suggest we create a graveyard for those? Texas has a huge problems with these as they have to be replaced. Where will they be dumped in Wyoming? Just wondering. Oil evil wind and solar good? For now at least.

    1. I would be equally upset over any development within a bottleneck – be it wind, solar, oil and gas, or residential subdivision.

  8. Sad to say, this doesn’t surprise me: once again, Wyoming leaders show how little they value the needs of wildlife over the fossil fuel industry and the almighty dollar.

  9. At $19/acre, this parcel is either a “bargain” or a purchase with little promise of success for its proposed use. Furthermore, when something is sold “as is” you do not then add conditions after its sale — lesson learned?

    1. Regulations are, by design, to impose restrictions after the sale and contracting occurs. Both th Feds and the state are obligated by their own laws to prevent any industrial activity that threatens of ANY species. Instead of dropping this, they are required by their own laws to make an “exception” of the entire Wyoming species to let this migration corridor to be blocked. The Republicans may not care, but if this activity proceeds, it violates BOTH Wyoming and Federal laws.

  10. First the Governor drags his feet on designating the corridor due to industry resistance, and then industry officials argue it is inappropriate to protect this parcel because it isn’t in a designated corridor. And our elected officials buy that argument. Unbelievable!!!

    The Executive Order the Governor signed to designate migration corridors is not working!

  11. “Wyoming has dragged it’s feet “ The understatement of the year! Not surprised at all that oil and gas has it’s way with the state!

  12. Money! Money! Money! For $640 these corner office, reclining leather desk chair fellers are willing to kill the chances for untold numbers of antelope to reach summer graze or winter survival. How proud they must be!

    1. Agree 100%, Ted,…glad Megan D. recused herself -(did she also from from original vote favoring her father’s bid?) SHAME ON Her Dad & Sec. GRAY. They don’t care. Thank you for voting No, Governor. Hope it was not just ” a for show.” decree The” Wonderful trophy pronghorn path herds “should have been given Assistance to Recover !!!!!after all Devastation of winter22-23/spring 23 & this wasn’t the way to do it! Wyoming should be ashamed= Showed you do not truly support wildlife. Without WyoFile reporting it, we probably wouldn’t even know about this. VERY SAD!! Thank you WyoFile for keeping this report available!

  13. Sad. To think that a dieing industry (fossil fuel), refusing to surender relevance, supercedes the right of a species trying to survive. When the last of Wyoming’s gas and oil wells are abandoned and left for the rest of us to clean the mess, will there be any wildlife left?

  14. It sure seems like Wyomings wildlife and fisheries, loose every battle to maintain habitat and migration corridors, when up against the oil and gas industry. Wyoming will pay a terrible price for these short sighted decisions.

  15. In this era of directional drilling technology, it would be no issue to offset the actual surface location, then drill to the resources under the lease. That it would be considered a “hardship” for the operator is ridiculus. The location in the migration path WILL be a hardship for the wildlife. The SLIB made a huge mistake here. It’s not like restricting surface occupancy on this small section, is going to signifcantly impact oil and gas development in the Upper Green River Basin. This region has been largely industrialized by many thousands of well sites and facility locations. The Wildlife in this region has been battered by unrestricted, development, as well as rough winters and disease. When is enough, enough?

  16. They are all tools of industry. I’m thinking Gordon’s no vote was just a face-saving move. The short-sightedness is typical, and could be devastating to this particular herds migration. That we would potentially piss away a world class wildlife population for a few more dollars in the state coffers is disappointing at best. I’d like to see the state follow their own agencies advice, for a change. Time to walk the talk on migration corridors and stop allowing state bureaucrats to make important wildlife decisions.

    1. Wyoming,Montana,and Idaho all have similar views on wildlife….they don’t care about it.

  17. Glad to see Governor Gordon vote against this action, not sure if it was just for the cameras. I’m not sure what the next step would be, lawsuits? But how long would that take, in the meantime The speed goats end up on the losing end of it all. Truly wish we could have found a balanced solution to the situation.

  18. What a surprise. Radical right-wingers concede to mineral industry interests in the face of expert, science-based evidence.

  19. It’s hard to believe how much control industry has over wildlife in Wyoming. But it is apparent if you start digging a little. What I would like to know is what has stalled the corridor designation and how much influence industry has had on that designation, as the corridor also traverses through another proposed gas field south of the Jonah field.