The hunters called -- they want their deer back

by Walt Gasson

Maybe it was just a case of bad timing.  First, we learn that mule deer have declined 60 percent on Wyoming’s Pinedale Anticline between 2001 and 2009. That’s not much of a surprise. It’s been evident for some time that deer and deer hunters were going to be the biggest losers in this gas play.

Second, a petroleum industry group called the Western Energy Alliance filed a lawsuit against the Interior Department, alleging that it hasn’t expedited gas leasing fast enough. There’s no real surprise there, either, since we can’t expect industry to advocate for a more careful approach to gas development.

Still, the fact that these two things are happening at the same time seems pretty ironic to me. It’s not that I’m against developing natural gas in Wyoming. I’m not. It would be pretty hypocritical to be sitting here warm and comfortable in my gas-heated home while railing about the energy industry. It would be even more hypocritical, given that the energy industry pays most of the taxes here in Wyoming. But how in the world did we get to the point where we can silently watch a world-class deer herd disappear before our eyes, even as we loudly demand even more gas leasing?

The answer is simple: It’s the price of a failed energy policy. For most of the last decade, the federal government has approached gas leasing and development in Wyoming pretty much the way frat boys approach beer. The officials in charge made no secret of their pro-development bias, and they made domestic gas production a high priority. Perhaps more important, they created an expectation within the industry that this was how business should be done. The gold-rush mentality became the norm, or even an entitlement. The Bureau of Land Management’s Pinedale Field Office, for example, issued more than 1,200 fast-track permits in three years during the days of “Drill, baby, drill!”

Then along come a Democratic administration and a new Interior secretary, Ken Salazar, a guy from a ranching family in Colorado who understands the West. He appoints Bob Abbey, a guy who understands public-lands management, to lead the BLM. The new team advocates a more common-sense approach, one that allows decisions on drilling to be considered in light of multiple uses of the land. At the same time, the nationwide economic slowdown puts the brakes on activity in the gas patch. But unfortunately, the deer on the Mesa failed to get the memo; they continue to decline.

So what happens now? BLM plans say that this catastrophic decline calls for additional monitoring and mitigation. There will be some habitat enhancement, to be sure. Maybe we’ll even be willing to stop drilling in the winter, when the deer are on their crucial winter range. There may be some great conservation easements, like the ones we’ve seen recently.

I’d like to be optimistic about this, but I think it’s fair to say that the results so far show little cause for optimism. And maybe that’s the biggest casualty of the last decade – optimism. I know people -- really good people -- who truly believed that we could have both deer and natural gas development on the Pinedale Anticline. They honestly tried to work out a plan that would allow us to have everything.

I wasn’t one of them. Over 30 years in the business of wildlife conservation have taught me that, in the words of Mick Jagger, “You can’t always get what you want.” Sometimes mistakes even prove fatal.

If that sounds personal and a little bit angry, it’s because it is. That’s my deer herd we’re talking about. Actually, if you bought a deer license during the last decade, it’s your deer herd, too. We’re the same deer hunters who saw the animals through the big deer bloom of the 1960s and the whiteout winters of the 1970s. We’re the folks in Carhartts and camo who bought the deer licenses and ponied up the money for the habitat improvement and the extra law enforcement when the boom hit. We’re not some rabid bunch of outside environmentalists; we’re your neighbors. We work hard. We hunt hard. And we stay here through thick and thin in the hope that we can continue to hunt and fish and pass this big, wild, wonderful place on to our kids and our grandkids.

Now, we’re not asking for miracles; we just want our deer back.

Walt Gasson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation and lives in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

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