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Deer Collaring Study

Holly Copeland, left, a landscape ecologist with the Nature Conservancy in Lander, and Brian Lamont, a graduate student with the University of Wyoming, release a GPS-collared mule deer in 2016 in western Wyoming. A new working group created by Gov. Mark Gordon will attempt to tackle the state's migration corridor issue.

With both its world-renowned wildlife and vast troves of oil and gas, Wyoming has long tread the balance beam between conservation and development.

State leaders have sought to find the sweet spot between economic opportunity and conserving the herds of pronghorn and mule deer that roamed the wilds long before the first drills bit into the dirt.

Recent developments have made that dialogue of balance much more urgent than before. Over the last year, additional parcels of land in the oil-rich sands of the Red Desert – which contains a number of long-established migration corridors for numerous species of ungulates – have been targeted for development by oil and gas interests in spite of a declaration by the U.S. Department of the Interior to protect those corridors, alarming groups like the Wyoming Outdoor Council and the Center for Biological Diversity.

Attempts at compromise were made, first last summer by Gov. Matt Mead and earlier this year by the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish, which has sought to designate and protect two ungulate migration corridors in the southwestern part of the state.

While the opportunity in those largely untapped regions is great, and some would argue necessary for a growing demand for American oil and gas, some conservation groups have been skeptical any policies will advance with sufficient respect to the needs of the herds that have roamed the desert for generations.

The answer to whether or not a compromise can be found, it seems, will begin in Wyoming.

Last week at its annual meeting in Vail, Colorado, the Western Governors Association signed a resolution committing its members to the study and conservation of wildlife corridors in their states, acknowledging “the challenges of managing the risk of impacts to fish and wildlife populations and habitat while pursuing economic development” in its resolution.

Gov. Mark Gordon says he believes both of those goals might be achievable.

Last week, Gordon announced the launch of his Big Game Migration Corridor Advisory Group, which meets for the first time on June 27 in Rock Springs. The group includes delegates from a multitude of backgrounds, representing the oil and gas, mining and agriculture sectors, as well as conservation, recreation and sportsmen groups, with the ultimate goal of developing recommendations to improve state policies toward managing lands where conservation and economic interests intersect.

This year might be as good a time as any to start. While such a balance might once have been elusive, said Pew Charitable Trusts researcher Matthew Skroch, recent scientific advancements and data by researchers at the University of Wyoming and the Migration Initiative have lent policymakers in Wyoming an insight that was once impossible, allowing decisions on migration corridors to be made with an unprecedented level of precision.

“We have the science that can now show us where the most important habitat is – whether that’s a mule deer migration corridor or a sage grouse lek – and we can make decisions informed by science as to what conservation principles should be applied to those areas and where more development-intensive use can occur,” Skroch said. “The reality is we can do both, and Wyoming has been a leader in achieving both objectives: conserving its wildlife heritage, while also allowing for economic development to resume.”

Balancing needs

Pulling together a wide variety of interests – as Gordon’s group intends to do – allows policies to be made with a diverse number of perspectives that have previously been excluded from the conversation, said Kathy Lichtendahl, a working group member from Park County who is representing the state’s conservation interests.

“We all want a successful Wyoming, but I think an incredibly large part of that is having successful ungulate populations and having the animals that will be able to continue in great numbers for many years to come,” she said. “It’s really going to be this balancing act, and up until now, I’m not sure the animals have had much of a say in this process, and I’m hoping we can maybe represent them at the table since they aren’t able to be there.”

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“The animals don’t have a lot of choices,” she added. “Us as humans have more choice on how to approach these things, so we have to lean to make sure the animals can go where they need to go when they need to go, and we can try and work our needs around that.”

The group also reflects the interests of local governments, who can – at times – be caught up in the whirlwind of state and federal policy making around energy development.

“I want to make sure that we have the restrictions in place we need to protect the migration routes while making sure we’re not unjustly taking away people’s property rights,” said John Espy, a Carbon County commissioner and a member of the working group.

While the group itself is unprecedented, the dust is unlikely to settle following its final meeting late this summer. Some solutions – increased wildlife crossings over roadways, for example – require money.

“It comes to dollars and cents, to things like building these overpasses and underpasses,” said Rep. Cyrus Western, R-Sheridan. “The fact of the matter is, while they’re really effective, they’re very expensive. Depending on the location, they can cost anywhere from $1 million to $10 million and even more.”

What the conversation could produce quickly, however, is a better understanding of the needs and concerns of a multitude of diverse groups. That, members of the group and Gordon hope, could in turn result in the type of compromise and informed policy that was previously thought to be unattainable.

“The most important thing here is people are working together, and we commend the governor on convening this group with that goal in-hand,” said Skroch. “I think that, when we look at a migration corridor anywhere in the West, it is a small component of a landscape, and we make sure the very high traffic portions of the path are free of substantial development while carefully managing development elsewhere.

“I think it can be a win-win for wildlife and industry,” he added.

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Politics Reporter

Nick Reynolds covers state politics and policy. A native of Central New York, he has spent his career covering governments big and small, and several Congressional campaigns. He graduated from the State University of New York at Brockport in 2015.

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