JACKSON — Conservation groups are appealing a federal judge’s ruling that backed the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to approve a 3,500-well gas project near Pinedale, hoping to re-litigate their argument that the agency disregarded how the gas field would impact the country’s first federally recognized migration corridor.
They also contend that the project could eliminate a herd of pronghorn that dwells in Grand Teton National Park.
“Fundamentally, building a full-scale oil and gas field over the top of the Path of the Pronghorn migration corridor is unacceptable,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, one of the conservation groups that filed a notice of appeal Tuesday in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.
“Building full-field development inside sage grouse concentration areas is likewise unacceptable regardless of what time of year you do the drilling,” Molvar said. “You’ve got a project that has done nowhere near enough to protect the highly sensitive national wildlife resources that are present in this part of Western Wyoming.”
At issue is a 2018 decision by the Bureau of Land Management to approve Jonah Energy’s plans for the Normally Pressured Lance gas field, a 140,859-acre project immediately south and west of two other projects: the Jonah Infill Development Project and the long-debated Pinedale Anticline Project.
Those plans would allow Jonah Energy to develop 350 gas wells annually over 10 years.
A Jonah Energy official did not respond to requests for comment as of press time Wednesday.
Conservation groups argue that development in the area could irrevocably alter the Path of the Pronghorn, a migration corridor that hundreds of pronghorn use to travel from summer ranges in Grand Teton National Park to winter ranges in the Green River Basin. The Bridger-Teton National Forest recognized the migration corridor in May 2008, amending that recognition into its forest plan and creating the first federally recognized migration corridor in the United States.
But the pronghorn travel well beyond forest boundaries, including through the Anticline field and the recently approved Normally Pressured Lance field.
The state of Wyoming has considered recognizing the areas outside the Bridger-Teton National Forest as a migration corridor but has not formalized the designation. The Bureau of Land Management noted as much in an environmental impact statement that preceded its 2018 decision.
In a Tuesday press release, conservation groups zeroed in on the pronghorn that dwell in Grand Teton National Park, arguing that drilling in the area could eliminate the park’s “entire population of roughly 300 pronghorns.”
Asked for evidence of that, Molvar pointed to a 2006 peer-reviewed study by biologist Joel Berger, a researcher who first discovered the migration.
“Because an entire population accesses a national park ... by passage through bottlenecks as narrow as 121 [meters], any blockage to movement will result in extirpation,” Berger wrote.
Grand Teton officials declined to comment for this article, citing pending litigation.
Brad Purdy, the Bureau of Land Management’s acting deputy state director of communications, likewise declined to comment on the lawsuit. He was, however, “confident” that some permits for drilling had been approved in the area, but was not able to say how many had by press time Wednesday.
“That decision is not quite 4 years old now,” Purdy said. “I’m sure there’s some development going on.”
The appeal comes shortly after Judge Scott Skavdahl of the Federal District Court of Wyoming ruled in favor of the Bureau of Land Management, doing so after the conservation groups first filed a lawsuit.
It also follows the U.S. Department of the Interior’s announcement of a $250,000 grant aimed at protecting private land farther north in the pronghorns’ migration corridor. Those funds are slated to go toward a project that would sink millions of dollars into an easement on the Twin Eagle Ranch.
Dan Schlager, Wyoming state director for The Conservation Fund, which is a partner on that project, did not respond to a request for comment by press time Wednesday.
Molvar was optimistic about the conservation groups’ chances in appeals court.
The appeal, he said, “will demonstrate that it’s pretty obvious that the Bureau of Land Management did not look at a reasonable range of alternatives to protect the pronghorn migration.”
He also argued that the appeal will also show the agency did not adequately consider the impact of “losing the herd” on Grand Teton’s visitors and ecosystem, and “did not properly apply the sage grouse mitigation measures that are supposed to be applied under the range-wide sage grouse conservation plans.”