DENVER— Conservation groups today appealed a federal court’s decision upholding a Trump-era plan to allow 3,500 new gas wells in southwestern Wyoming.
In an April ruling, the Honorable Scott Skavdahl of the Federal District Court of Wyoming rejected the groups’ concerns that the Bureau of Land Management disregarded the harm the massive gas-field would cause by disrupting the ancient Path of the Pronghorn and preventing access to winter ranges that the animals need to survive.
The iconic 170-mile-long migratory path connects Grand Teton National Park and crucial winter range farther south in the Upper Green River Basin. Drilling in the area could eliminate Grand Teton’s entire population of roughly 300 pronghorns. State and federal agencies have poured millions of dollars into protecting the world-renowned route. This includes a $250,000 grant issued by the Department of the Interior last month to conserve an area north of the planned gas field in Sublette County.
But conservationists assert these efforts would be futile if the gas field is developed.
“If any part of the Path of the Pronghorn is developed and drilled, we could lose the extraordinary Grand Teton herd and its 6,000-year-old migration forever,” said Wendy Park, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s appalling that the federal government would sacrifice pronghorn in one of our most beloved national parks for the extraction of dirty fossil fuels and private industry’s enrichment.”
The pronghorn migratory path is one of North America’s last remaining long-distance land migrations and one of the longest in the Western Hemisphere. While the path’s northern reach to Grand Teton National Park is federally protected, its southern section has been narrowed by two neighboring gas fields.
Today’s legal action, filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver, also appeals the lower court’s ruling that the Bureau of Land Management approval of the 140,000-acre Normally Pressured Lance project lawfully excused the project from measures to protect greater sage-grouse from well pads, roads, pipelines and other infrastructure. In 2015 the Bureau of Land Management adopted new sage-grouse management plans requiring these measures to avoid the bird’s listing under the Endangered Species Act.
Jonah Energy plans to develop 350 gas wells annually over 10 years within a 220-square-mile area of sagebrush habitat that pronghorns and sage-grouse rely on for their survival. The larger Sublette pronghorn herd, which includes the Grand Teton herd, also uses the project area for migration and crucial habitat.
“The Path of the Pronghorn migration runs right through the heart of the proposed drilling project, yet the Bureau of Land Management failed even to provide setbacks for gas-field facilities to ensure that this migration would not be blocked,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and executive director with Western Watersheds Project. “This pronghorn migration and the sage-grouse that winter nearby have never yet gotten a fair shake at scientifically valid habitat protections, which is why we’re taking this legal challenge up the chain for a second look.”
More than a third of the Jonah Energy project is in key greater sage-grouse habitat, which includes breeding grounds. Almost one-fifth is in the birds’ only state-designated winter concentration areas in Wyoming. During many winters 1,500 or more sage-grouse gather there to forage on taller sagebrush stands above the snow — their only food source during Wyoming’s severe winters.
“Wyoming’s wildlife is on the brink of disaster,” said Linda Baker, executive director of the Upper Green River Alliance. “Pronghorn and sage-grouse habitats are now experiencing the driest 22-year period since 800 A.D. This severe drought limits vegetation growth, a critical component of winter diet for all sagebrush-dependent species. This unprecedented drought calls for unprecedented measures. Without protection for the Path of the Pronghorn, sage-grouse winter concentration areas and other essential wildlife habitats, we will lose our vibrant wildlife populations, the hallmarks of a healthy Wyoming that is the envy of the world. We must do everything in our power to wisely manage the migration routes and winter ranges that are essential for pronghorn and sage-grouse survival, especially in places like the NPL, where drill rigs, roads, trucks and human traffic have the potential to sever the Path of the Pronghorn and eradicate the migration between Grand Teton National Park and the winter ranges of the Upper Green River Basin. We can no longer wait.”
Studies show pronghorn won’t deviate from the ancient routes, so blocking access to these vital habitats will likely destroy the park’s entire pronghorn herd and further reduce the Sublette pronghorn population.
Both sage-grouse and pronghorn avoid oil and gas development, which causes their populations to decline. Studies show pronghorn abandon high-quality habitat or reduce foraging time near oil and gas development, while sage-grouse avoid winter habitat within 1.2 miles of a development.
The Normally Pressured Lance Project also includes lands that are the ancestral homeland of the Shoshone, Bannock, Crow, Arapaho, Northern Ute and Blackfeet people.
Conservation groups challenged the project in a February 2020 legal petition filed in federal district court in Wyoming.
In today’s appeal the Center for Biological Diversity, Upper Green River Alliance and Western Watersheds Project are represented by attorneys from the Center and Advocates for the West.