Migration routes hit a bump
An alliance of advocacy groups representing industries from miners to sheepherders have, for now, stymied protections for migration routes that funnel pronghorn and mule deer to summer ranges around Jackson Hole and the Wyoming Range.
Receiving written concerns that range from oil and gas lease deferrals to private property rights, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department pumped the brakes on designating its fourth and fifth migration paths, which were vetted by the public this winter.
“I wouldn’t say that they’ve been suspended, but we’re going to take a little time to consider everyone’s thoughts on these last two designations that we’re working on,” Game and Fish Deputy Wildlife Chief Doug Brimeyer told the News&Guide on Tuesday. “We didn’t want our guys to be pushing forward with things given that recent correspondence.
“Is it delaying the process?” he said. “Maybe a little bit.”
The March 21 letter was sent to Game and Fish by the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, Wyoming Wool Growers Association, Petroleum Association of Wyoming, Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts, Wyoming Farm Bureau and Wyoming Mining Association. Up high in the two-page missive, the groups ask Game and Fish to “suspend the designation of ungulate migration corridors” until oil and gas lease deferral processes are clarified and counties and landowners consulted.
“As advocates for private property rights and the involvement of counties in resource management decision-making,” the letter said, “we request the [Game and Fish] include the local boards of county commissioners, along with all affected landowners.”
The letter calls for involving those parties early and keeping them in the loop throughout the stages of designating corridors and management strategies for safeguarding migrations. The letter emphasized that such consultations should happen before submitting migration path designations to state and federal agencies.
The letter is not hostile to protecting ungulate migrations conceptually, rather it said the groups “value” maintaining migration “functionality.”
Wyoming Stock Growers Association vice president and Rock Springs resident Jim Magagna’s interest in signing onto the letter was to clarify what activities will and won’t be allowed near designated corridors. How wildlife officials designate migrations and land managers regulate activities to protect such routes “ought to be separate,” he said, but are not.
“It isn’t [separate], because once you have the designation we’ll all lose a certain amount of control over how the [Bureau of Land Management] and other interests interpret it,” Magagna said. “We anticipate some of the environmental community will use those designations as a tool, as a reason to object to activities on federal lands and maybe private lands.”
Game and Fish’s Brimeyer said Wyoming’s migration policy imposes “no restrictions” on private lands. Migration-friendly modifications to private pasture land, like swapping out fences, he said, would be voluntary.
But Magagna worries there could be unintended consequences. Seven or so miles of the Red Desert-to-Hoback mule deer migration path — Game and Fish’s inaugural designation — runs through some of his grazing allotments at the foot of the Wind River Range. Scattered throughout, he said, are chunks of private land he owns, along with the mineral rights. Because the BLM won’t lease outlying acreage, industry wouldn’t be interested in his lands, so his mineral rights are in effect devalued.
“The way BLM and some other interests would respond to the designation of the corridor would preclude me from ever deriving an income from my minerals,” Magagna said. “Maybe that’s just the way it’s got to be.”
The migration paths that are in the queue to be designated include the route that popularized the concept of ungulate migration in the American West, a corridor known as the Path of the Pronghorn. The braided 100-plus-mile passageway, called the Sublette Pronghorn Migration by Game and Fish, stretches from Grand Teton National Park through the Gros Ventre, into the Green River Basin and south to near the Big Sandy River.
The Bridger-Teton National Forest recognized the route’s northernmost stretches in 2008, but its southern reaches on BLM winter range have so far escaped recognition. The corridor intersects the Pinedale Anticline and Jonah gas fields, pushing south into an fledgling 3,500-well gas field known as the Normally Pressured Lance. Wyoming Public Radio reported last week that Jonah Energy has applied to start drilling the field in the second half of this year.
Also on the table for Game and Fish is a mule deer migration route that traverses much of the Wyoming Range. The area has been a focal point for University of Wyoming researchers searching for answers about a large migratory mule deer herd that has struggled to recover from drought and severe winters. The proposed designation, maps show, weaves through the Wyoming and Salt ranges and points further west, delivering deer from Kemmerer and La Barge winter range to the summering grounds in places like the Greys River and Hoback Rim.
Migration designations in Wyoming are made by Game and Fish employees, and don’t require approval from the agency’s governor-appointed commission. Besides the Sublette Herd mule deer path stretching between the Red Desert and Hoback, the agency has also recognized migratory paths used by mule deer in the Baggs area and Platte Valley.
Wildlife advocates had mixed takes on the in-limbo status of the Sublette pronghorn and Wyoming Range mule deer migrations. Upper Green River Alliance Director Linda Baker said she was baffled as to why the organizations that coalesced to slow the designations did not weigh in during six public meetings held in February.
“Did they submit letters, or did they just wait so they could have backroom meetings?” Baker said. “They had that opportunity to speak up, and they didn’t.”
Her frustrations fell on the industry groups, not Game and Fish.
“I think they have been very brave and strong since the beginning of implementing this policy, not only because of its importance but its controversial nature,” Baker said. “Now look what happened. It’s the firestorm they might have expected, but they did it anyway. I’m proud of them.”
None of the eight groups that signed the letter submitted formal comments earlier in the process, Brimeyer said.
The Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts and Petroleum Association of Wyoming did not respond to requests for comment by press time Tuesday.
A number of Lincoln County ranchers, Brimeyer said, did come out to the Kemmerer meeting and were skeptical about the Wyoming Range migration designation.
For other folks who lobby on behalf of wildlife, alarm bells aren’t yet ringing about Game and Fish’s decision to press pause.
“This is a fairly new process, in terms of migration,” said Nick Dobric, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s Wyoming representative. “Wyoming has been a leader on this issue for a long time and we’re still figuring it out — just like the sage grouse — and we’re going to continue to face obstacles.
“I just see this as a small bump, and I’m confident that with good leadership the Game and Fish and governor’s office will resolve some of these concerns,” he said. “How valid [the concerns] are, I’m not sure.”
Wyoming Wildlife Federation’s Jackson Hole-based director, Dwayne Meadows, was also OK with slowing the designations down.
“When I read it, that letter didn’t seem like they were against the conservation or even the designation of migration corridors,” Meadows said. “They just wanted clear policy and more people at the table, and I’m fine with that.”
Game and Fish has no schedule for getting the migration designations back on track, Brimeyer said. The eight groups have agreed to sit down with state wildlife officials, Magagna said, but no meeting has been set.
“I don’t expect that we will go in with a specific set of demands, other than saying we need to enhance the conversation,” Magagna said. “Whether it takes weeks or two months or a year will depend largely on how much Game and Fish is responsive to our concerns.”