Nearly 20,000 acres of prime elk and mule deer habitat in Wyoming's namesake mountains are temporarily off limits for oil and gas leasing under a decision issued yesterday by the U.S. Interior Board of Land Appeals. Siding with concerns raised in protests by outfitters, hunters and anglers, local residents, oil and gas field workers, and conservationists, the IBLA halted an April oil and gas lease sale in the Wyoming Range while it considers an appeal of the leasing decision.
With hunting season in full swing, Wyoming outfitter Dan Smitherman welcomed the news.
"Our customers come here to enjoy the natural beauty and world-class hunting available in the Wyoming Range," said Smitherman, owner of Hoback Peak Outfitters. "Responsible energy development means recognizing that some places, like the Wyoming Range, are just too special to drill."
Smitherman joined with two other outfitters and the Lander-based National Outdoor Leadership School in an appeal of leases sold in April along Horse and Dry Beaver Creeks -- areas renown for hunting, fishing and camping. Three conservation groups, represented by Earthjustice and the Wyoming Outdoor Council, also filed appeals.
"I've spent a lot of time in the woods, and it's been my experience that big-game animals and other wildlife clear out with major human activity like you find with oil and gas drilling. If big-game animals leave, my clients would have no reason to come back. Drilling would be really hard on me and my business," he said.
Elk hunters enjoy some of the highest success rates in the state in the Wyoming Range. Along with elk, the Wyoming Range is home to half of Wyoming's moose and a world-class mule deer population. Forty-seven outfitters guide trips into the range, and a number of lodges and local tourism businesses operate in the area. The range is the only place in Wyoming where anglers can hook three of the four species of cutthroat trout, and is home to a 350-mile snowmobile trail and 70-mile hiking trail. Statewide, tourism income is now approaching $2 billion annually with hunting outfitters alone contributing $90 million.
The Bureau of Land Management began issuing leases for natural gas development in the Wyoming Range in December 2005. In four sales, more than 44,600 acres have been offered for lease. Leases sold from the December and April sales have now been temporarily halted.
In June, outfitters and business owners who live along the Wyoming Range formed a local group called Citizens Protecting the Wyoming Range. Since then, the group's membership has grown to over 300.
Along with a long list of outfitters, business owners, oil and gas field workers, unions, conservation groups, and local residents, Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal protested the June and August lease sales.
"I am not against a responsible level of natural gas development. I know the nation needs energy, but just not in the Wyoming Range," says Sublette Country resident, Peter Doenges. Doenges is a member of Citizens Protecting the Wyoming Range. "Enough is enough. We need to keep the Wyoming Range a place where people can go and enjoy a day in the woods with family. Wyoming's already doing its part to produce energy for the nation. Now, it's time to do something for Wyoming."
The IBLA's temporary halt on issuing the leases sold in April means no development will occur on the parcels until a final decision is made on the appeals. In the meantime, hunters, anglers, outfitters, business owners and conservationists are working with elected officials to keep the Wyoming Range a place where Wyoming residents can enjoy the outdoors without oil and gas drilling destroying their experience.