I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read that the draft big game migration corridor bill in the Select Federal Natural Resources Committee had passed 4-1 on Oct. 23, despite a packed house testifying in protest.
This bill would essentially take the most critical legal role of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department away from the experts, and transfer it to a citizen legislature that is already overburdened and underfunded. There was only one testimony and slideshow in favor of the bill, and it came from a single industry. Representatives of energy claim corridor designations will prohibit development, but in 2018, only 20,000 acres of the 1.3 million acres leased was actually deferred for further review by state professionals. Numerous other stakeholders opposed the bill’s hasty attempt to expand the role of government and strip our state wildlife agency of credibility.
So who are our legislators representing? The passionate voting and participating citizens of Wyoming... or whoever can pay lobbyists for the best slide show?
Ironic moment #1: Four Republicans vote to expand government control through legislation. One Democrat votes to leave the process to a group of local volunteers nominated by the Governor of Wyoming to recommend flexible, middle-ground policy informed by research, experience and local experts.
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The controversy around this bill hinges on the designation of wildlife migration corridors. Who has the authority to say what routes wildlife use, and what effect human activity has on wildlife while using these areas? Over the last quarter-century, Wyoming (and much of the nation) has been experiencing declines in populations of mule deer and other ungulate herds that rely on annual migrations. Recent studies have linked energy development in critical habitat with significant herd declines.
Wyoming is home to a highly profitable energy industry, a growing outdoor recreation and tourism industry, a deeply rooted agricultural economy and a goal to grow the population by retaining citizenship. How can we make sure that all these elements can coexist? Gov. Mark Gordon’s wildlife migration advisory group provides one great model. When Gov. Gordon requested a citizen advisory group be established to consider corridors, he recruited folks from many walks of life that could accurately represent the stakeholders of Wyoming. Their task was to determine recommendations of how to manage these sensitive migration corridors to best support all users of Wyoming’s great landscape with the least negative impact.
Similar to the sage grouse issue, this approach would allow for the people most affected by the regulation to have the greatest say in the management process, as well as the flexibility to react and change policy each term as opposed to Ironic Moment #2: A permanent, non-fluid, overbearing state statute issued by legislators already swamped with funding shortages and policy requests, often under-informed and swayed by their own personal opinions, or sadly, big money. (I thought Wyoming politics prioritized the working class and valued a participatory democracy).
Four hours into the meeting was two hours longer than I had hoped to be away from work as an energy industry electrician. I sat soaking in the legislative process. I was raised to stand for what I believe and taught that participating in government doesn’t end at the polls.
The advisory group submitted a middle ground, management recommendation to the governor. Their recommendation will allow for development, wildlife viability and recreation. This executive order is projected to be signed a month before the Legislature’s budget session begins in 2020. So why is this committee wasting time drafting a bill to override the WGFD and an executive order instead of focusing on budget policy to fund our roads and schools?
You don’t have to look far to see the bill is being championed by oil and gas industry lobbyists and has one thing in mind. Develop anywhere and everywhere possible, regardless of any effect on the landscape. Well, this is the Equality State, where everyone’s livelihood matters. We take pride in doing things our own way. We work hard and play harder. Many times, we work and play in the same landscape. Why not support local, collaborative efforts to keep those landscapes viable for all the things we thrive on: work and play? I encourage everyone to take a few minutes each month, follow evolving policy and send an email or make a phone call to your legislators with your opinions. I would rather see our policy developed by concerned, involved voters than by a minority of lobbyists backed by a majority of the money.
Chris Peterson is a Wyoming native, husband, father and sportsman. He has lived in Casper working as an electrician for 15 years.