CHEYENNE — Gov. Mark Gordon released an executive order to conserve the state’s extensive migration corridors Thursday afternoon during a signing ceremony at the Wyoming State Capitol. The new order aims to preserve the critical routes used by Wyoming’s migrating big game herds while also protecting the state’s energy economy.
Largely concentrated in southwest Wyoming, migration corridors have for centuries served as vital routes for hoofed mammals like mule deer, pronghorn and elk. But population counts for some of these migratory animals have tumbled. The loss of critical habitat, like migration corridors, has in part contributed to the species’ decline, scientists say.
The governor’s newest executive order enshrines protections for three existing mule deer corridors — Sublette, Baggs and Platte Valley — and provides guidelines for designating additional routes.
The crux of the executive order comes down to how the state formally designates the migration corridors identified by scientists.
Under the new order, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department would identify a potential migration corridor based on scientific data. An in-depth evaluation and risk assessment on the corridor would follow. After opening up the proposed corridor to public comment, the agency would present the identified route to the governor for consideration. Gordon could then launch an “area working group” chaired with local residents and stakeholders before determining whether to officially designate the corridor.
Gordon alluded to the work of the group in his State of the State address Monday, where he announced the designation of a “handful” of migration corridors throughout the state intended to respect the science of migration as well as the concerns of landowners in the southwestern corner of the state, many of whom had seen projects delayed for months — or even years — due to uncertainty over their environmental impacts. This has presented critical delays for the drilling industry at a time when it faces increasing challenges.
In a statement, the Petroleum Association of Wyoming said the order relieves some of that regulatory burden while, at the same time, recognizing that “oil and natural gas production is more environmentally conscious than ever.”
“We appreciate that the Governor meaningfully engaged members of PAW in the process of developing his Executive Order,” the Petroleum Association of Wyoming said in a statement. “We look forward to a thoughtful implementation that recognizes the need for balance and avoids further regulatory creep at a time when the state needs oil and natural gas revenues more than ever.”
In an interview following his announcement, Gordon said the underlying environmental or wildlife concerns that remain in the process will be given their due consideration while still balancing the interests of industry and landowners, whose concerns represented the impetus for the bill.
“We don’t want to jump the gun and designate hundreds and hundreds of areas,” Gordon said. “That’s why I said ‘a handful of routes.’ We don’t want a land grab — this is absolutely not a spaghetti map. Part of this process was to say that spaghetti map was spooking a lot of landowners, members of industry. … We needed a place to start, based on the science, that would identify these routes.”
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Some of the success of his initiative, Gordon added, could be supported by a number of bills currently working their way through the Wyoming Legislature, including several bills to create new sources of revenue for the construction of critical wildlife crossings along those routes.
The new order comes after extensive public discussion during the governor’s first term about how to best manage the state’s migration corridors.
Last year, Gordon convened an advisory group three times to collect recommendations for the executive order. Using these recommendations, Gordon’s team released a draft executive order in late December and solicited public comment throughout the first month of the year.
Most recently, Gordon traveled to four communities across Wyoming on a listening tour dedicated to hearing comments from residents potentially affected by the new rules.
The Wyoming Legislature has also made moves to intervene in setting the ground rules around migration corridors. In October, the Legislature’s Natural Resource Committee voted to sponsor a new bill that also expands the corridor designation process beyond the purview of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
In October, Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, called the bill a “back-up plan” to Gordon’s executive order. Other committee members called it a “placeholder.”
But the most significant bill against Gordon’s order currently working through the Legislature might be a piece of legislation co-sponsored by Senate President Drew Perkins, House Speaker Steve Harshman and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Eli Bebout, which seeks to designate its own process for establishing migration corridors.
“I’ll put it quite frankly,” Gordon said when asked about that legislation. “All of this started because there was uncertainty about the southwest. It was important for Wyoming to take the lead so we could resolve some of that uncertainty in a way that was good for wildlife but also good for the fact that all of these oil and gas leases were being deferred.”
He argued that slowing that process down with new legislation was not worth the trouble, particularly after involving lawmakers in the process.
“That’s something I’m not interested in,” he said. “We’ve involved legislators all the way through this process, I’ve been available, and the drafting has had a lot of involvement from the Legislature.
“To me, that bill is unnecessary,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Game and Fish Department, along with the Wyoming Department of Transportation, launched a new initiative Thursday to curtail the number of animal deaths from vehicle collisions across the state.
“Our vision for all wildlife crossing projects is to ensure wildlife are able to easily and safely cross highways in order to access important seasonal habitats,” Brian Nesvik, director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said in a statement. “We’re partnering with the Wyoming Department of Transportation to reduce collisions and design roads with wildlife in mind.”