Dozens of biologists and wildlife experts from Wyoming and neighboring states have asked the Interior Department to delay leasing any land parcels for oil and gas that overlap with Wyoming’s most well-known designated mule deer migration corridor.
The 150-mile route traveled by mule deer every year has become a pinch point for the state of Wyoming, its Game and Fish Department, hunters and the Bureau of Land Management.
Under the Trump administration’s push to unleash energy development from what it considers unnecessary federal burdens, the BLM has increased its efforts to lease minerals.
The agency has shortened public timelines, sped up environmental reviews and now holds statewide sales four times a year, compared to the regional sales of prior years. The agency’s efforts led to a significant boost in leasing income for Wyoming and the feds last year.
But parcels that would pinch the mule deer corridor instigated pushback from the state, hunters and biologists who say mule deer’s recorded dislike of oil and gas development needs to be considered if the corridor is to be preserved.
The state brokered a compromise to stay parcels inside the corridor, while those that overlapped would carry a notice to oil and gas developers to encourage future activity outside of the deer’s route.
But for many in Wyoming, that compromise falls short of protecting the Hoback-to-Red Desert corridor for limited gain, in part because notices are far weaker than protections that could be developed if the agency were given time to put those in local management plans.
“I think there is room for everyone to step up and do more,” said Chris Steffen, director of operations for the Muley Fanatic Foundation. “When you look at what’s been deferred or put off as it pertains to that migration corridor, it’s really been insignificant.”
More than 50 biologists, both current and former federal and state employees, have voiced their support of the foundation’s stance that no leases should intersect with the corridor until federal guidelines are created to ensure development doesn’t damage wildlife resources.
“The ability of big game to utilize seasonal habitats across great distances is critical for sustaining the robust herds of wildlife that we know and enjoy across many areas of the American West,” they wrote in a recent letter to Interior Department Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt.
Signers of the letter include former Wyoming game warden Rep. Bill Haley, R-Centennial, former habitat biologist for Game and Fish, Dan Stroud, and 40-year veteran of the state’s wildlife agency and retired biologist Gary Butler. State and federal wildlife specialists with decades of experience at agencies in Utah, Nevada and Montana also signed the letter. Other signatories include federal biologists, wildlife specialists for NGOs like Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
The Red Desert to Hoback migration route was discovered in 2012. It is the longest mule deer migration corridor in the world and the first designated by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department -- the Platte Valley and Baggs mule deer migration corridors were designated in August and October, respectively. But a 17-year study from the University of Wyoming revealed how sensitive mule deer are to oil and gas wells.
They avoid them to the detriment of their health as they fatten up for Wyoming’s harsh winters. The corridor may also be vulnerable to generational disruptions if oil and gas development was to damage the corridor. Biologists have found that some big game migration is taught, passed down by mothers to their young, rather than the instinctual seasonal movement recorded in birds.
The biologists’ letter, like former protests from hunters and conservationists, calls on the Interior Department to adhere to a 2018 Secretarial Order from the recently-resigned Secretary Ryan Zinke. The order prioritized migration and habitat for big game. Biologists argue in their letter that the order requires additional policy be put in place so that federal agents on the ground have clear direction for how to protect “both emerging and known migration habitat.”
The letter calls for “immediate action” by the Interior to protect these habitats, due to increasing fossil fuel and renewable energy developments.
The Bureau of Land Management’s third oil and gas lease sale of 2018 contained a number of parcels that cross into the route that mule deer travel in western Wyoming and those parcels carried lease notices.
The BLM announced Friday that it had deferred seven parcels from a February oil and gas lease sale at the request of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, due to concerns for the migration corridor.
Editor's note: The original version of this story misstated the number of mule deer migration corridors designated by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. In addition to the Hoback route, the Game and Fish designated the Platte Valley Mule Deer Migration Corridor in August and the Baggs Mule Deer Migration Corridor in October.