A narrow corridor of land, beaten by the Sublette mule deer herd as it travels from the Red Desert to Hoback and back again, may be developed for oil and gas pending lease sales later this year.
The Bureau of Land Management announced Thursday that it has added 286,000 acres to a September auction, one of four held every year on federal land in Wyoming.
Some of those additional parcels cross the famous Sublette mule deer migration corridor. Conservation and sportsmen’s groups are already concerned about energy development in the area. The federal government may allow 700,000 acres of land along the deer’s path to be auctioned in December for oil and gas development.
The Bureau of Land Management has recently changed its policy regarding leasing, effectively speeding up the process in which oilmen propose land for lease, the agency reviews the proposals and the public weighs in.
The shift in policy meant that quite a bit of land was added late to the September sale.
Many sportsmen oppose the leases for now. They want a completed local land plan, which includes guidance on how to balance the migration corridor and industry, before the development is considered in the migration corridor.
Groups including the Muley Fanatic Foundation and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership Wyoming sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on May 2 regarding the December sale. They want Zinke to follow guidance from his own secretarial order, supporting hunting and wildlife corridors.
The land included in the September auction is even more concerning that the parcels set to be auctioned off in December, said Nick Dobric, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership Wyoming field representative.
The land covers a narrower band of the mule deer’s existing route, leaving little room for the herd to avoid any new development.
“Selling these leases without applying Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s order on wildlife migration threatens the future of this prized mule deer herd,” Dobric said in an email. “The BLM has an important and immediate opportunity to do right by sportsmen and wildlife by deferring these leases.”
The 150-mile migration corridor, discovered in 2012, is the longest known mule deer route in the world. Last year, a study that rocked the sportsmen’s community found that a gas boom in the Pinedale Anticline had cut wintering mule deer numbers by about 40 percent.
The study, based on 17 years of data, reported that deer would evade wells and roads, sometimes losing access to good habitat, even after the initial disturbance of drilling was complete.
Esther Wagner, vice president of public lands at the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, said the Pinedale study focused on a unique area. Drilling techniques have also advanced since the time of the Pinedale development, meaning far fewer wells, roads and pads on the surface are needed, she said.
“There’s no reason to believe that drilling and resource extraction are inconsistent with protection of migration corridors,” she said.
The mule deer debate also highlights changes going on at the Bureau of Land Management. Under the new leasing policy, interested drillers will be able to propose parcels up to six months before a quarterly lease sale, in contrast to prior practice, which cut off nominations about a year before the sale.
The four yearly lease auctions will no longer be rotated by district, but occur statewide every quarter, according to the new policy.
In short, industry will have additional time to suggest land for bidding and more areas of the state will be open for leasing in each sale. The agency will still do the same environmental analyses that it has always done, in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act.
There will just be less time to do it.
The public will generally have two weeks to protest following the agency’s environmental analysis of the propose land.
Existing local management plans do not provide guidance for mule deer traveling along the migration coordinator, said Courtney Whiteman, a spokesman for the BLM.
Though the agency and its local and state partners have done extensive work regarding mule deer in preparation for the new plan, the BLM has yet to release a draft.
“Legally, we have to go by the one that’s in place,” she said.
“Our previous land use plan that’s in effect right now, it didn’t prohibit leasing in that corridor. How we deal with things like that (is) specific to each parcel through stipulations.”
That could mean time constraints on drilling during migration seasons or other mitigation measures, she said.
“Now I don’t know if we will, but we generally have stipulations on every parcel to protect the environment,” Whiteman said.
It’s a point that industry groups like the Petroleum Association of Wyoming stress as well – that leasing is not synonymous with unfettered development.
The public has until June 7 to weigh in on the proposed parcels. After review, the federal agency will respond to protests that it finds substantial.