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A group of pronghorn roam by an oil rig on federal land near Pinedale. President Joe Biden signed an executive order Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, halting new oil and gas leasing on federal lands, a move which many political and industry leaders throughout Wyoming criticized, claiming the pause will have a significant impact on the state’s economy. Courtesy/BLM Wyoming

On Jan. 27, President Joe Biden issued presidential Executive Order 14008, “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad.” In that order, the president directed the Secretary of the Interior to “pause new oil and natural gas leases on public lands ... pending completion of a comprehensive review ... of Federal oil and gas permitting and leasing practices ...”

Two days after Biden’s order, Wyoming’s governor, Mark Gordon, responded with an order of his own. It stated that the pause “will cause immediate and considerable harm to the State of Wyoming.” He went on to order all “relevant state agencies” to “evaluate the economic and financial effects of the President’s Executive Order upon their prospective budgets and the production of oil and gas and related jobs in the state.”

Apparently, the director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Brian Nesvik, felt that his outfit was one of the “relevant state agencies.” On Feb. 10, Nesvik issued a news release titled “Presidential suspension on mineral development bad for Wyoming’s wildlife.” In it, Nesvik stated that “the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has stood out for our ability to successfully manage wildlife on the same shared landscape that [sic] mineral development occurs.” He went on to argue that “the new Presidential Executive Order does not serve the best interests of Wyoming wildlife.”

It’s fair to say that these statements from the leader of the state’s wildlife management effort stunned wildlife professionals and other conservationists across the region. There’s no doubt that the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has been exceptionally inventive in its efforts to conserve wildlife in the face of the massive impacts oil, gas and coal development have had on native landscapes. The process has not been as congenial as director Nesvik would have us believe in his release, but almost always adversarial, with the companies giving up no more than what they felt was absolutely necessary for their public relations and success against court challenges from conservation groups.

And the impact of mineral development on the state’s wildlife has been profound, in spite of the efforts conservationists at the state and federal level, as well as private-sector groups, have made to minimize it. Nesvik states that “[s]cience-based decisions lead our land use policy, and in Wyoming we’ve proven this approach works well.”

This assertion is breathtaking in its inaccuracy. Ask any wildlife professional whether the land use on oil and gas fields has been good for native wildlife, whether the reclamation of exhausted sites has provided a net benefit for wildlife, and the answer will be a resounding “No!”

The successes wildlife managers have achieved over the last century have been won in spite of energy development and in no way because of it. Over the last century, science has proven beyond any doubt that energy development degrades or destroys habitat and displaces many species of native wildlife.

The list of studies emphasizing this point would fill a book. Consider the effects of the Jonah Field and the Mesa development south of Pinedale as just one example. Mule deer herds that used these areas as winter range have declined markedly, while herds in adjacent habitats have fared much better. Pronghorns have changed their migration routes to avoid the oil fields. Sage grouse in the area have been decimated. Even populations of nongame birds like the sage thrasher and Brewer’s sparrow have been affected.

The situation would be much worse if it hadn’t been for the passionate work of federal and state wildlife biologists and private conservationists. But to imply that energy development is somehow good for wildlife, as Nesvik does, simply ignores reality. It has always been bad for wildlife – the best we have done is to make it a little less bad.

The “pause” Biden has ordered will have no short-term effect on production. In FY 2019, there were nearly 5,700 oil and gas leases on federal land in Wyoming that had yet to be “developed.” That’s more than 40% of all the federal leases in the state. Far more important to future oil and gas revenue will be the decisions on production and pricing made by Russia, Saudi Arabia and other OPEC nations.

If the “pause” becomes a longer-term hiatus, it will only reinforce the reality of market forces that are already in the process of transforming Wyoming’s economy. In the very near future, we will find that untrammeled landscapes; free-flowing water; and abundant, diverse, spectacular wildlife are worth far more to us than coal and oil.

Nesvik bears a large part of the responsibility for preserving that precious and diminishing resource. He would do well to remember the mission Wyoming statute defines for his agency: “... to provide an adequate and flexible system for control, propagation, management, protection and regulation of all Wyoming wildlife.” The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is not the Oil and Gas Commission.

Chris Madson, MS Wildlife Ecology, is a certified wildlife biologist with The Wildlife Society and spent six years with the Kansas Wildlife and Parks Department. He retired after 30 years as editor of Wyoming Wildlife Magazine with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. He can be reached at chrismadson@me.com.

Tom Christiansen, BS Fisheries and Wildlife, retired after 33 years with the WGFD, including 14 years as the department’s sage-grouse biologist.

Bill Alldredge, Ph.D. is professor emeritus, Department of Fishery, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, Colorado State University. Past board member with the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, past member of the Big Horn Basin Sage Grouse Local Working Group.

Joe Bohne, MS Wildlife Biology, retired with 35 years experience as a wildlife biologist, and later regional wildlife coordinator and staff biologist working on conservation of waterfowl and sage grouse, WGFD.

Dave Moody, B.S. in Wildlife Management, is a district wildlife biologist and, later, large carnivore coordinator, WGFD.

Bob Oakleaf, MS wildlife biology, a nongame biologist and, later, supervisor of the nongame section, WGFD (retired).

Armond Acri, is a past board member with the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, 31-year resident of Wyoming.

Harry Harju, Ph.D. from the Zoology and Physiology Department, University of Wyoming. Retired after 27 years as a wildlife biologist, including as supervisor of the biological services section and assistant chief of the Game Division, WGFD.

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