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Conservation groups and sportsmen are asking federal land managers to keep oil and gas leases out of a famous mule deer migration corridor in southwest Wyoming, at least until a regional plan exists to mitigate energy development.

The 150-mile corridor runs from the Red Desert to an area called Hoback south of Jackson. It is the longest recorded mule deer migration in the world and has attracted significant attention since it was discovered in 2012.

Later this year, the Bureau of Land Management will hold an oil and gas lease sale with seven parcels of land, totaling 700,000 acres, located in the mule deer corridor, sportsmen say.

Groups including the Muley Fanatatic Foundation, the Wyoming Federation of Union Sportsmen and the Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation are asking federal land managers to defer those leases until the BLM’s Rock Springs field office has released the Green River Resource Management Plan — a broad bundle of policies and directives on everything from oil and gas development to mule deer.

A revised edition of the plan — which was last updated in 1997 — is expected this year. The lease sale in question is set for December.

Josh Coursey, president of the Muley Fanatic Foundation, said the management plan is the result of community participation, from sportsmen to oil and gas developers. Without that document, the federal agency should not move forward with oil and gas leasing in the corridor, he said.

“This kind of undermines that process,” he said. “It really kind of pulls the rug under ya.”

The Bureau of Land Management’s Rock Springs field office does not currently have a spokesman. The state office did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Managing mule deer

Wyoming’s mule deer population is managed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. But unlike the state’s approach to other species, such as the imperiled sage grouse, Game and Fish does not have specific policies regulating oil and gas development in the mule deer corridor. Instead, the agency looks at leases on a case-by-case basis, and makes recommendations to the Bureau of Land Management on how to deal with drilling in the deer’s migration corridor, said Angie Bruce, habitat protections supervisor for Game and Fish.

“We’re not the permitting authority, (so) that’s all we can do,” she said. “It’s more about working with the BLM and the local person who gets the lease and saying, ‘How can we do this to make the least impact on mule deer?’”

The parcels proposed for the December sale are being evaluated by the state department. Its recommendations will be publicly available after the BLM releases a draft environmental analysis for the lease sale, Bruce said.

Federal oil and gas lease sales have brought significant revenue to the state of Wyoming over last year. As the price of oil has improved, and the agency moved to an online bidding system, the number of parcels leased for potential drilling have increased. However, the improved interest in drilling has drawn attention to the energy development that could take place in certain habitats, particularly those belonging to the greater sage grouse.

Mule deer face many of the same challenges to sage grouse, a bird that’s instigating significant conservation investment from the state. Like the bird, the deer’s population has fallen over the last 50 years due in part to fragmented habitat, weather impacts like drought and energy development.

Avoiding infrastructure

Existing concerns about mule deer habitats and oil and gas deepened last year when the University of Wyoming released a study based on 17 years of data on mule deer in the Pinedale Anticline. Once the largest gas field in the country, Pinedale appears to have put significant pressure on mule deer numbers, which declined by 36 percent.

The deer avoided infrastructure, even after the noisy activity of construction had petered out. Some years they strayed closer to wells and pads, others they eked out a living on fragments of good habitat or on the edges, according to the study, “Mule deer and energy development—Long-term trends of habituation and abundance.”

Some of the proposed leases lie within the mule deer’s winter range, the groups argue in a May 2 letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

“A common misperception is mule deer ‘acclimate’ or ‘habituate’ to energy development, but long-term studies show deer continue to avoid infrastructure more than ten years after development,” the letter states, quoting from the Mule Deer Working Group’s fact sheet.

Coursey, of the Muley Fanatic Foundation, said the resource management plan represents the best approach for managing the different uses of federal land, from hunting to energy, he said.

“By no means are we against oil and gas. We know the importance of our energy needs for the nation,” he said. “The best-case scenario is to be mindful of the impact so that we aren’t reactive five years from now.”

In their letter to the interior secretary, the sportsmen groups note Zinke’s Secretarial Order 3362, Improving Habitat Quality in the Western Big-game Winter Range and Migration Corridors, and request that the Interior Department provide further guidance before leasing moves forward. The letter was also sent to the BLM Wyoming State Director Mary Jo Rugwell, Gov. Matt Mead and Wyoming’s congressional delegates.

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Energy Reporter

Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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