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Feds signal deference to Wyoming, dilution of protections, on migration routes

As BLM finishes up its Rock Springs RMP, the state director suggests that his agency has backed off its plan to unconditionally preserve ungulate corridors.

A lone pronghorn from the Sublette Herd — which is in line for migration designation — walks a ridge in the Golden Triangle. (Evan Barrientos)

By Mike Koshmrl

In an apparent response to pressure from Wyoming officials, federal land managers are stepping back from outright preservation of ungulate migration corridors and toward the state’s policy, which is more permissive of development.

The Bureau of Land Management last year proposed protecting the state’s first officially designated, and perhaps best known, migration corridor as an ‘area of critical environmental concern’ — a plan that would allow no surface disturbance along the route mule deer travel from the Red Desert to the Hoback River basin and well beyond

Gov. Mark Gordon and his staff weren’t fond of that approach, which the BLM outlined in the preferred alternative of its controversial draft Rock Springs Resource Management Plan. Wyoming should “have the lead” on migration corridors, Randall Luthi, then Gordon’s chief energy advisor and now his policy director, told WyoFile last winter. 

“Lead means [we] go through the designation process,” Luthi said. “BLM and other federal agencies should fall in line with that.”

At a meeting last week in Rock Springs, BLM-Wyoming Director Andrew Archuleta hinted that Wyoming would get its wish.

“Within the draft Rock Springs RMP, there was a nomination to designate this corridor as an [area of critical environmental concern], but that creates some difficulties for us,” Archuleta told members of the Wyoming Legislature’s Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee. 

Randall Luthi speaks at a July 2023 meeting in Pinedale. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

The migration path primarily crosses two field offices: Pinedale and Rock Springs. There’s no area of critical environmental concern in the Pinedale field office (where the resource management plan is not up for review). Adding one — such a designation could have prevented gas drilling, or road building — in the Rock Springs office would create inconsistencies in management, he suggested.

“Our priority is supporting what the state is doing … or does or doesn’t do with their process,” Archuleta said. 

Archuleta spoke during a discussion about Wyoming’s in-the-works Sublette Pronghorn Migration Corridor, a section of which punches through the Gros Ventre Range to Jackson Hole and is known as the “Path of the Pronghorn.” BLM’s draft Rock Springs RMP doesn’t address the proposed pronghorn path, which — like the deer migration — also winds through two field offices. The agency’s draft planning document does, however, currently propose an ACEC on 224,000 acres of the 150-mile-long Red Desert to Hoback mule deer migration corridor. 

The draft environmental impact statement for the Bureau of Land Management’s Rock Springs RMP included a 224,000-acre “area of critical environmental concern” overlapping the Red Desert to Hoback mule deer migration corridor, pictured here. (BLM)

Brad Purdy, BLM’s deputy state director for communications, told WyoFile he doesn’t think that it’s fair to characterize the removal of a proposed ACEC designation as a change of course. 

“A draft RMP is just that: A draft RMP,” Purdy said. “I’ve said it a million times, and everybody’s tired of hearing it, but  … all alternatives and all aspects of all alternatives remain on the table until BLM issues that decision.” 

The BLM plans to release a final environmental impact statement and draft decision on the Rock Springs RMP “later this summer,” he said. 

The BLM’s draft environmental impact statement contained an option — Alternative D — which called for copying the state’s migration policy, which is being used for the first time since a 2019 overhaul. The Wyoming governor calls the shots under that executive order. Wyoming’s migration policy does not afford blanket protections to corridors like the area of critical environmental concern destination would have in BLM’s draft resource management plan. 

“The executive order only applies to the stopovers and the high-use areas,” Game and Fish Deputy Chief of Wildlife Doug Brimeyer testified to the Wyoming Legislature’s Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee.

Sublette Herd mule deer traverse through private land that’s in the process of being developed near the Hoback Rim in fall 2023. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Where it applies, Wyoming’s policy does not necessarily preclude development but can be used to inform and influence where and how infrastructure is sited. It’s only completely prohibitive of development in the tightest portions of migration corridors, called bottlenecks. To date no developments have been proposed in official bottlenecks, though a gas lease was OK’d in bottleneck of the not-yet-designated Path of the Pronghorn. As of late last year, all of the roughly 60 developments proposed in designated migration corridors — some of which are in stopovers and high-use areas — have been vetted and allowed to proceed. 

Because of the permissiveness, some environmental advocacy groups are urging BLM to keep with its plan to go above and beyond Wyoming’s policy in some manners. 

“Managing to support the unimpeded movement of big game herds is a complex endeavor — it’s going to take science-driven policy and complementary state and federal management,” Julia Stuble, Wyoming manager for The Wilderness Society, wrote in an email. 

In a follow-up conversation, she pushed for BLM policy that leaves stopover areas and high-use sections of corridors completely unscathed. 

“We believe that the research shows us those are the needs of the migrating animals: There needs to be some areas where they don’t encounter development,” Stuble said. 

While it remains to be seen if BLM emulates Wyoming’s migration policy, at least one lawmaker is encouraging the state and federal agency to work together to figure it out.

An upcoming step in the labyrinthine process of designating the Sublette Pronghorn Migration corridor is the creation of a stakeholder group. At the Select Federal Natural Resource Management Committee meeting, Rep. Scott Heiner (R-Green River) called for including the BLM in the effort.

“We have been advocating for a seat at the table with our federal partners to be able to participate in management of public lands, and I think that street goes two ways,” Heiner said. “Just as we need to have input from private property [owners] … I feel like it’s important that we have input from those that administer the public lands, so that they collaborate and they agree.” 

The comment was directed at Luthi, who was initially resistant. 

“Historically, we as a state have been pretty adamant that management of wildlife is a state function,” he said. “You might say I’m a bit ornery about that.” 

Luthi later came around to Heiner’s idea to include the BLM in its migration planning process. He noted, however, that federal law might not allow it. 

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.