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Gordon releases draft corridor protection rules

CASPER – Wyoming boasts the longest mule deer migration corridor on Earth, and the state’s governor appears determined to protect it.

A draft executive order issued Monday by Gov. Mark Gordon would establish protections for three existing migration corridors and develop guidelines for identifying additional routes, all while attempting to protect vital energy development for the state.

“My goal with this Executive Order is to identify solutions that would both protect our wildlife and support our economy through the multiple-use of public and state lands,” Gordon said in a statement. “I want to thank the advisory group for working collaboratively to deliver a strong and balanced set of recommendations which have been incorporated into this draft.”

The executive order incorporated several recommendations made by the Migration Corridor Advisory Group launched by Gordon in May. The group of citizens met a half-dozen times to debate how to keep big game herds healthy while not hampering vital economic growth.

In particular, the group pushed to modify how the state formally designates a corridor for protection. The team recommended launching local working groups before the state dubbed a route an official migration corridor.

Under the executive order, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department would identify a potential migration corridor based on scientific data. An in-depth evaluation and risk assessment on the corridor would follow. After public comment, the agency would present the identified migration corridor to the governor for consideration. Gordon could then launch an “area working group” chaired with local residents and stakeholders.

By soliciting local opinions on the migration corridors, the state would not only receive important feedback from residents on the ground, but it would also breed greater community investment in the corridors, members of this summer’s advisory group reasoned.

The final decision on the formal designation of a migration corridor would ultimately rest with the governor.

Rancher Marissa Taylor was tapped by Gordon to serve on the advisory group and represent landowners from Uinta County in rural southwest Wyoming this year. She responded positively to the draft order, with particular praise for its acknowledgement of private landowners’ efforts to preserve migration habitats.

According to the draft order, the state of Wyoming will recognize, and when possible, financially support landowners who wish to voluntarily engage in programs that help sustain identified corridors.

“I think that the governor and his team did a really good job at trying to capture the intent of our recommendations,” she said. “From a rancher’s perspective, I was happy to see that Wyoming is taking a leadership role in putting language to … recognizing (landowners for) housing the corridor.”

Oil and gas developers have said they carry an unfair share of blame over declines in mule deer populations. Disruptive development from roads, urban sprawl and general human activity also affect the migration patterns of mule deer, according to interviews with several energy developers. The Petroleum Association of Wyoming, an organization representing the vast majority of oil and gas operators in the state, emphasized the potential for finding a healthy compromise through the set of guidelines proposed in the draft order.

“While we carefully review all of the potential impacts of the Executive Order, we appreciate that Governor Gordon understands the need for balanced, multiple-use policies,” the group’s president, Pete Obermueller, said in a statement. “Wyoming can support big game health and at the same time encourage the development that supports Wyoming. Case-by-case analysis that invites input and fairly accounts for all impacts to wildlife, from human recreation to subdivision development to oil and gas, is an honest approach and we thank Governor Gordon for his leadership.”

Existing rights within designated corridors will also be upheld under the new order. In other words: “activities existing or permitted in designated migration corridors before Feb. 1, 2020 … will not be required to be managed under this Executive Order.” This includes activities such as oil and gas, mining, wind energy, agriculture, highway development and more.

The executive order also provides guidelines to prevent unnecessary surface disturbance in high-use areas, stopovers and bottlenecks. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department can, in certain cases, offer alternatives for new infrastructure or recreational use to prevent displacement of big game herds as they travel between winter and summer ranges.

Largely concentrated in southwest Wyoming, migration corridors have served for centuries as critical pathways for ungulates like mule deer, pronghorn and elk. The state officially recognizes the Baggs, Platte Valley and Sublette (Red Desert-to-Hoback) migration corridors. Scientists posit more corridors exist but lack a formal name or designation from the state.

The acclaimed migratory animals have arguably placed Wyoming on the map as a tourist destination for wildlife sightings and outdoor recreation. But population counts for these migratory animals continue to fall, a trend that has led conservationists to call for stricter regulations within designated corridors to protect the iconic herds.

The governor plans to release a final executive order early next year. In the meantime, his administration is accepting public comments.