Deer defenders fight for migration

February 23, 2019 GMT

Activists are once again pushing back on plans to sell oil and gas leases overlapping a celebrated migration path that funnels thousands of mule deer to the Wyoming and Gros Ventre ranges.

On Monday, the Bureau of Land Management will begin to auction thousands of acres of leases within the 150-mile-long passageway used by deer migrating from the Red Desert to the Hoback River basin. The route is the first wildlife migration corridor ever designated for protection by Wyoming.

This is the second time in sixth months that the BLM has offered leases in the corridor. The repetitiveness of the sales within the deer’s path — and there’s a third auction coming in March — traces to the Trump Administration’s “energy dominance” agenda, which forced the BLM to offer up land to extractive industry across the state every quarter (previously quarterly sales were regional). That frenzied pace of leasing has mobilized sportsmen and environmentalists who have set out to protect the longest-known mule deer migration in the world.


“We must act now to defend this world-renowned corridor and other habitat that big-game herds rely on for survival,” Wyoming Outdoor Council executive director and valley resident Lisa McGee wrote in a Jackson Hole News&Guide opinion piece this week. “The only surefire way to sustain Wyoming’s mule deer herds is to say no to oil and gas development in their most vital habitats.”

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Wyoming Wildlife Federation and Muley Fanatic Foundation have also been vocally lobbying to keep the corridor clear of leases. When a petroleum producer acquires a lease on federal property it has 10 years to apply to drill on the land, which then triggers another environmental review.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has been highly influential in the leasing process, and so far the BLM has deferred whatever for-sale parcels state biologists recommend be removed. Both the state and federal agencies aspire to protect migration routes from industrial development, but conservationists say the concessions to wildlife aren’t going far enough.

At this point, Game and Fish’s criteria for recommending that a parcel in the migration route be withdrawn from sale is if it is 90 percent or more within the designated corridor, which totals 722 square miles. Since the BLM offered 21 square miles of the Red Desert-to-Hoback corridor during its September sale, state wildlife managers also started recommending that mule deer “stopover sites” — where migratory animals spends 95 percent of their time — also be withdrawn.


“We’re not excited about that 90-percent criteria that they’re using, but we like that they’re looking at stopover habitat now,” Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership staffer Nick Dobric said. “We’d like to see the Game and Fish also ask to defer the high-use routes. Ideally, in a perfect world, you’d defer within the entire corridor, but we understand the pressure from industry.”

Oil and gas companies nominated all of the parcels that are being tentatively offered for sale by BLM, and they cover a large area. In total during this quarterly statewide sale, some 583 parcels encompassing nearly 1,200 square miles of Wyoming’s public land were nominated — an area 2.5 times the size of Grand Teton National Park.

The BLM is offering just over 10 square miles for leasing within the Red Desert-to-Hoback migration path, according to Wyoming Outdoor Council GIS intern Henry Dodge. The total would have been 40 square miles, but 30 square miles were removed from the auction at Game and Fish’s request.

The ongoing debate about leasing in the migration path that fans out onto summer range around Bondurant figures to repeat itself come March 19 and 20. Another BLM lease sale, this time for 232 square miles statewide, will include another approximately 10 square miles within the designated migration path.

Midafternoon on Friday the BLM released a final decision that OK’d next week’s auction, and it included rationale for dismissing and denying protests that were submitted by the Wyoming Outdoor Council and other groups.

“There’s always a potential for subsequent additional actions to challenge oil and gas lease sales,” Outdoor Council senior conservation advocate and attorney Dan Heilig said.

The verdicts on litigation targeting how the BLM is leasing land are currently pending in two cases, including in Idaho, he said.

The public can follow along and participate in the BLM’s Wyoming sale online at EnergyNet.com. It starts Monday and goes all week.