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Commission identifies Sublette pronghorn migration corridor

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

After the harsh winter of 2022-23 and disease outbreaks decimating many Western Wyoming pronghorn antelope, causing many animals to drop dead where they stood, calls grew even stronger to protect and designate the celebrated ancient migration corridor from the Red Desert to Jackson Hole.

On March 12, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission (WGFC) and staff met with the public in Pinedale for a monthly meeting to determine whether or not it should proceed with the next step in its migration corridor designation.

Many in Western Wyoming and beyond urged WGFC for months to take the long-awaited step to kick off the initial “threat evaluation.” 

The draft threat evaluation, released in November, was then open for public comment through Jan. 5. It cited “human impacts” such as residential development, energy facilities – including wind and solar – and resulting fragmented habitat as potential threats and obstacles to the pronghorns’ continued spring and autumn migration to summer and winter ranges.

Aye to proceed

WGFC took the next step on March 12 to “identify” the pronghorn corridor and conduct a biological risk assessment, after several hours of more public comments, questions and answers and explained intentions.

First, WGFC Departing Chair Ralph Brokaw opened the meeting and was replaced by Incoming Chair Richard Ludvig and Vice Chair Mark Jolovich. 

Commissioners Ashlee Lundvall, Rusty Bell, Ken Roberts and John Masterson also attended in person, as did Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) Director Brian Nesvik, who spoke about two recommendations – the Sublette Antelope Migration Corridor and the WGFD’s Winter Elk Feedground Management Plan. 

Nesvik referred to an upcoming Greater sage grouse amendment to be released on March 15 for public comment. 

This announcement and the as-yet-incomplete and controversial Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) draft Rock Springs Resource Management Plan (RMP) could restrict many human activities including grazing and mining in favor of conservation. 

Some commissioners and public speakers asked the commission to delay a corridor identification decision.

“I’m curious,” Masterson said. “With the sage grouse plan imminent and the RMP, what is the interplay between the sage grouse amendment and the Sublette antelope corridor designation here? Should we wait so we can work them together?”

Nesvik said, “There is a lot of overlap, but I advise you to take each one individually. Today we’re going to action on the Sublette migration corridor. Some parts of this correlate with wildlife protections. There’s nothing to trigger us to go in a different direction today relative to the migration corridor.”

Masterson asked again about the timing.

Nesvik replied, “Irregardless of where the RMP lands, we should discuss this corridor today.”

The Wyoming Legislature removed formal designation authority from the state wildlife agency, handing it to Gov. Mark Gordon.

Gordon’s Migration Corridor Executive Order 2020-1, published on Feb. 13, 2020, states existing federal U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and BLM grazing permits, public access or existing energy facilities and development will not be affected by state designated migration corridors, nor would private property be affected, WGFD speakers reinforced.

Pronghorn pitch

WGFD Migration Corridor Coordinator Jill Randall told commissioners federal public lands protect wildlife on a range of levels. For example, USFS designated “The Path of the Pronghorn” in 2008. 

WGFD can leverage corridor funding from foundations and nongovernmental organizations, who help establish conservation easements and big game projects. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Big Game Initiative offers $30 million in grants to private landowners near a designated corridor.

Will Schulz, habitat protection supervisor, highlighted this is the first time the designation process is underway. 

“The commission essentially has the option of identifying the Sublette pronghorn corridor and leaving it at that or pursuing designation,” he said.

The Governor’s Office would appoint a local working group of stakeholders as each segment is studied very closely. Randall said the northern end of the migration route has more landscape disturbance – the Pinedale Anticline and Jonah Infill – and development obstacles.

Deputy Wildlife Chief Doug Brimeyer said 90 percent of public comments supported the Sublette pronghorn corridor’s designation process.

WGFD posted 17 mostly pro and con letters from local agencies and statewide hunting, energy and conservation groups and 100 pages of digital comments from 293 online comments filed by the Jan. 5 deadline.

Those against the designation cited pronghorn antelopes’ apparent comfort around oil and gas facilities, economic downturns for the region’s agriculture and energy industries and the “lack of need” for more protections. But, many more favored migration-corridor protections that include no surface occupancy only in high use areas.

“We’re not trying to prevent projects from occurring,” Brimeyer said.

Randall said the corridor’s 300-meter buffer will be refined during the biological risk assessment. Looking at the route in segments will pinpoint the bottlenecks and other obstacles more clearly and will provide “opportunities for conservation.”

Public comments

The first to speak was Daniel Rancher and Sublette County Commissioner Doug Vickrey, who referred to his fellow officials’ stance that corridor designation would negatively impact energy and agriculture revenues which fund the county.

“Let’s use caution as we move forward,” he said. “The devil is in the details.”

As a citizen, Vickrey advised the commission to close the county’s pronghorn hunting seasons.

Meghann Smith, of the Sublette County Conservation District board, softened the board’s previous comments by citing its support to proceed.

Mark Anselmi said energy and mining operators “are good neighbors.” 

The real issue is the county’s approval of ag-to-residential rezoning for subdivisions. He pointed to their decision to allow 50 five-acre homesites north of Daniel, west of Highway 191, where pronghorn moved their route to avoid development on the highway’s east side.

Conservation and environmental speakers spoke in favor of the designation.

Jasmine Allison from PureWest – formerly Ultra Resources – and Paul Ulrich from Jonah Energy cited obligations both natural gas operators follow under their respective Pinedale Anticline, Jonah Field and Normally Pressured Lance records of decision. 

From siting a well pad to reclamation, they consider wildlife and habitat priorities, they said, and worry those records of decision might be updated if a corridor is designated.

Mike Schmid, owner of SOS Well Services and former WGFD commissioner, presented the board with population statistics which rose and fell before and after “the two megafields’ drilling” started. WGFD has managed pronghorn well with good herd numbers.

“It’s hard to support this,” he said. “I just don’t see the need for it.”

Petroleum Association of Wyoming’s Colin McKee asked the commission to “defer today or make a stipulation to the RMP being included in the risk assessment.”

Deputy Director Angi Bruce said the state should lead off with Gordon’s first-ever migration corridor designation and repeated the governor’s executive order does not contain stipulations.

“What if we don’t do anything?” she said. “The BLM’s RMP refers to Gordon’s executive order and if Wyoming doesn’t step up, the federal government might think it needs to step in.”

Linda Baker of the Upper Green River Alliance pointed to declining natural gas prices in 2023 and expanding international energy development. 

“Wyoming control for Wyoming wildlife,” she stated.

Nesvik answered commissioners’ final questions and outlined their options, saying, “We control the timeline. There were excellent points made here today. It gives local governments something to refer to.”

Brimeyer said WGFC staff could complete the detailed risk analysis “later this year.” 

Masterson moved “to further evaluate the Sublette Antelope Corridor” and Brokaw seconded

Every commissioner voted “aye.”

Joy Ufford is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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