Several years ago, in what was widely hailed as a tremendous achievement, most of the Wyoming Range was protected from oil and gas drilling. Dozens of oil and gas leases, issued during the 1990s and 2000s, were purchased and retired, and Congress passed legislation withdrawing the area from further leasing. It was a success story, achieved only through years of dogged activism from sportsmen, conservationists and local officials, along with willing leadership from Wyoming’s congressional delegation.
But the Wyoming Range is as much a cautionary tale as it is a success story. The fact is, the Wyoming Range should never have been leased in the first place. An act of Congress and several millions of dollars in private funding (for lease buy-outs) should not have been needed in order to protect one of Wyoming’s favorite hunting and fishing grounds for future generations. Instead, the decision should have been made at the outset to direct leasing elsewhere, given the immense conservation value of the Wyoming Range and the abundance of drilling opportunities in other parts of Wyoming.
Unfortunately, by targeting some of Wyoming’s most important big game habitats for oil and gas development, the Trump administration is paving the way for even more Wyoming Ranges. It is doing so because of “energy dominance” — the administration’s effort announced two years ago to emphasize leasing and drilling over other activities, including wildlife conservation, backcountry hunting and open space protection.
The problem is that energy dominance is not multiple use – and that’s the legal mandate under which our public lands are supposed to be managed. And energy dominance, by definition, makes every other use, including hunting and fishing, a lesser priority. This is a real concern in Wyoming, where wildlife-related recreation on BLM lands alone contributes more than $330 million to our state’s economy every year. Oil and gas development certainly plays an important role on our public lands and is a key driver of Wyoming’s economy. But when development is made the default use on all public lands, including important wildlife habitat, there are going to be significant consequences – and those consequences are beginning to mount in Wyoming.
Over the past two years, the Trump administration has leased some of Wyoming’s most sensitive wildlife habitats for drilling, including big game migration corridors identified as management priorities by the Wyoming Game & Fish Department. Just last week, the administration offered and sold several more oil and gas leases within the world’s longest mule deer migration corridor, Red Desert to Hoback. This was the just latest in a string of recent BLM sales – three of the last four, in fact – that included over 70 leases in priority migration corridors.
Our elected officials must work to ensure that the proper balance is being struck on our public lands between development and conservation. This should start this week, as the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee will conduct a hearing over the nomination of David Bernhardt to be Secretary of the Interior. The committee must secure Mr. Bernhardt’s commitment to managing our public lands for multiple uses, including wildlife conservation, and should strive to find out just how energy dominance fits into BLM’s multiple-use mission.
But if all things remain the same, and the administration continues to target our most sensitive wildlife habitats for development, then we could be living with the consequences of energy dominance for years to come. And, in places like Red Desert to Hoback, we will be fighting an uphill battle to save our big game herds from impending development, just as we were years ago in the Wyoming Range.