Debate over the fate of Wyoming’s bustling migration corridors dominated a packed natural resource committee meeting Wednesday in Casper. State lawmakers and key stakeholders wrestled over how to maintain both a robust energy industry and healthy environment for the state’s iconic migratory game.
Ultimately, committee members voted to sponsor a new bill that could overhaul how the state regulates migration corridors and expand the corridor designation process beyond the purview of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
But heated testimony from critics of the bill revealed there may be too many cooks in the kitchen working to solve the tensions swirling around migration corridors.
Gov. Mark Gordon has also been in the process of amending migration corridor policy. He intends to release a draft executive order for public comment in December, according to senior policy adviser Renny MacKay.
On Wednesday, MacKay pressed lawmakers to set aside the draft legislation until after Gordon completes an executive order, or risk inconsistent policies across the state.
The Governor’s Migration Corridor Advisory Group submitted a set of recommendations for the executive order in September. The diverse group suggested implementing local working groups before the state formally designates new corridors. This step would be in addition to the directives offered by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the agency that currently identifies migration corridors.
“You have all these people who have invested all this time in this process that is just now running its course. … We don’t want to set up a conflict in the Legislature,” MacKay said during his testimony. “We’re proposing that the decision-making is all made at the executive branch. I think we have a couple of great remedies ahead of us, if you let this process play out.”
But the majority of lawmakers decided to forge ahead with the bill. Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, said the bill would not conflict with the timeline of the executive order.
“We don’t see this (bill) as preemptive to the executive order,” Boner said to MacKay. “It’s not possible for us to do anything until February and it’s not possible for us to preempt our governor’s order. This is important enough that it deserves a back-up plan.”
Several lawmakers referred to the bill “a placeholder.”
A time of decline
The responsibility of state agencies to protect migration pathways and their intrepid travelers has been a recurrent sore spot for Wyoming industry groups, landowners and conservationists.
Research conducted by the University of Wyoming has shown links between the health of ungulate populations and human activity like mineral and wind development, urban sprawl, and highways. Meanwhile, population counts for migratory animals, including mule deer, continue to fall. The dark outlook for certain ungulates has led to calls by conservationists to enact stricter measures within designated corridors to save the iconic herds.
Wyoming has three designated migration corridors mostly sweeping through southwest Wyoming. The state officially recognizes the Baggs, Platte Valley and Sublette (Red Desert-to-Hoback) migration corridors.
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The migration corridors have served for centuries as critical pathways for ungulates on the move, like mule deer, pronghorn and elk. Other ungulate migration corridors exist in Wyoming, but have yet to be formally identified by the state. The Game and Fish Department is drafting two additional corridors.
Yet, the draft bill sponsored by the natural resource management committee Wednesday would chisel away at Game and Fish’s authority to designate migration corridors. It calls instead for additional risk assessments from other state agencies and industry stakeholders. The Department of Revenue, Department of Environmental Quality, Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and others would work together to compile an assessment of potential consequences before a corridor is officially named, according to the draft bill.
The legislation would require the relevant state agency to provide the assessment to any counties affected by a potential corridor, too.
Game and Fish pushed back on the bill. Testifying to committee members, the group urged lawmakers to value the rigorous, science-based process the agency undertakes of identifying migration corridors on a case-by-case basis.
“No other agency in the state of Wyoming has the authority or expertise to make those decisions that need to be drawn to protect (ungulates),” said Patrick Crank, a commissioner for the department. “I hope that will leave the designation of corridors with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.”Though the Petroleum Association of Wyoming said it worried about the potential overreach of any regulation related to migration corridors, the group encouraged the committee to await the release of the executive order before advancing additional legislation.
‘Cart before the horse’
Public comment on the bill spilled well into the lunch hour at Wednesday’s committee meeting.
“I respect the legislative process and the time it takes to prepare a bill, but I feel it is premature to put forward a piece of legislation before we give the system of adaptive management a dry run,” said Marissa Taylor, a rancher who served on the governor’s migration corridor advisory group. “… These systems are complicated, and they are very hard to change. We run the risk of overburdening industry or unintentionally severing corridors.”
Long-time energy worker Chris Peterson expressed his support for the executive order, too.
“It’s real nice to know that there are mule deer, elk and antelope able to use those (migration) paths,” Peterson said. “It’s nice to know that people in the state of Wyoming like (migration corridors) existing and are proud.”
He urged lawmakers to protect the corridors and hold off on advancing any additional legislation that could complicate, or undermine, the pending executive order.
“We might be getting the cart before the horse,” he added.
Rep. Stan Blake, D-Rock Springs, agreed and voted against the bill.
“It’s a great start,” he said. “(But) it’s not ready for prime time.”
Rep. Donald Burkhart, R-Rawlins, voted in favor of sponsoring the new rules but admitted they need additional attention.
“I think this bill still needs a whole lot of work,” he said. “Frankly, if this goes forward, I would probably have a substitute bill with all my changes to it.”