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This week marks the second time the BLM will lease public land parcels for oil and gas development inside the Red Desert to Hoback mule deer migration corridor. If the first lease sale last September is any indication, parcels will go for as little as $2 per acre. A third sale is scheduled for March. Time is running out: Science shows that any development in these corridors poses irreparable harm to mule deer herds.

We must act now to defend this world-renowned corridor and other habitat that big game herds rely on for survival.

Why do federal oil and gas lease sales matter for mule deer? Because leases convey to energy companies that purchase them the rights to develop. And that right is valid for 10 years. So a company could either develop right away or it could hold the leases, and then, in a decade, propose to drill. But development in this corridor would be devastating to the already struggling Sublette herd — whether it happens today or 10 years from now.

Spanning 150 miles from the Hoback to the Red Desert, this world-renowned corridor is the longest mule deer migration ever documented. The corridor’s northern end was protected in 2012, when Wyoming citizens raised $8.75 million to buy out and retire oil and gas leases in the Wyoming Range’s Upper Hoback. Today, though, rampant oil and gas leasing in the southern end of the corridor threatens to undermine this important public investment and the very future of this migratory herd.

The increasing body of science from research in Wyoming shows that mule deer stick to their migration routes more than other big game do. Science also shows that muleys cannot adapt their migration strategy to avoid industrial activity and other human disturbance. In other words, if a drill rig or road goes up in their migratory pathway, they don’t just “go around.”

Once migrations are disrupted they may never be restored. If we allow winter range and stopover sites — those places where deer stop to build crucial fat stores — to be fragmented, we can’t just make more. The only surefire way to sustain Wyoming’s mule deer herds is to say no to oil and gas development in their most vital habitats. (For perspective, we’re talking about a tiny percentage of the overall massive acreage otherwise being offered on public lands throughout Wyoming.)

Oil and gas development is an important part of our state’s economy. But so is tourism. So is hunting. So is wildlife viewing. In fact, new analysis from the University of Wyoming shows that wildlife-based recreation generated more than $1 billion dollars’ worth of economic activity and supported nearly 10,000 jobs in our state in 2017.

Wyoming is not so poor that we have to give away for pennies our very best wildlife habitat. An overwhelming majority of Wyomingites — 89 percent — believe that protecting migration corridors does not have to be at odds with a robust energy economy. We agree. We can have a strong energy economy and intact, highly functional wildlife habitat. But we’ll need to make good, science-based decisions now.

The people of Wyoming, who cherish our mule deer herds, must speak up in defense of big game habitat. Leases are being sold this week. Visit wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org/about/wildlife to learn how you can help.

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Lisa McGee is the executive director of the Wyoming Outdoor Council. A statewide conservation group, the Outdoor Council works to protect public lands, wildlife and clean air and water.

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