LA BARGE – Light swirling snow started accumulating outside the windows of the SOS Well Services office trailer by the time owner Mike Schmid quoted fishing and hunting buddy, Gary Fralick from Star Valley.
Fralick called La Barge “The big empty.” Schmid said it’s exactly that – and it’s amazing.
The oil and gas veteran described the vastness surrounding him and described a sprawling canvas of sunrises and pumpheads casting shadows.
Over his shoulder, a small white-tailed rabbit hopped under a trailer and out of the snow. Schmid didn’t notice.
His time in the oilfields taught him wildlife and industry can coexist. He wanted to bring that opinion to the Game and Fish Commission. Then, after four years, his time on the commission ended with an email from Gov. Mark Gordon.
Another commissioner told Schmid his involved voice rattled too many cages. While off the commission, he swore to uphold his outdoor involvement. This time, he’s hopeful he won’t be the only one rattling cages.
A fresh high school graduate, Schmid joined two brothers at the Husky Station in La Barge where the All-American stands now. He didn’t have the money for college, nor was he a great student by the time he graduated from Pinedale High School Class of 1976 at semester.
He still had a passion for the outdoors he got watching his father and brothers return from weeklong deer hunts when they lived in Michigan or from walking Horse Creek, Prairie Creek and the Green River to fish after moving to Daniel when he was 10. His father found a brother working at the sawmill after World War II and, after a summer vacation to visit, never wanted to go back.
“(My father) moved out here and I thank God every day he found Wyoming,” Schmid said.
Schmid and his brothers left the station to build roads and drilling pads for drilling wells. When his brothers left there, he stayed, taking the titles to the roustabout trucks.
Exxon arrived and within two years Schmid had 200 people working with him. Business was good up until he sold to a private equity firm in 2000. He then started SOS Well Services to stay in the business.
During his decades in the oilfields he formed a philosophy for industry and wildlife cohabitation.
“I’ve always said, back in the day, oil and gas companies needed a swift kick in the ass because they were doing some things that weren’t right – environmentally,” Schmid said. “That was a good thing to happen. But I also say, as with a lot of things, we find something good and correct it, then we take it too far. It gets so far and that becomes restrictive. I think that’s where we’re at now.”
Schmid’s partial to a steady drum of activity. He said while he was drilling almost constantly there were still 60,000 mule deer, sage-grouse were everywhere and the Sublette herd was peaked out. Now, spacing activity out into certain windows alters animal behavior more than when the drills were going every day.
“I believe they adapt to it. I’ve watched it for years,” he said. “A person would have a hard time convincing me otherwise after what I’ve seen the last 40, 45 years working in this oil patch.”
He said he’s built a file full of pictures of mule deer, pronghorn, sage-grouse and cottontail rabbits using oil equipment for shade protection. He’s witnessed bobcats laying on top of 400-barrel tanks in the sunshine. Outside of the increased traffic on roads endangering wildlife, his experience proved to him animals can coexist with oil and gas.
He was an impassioned believer in this by the time Gov. Dave Freudenthal spoke at La Barge Town Hall. Schmid raised his hand and asked what someone like himself could do.
“Get involved,” the former governor said.
Schmid figured he would when the oil and gas industry didn’t demand as much time. That time came in 2016 when former Game and Fish Commissioner Charles Price retired. Schmid got at least three connections in each District 3 county to write letters of recommendation. He sent those, along with a letter addressed directly to Gov. Matt Mead. Since he knew the position required Senate approval he wrote every senator. He also wrote every member of the House, just in case.
“I can’t sit around and bitch or complain at the coffee shop, bar or social media now,” he said. “I just wanted to get involved and be in a position where I could try to make a difference, based on what I knew and my love for wildlife.”
He called it “a dream come true.”
Admittedly, perhaps trying to get people involved was where Schmid went wrong. He said a lot, talked a lot and posted a lot. He did it to get the public involved but it also ruffled feathers.
“I don’t like saying this, the Game and Fish invite people to their meetings but I think they just do that because that’s what they’re supposed to do,” Schmid said. “I don’t get the feeling, and I don’t like saying this, that it really doesn’t mean much.”
He wanted ranchers and oilfield workers to voice their opinions from experience. Like how oilfield workers drove to pumpers every day as part of their job. What if Game and Fish partnered with them to study the wildlife? What if, in a partnership, they could develop water wells and put water sources on the desert?
“Stuff like that is so available but we’ve got to start thinking different,” Schmid said. “These oil and gas barrels aren’t going anywhere; let’s partner with them.”
Schmid said the commission needed to think differently. And he said it often.
Following Schmid’s removal from the board last month, Game and Fish Commission President Pete Dube released a statement. Dube and Schmid joined the commission at the same time and voted together on closing some hunting areas and lowering permits for moose hunts outside Meeteetse after hearing overwhelming public comment – an event Schmid said was a prime example of what can happen with community effort.
“The expression of many opinions and voices lead to sound Commission and Department action. Mike was an integral part of those discussions,” Dube’s statement said. “Commissioner Schmid, on several occasions, made public statements in writing, via social media, and in person that were directly contrary to votes and actions taken from the commission as a whole.”
Schmid countered statements from Gov. Gordon and Dube regarding his releases on social media. Friends commented on Schmid’s posts, thanking him for sharing his opinions and voicing their support.
The good still done
The former commissioner said he’s proud of the highway-crossing constructions that has helped save animal life as well as human life. He’s proud of the research conducted on fencing issues. He’s also proud of the WYldlife Fund, a diverse foundation built throughout Wyoming that is geared toward habitat improvements, highway projects and fencing issues.
“That’s going to be a huge thing for the state of Wyoming and the wildlife,” he said.
It’s estimated every mile of barbed wire or sheepwire fence is responsible for one death.
Schmid said the state’s losing a minimum 6,000 animals every year on Wyoming highways. He read a study out of Utah that said for every animal picked up along highways there’s another four that aren’t accounted for. That’s 24,000 less licenses and 24,000 less opportunities for state revenue in meals, lodging and tourism. Schmid said the state values each deer at $5,000 to the state’s economy.
“It’s huge,” he said. “And these highway crossings fix them immediately. That’s where I think we need to spend more of our time and focus and get those built just as fast as we can.”
Schmid said there’s more exciting plans along the way. He talked about WYldlife projects using “we” when also referring to Game and Fish officials. They’re all together with the same goal of safeguarding wildlife habitats. And if Schmid’s outreach does anything, they won’t be alone.