ROCK SPRINGS — Residents and industry representatives came to Rock Springs offering their thoughts to a committee assigned to develop recommendations on big game migration corridors in Wyoming.
Gov. Mark Gordon’s newly created Big Game Migration Advisory Group met Thursday inside the Rock Springs Library’s Ferrero Room, where they listened to presentations from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Petroleum Association of Wyoming and Wyoming Mining Association.
“I think we’re still trying to gather the information and get our minds totally wrapped to what all the issues are,” Carbon County Commissioner John Espy said.
Corridor group members include Espy, Kathy Lichtendal, Maxwell R. Ludington, Mike Schmid, Marissa Taylor, Kevin Williams, Dan Stanton and Marty Stearns.
At the start of the meeting, Gordon called to say he was interested in having “a fresh set of eyes on the migration corridor,” but added he was not asking the group to resolve every problem, but to answer key questions addressing the corridor’s impact on wildlife, industries that operate in the areas and landowners.
In May, Gordon created the group to improve the state’s policies and balance responsible energy development and protections for the migration corridors. Designated corridors provide wildlife with reliable passage between seasonal ranges and also serve as transition ranges that provide food for migrating animals, according to the University of Wyoming.
The corridors include the 150-mile Red Desert to Hoback mule deer corridor, which runs from Leucite Hills east of Rock Springs to the Hoback Basin. It crosses a mix of federal, state and private lands. Other corridors are established for Platte Valley mule deer outside Laramie, Wyoming Range mule deer in the Jackson region, Dubois mule deer, Sublette mule deer and Baggs mule deer.
Gordon told ther group to roll up the sleeves and get things done.
In February 2018, former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke signed a secretarial order to improve wildlife management and conservation and expand opportunities for big game hunting by improving priority habitats across the West.
“The order fosters improved collaboration with states and private landowners and facilitates all parties using the best available science to inform development of guidelines that helps ensure that robust big game populations continue to exist,” the Department of the Interior states.
Game and Fish officials spoke about its research regarding the corridors, which built on partnerships, GPS data and information on animal populations.
Game and Fish is working with Research Biologist Hall Sawyer to evaluate the migration ecology and potential impacts of energy on mule deer, elk and pronghorn. He is expected to come back with findings in a few weeks. In the meantime, Game and Fish wants to limit surface disturbance in the corridor until it conducts more research.
Wyoming Game and Fish Department Deputy Chief of Wildlife Doug Brimeyer said the corridors are important for animals to move in and get good nutrition. He added the plan is a living corridor that is not set in stone as adjustments can be made as science changes.
Speakers chimed in on what they thought the advisory group should think about moving forward.
PAW Vice President for Public Lands Esther Wagner said while the group supports some corridor functions, like bottleneck situations where animals are physically or behaviorally constrained, but it is not in favor of long-term oil and gas lease sale deferrals as a long-term
Don Scramm with the Rock Springs Grazing Association said the corridor group has to be careful of what it recommends because of costs that would come with them. He said to narrow down recommendations.
Not everyone was on board with the Game and Fish’s corridor strategy of updating the mitigation policy, designating corridors and risk assessments. Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation Field Services and Federal Lands Associate Holly Kennedy said there’s a big difference between identifying and studying the corridors, and making designations.
Another concern expressed focused on when Sawyer’s research would end and when Game and Fish would re-evaluate its current stance of being conservative about corridors.
Kennedy said while information that was presented is fascinating, the common theme mentioned is “we don’t know,” which raises a “huge red flag.”
“We’re basing everything we have on the best available science,” Brimeyer said. “As new science comes out we’ll be able to adjust.”
Kennedy said it’s a huge step and it is a concern for the rush to designate something.
“When you rush you have unintended consequences,” Kennedy said.
She added recommendations could lead to regulations, and the focus should be more volunteerism and less on regulations.
Western Landowners Alliance Policy Director Jessica Crowder agreed and said the designation would cause fear about new regulations.Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership Wyoming Field Representative Nick Dobric said the wildlife and hunting opportunities are some of the best in the country and that the corridors need to continue to exist.
Wyoming Outdoor Council Conservation Advocate Kristen Gunther said the corridors are there because animals get value of them.
“The stakes of this are pretty real,” she said. “Try to think long-term and on a broader scale.”
Espy said the challenge will be balancing the needs for economic development with the needs for wildlife and private property owners.
Ryan Lance, who Gordon assigned to facilitate group discussions, said there are a lot of questions “we’ll have to gravel with” such as how does the state want to manage the corridors as well as how does the state manage those activities within the corridors?