Most Wyomingites would cast a vote in favor of wildlife-friendly policies as long as they do not hurt the state’s economic growth, results from a new poll published by the University of Wyoming and the Ruckelshaus Institute revealed.
In May, a research team distributed the poll to 400 Wyoming voters and organized an online focus group of 20 residents to ask an array of questions about a defining part of the state’s identity — its migrating animal populations. The responses showed a unifying vision to harmonize conservation needs with the realities of an energy-dependent economy.
A vast majority of participants — 88 percent — said Wyoming’s wildlife was “very important or extremely important” in their lives, according to the poll results. In turn, 85 percent indicated that wildlife was important to the economy, too.
Wildlife-related activities funnel about $72 billion in tax revenue to the state, and supply almost 10,000 jobs, according to research by the University of Wyoming.
“Residents see the importance of wildlife, but also recognize that there are economic impacts to the conservation strategies,” said Nicole Gautier, a University of Wyoming research scientist involved with the poll. “I think that takeaway message is to try and strike a balance between healthy (animal) populations and economic development.”
Calls to protect populations of mule deer, antelope, elk and moose have often clashed with industry ambitions to expand oil and gas development in the state, especially in areas like the Red Desert, where Sublette mule deer herds travel.
The uptick in leasing public land for oil and gas development has further threatened the dwindling migration corridors for mule deer, several conservation groups have said.
Nearly half of respondents agreed, saying development in migration paths was a major threat to mule deer migration patterns.
Conservation groups, such as the Wyoming Outdoor Council, have historically objected to the Bureau of Land Management’s leasing of land parcels for oil and gas expansion across Wyoming’s grasslands.
But Pete Obermueller, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, said the issue was not that simple. He thinks supporting energy extraction and conserving migration corridors do not have to be mutually exclusive.
“We’ve shown a willingness to work with Wyoming on a case-by-case basis to ensure the functionality of migration corridors,” he said.
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What’s more, advancements in technology have mitigated disturbances to mule deer populations, he said.
“The land-use impact — that is, the intense disturbances that mule deer try to avoid — oil and gas have moved away (from that) in a dramatic fashion,” Obermueller said. “We are shifting in the right direction.”
Connie Wilbert, director of Sierra Club Wyoming Chapter, thinks it’s not unreasonable to designate critical habitats where drilling cannot occur.
“I understand the oil and gas industry’s position — they are now able to drill and develop with more sensitivity to wildlife,” she said. “But I would also suggest that some of these core wildlife habitats ... are also extremely important to this state. The people who live here know this, they recognize the value of these wildlife resources and they want to see them protected.”
The poll cited a number of potential policy changes that could protect the state’s mule deer populations from the threats of highways, private properties and expanding industries cutting through the natural landscape.
Potential solutions include the construction of over- or underpasses so animals can walk undisturbed across heavily trafficked areas and avoid collisions. Or new fences that give animals the possibility of leaping over without injury if they intersect with key migration corridors.
Drew Bennett helped lead the poll and is a professor in the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources. In a statement, he said the study indicates that “Wyoming voters support a range of policies to maintain big-game migration corridors.”
“Voters overwhelmingly support actions such as constructing new overpasses to allow animals to cross highways in key areas and clearly recognize the human safety and economic benefits these structures provide from reducing vehicle collisions,” he said.
On a federal level, former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke in 2018 signed an order to work with Western states, including Wyoming, to help maintain migratory big-game species. And Wyoming also boasts its own initiatives to understand the movement of its wildlife and recognize the ancient migratory pathways etched into Wyoming’s landscapes. Last month, Gov. Mark Gordon set into motion a task force in an effort to advance new policies.
Researcher Gautier presented her team’s findings to the Big Game Migration Corridor Advisory Group this week in Lander.
“Hopefully this document can support their work and help them make informed decisions,” she said. “I think it shows how much residents value wildlife, whether that is for hunting, viewing or as the identity and character of Wyoming.”