The Greater Little Mountain area covers high altitude desert country east of Flaming Gorge reservoir where mule deer, elk and pronghorn find refuge in the landscape’s folds. The area is one of the last bastions for Colorado River cutthroat trout and is used by many other species. (Amber S.)

Wyoming residents, including Republican county commissioners, are contesting a proposal to lease thousands of acres of key wildlife habitat for oil and gas development under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s new leasing rules.

Zinke in January stripped state Bureau of Land Management officials of the power to postpone leases, a practice widely used by the agency while developing long term management plans for an area. BLM Wyoming officials had previously postponed drilling activity in parts of Sweetwater County while the agency gathered local stakeholder input and rewrote the area’s comprehensive Resource Management Plan.

But with a memo issued in January, “that decision now lies with Secretary Zinke,” said Tasha Sorensen, Trout Unlimited’s Wyoming field representative, and he’s implementing a faster leasing schedule.

With the power shifted to Washington, the BLM is now considering leasing almost 700,000 acres in southwest Wyoming in December.

Sweetwater County Commissioners are concerned the new policy threatens the Greater Little Mountain Area — and a years-long collaborative effort to determine its management. Covering 522,236 acres of public land, the GLMA has been called “a hidden gem of the West,” “the crown jewel for wildlife and recreation,” and “some of the most sensitive fish and wildlife habitat in Wyoming.”

Sweetwater commissioners also contest proposed leasing in the 150-mile mule deer migration route known as “Hoback to Red Desert.” Recent studies show much of that route was used by at least one deer that traveled considerably farther — 242 miles one way.

This map depicts BLM oil and gas lease sales proposed for December in the Wyoming High Mountain District only. By June 1, the federal agency could receive nominations in Wyoming’s two other districts as well. (BLM)

The prospect of disrupting such sensitive landscapes caused grief for a county commission board that often isn’t quick to embrace conservation proposals. They voted 3-2 on March 6, for example, to recommend U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney reclassify all BLM wilderness study designations in their jurisdiction for development.

But two weeks after calling for that wilderness-study release, and facing thousands of acres of oil and gas leases on big game range and around creeks holding imperiled Colorado cutthroat trout, they unanimously asked Gov. Matt Mead for help postponing Little Mountain and migration-corridor leases. Without deferral, they wrote, “…the opportunities for identifying and collaborating to balance the needs of energy development, wildlife preservation and recreation opportunities may be lost.”

Leasing explosion

Zinke’s memo, “it was positive, for sure,” said Ester Wagner, vice president for public lands with the Petroleum Association of Wyoming. Zinke’s order also speeds up leasing reviews. “They took 18 months, sometimes longer,” she said of past practices. “This [memo] brought it back to where it was supposed to be — a 6-month timeframe.”

An increase in energy firms’ “expression of interest” for leasing shows the industry endorses Zinke’s moves, she said. Leasing vests owners with rights, including access to the resource, in most cases. Conservationists have coined a phrase to describe the leasing system: “Once it’s leased, it’s lost.”

The December sale, the first to be fully conducted under Zinke’s new paradigm, shows a dramatic uptick in nominations and potential leases. In the first quarter of this year, BLM auctioned 152,564 acres of leases in Wyoming that brought in $19.87 million. In the second quarter, it proposes leasing 199,298 acres and in the third quarter another 50,524 acres. That pace is expected to accelerate.

For December, the BLM has proposed putting 698,589 acres up for bids. That’s three and a half times more than any other 2018 quarter’s leasing proposal and 170 percent of the year’s first three quarters combined — so far.

The BLM fourth quarter list is still preliminary. The federal agency is accepting industry nominations through June 1. The fourth quarter list so far includes only parcels in one of the BLM’s three Wyoming districts.

Under Zinke’s new rules, “each lease sale has to include nominations from the entire state,” said Shaleas Harrison, BLM wild lands community organizer with the Wyoming Wilderness Association. “Even the map we’re looking at is likely to increase.”

Trout Unlimited’s Tasha Sorensen added, “it’s unprecedented.”

Locally driven management

The Greater Little Mountain Area attracts much of the attention because a coalition has been working to preserve it for almost 20 years, Josh Coursey, Muley Fanatic Foundation president wrote in an op-ed on Sweetwater Now.

Hunters, anglers, labor groups and conservationists formed The Greater Little Mountain Coalition in 2008 to organize local advocacy for the GLMA through the BLM’s management plan rewrite process. They aim to direct development to areas that can best sustain it while protecting more sensitive parcels. Trout Unlimited, Bowhunters of Wyoming, Muley Fanatic Foundation, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, United Steelworkers Local 13214 and Wyoming Wildlife Federation make up the local working group.

Conservation groups distributed this map showing proposed oil and gas leases in southwest Wyoming and the spectrum of natural and wild resources they could affect. The map is based on information from the BLM. (Wyoming Wilderness Association)

The coalition has collaborated with industry, federal, state and local officials for years. They’ve created a brochure to tout the economic contributions of recreation, proposed and mapped six development class zones according to what development might occur there without disruption, conducted tours, held information sessions and received endorsements from the cities of Rock Springs and Green River, along with Sweetwater County. They’ve submitted their plans to federal officials from Washington, D.C. and asked that they be adopted in their entirety.

“Previously, Governor Freudenthal had asked the BLM to defer leasing in the [Greater Little Mountain Area] until the [Rock Springs Resource Management Plan] was completed and there was a Record of Decision,” Coalition members wrote Gov. Mead last month. “The BLM had previously limited leasing [while] there was a RMP revision taking place.”

Sweetwater commissioners were part of that effort in 2014, when they asked the BLM not to lease until a new plan was in place.

“I have recreated and hunted on Little Mountain since I was a boy, and, like many Sweetwater County residents, Little Mountain has provided me with many fond memories that have given me a strong bond with that area,” commissioner Wally Johnson, a Republican said at the time. “[W]e must also consider and plan for how a development will play out in 10, 20 or even a 100 years from now. We owe that to the future generations of Wyomingites.”

Although the BLM’s local leaders had been able to postpone leases pending a landscape level plan for the area, “Secretary Zinke has rescinded that decision,” the Greater Little Mountain Coalition wrote Mead. “This leaves several important wildlife, fisheries and scenic areas open to being leased with antiquated [protections]” they said.

But scheduling lease sales in the area, “that’s good,” PAW’s Wagner said. “We were deferred for many years for sage grouse…. There are other [reasons for delays] happening as well.”

Zinke is not putting the cart before the horse, “because you have an existing plan in place,” Wagner said.

But Sorensen believes the cart is out front.

“It seems more like a conundrum now that all that acreage has been nominated without the [Resource Management Plan] being completed,” she said. The Zinke doctrine is backward in the view of the Wilderness Association’s Harrison, too. “We should update that [resource management] plan first before we start leasing everything,” she said.

The stakes

An ecosystem worth of wildlife is at risk, according to Rocky Mountain Wild, a group that tracks and maps leasing proposals and their conflicts with natural values. Core habitat for greater sage grouse, one of the last native bastions of genetically pure Colorado river cutthroat trout, areas identified by BLM as being of “critical environmental concern” and prairie dog colonies may be on the auction block. Leases could be sold adjacent to the Adobe Town, Red Creek Badlands and South Pinnacles wilderness study areas, the group says. Property within 10 miles of Fossil Butte National Monument could be leased along with other sensitive wild places.

Wilderness qualities would be lost near Adobe Town, the Wyoming Wilderness Association Harrison said. For example, the sight from the area’s Skull Rim is “the most profound view you could imagine.”

The GLMA covers some 500,000 acres and approximately 173,000 are being proposed for leasing, said TU’s Sorensen, who wrote Zinke asking him to postpone sales. “We have native Colorado River cutthroat trout,” an imperiled species,” she said in an interview. “It’s the farthest south in their native range. They’re actually genetically pure. It’s crucial range for antelope, mule deer and elk.”

The proposed December lease sales, shown by numbered boxes, would intrude into the Red Desert to Hoback mule deer migration corridor. (Sweetwater County)

“These lands provide irreplaceable habitats for world-class big game herds, sources of cold, clean water that sustain important fisheries, and recreation opportunities that are a way of life for Wyomingites,” her letter to Zinke says.

Sweetwater Commissioners, in their letter to Gov. Mead seeking support for leasing delays, referenced “the outstanding recreational opportunities provided by the Greater Little Mountain Area as well as the wildlife populations sustained by the Hoback to Red Desert Migration Corridor.”

Environmental review coming

The BLM must perform an environmental analysis before a parcel is put up for sale, but that’s no promise of conservation. The agency rejected environmental protests against Wyoming lease sales earlier this year.

“Obviously we’re aware of the issue,” Brad Purdy, BLM public affairs specialist told WyoFile. But, he said, it’s too early to comment substantively on what direction the BLM might lean.

Gov. Mead is similarly restrained. “The Governor appreciates the concerns expressed in the letter,” communications director Chris Mickey said of the Sweetwater commissioners’ correspondence. “He has heard from individuals, associations and companies and there are diverse perspectives and opinions.

“The Governor will have a chance to view additional material,” Mickey said in an email. “He will wait until he has a more complete picture before taking a final position.”

The environmental review will resolve the contentious issues, PAW’s Wagner suggested.

“We’re going to have to have public comment,” Wagner said. “With the migration corridor, we have a process set up in the state — with Game and Fish. They make recommendations to the BLM.”

There’s some hope from conservationists that another Zinke memo — this one touting the value of big game migrations — may reduce the negative environmental effects of the Trump administration’s energy dominance strategy.

The Greater Little Mountain Coalition has met with state officials several times, Sorensen said. “They are working toward sending a memo to Secretary Zinke to ask for a deferral in that Greater Little Mountain Area,” she said. “We’re trying to get a jump on this and asked secretary Zinke to come visit this area — defer leases until [the resource management plan] has been finalized. We want the Resource Management Plan to work where all the stakeholders have a voice.”

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The Muley Fanatics’ Coursey painted a heartfelt picture of the challenge his coalition faces. “If the BLM follows through on this proposed lease sale, that would spell the end of the collaborative effort around Little Mountain and endanger the big game herds and trout streams that are so beloved here in Wyoming,” he wrote in his opinion piece. “The desire to catch a trout in the high desert or draw a cherished elk or mule deer tag is strong. The desire to keep a piece of country as wild as it was when your grandfather hunted it is stronger than any political swing.

“In the small mountain towns and high desert communities of the West, we represent the steadfast commitment to conserve our wild places and uplift our communities. Now, we just need the same commitment from Secretary Zinke.”

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. The entire Trump administration is trying their hardest to destroy America. People, wake up!

  2. We need to protect the lands for our future generations to come and fish, hunt, camp and explore. Once these lands are sold or leased for development, there will be less access for outdoor activities and less habitat for animals.

  3. Though surprising in the vindictive, anti-science, anti-stewardship scope, this is just what we are becoming numb to by the republican appointees of this administration (so much for the “more local control” charade.) Zinke has been given a pass to avoid such actions in Montana where he will likely be running for office, but is doubling down on neighboring (red) states where there will be no consequences or backlash.

    So, the question is: how can we create consequences? (Apart from not voting a straight R ticket, which is just a bridge too far…) Jim Hightower always ends his pieces with a footnote about who to contact, but in this & all instances in Wyoming that would mean contacting our “representatives” with our objections. How’s that been working for us lately? Check Pete Jorgensen’s reply to this week’s Drake’s Take for the answer.

    What is left? Well, it ain’t what I’m singing here, dear choir members. I am thinking about running for county commissioner, how about you? In Colorado they are effectively making good, county-based (oh dear: ZONING!) protections on landscapes/wildlife habitat/watersheds that the locals most value. We may not get many votes, but it might at least raise the issues. Are we brave, mad or fed-up enough?