Since taking office, President Trump and his Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, have been clear that they want oil and gas drilling to dominate our western public lands. Over the past 18 months, the Bureau of Land Management has scuttled or reversed dozens of land and wildlife conservation policies in the name of “energy dominance” despite the fact that our nation already produces significantly more oil and gas than any other country in the world.
So in February, when Secretary Zinke announced a new conservation initiative focused on identifying and conserving big game habitat, Wyoming hunters took a deep breath, hoping to see another side of the Secretary — one that was maybe more attuned to the long tradition of stewarding our fish and wildlife resources. Zinke’s secretarial order called “Improving Habitat Quality in Western Big-Game Winter Range and Migration Corridors” directed his federal agencies to work cooperatively with states in identifying and conserving migration routes and important winter habitat for mule deer, elk, pronghorn and other big game species.
Six months later, we’ve been disappointed. The BLM has offered to sell multiple oil and gas leases in the Red Desert to Hoback mule deer migration corridor, in winter range for the Sublette herd, and across several other migration corridors and winter ranges. This week, Secretary Zinke announced that three lease parcels—totaling a meagre 5,000 acres—would not be auctioned off within the Red Desert to Hoback corridor. He left on the table thousands of acres of winter range and parcels still important to migrating and wintering deer. Rather than using his Secretarial Order to create a meaningful contribution to big game habitat conservation, Secretary Zinke is clearly prioritizing energy dominance over mule deer.
In southwest Wyoming 1.1 million acres of BLM lands are slated to be leased for oil and gas just this year. Zinke has proudly talked about his commitment to hunting access and habitat conservation, but more than half of these planned lease sales overlap with areas the Wyoming Game and Fish Department classify as crucial winter range for deer, elk and pronghorn—areas that are essential to helping these animals survive the harsh Wyoming winters. And the Wyoming Game and Fish Department isn’t making this difficult situation any easier. Their comments to BLM on the September sale failed to mention the department’s own guidelines regarding energy development in crucial winter range, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of acres of lease sales are slated in these sensitive areas. While they stood up for the Red Desert to Hoback mule deer migration corridor, they remained silent on other critical migrations impacted by the lease sale.
Why is Secretary Zinke selling off our best game habitat for more oil and gas drilling when 1) he has just promised to conserve big game habitat and 2) science clearly shows how large-scale oil and gas development leads to sharp declines in big game populations? Maybe his self-proclaimed “grand pivot” to conservation just hasn’t caught up with the systematic changes that he’s made to produce more oil and gas from our public lands, or maybe he never intended to pull back the energy reins in the first place. Deferring 5,000 acres of oil and gas parcels is not a grand pivot, and it does not a conservation legacy make.
As a Wyoming hunter who understands the direct connection between my chest freezer and public lands habitat conservation, I’m extremely concerned that our last and best places to hunt on public lands — the same places that support our big game wildlife heritage — are near a tipping point. If Zinke ignores his own words and the state doesn’t stand up for our big game habitat, what will happen when most of our public lands have more well pads than mule deer? That’s the reality we may face in the not-too-distant future.
The good news is that it’s not too late. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and the Wyoming Game and Fish still have the opportunity to do what’s right for our state’s wildlife heritage and to push back on Zinke’s energy dominance priorities — Wyoming should be directing where and how we want energy development to occur, not dominated by lop-sided, top-down, federal policy. Secretary Zinke still has time to pull out more of the proposed leases that overlap with migrations and winter habitat if he wants his secretarial order to protect those habitats to have any teeth. I’m not sure I’ll hold my breath this time around.
Dan Stroud graduated from UW with a BS in Wildlife, and later with an MS in Range. He worked for 32 years for Wyoming Game and Fish, prior to retiring about four years ago. He served as a habitat biologist during most of his career, except for the last few years when he changed to a mitigation biologist in Pinedale, working with funding from the Jonah and later Anticline Development Fields.