Groups seek protection for mule deer migration route

Mike Koshmrl Jackson Hole Daily Via Wyoming News Exchange

JACKSON — A band of hook-and-bullet groups is asking Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to keep oil and gas rigs out of a migration route used by mule deer that spend the summer in the Hoback region.
At issue is roughly 10 square miles of Bureau of Land Management property near the Red Desert and Pinedale that fall within a 150-mile migration route that terminates at the south end of Jackson Hole. That leasable acreage is potentially up for sale by the BLM later this year, but mule deer advocates are urging the Department of the Interior’s highest official to defer the leases out of respect for a migration route prioritized by Wyoming wildlife managers and a recent secretarial order Zinke issued.
“The total acreage of these parcels makes up only a small portion of the 700,000 acres proposed sale,” seven organizations wrote Zinke in a letter mailed last week.
“Given your secretarial order and exposure of the Red Desert to Hoback migration corridor by national press,” the groups wrote, “we deem it to represent ‘ground zero’ for conserving these vital habitats for big game.”
A 21-year-old resource management plan for the BLM’s Rock Springs field office that authorizes the leases includes no specific safeguards for protecting migration routes. A rewrite of the plan is in the works, though it is in the draft stages.
Dwayne Meadows, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, is among the signatories of the letter, and he’s optimistic that Zinke and the BLM will wait for the new plan’s completion.
“Since 1997, we’ve learned the science on what happened to deer in the Anticline,” Meadows said. “We also now know the science on these migration corridors that we didn’t even know existed then.”
“With [Zinke’s] secretarial order protecting migration corridors, I think he needs to take a look at this situation,” he said, “because this is one of the most important migration corridors in the U.S. If he has a secretarial order protecting migration corridors, then he should work with us.”
Other groups that signed the letter include the Muley Fanatic Foundation, Shoot and Cast, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, the Western Bear Foundation and the Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation.
The Red Desert-to-Hoback migration was discovered in 2012. It takes a segment of the Sublette Mule Deer herd about two months twice a year to traverse, on a route that leads from Interstate 80, skirts the southwest slopes of the Wind River Range, and ends in the Gros Ventre and Wyoming ranges. Researchers confirmed this year that one deer from the cohort keeps pushing north, migrating all the way through Jackson Hole to a summer range near Ashton, Idaho.
There’s been interest from oil and gas outfits in the leasable parcels that fall within the migration route, though BLM-Wyoming spokeswoman Courtney Whiteman wasn’t at liberty to name the interested companies. Operators have until June 1 to formally propose to lease the parcels, though the sale wouldn’t occur until December. There’s nothing in the resource management plan, she said, that would prohibit leasing in the migration corridor.
“However, there are some other things that we would look at,” Whiteman said, naming sage grouse habitat and cultural resources.
“The corridor is not the only important thing down there,” she said. “Like any lease, we take a holistic look, and sometimes places are right for leasing and sometimes they’re not.”
The majority of the leases in question are on the far southern end of the mule deer migration route, near Superior. Two are near Pinedale, both just southwest of the Pinedale airport.
Meadows hopes the BLM takes its time, and, at a minimum, creates wildlife-friendly stipulations before developing the parcels, for the good of mule deer and the larger landscape.
“When you build an oil field in Wyoming, it doesn’t just go away,” Meadows said. “I can’t think of one that was built and is no longer there, even ones built in the ’20s.”


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