If the hunters and anglers gathered Thursday night at Casper College expected governors to pander to their love of public lands and support for protecting sage grouse and big game corridors, they were in for some surprises.
For the most part the candidates hoping to take Gov. Matt Mead’s seat next year stuck to their campaign messages, which were at times dissonant to the conservation-heavy audience.
Questions such as “What’s your vision for public lands?” were answered with calls to take the lands from the federal government. And a recent decision to stall oil and gas leasing in a big game migration corridor — at the behest of hunters — was called a mistake.
The purpose of Thursday’s forum was both to hear candidates’ positions and educate frontrunners on what their voters want, said Dwayne Meadows, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, which hosted the forum.
“The main thing is I want people to be informed,” he said. “It is hard. We do need to find a balance in the state — oil and gas, which is super important — but I live in Jackson and that’s the heart of the other industry. It is the Casper of tourism.”
The debate wasn’t particularly heated, but the candidates were rarely of one mind on key conservation issues.
Natural resource lawyer Harriet Hageman went after current Gov. Matt Mead over a recent big game decision that was widely supported by hunting groups. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, with a nod to Mead, announced he would delay leasing for oil and gas development on 5,000 acres that intersect with mule deer migration.
The corridor is the only one designated by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. It charts the 150-mile journey of mule deer from the Red Desert in western Wyoming to the Hoback area south of Jackson. It’s a treasured resource for some hunters and proposed oil and gas leases that would have nearly cut off the corridor in the middle sparked frustration.
Groups like the Wyoming Federation of Union Sportsmen lobbied for Zinke to hold off on leasing until the Bureau of Land Management had updated its land use plan in the area — which will include guidance on how to potentially develop in the corridor while limiting damage to the deer.
Hageman said the governor and the federal government failed to consult the locals who know the issue best before making their decision.
“I just don’t think that’s an acceptable way that government ought to be acting,” she said.
Others downplayed the importance of migration corridors. Rex Rammell, a third-party candidate who ran for Idaho governor in 2009, said most migration corridors are already known and protected. Perennial candidate Taylor Haynes, who shares a number of policy aims with Rammell, said he looks at the issue from a landowners’ perspective. It isn’t about designating corridors, but managing them well.
“It’s not a matter of establishing or finding out where they are,” he said.
Current state treasurer Mark Gordon said there are innovate ways to balance energy development, private property rights and wildlife, such as consolidating some management on the checkerboard of private, federal and state lands in the western part of the state.
“Maybe there are ways to block that up so that many of these decisions can be made better,” he said. “Also, it means we can work with energy companies.”
The big game question bled into a discussion of public lands, which hunters noted are key to their values.
Rammell kicked the hornets’ nest immediately saying the feds shouldn’t be controlling those lands, which should be controlled by Wyoming.
Haynes, also a big proponent of seizing federal lands, said the full mineral income from public lands will benefit wildlife under state management, he said.
Democrat Mary Throne noted, with derision, that there is no way the federal government is going to hand over the land on top or the minerals beneath, while Jackson investor Foster Friess added that Wyoming couldn’t afford management anyway. More land comes with more costs, particularly during fire season.
Criticism of the federal land grab also came from Hageman, who said the discussion has become one of polar opposites. Some say there is no way Wyoming will ever get those lands, others posture over taking it back, she said.
“As long as we are talking in extremes, we’re not going to get anywhere,” Hageman said, laying out a proposal on her agenda for a pilot takeover of 1 million acres of federal lands for 20 to 25 years. These would be managed differently from state lands — where the main goal is to make money for schools — offering more recreation access as well as mineral development.
Hageman’s proposal does not include an explanation of how those lands will be wrested from Washington control, but noted that the status quo is not working.
The discussion Thursday also turned to sage grouse — a bird with habitat spread across the state. The sage grouse came close to an endangered species listing nearly three years ago, but state and federal management plans staved off a listing.
Credit to Mead, who shepherded that work, abounded on the otherwise divided panel. Both Sam Galeotos, a Cheyenne businessman, and Friess, the Jackson investor, suggested they would best fit into the Mead legacy of collaboration.
“Why did Matt Mead have such success?” Friess asked. “He’s a kind, gentle man. He’s not combative.”
Throne noted that Mead also stood up to the Trump administration when Zinke suggested wholesale changes to federal plans that would impact Wyoming.
“I applaud Gov. Mead for saying, ‘We’ve got this under control,’” she said. “The next governor is going to have to continue to do that.”
Gordon offered his take on the Endangered Species Act from grizzlies — “thank god we can shoot those” — to sage grouse.
True to his habit so far in this election, Gordon plowed into the brush on sage grouse management and the role of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. But he peeked out long enough to share his personal experience working within those conservation plans and dealing with federal agencies.
Gordon’s ranch in the Powder River Basin includes a critical grouse breeding ground and the ranch has put in place conservation efforts that help insulate it from stricter regulations if the bird is listed. Administrations in Washington change, and both Wyoming and federal plans for the grouse need to stay consistent for stakeholders, he asserted.
“This is incredibly important,” he said. “Having Secretary Zinke suggest that he might just throw it all out caused a lot of alarm for us because we have a working process now.”
Rammell also stayed true to form on the sage grouse issue.
“We act like the federal policies are whatever they say … they know best. Well, that is not true,” he said. “The federal government needs to get out of our lives.”
At the beginning of the governor’s forum, the Wildlife Federation’s Meadows noted that about 70,000 people hunt in Wyoming and about 100,000 fish.
But, unlike the mining industries in Wyoming, conservation and tourism don’t have a lobbying group in Cheyenne every session, Meadows said in an interview after the debate.
To some degree, lack of common knowledge about these issues is the fault of hunters and angler groups, or individuals who’ve become so frustrated by politics that they don’t vote, he said.
“We’re not doing our part as an industry to lobby for what’s important for us,” he said. “Which is open space and wildlife.”