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Wyoming continues down the path of adding protections for the Sublette Pronghorn herd

A buck antelope stands on a grassy ridge.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media

The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission met in Pinedale this week to discuss several controversial wildlife topics. A main focus was pronghorn migration in western Wyoming, which the commission voted to continue working toward adding protections.

The area is home to the Sublette Pronghorn herd, parts of which travel from as far as the Teton mountains in the summer to the southern reaches of the Red Desert in the winter. It’s considered one of the longest migration routes in the lower 48, and some biologists say it’s at a ‘high risk’ of being lost.

“Whether you're talking subdivisions, roads, fences, energy development, just people being on the landscape is a disturbance, and it does cause habitat fragmentation,” Jill Randall, Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) big game migration coordinator, said in her presentation to the commission. “The fact that we will probably just see more, and not less of those on the landscape as we move forward is something we focused on in the threat evaluation.”

The ‘threat evaluation’ is just one of the early stages of designating an official migration corridor, per a 2020 Governor Mark Gordon executive order. This order was largely put in place because “Wyoming is home to the longest intact mule deer and antelope migration corridors in North America” and the state decided additional protections are necessary for some of these routes. The order outlines a very specific process that involves a lot of stakeholder input, with the hopes of appeasing most groups – including the energy industry and wildlife advocates.

This is the first time the order is being formally used. There was a failed attempt to designate this migration route previous to the order being in place, with concerns about how industry could be impacted.

WGFD decided to pursue the designation after one of the harshest winters on record in 2023, compounded with a rare bacterial pneumonia, killed off around 50 percent of the Sublette Pronghorn herd, which just two years ago flourished at about 40,000 animals.

“Last winter, it was very apparent to us that those individuals that have the ability to move south in that extreme winter that we experienced, those individuals had a higher likelihood of survival,” game and fish’s Randall testified. “So that connectivity to get them into those crucial winter ranges on those most severe winters is really essential.”

The hope is an official designation will help maintain that connectivity. That could look like more grant funding for wildlife friendly fences and habitat restoration, but also limiting human disturbance and development in high-pronghorn use areas. Something members of the energy industry expressed concern over.

“What we do today can be used against industry and agriculture down the road, and I think that's something we really need to consider,” said Sublette County local and oil and gas operator Mike Schmid.

He feared that by designating the corridor, it could be used to eventually limit energy development to a point where it’s unsustainable.

“I just don't see another layer of government regulation helping any industry at all,” he said. “If we lose more agriculture because of these kinds of processes and regulations, we're only going to see more suburban development on these ranch lands.”

Other members of the industry were less direct and urged the commission to proceed with “caution” and that the “devil’s in the details” with this plan.

But, WGFD Deputy Director Angie Bruce said that’s exactly what the agency is doing. The designation doesn’t create specific stipulations and allows them to work with industry on a “case by case” basis. She pointed out that she has the opposite concern of the industry – that not doing anything about the migration corridor could actually cede more control to the federal government.

“What does that say to our federal partners? Does it say that Wyoming is taking a step back from migration? Being leaders across the nation?,” Bruce said. “So there's a risk there, too, if we don't do anything, the risk may be that they need to step in.”

Ultimately, the commission voted unanimously to continue down the designation process. That means more research will be done in a ‘biological risk assessment’, which officials said will likely be out by the end of the year. The Governor will create a stakeholder group to iron out those details and then it’ll be voted on again by the commission. If approved, it lands on Gordon’s desk for his final decision, which is likely at least a year out.

The commission also discussed elk feedground management which you can read more about here.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.

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