Progress on Protecting Wyoming's "Path of the Pronghorn" Underscores Broader Issues

Pronghorn. Photo by Mark Gocke

Pronghorn on the MJ Ranch in the Green River Valley of Wyoming. Photo by Mark Gocke, Wyoming Game and Fish Dept.

Pronghorn, often called antelope, are the fastest mammals in North America, but they can't outrun the oil and gas activity and other development that poses an increasing threat to their habitat in Wyoming.

Each year, pronghorn from Grand Teton National Park and the Jackson Hole Valley make an annual migration of 100 to 170 miles to winter range south of Pinedale in the Green River Basin of Wyoming. The route, perhaps the longest land mammal migration in the continental United States, has been dubbed the "Path of the Pronghorn," but conditions are changing rapidly in what used to be a classic example of wide open spaces.

Information the Conservation Fund summarizes the problem—and hopes for a solution:

Flanked by the Wyoming and Wind River Ranges, the Upper Green River Valley forms the southern core of the world’s most intact temperate ecosystem—the Greater Yellowstone. For over 7,000 years, Pronghorn antelope, elk, Shiras moose, and mule deer have navigated the Valley’s unique topography every season……[but] due to its unparalleled natural resources, the Valley and its wildlife are now in peril.

That peril comes from the steady increase in subdivisions, roads, fences and—most of all—oil and gas development. The land crossed by the migration route is a mixture of private land and public property managed by the U. S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management and the State of Wyoming.

Here's just one example from the Bureau of Land Management of the impacts of energy development on the life in the West:

The Jonah Natural Gas Field is an area of west central Wyoming, south of the town of Pinedale, in the Upper Green River Basin. Jonah’s 30,000 acres of rolling sagebrush are 94 percent federally owned. The area has one of the richest concentrations of natural gas in the United States, estimated at more than 14 trillion cubic feet (TCF).

The Jonah Infill Drilling Project is expected to produce nearly 8 TCF of natural gas over the 76-year life of the project, enough to heat 4.8 million homes for 20 years.


What's involved in getting that much gas out of the ground? In just this one project,

[The energy companies] propose to drill up to 3,100 additional gas wells on up to 16,200 acres …at a rate of 250 wells drilled per year.

Total economic activity from natural gas and oil production would be approximately $30.5 billion… taxes and federal royalties are estimated at $6.1 billion. The royalty would be equally split between the State of Wyoming and the federal treasury.

Those are big numbers, and each landowner or government agency has its own guidelines and priorities concerning economic development and wildlife habitat. Questions about how to balance oil and gas development and protection of surface resources—including wildlife habitat—have been especially thorny in recent years.

On public lands, it's largely a political fight, and there's been some progress in protecting key parts of the wildlife migration route in those areas. What options are available on private property? Here's one answer:

The Conservation Fund and a host of partners launched the Upper Green River Valley Initiative in 2008 to conserve and enhance key wildlife habitat and agricultural lands in that special valley.

To date, The Conservation Fund has worked with numerous public and private partners to conserve over 8,000 acres of private land and enhance over 90,000 acres of public lands, including key migration routes, miles of river frontage, sage grouse lek sites and crucial winter range for moose, elk, mule deer and pronghorn.

A key part of the project was recently announced last week by the Conservation Fund:

The conservation easement protects the northernmost 2,400 acres of Carney Ranch, located at the head of the Upper Green River Valley in Sublette County, by preventing future development of the land and ensuring its sound management. The Conservation Fund purchased the easement from the Carney family, which will continue to own the land and operate it as a working ranch as it has since 1963.

“This project protects the pronghorn and a working cattle ranch—two icons of the American West,” said Luke Lynch, Wyoming state director for The Conservation Fund. “The Carney Ranch and the entire Upper Green River Valley boast some of the highest quality habitat and open space in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and we thank the numerous partners for continuing to support the conservation of this important landscape for future generations. The Carney family made a significant donation to make this possible—we applaud the three generations of family members for their major commitment to conservation.”

These easements are especially important because they involve an area described by wildlife managers as a "bottleneck"—"areas along the migration route where topography, vegetation, development and/or other landscape features restrict animal movements to narrow or limited regions. Bottlenecks create management concerns
because the potential to disrupt or threaten established migratory routes are much greater in these areas."

Carney Ranch covers a large portion of the bottleneck … Protecting Carney Ranch has been a high priority for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, as it provides habitat for 75 Species of Greatest Conservation Need – one of the highest counts ever recorded in the state, contains more than three miles of frontage of the Green River and lies adjacent to the Bridger-Teton National Forest.

How were these projects funded? Recent years have been tough ones for most non-profit groups facing reduced donations due to the economic downturn.

The Conservation Fund purchased the easement using funding from the Acres for America program, a partnership established between Walmart Stores, Inc. and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Jonah Interagency Office, Wyoming Landscape Conservation Initiative, the Wyoming Wildlife & Natural Resources Trust and The Nature Conservancy, through a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, provided additional funding for the easement. In addition, the landowners made a significant donation to the project.

The Jonah Interagency Office (JIO) offers an example of hopes for improved cooperative efforts between agencies and private interests.

The JIO is staffed with a full-time person from each of the following agencies; Wyoming Department of Agriculture, Wyoming Game & Fish Department, Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of the Interior/Bureau of Land Management. The BLM staff person manages the office and serves as JIO Project Coordinator.

The JIO manages a $24.5 million monitoring and mitigation fund committed by EnCana Oil & Gas (USA), Inc. and BP America Production Company.

Will combined private and government efforts be enough to save the Path of the Pronghorn? The pronghorn are simply one example of what's at stake in a much broader tug of war in the West between economic development and preservation of wildlife, scenery, air and water quality and a host of other values. Will it be possible for those often competing interests to find some common ground?

Protection of this pronghorn migration route to and from Grand Teton National Park is also a reminder that the solutions to many issues involving parks, including wildlife management and viewsheds, can't be confined to park boundaries.

These recent efforts in the Green River Valley are a step in the right direction—and an example of what can be done.

Comments

Isn't it amazing what people can do if they are willing to just sit down, think things over, talk reasonably with one another and work toward a solution that will benefit all? Too bad we can't seem to do it more often.