- Associated Press - Sunday, November 8, 2015

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - Nearly all of Wyoming’s big game animals migrate, and in much the same way. They wander from lush, green mountains in the summer to dry, wind-swept prairies in the winter.

And recent mule deer research has shown their movements are surprisingly precise. Pathways trickle together like county roads that merge into highways before becoming interstates.

Those paths, with food-rich spots along the way, allow Wyoming’s elk, deer and pronghorn to take advantage of the best seasonal vegetation available in an arid, high-elevation state. It’s what keeps them healthy, with their numbers in the thousands.

Research shows the high-use areas and stopover points are critical to the animals’ futures. As a result, some say they should be protected.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission discussed Friday changing its policy to recognize these big game interstates and stopovers and recommend no oil and gas development on federal lands within them. If it passes, Wyoming would become the first state in the country to formally recognize some of the most cutting-edge big game research.

Sportsmen and conservationists say that this is a critical move to protect some of Wyoming’s largest deer, elk and antelope herds. Energy companies and agricultural interests, on the other hand, are concerned this could be another example of unnecessary government overreach.

“In order to be sustained for the long term, (migrations) have to be sustained for their entire length. If any one part of the corridor becomes so degraded animals can’t or won’t go through it, it puts the entire corridor at risk,” said Matt Kauffman, director of the Wyoming Migration Initiative at the University of Wyoming. “We absolutely should expect that if we lose these migrations, we will have far fewer animals in our big game herds.”

Part of the controversy, and enthusiasm, behind migration research is its relative infancy. Only in the last 10 to 15 years have GPS collars allowed researchers to continuously track movements of elk, deer, and pronghorn. And only in the last several years has it become part of the public debate.

The longest migrating mule deer herd in the world was discovered in 2013 in southwest Wyoming by wildlife researcher Hall Sawyer. The herd, he found, migrates more than 150 miles from the Red Desert in the winter to the Hoback Basin in the summer. About 5,000 animals complete all or a portion of the trip. The discovery garnered national interest with features in the New York Times, National Geographic and Field and Stream.

As researchers learned more about the importance of these corridors, routes and stopover points, wildlife managers have begun to realize they should update their policies to try to lessen human impact on those landscapes.

The proposal Game and Fish Department officials offered the commission on Friday included an update to add bottlenecks - places where animals move through restricted areas - and stopovers into policy language. It also suggested Game and Fish recommend no oil and gas development such as well pads on the surface in the animals’ high-use corridors and stopover points.

Even if the policy is adopted, said Scott Smith, Game and Fish’s deputy chief of the wildlife division, it applies only to recommendations to the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service. Game and Fish ultimately has no authority to decide where development can and cannot occur.

The department already recommends no surface use occupancy for migration corridors less than half a mile wide, and up to four well pads per square mile for larger corridors. This would simply change the precision of the recommendation, Smith told the Casper Star-Tribune (http://bit.ly/1Nl1XN2).

“We now know a migration corridor is no longer a simple linear function across a landscape,” Smith said. “Now we can quantify the width in addition to that. We can also quantify within a corridor the high-use portion of that corridor.”

The proposal was met Friday in Laramie with a mixture of support and opposition. Sportsmen and conservationists waited in line to tell the commission about the value of protecting high-use corridors and stopovers, while energy company and agriculture representatives said the existing policy is enough.

Recommending no surface oil and gas development in those areas could harm Wyoming’s economy, said Esther Wagner, vice president of public lands for the Petroleum Association of Wyoming.

“Regulations that unnecessarily restrict development will only add to the state’s shortfalls,” she said, adding, “We understand the need to conserve, but also understand the need to do business.”

Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said that while the proposal applies only to federal public lands, they could, one day, affect private lands interspersed in the area.

“Our experience is when public land management agencies impose restrictions on one use of the land, over time those create a set of expectations and a pattern of increased restrictions of other uses of the land - in this case, livestock grazing,” he said.

Supporters of the change said the protections have been needed for years.

And the research used is the best science available, said Steve Kilpatrick, representing the Wyoming Wildlife Federation.

“We don’t think we can afford to lose another 4,000 to 5,000 head of deer to loss of migration routes,” he said.

The final decision will be a tough one, said Commissioner Keith Culver.

Protecting big game migration corridors is critical to the animals’ future, but energy development is key to Wyoming’s future, he said. There will need to be a balance.

Before the commission votes on the proposed changes in January, members wanted more information on some of the unanswered questions, such as how much development a migrating herd can handle. They also want the Game and Fish Department to continue working with energy, agriculture and sportsmen representatives to find a compromise.

“This has everyone excited,” said Commissioner Patrick Crank. “Let’s solve the excitement. Let’s finalize the policy come January.”

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Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com

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