Along the Sweetwater and Sublette County line, just east of Farson, a number of parcels of federal land are up for lease to the oil and gas industry.
In the year and a half that President Donald Trump has been in the White House, interest in development on public lands in Wyoming and the West has increased. A record-breaking $1 billion lease sale closed in New Mexico recently and the two sales left in Wyoming this year will offer more than 1 million mineral acres for bid.
But tucked into this story of increasing industry optimism are issues that Wyomingites have juggled from one administration to another: federal land, wildlife and oil and gas.
This time, it’s mule deer.
The upcoming lease sales intersect the world’s largest charted mule deer migration corridor — and the only one that is designated as such by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
After sportsmen and the state raised the alarm about the corridor being leased, a few tracts fully within the corridor were removed from sale by the Interior Department, with a nod of thanks to Gov. Matt Mead and the Game and Fish Department. Others parcels were marked with a lease notice prescribing collaboration with the state on development.
But, the debate has not fizzled since these measures were announced; it’s barreled headfirst into a stalemate.
With the third quarter lease sale weeks away, groups like the Wyoming Outdoor Council are pressuring the Game and Fish Department and the governor to intercede. State and federal officials say they already have.
“I hope what people are asking us to do is defend the integrity of the migration corridor,” said Renny Mackay, spokesman for Game and Fish. “That’s what we’re going to do.”
Dealing with federal decisions
The debate over these tracts of land began in January, when the Interior Department decided that lease sales would proceed even in places where local management plans for the land were being rewritten — as they are in the migration region.
That set the stage, said Mead policy advisor Mike McGrady.
The governor’s office and Game and Fish raised concerns to the Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management about the corridor, as well as leases proposed in the Greater Little Mountain Area, a pristine wildlife habitat south of Rock Springs that’s treasured by sportsmen and conservationists.
“We were trying to work through a system and what we could come up with under the current administration’s policy with leasing is get deferral in the Greater Little Mountain Area,” McGrady said.
With regard to the corridor, the Game and Fish Department developed an interim solution, he said.
State wildlife officials advised BLM not to lease parcels that are more than 90 percent inside the corridor. With the parcels that overlap with the corridor, Game and Fish’s strategy is to keep activity limited to the land that lies outside of the corridor. The agency plans to do this using a lease notice.
The Bureau of Land Management has attached a lease notice to the overlapping parcels that obliges developers to collaborate with Game and Fish when developing a drilling plan.
“We don’t want development inside the corridors, but we think we can work with those companies,” said Mackay. “They are required to work with us.”
If an operator rebuffs the recommendations of the department, Game and Fish can object, forcing the Bureau of Land Management into an environmental analysis that holds up development and leads to public comment periods.
“We think that we are doing exactly what (these groups) call on us to do, which is exercise our voice on behalf of wildlife.”
A notice versus a stipulation
Groups pushing for action from Wyoming say too much is left to chance with the lease notices. They are punting a discussion of protections to a later stage, but there’s no assurance that restrictions will be placed on drilling, said Dan Heilig, senior conservation advocate at the Wyoming Outdoor Council.
“In today’s political environment with the emphasis on energy dominance, well-intentioned efforts here in Wyoming could be superseded by higher-ups in Washington,” he said.
Rather than using the lease notice mechanism to try and keep drilling out of the corridor, Heilig says the state should be advocating for a stronger restriction that federal agencies use to limit development: stipulations.
Stipulations can preclude oil and gas firms from certain types of development, at certain times of the year or on certain acres. They are used, for example, to keep drilling away from sage grouse breeding grounds or limited to certain periods of the year when elk are using areas to forage.
Unlike a lease notice, a stipulation is specific and enforceable. It’s attached as a condition on the leasee’s rights.
But the Bureau of Land Management needs a resource management plan in place to develop a stipulation, noted BLM Spokeswoman Kristen Lenhardt, in an email Friday.
Esther Wagner, vice president of public lands for the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, said she wasn’t familiar with the details of each parcel coming up in the quarterly sales, but she believed existing stipulations like those for big game winter ranges or sage grouse habitat already limit some of the parcels. There are a number of restrictions in place meant to protect other species and many limit development for long periods of the year, she added.
Industry can coexist within this corridor, Wagner said.
There’s been a wave of interest in energy development on public lands since Trump took office. Regulations that have troubled oil and gas firms or states like Wyoming have been targeted by the administration for either holding up economic development or traipsing on state authority.
Many in industry perceived the latter years of the Obama administration as a period of aggression on all things fossil fuel. Much of Obama’s term overlapped with record growth in U.S. oil and gas development as fracking took hold, but numerous regulations in the president’s second term targeted industry.
Under the new administration, the timeline for leasing has been sped up as have other processes slowed by red tape.
“Presumably, they think these sales have been slowed down over the years and they want them to move along,” said Reid West, Sweetwater County Commissioner. “In many respects I could probably agree with that.”
But for county officials like West, encouragement of oil and gas doesn’t have to mean threatening the mule deer that trek along the southern side of the Wind River Range and spill into the desert.
“This is a pretty big deal, this migration corridor,” he said. “It’s really important that we offer protections.”
Lenhardt, of the Bureau of Land Management, says there’s no rush with these leases, but in keeping with the secretarial order, the agency is proceeding with these leases sales.
“The secretary (Zinke) is serious about the big game migration corridors, which is evidenced by his partnerships with the state of Wyoming,” Lenhardt said. “We have already been successful in adding protection to thousands of acres in previous migration corridors and look forward to increasing the number.”
That policy from Zinke also directs the Wyoming Bureau of Land Management to parcels across the state in every sale, rather than doing them regionally, she said in an email Friday.
“That means that parcels may be nominated and analyzed in this area more frequently instead of every other sale,” Lenhardt said.
Bread and butter
Sweetwater County knows that the oil and gas industry fuels the state, and the county. But the commission noted in a public comment to the Bureau of Land Management that the mule deer corridor shouldn’t be leased for development, not until local management plans are complete.
“It’s difficult. We know what butters our bread down here and oil and gas is a huge part of that,” said West. “It’s not like we don’t understand our need for industrial development, we do. But that’s also why we think it doesn’t ask too much to ask them to protect this migration corridor.”
For locals, the upcoming resource management plan developed by the local BLM staff could solve the dispute over the corridor. It will provide steps to mitigate development. West said he was surprised that the corridor was being leased at all given the work being done locally to update those plans.
It appears that the decisions about Wyoming are not being made in the state, he said.
“I think from what I can gather it’s due to a new administration (in Washington) and Department of the Interior. That’s the best I can gather,” he said. “It seems like to some extent, the decision on whether to proceed with these lease sales has been taken away from local BLM hands.”
What’s the risk?
Mule deer like to go where they’ve gone before. But development can change that.
A University of Wyoming study released last year showed a 40 percent decline in the mule deer population using the Pinedale Anticline during the winter. The 17-year study found that the deer simply do not like oil and gas development.
They move more quickly through developed areas. They stop less to forage and they come out of spring with less of the fat needed to sustain them through winter. Herds weaken and numbers can decline significantly.
Just last week, University of Wyoming researcher Brett Jesmer added another groundbreaking study to the story of ungulate migration. Unlike birds, which have an uncanny instinct to migrate, big horn sheep and other big game pass that knowledge down by generation. When migration is severed, it can take decades, up to a century in some cases, for a path to be blazed again.
“Imagine you have a 150-mile migration,” said Matt Kauffman, of the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. “We can draw that line on a map, but in reality that corridor, it only exists in the memory of the animals of that herd who have learned to use it.”
What’s unclear to researchers like Kauffman is where the tipping point lies. How much development can mule deer take before it makes the path they are following unusable or insufficient?
Sportsmen and conservation groups appealed to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke over corridor leases, asking him to honor his secretarial order protecting big game migration. But with the compromise of taking some leases off the table and noticing others, groups are shifting pressure closer to home.
Heilig, of the outdoor council, said Wyoming’s voice resonates with federal agencies, that the governor has already demonstrated that influence in leading sage grouse conservation efforts in Wyoming that were then adopted by federal agencies.
McGrady, Mead’s policy advisor, said the lease notices should be viewed as a short-term approach to deal with these particular lease sales. When the resource management plan is complete, the discussion in Wyoming will continue.
“This all is very new,” he said. “We’ve got to take an initial step. This shouldn’t be seen as a long-term precedent on how things will be handled.”