Potential oil and gas development that would crisscross a famous mule deer migration corridor on federal land will be delayed following pushback from Wyoming hunters.
The Interior Department announced Tuesday that about 5,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land would be precluded from oil and gas lease sales for the time being and additional parcels in the migration route would only be leased with a rider mandating collaboration with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
“This decision gives the public and those involved in the (development of land management policy in the area) time to work on steps that balance wildlife needs with energy development needs,” Gov. Matt Mead said in a statement included with the Interior announcement. “Wyoming will continue to work with the Department of the Interior to strike that balance.”
Energy development on public land has become a high priority under the Trump Administration, causing friction with some conservation groups and hunters. In Wyoming, where broad stretches of land are managed by the federal government and robust oil and gas development is key to economic stability, the administration’s new priorities have sparked significant pushback.
Mead has been a moderating voice in a number of these conflicts, most notably in the conflict over sage grouse management on public land. Despite strong state management plans, instigated by former Gov. Dave Freudenthal and fostered under Mead, the debate over federal plans continues with deep divisions of opinion in Mead’s covey of partners.
But when land proposed for oil and gas lease sales intersected the Sublette mule deer herd’s migration route from the Red Desert to the cool mountain area of Hoback — the only corridor currently designated by the state’s game and fish department — organizations like the Muley Fanatic Foundation wrote a letter directly to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke asking for a stay on leasing.
They noted a 17-year University of Wyoming study that documented mule deer’s acute sensitivity to oil and gas development. About 36 percent of the herd’s numbers in the Pinedale area evaporated as deer avoided oil and gas wells. The hunters also appealed to Zinke’s Secretarial Order 3362, which calls for improved habitat and management in migration corridors, a nod to the former U.S. representative for Montana’s self-imposed title as a Teddy Roosevelt politician.
The Bureau of Land Management, in coordination with Wyoming Game and Fish, identified nearly 5,000 acres of proposed parcels with at least 90 percent of the surface in the migration corridor. Those leases will be deferred until the local Bureau of Land Management office in Rock Springs has completed a revision to its management plans. Those plans will include updated guidance on how to develop in the mule deer route — which was designated after the existing plans.
Protecting migration corridors from development in Wyoming continues to be a concern for groups like the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. State lease sales in undesignated corridors — like the potential Baggs mule deer corridor — continue to include land in areas contested by conservation groups. The delayed leasing in 5,000 acres still leaves 15,000 acres within the seasonal range for the deer that are open for potential development, said Nick Dobric, Wyoming field representative for the TRCP.
“We must find a balance,” Dobric said in an email Tuesday. “Being cautious now, as we are still learning the significance of this corridor to the world’s longest mule deer migration, will ensure that we are making the best possible plans for the future of our wildlife.”
Meanwhile, leasing in sage grouse areas has become a quarterly issue as federal and state lands often overlap with the bird’s habitat in Wyoming. Proponents, including Mead, argue that the bird’s protections do not preclude leasing in key habitats. Limitations to mitigate for the bird are included when operators move in to drill wells and produce hydrocarbons.
The department’s announcement Tuesday roped in Wyoming’s governor as a partner in the decision and listed a bevy of congratulatory statements to Mead, Zinke and Game and Fish Director Scott Talbott.
Zinke noted the gains in technology that limit how drilling marks the surface of the land and that the lease deferrals would maintain an appropriate balance of interests on public land.
“Balancing the conservation of habitat and the responsible development of resources ensures the best outcome for the people and wildlife that rely on our federal lands,” he said. “I’m thankful to Governor Mead for his commitment to my vision for protecting big game corridors and multiple use of federal lands.”