An iconic big game migration corridor in western Wyoming will avoid oil and gas development for the time being. Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke and Governor Matt Mead announced Tuesday the deferral of thousands of leases within the area and stipulations for some development.
Four to five thousand mule deer travel the Red Desert to Hoback migration corridor every year, according to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. The species has declined dramatically in the past few decades as habitat is fragmented or lost. Advocates have long worked to fend off obstructive development including hunters, public land, mule deer, and wild sheep advocates, among others.
Secretary Zinke’s decision will call for nearly 5,000 acres of potential oil and gas operations to be deferred and stipulations to be added for responsible development. This means any land leased will require collaboration with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Josh Coursey, president of the Muley Fanatic Foundation, said this is a huge step in the right direction.
“It’s truly a testament to try to balance conservation with the responsible development of resources to ensure the best outcome for not only people on the ground, but also wildlife resources,” he said.
This comes after a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) instruction memorandum earlier this year which called for more regular auctions at local offices. It also spiked lease sale numbers in the southwestern region with particularly sensitive habitat. Those 4th quarter sales have yet to be deferred. Coursey said development would still fragment that area and hopes Zinke moves to put leases off.
“It is clear that to have sustainable healthy mule deer populations and herds we need vast open space and for the ability for that critter to be able to move without many obstacles,” he said.
Michael Saul, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, argued this deferral does not go nearly far enough.
"It defies credulity to characterize the deliberate sacrifice of southwest Wyoming as ‘balance.’ Zinke should not get credit for sparing a mere 5,000 acres of migration corridor from drill rigs when he’s putting hundreds of thousands of acres on the auction block. The ‘special lease notice’ adds no meaningful limits on drillers’ ability to disrupt mule deer migration paths and winter range. Mule deer migratory corridors will not be protected by this feeble PR maneuver," Saul said.
Leases will remain deferred in the area until the updated Rock Springs regional management plan is completed. The plan has been in motion for the past eight years. It will guide how the local BLM office will manage the area.