By Angus M. Thuermer
A protest letter from a consortium of land users hasn’t derailed or even delayed Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s effort to designate two new wildlife migration corridors, the agency’s deputy chief of wildlife said Monday.
Two stockgrowers’ associations, two farming entities, two extractive industry coalitions and the Wyoming County Commissioners Association last month asked Game and Fish to “suspend the designation of ungulate migration corridors,” until their effect on the oil and gas leasing process is clarified.
“The WGFD is not considering the presence of private surface and/or minerals…” the letter reads “…creating a potential takings [sic] of private minerals…” the protesting groups wrote (see letter below). Known as the natural resources coalition, the informal consortium includes Wyoming Stockgrowers and Wyoming Wool Growers associations, the Wyoming petroleum and mining associations, Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation and Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts.
They asked for the suspension of designations and clarifications until “counties and landowners are involved in the development of management strategies.”
The latest machinations are a delay, and a disturbing one, wrote Rob Shaul, board president of the nonprofit hunting advocacy organization Mountain Pursuit. “The agency announced public meetings and asked for public comment starting in early February,” he wrote in a statement. “These industry groups were given plenty of notice and time to share their perspectives when the rest of us did.
“By delaying designation over these last minute concerns from industry, Game&Fish Department leadership has loudly pushed aside hard biological science because of political controversy,” he wrote.
But even before receiving the March 21 letter, Game and Fish wasn’t ready to immediately designate the two new corridors or use them as basis for leasing recommendations, Game and Fish Deputy Chief of Wildlife Doug Brimeyer said. Game and Fish had called for more public comments this month and expected to analyze that before the corridors become official through a “seasonal range update.” Brimeyer would make that update after consulting with the appointed citizen Wyoming Game and Fish Commission.
The agency is now “basically circling back with those folks that have drafted the letter,” Brimeyer said. “We want to better understand their concerns.”
“The letter hasn’t really done anything,” Brimeyer told WyoFile. “We are still evaluating public comment. We don’t have a deadline.”
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is responsible for managing wildlife within the state’s borders, but has no direct land management authority over the vast majority of federal, state and private ground that the animals depend on. Instead, the agency collaborates with property holders — offers data, expertise and comments as a stakeholder in public processes and works with private landowners — to ensure that the needs of wildlife are represented in land use decisions.
Identifying critical habitat areas and establishing objectives for them is one way the agency accomplishes this aim. Crucial winter range and parturition areas, for example, have long been focuses for wildlife professionals. Migration corridors have, in light of relatively new science — much of it developed in Wyoming — only recently begun to receive similar priority.
Game and Fish has cited known migration corridors in requests for oil and gas leasing deferrals from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The BLM has attached special wildlife notices to other parcels overlapping migration corridors asking bidders to coordinate development with the Game and Fish.
Game and Fish Department held public meetings in recent months over its mapping of the Sublette Pronghorn Corridor and Wyoming Range Mule Deer Corridor — each more than 100 miles long — and methods to protect them.
The natural resource coalition’s protest letter to Deputy Director Scott Smith was dated March 21, the first day of a two-day Game and Fish Commission meeting at which Smith presented the results of public outreach on corridors. That effort involved six meetings across the state that drew a total of what Smith estimated was 200 persons.
Wyoming Game and Fish Department has proposed five migration corridors since 2016 and designated three. They include the Red-Desert-to-Hoback Mule deer route, officially known as the Sublette Mule Deer Migration Corridor. There are mule deer corridors designated near Baggs and in the Upper North Platte River valley, plus the two new proposed ones in Sublette and Lincoln counties. Agency policy calls for “no significant declines in species distribution, abundance or loss of habitat function,” on the routes, some of which are more than 100 miles long.
There could be scores more corridors delineated, said Wyoming County Commissioners’ Association Executive Director Jeremiah Rieman; “I’ve heard 20 or 30 more,” he told WyoFile.
Leasing restrictions could isolate private mineral rights, he said. With restrictions, energy companies might not be able to lease a sufficiently sized parcel of federal property to develop. Consequently, a nearby private mineral rights owner might also have to forgo development.
“Their minerals or mineral rights are stranded,” and inaccessible, Rieman said.
Furthermore, “coordination and outreach has been lacking throughout the process,” Rieman said. “Commissioners have voiced to me they want a broader opportunity to comment.”
The commissioners group and the other letter signers meet “fairly regularly” as the “natural resources coalition” to discuss such issues and see whether they need to comment together, Rieman said. The coalition is six or seven years old, has no chairman and “nothing formal to it,” he said. “This is a piece that came up,” he said of the migration corridors.
“I don’t discount that the department has hosted a number of community meetings across the state and there have been commissioners and staff that have participated,” Rieman said. But, “there’s an expectation there is some government-to-government communication,” he said. The commissioners’ association is not a government entity, but the groups’ letter requests coordination with individual county boards.
“We request the WGFD include the local boards of county commissioners, along with all affected landowners, early and throughout the process to designate corridors and the specific management strategies, including lease deferral recommendations, prior to submission to state and federal agencies,” the protest letter reads.
In addition to the other worries, “there’s a bit of concern about what criteria are being used to designate those corridors and [whether that] has been properly articulated,” Rieman said. Game and Fish provided some of that information at its statewide meeting.
Researchers from a variety of agencies including Grand Teton National Park followed 111 pronghorn fitted with tracking collars and tracked 230 individual migrations over 12 years to create the Sublette Pronghorn Corridor outline.
Researchers, including many with University of Wyoming’s Wyoming Migration Initiative, captured and collared 126 mule deer and tracked 505 migration sequences over four years before Game and Fish lined-out the Wyoming Range Mule Deer Migration Corridor.
Even before they’re officially publicly designated, identified migration routes can affect agency actions.
Deputy director Smith told Game and Fish commissioners at their March meeting that “there’s still disagreement to our approach going forward on oil gas leasing.” The BLM agreed to defer leasing four parcels — one in Sublette County and three in the Upper North Platte Valley — during its second-quarter oil and gas leasing sale.
The deferrals are to give the BLM time to develop stipulations — legally binding restrictions — that would guide development.
The Office of State Lands and Investments also agreed to defer leasing on 11 parcels it was set to auction on school trust lands, “to refine the stipulations,” that would govern development in migration corridors, Smith told commissioners.
Those parcels could be rescheduled for sale in July, giving the office and Game and Fish an opportunity to “sit down and negotiate the verbiage,” Smith told commissioners.
A review of the latest oil and gas lease sale by the state shows 11 parcels totaling 3,921 acres were withdrawn from the auction. The state sold another 54,098 acres, announcing total auction revenue of $4.5 million and total auction bonuses of $4.4 million.
Migration corridor designation does not affect private lands, Game and Fish officials have said. The major projects undertaken on private holdings involve the modification of fences to make wildlife passage safer, modifications that are voluntary and frequently supported with outside aid.
Still, restricting development on public lands may have unintended consequence for private property, Rieman said.
Game and Fish’s migration corridor strategy is already misaligned with other efforts, wrote Linda Baker, director of the Upper Green River Coalition, a conservation group that doesn’t believe existing protections are strong enough.
“The Strategy proposes to assess potential threats on a case-by-case basis,” she wrote in an email. “However, this contradicts a range-wide management strategy long utilized by both the WGFD and BLM.
“Migration corridors cannot be considered and managed by themselves,” she wrote, “but are integral parts of much larger summer, winter, and transitional ranges.”
Game and Fish recommends only consultation from energy companies that lease a parcel with as little as 10 percent of its acreage outside a migration corridor — and up to 90 percent inside. “…[T]hey are unable to cite any scientific studies or analysis that can justify the 90 percent rule,” she wrote.
“The indirect impacts to wildlife populations from the noise, traffic, and year-round habitat disturbance on a lease extend for a mile or more and are just as disruptive to wildlife as direct impacts,” she wrote. “There is no justification to allow drilling and production that close to migration corridors that are considered ‘vital’.”
Hunting advocate Shaul also worries about wildlife under threat. Citing Game and Fish data, he wrote that the Sublette Pronghorn Herd is 25 percent below the population objective of 48,000 animals and the Wyoming Range Mule Deer Herd is 23.8 percent below the objective of 40,000 animals.
Brimeyer said having more communication with groups like the Wyoming County Commissioners’ Association is “not unlike anything we’ve done in the past.” At community meetings when attendees had worries about a designation, the agency did the same thing, he said.
“To some degree, several of the groups had been engaged from the first part of the meetings,” he said. “We’ve had county commissioners engaged from various counties. Sublette has been pretty engaged, Sweetwater as well.”
“For some of these herd units we’ve sent out 4,000 emails,” alerting residents and interested parties about the meetings and corridor maps, he said. “We’ve had our field personnel take a lot of time — they take a lot of pride in the [communication] with local stakeholders.
“I wouldn’t say we are disappointed,” Brimeyer said of the letter. “We’re always willing to take time to reach out to them. We can always learn from the feedback we’re getting and continue to improve things.”
The protest groups are interested in preserving the corridors and wildlife, Rieman said. “We all understand the importance of migration corridors to large ungulate herds. We can all understand and see the Hoback-to-Red-Desert migration corridor and get a sense of it.”
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.