OP-ED: Presidential suspension on mineral development bad for Wyoming’s wildlife
For decades, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has stood out for our ability to successfully manage wildlife on the same shared landscape that mineral development occurs. We’ve done this on Wyoming’s terms, working collaboratively with industry to understand specific development impacts to wildlife. Our approach ensures critical wildlife habitats are protected simultaneous to mineral production.
However, the new Presidential Executive Order restricting mineral development does not serve the best interests of Wyoming wildlife. That may sound surprising to some; but, this blanket approach is short-sighted and fails to consider the tools Wyoming uses to protect wildlife on all federal lands. The restrictions undercut the value of our experience, expertise and proven track record.
Game and Fish’s ability to protect wildlife habitat and have mineral development relies on maintaining maximum flexibility to determine where and when drilling or mining occur. The department makes recommendations based on best-available data and the landscape as a whole. From a wildlife habitat conservation perspective, it makes sense to site drilling activity on lands that are already disturbed and oftentimes those locations are on federal land. That maximum flexibility is essential. Using existing sites reduces habitat disturbance and decreases the amount of reclamation needed following project completion. Suspending new federal leases limits options for siting potential mineral development, giving producers no choice but to seek leasing opportunities on private or state lands - lands that are some of the most productive and healthy wildlife habitat.
Further, when habitat is disturbed by mineral development, reclamation is an important action that benefits wildlife. The blanket suspension on further lease sales may disincentivize smaller mineral producers from continuing existing operations. We’ve seen this before; when producers go out of business, reclamation is put on the back burner. Simply stated, this is bad for wildlife.
Science-based decisions lead our land use policy, and in Wyoming we’ve proven this approach works well. Rather than waiting on the federal government, the state has led on important topics like sage grouse and migration corridor conservation. State-led policies reflect Wyoming’s value for wildlife and our ability to use science and a partnership approach to develop minerals while minimizing impacts to wildlife.
In the face of declining sage grouse populations and the threat of a listing under the Endangered Species Act, the Sage Grouse Core Area Executive Order was issued by then-Gov. Freudenthal and adopted by Gov. Mead and Gov. Gordon. The Order uses a science-based approach focused on protecting the best habitat no matter the location and has been continually updated with new science over its lifetime. This strategy has kept the greater sage grouse off the Endangered Species List.
Gov. Gordon’s Migration Corridor Executive Order is the most recent example of Wyoming’s commitment to protect important habitats for big game migration. Using new technology and science, we identified the areas critical for big game movement between seasonal ranges. This adaptive strategy was developed cooperatively with all interested stakeholders. In fact, as I write this, a group of local citizens and community leaders are implementing the migration corridor strategy by studying the science and developing recommendations for the corridor in the Platte Valley.
Wildlife matters to all of us in Wyoming — it is a major component of our quality of life and one of the primary reasons people live here. The same oil and gas workers and miners who go to work every day to support our state’s economy and support their families also spend a significant portion of their free time hunting, fishing and recreating with their families on our remarkable landscapes.
The new Presidential Executive Order effectively disregards Game and Fish’s proven abilities to advise and guide strategies aimed at balancing responsible mineral extraction with wildlife conservation. In Wyoming, protecting wildlife habitat is an important part of the way we do business. Our state’s approach has evolved over time with new science and practical on-the-ground knowledge as our guide. We have strong, effective relationships with mineral producers and private landowners. We work together to develop Wyoming’s valuable mineral resources on Wyoming’s terms. It is in everyone’s best interest to operate this way. The new administration should reverse this executive order. Let Game and Fish get back to work for wildlife the way we have proven is best for Wyoming.
-Brian Nesvik is the director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. He has worked on behalf of Wyoming wildlife and people for over 25 years.