The future of migration corridors

Advisory group sends request for executive order to the governor

Posted 10/8/19

Wyoming Game and Fish biologists are gearing up to collar 100 pronghorns near Carter Mountain in November, hoping to find evidence of a previously unmapped migration corridor.

The evidence is …

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The future of migration corridors

Advisory group sends request for executive order to the governor


Wyoming Game and Fish biologists are gearing up to collar 100 pronghorns near Carter Mountain in November, hoping to find evidence of a previously unmapped migration corridor.

The evidence is clear, said Corey Class, Cody Region wildlife management coordinator.

“Anyone going from Cody to Meeteetse has seen the trails,” he said. “We have pretty good feeling there are corridors there based on anecdotal observations of trails and highway mortality. We’re seeing a lot of pronghorn killed along Highway 120.”

What scientist don’t know at this point is where the pronghorn are coming from and where they’re going. “The collars will help us narrow down where we can mitigate some of the risks like highway mortality,” Class said.

Wyoming leads the nation in research on the migration of deer, elk and pronghorn and in establishing policies for conserving them, Gov. Mark Gordon said in a recent release.

“Wyoming is proud of its mule deer, its antelope, its elk, and its multiple use of public lands,” said Gordon. “Together I believe we must chart a steady course to ensure the state’s ungulate migrations, which are unique in the world, will continue for generations to come while continuing to build strong energy and agriculture industries.”

Beginning in November, Game and Fish biologists will employ a helicopter to catch the speedy species, dropping nets from the cockpit of the aircraft to immobilize each antelope before doing tests and installing a GPS collar. The collaring effort is being paid for in part by funding made available by former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Zinke signed the executive order in 2018 “to enhance and improve the quality of big-game winter range and migration corridor habitat on Federal lands,” prior to resigning amid several investigations into his conduct while in office.

“Healthy and protected migration corridors are essential to the future of a wide range of big-game species across the West,” said Jeff Trandahl, executive director and CEO of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. “By working closely with our partners at the Department of the Interior, and with the support of Conoco/Phillips, we will expand funding opportunities for conservation projects that will make a real difference for these big-game species.” 

The foundation combined with Conoco/Phillips to donate $2.7 million toward research.

The governor organized an eight-person Migration Corridor Advisory Group, appointing folks representing different stakeholders, including industry, mineral extraction, agriculture, recreation, county government, the Game and Fish commission and conservation. Park County’s only representative on the task force is Kathy Lichtendahl, a noted conservationist from Clark.

Lichtendahl was chosen for her lifelong conservation work, yet being independent of local and national environmental organizations, she said. “He [Gordon] didn’t want someone that was actually working for conservation groups,” Lichtendahl said. “He wanted a normal citizen.”

The group met on three occasions for two-day conferences. She was apprehensive going into the advisory group, thinking the diverse group might find it hard to identify common ground.

“I wondered if they’d be very one-sided in their views. It turned out that was not the case,” she said. “They all understand the value of wildlife in Wyoming. Nobody wants to see these migration corridors severed. And every single person on the task force was aware of the fact that, if we lose these migration corridors, we will lose our herds — certainly of mule deer and pronghorn.”

None in the group expressed complete agreement with every aspect of the recommendations, but made compromises to pass along the ideas. “It really was a positive experience because of the respect that everyone had for each other,” she said.

According to a recent poll done by Public Opinion Strategies, an overwhelming majority of all Wyoming voters — 89 percent — think protecting wildlife corridors doesn’t have to be at odds with Wyoming’s mineral extraction industry.

The advisory group placed significant importance in developing a state-led and state-managed structure and recommendations were highlighted by a call to pursue an Executive Order. They finished their recommendations in August, pushing the governor to work with federal land management agencies to “align their policies to the order.”

The advisory group also recommended the order include changes to the process for officially designating a corridor, the development of local working groups for designated corridors, direction to actively engage landowners prior to designation and a law change that would require commercial-electrical generation solar and wind power projects be reviewed by the Industrial Siting Council to ensure they do not impact the functionality of corridors.

Lichtendahl said mule deer are the most threatened species discussed in the group. “Part of that is because of their fidelity to their migration paths. They just do not deviate. If there is something in their way they won’t migrate. We all need to be concerned.”

One of the toughest issues is the multiple stakeholders along corridors. Private, public, state and federal lands are all included in the corridors, making it tough to coordinate policy. It means they need a lot of people to come on board with the recommendations, Lichtendahl said.

“The animals don’t care who owns the land they’re crossing,” she said. “It becomes really difficult when you try to get everyone to work together.”

Lichtendahl is watching for a sign from the governor that he’s a friend to conservation. “I’m still watching for that. I think he’s open to trying to do the right thing. But there are a lot of pressures in this state, so time will tell,” she said.

The biggest threat to the corridors isn’t necessarily habitat being fragmented by the state’s energy industry, she said. A major concern is the subdividing of ranches. “Fences go up and cut off corridors,” she said.

Chronic wasting disease is also an “added stresser,” she said.

The ball is now in Gordon’s court. The working group is taking public comments on its recommendations through Friday “then the Governor will consider the next steps and remains interested in drafting an Executive Order,” said Renny MacKay, senior policy adviser to the governor. A draft would come out in November or December, he said.