March 20, 2006
JACKSON—A natural gas lease sale planned next month on the Bridger-Teton National Forest’s Wyoming Range would do significant harm to fish and wildlife habitat, and by extension, impact the fishing, hunting and tourism industries in western Wyoming, according to the sportsmen’s conservation group Trout Unlimited.
TU is formally protesting the lease sale and has delivered a letter to that end to Bob Bennett, head of the Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming. The letter notes that hunting and fishing resources in the Wyoming Range are too precious to the state and too important to the long-term economy of western Wyoming to risk putting them in peril. Hunters and anglers pursue three subspecies of native cutthroat trout—Colorado River, Snake River and Bonneville—in the Wyoming Range, and the area harbors the state’s best deer and elk habitat, as well as the West’s densest concentration of moose. In all, sportsmen spent more than $13 million on hunting and fishing on the Bridger-Teton National Forest in 2004, and tourists in general contributed more than $35 million to the economy of Sublette County, where the lease sales are slated to occur.
“This sale could really take a bite out of some of Wyoming’s best cutthroat trout habitat and make it hard on the big-game herds in the area, which will impact fishing and hunting in the Wyoming Range,” said Tom Reed, TU’s Wyoming field coordinator.
This particular lease sale is for 11 separate parcels that total nearly 20,000 acres in the upper Green River drainage and would impact fishable mountain streams like North Horse Creek, Dead Cow Creek, Lead Creek, South Cottonwood Creek and South Beaver Creek—all of which are Green River tributaries and home to native Colorado River cutthroats. These fish are increasingly rare and very sensitive to industrial development. Colorado River cutts are in peril throughout their native range, which stretches from the Green River on the north and runs south through Colorado, Utah and into northern New Mexico. Today, they inhabit 5 percent of their native waters.
“This is one of the last strongholds for this fish,” Reed said. “This sale could put drilling rigs within sight of some very sensitive trout streams, and all the development associated with drilling and exploration will certainly have an impact on water quality and the overall health of the fishery.”
That prospect has many in the area, especially those who depend on quality outdoor experiences for visitors to the area, very concerned.
“I understand how important oil and gas exploration is, but oil and gas isn’t the future for western Wyoming,” said world-famous fly fisher Jack Dennis, who owns an outdoor retail store in Jackson and has fished the streams of the Wyoming Range his entire life. His business also has a guiding permit on the Green River. “People don’t come to northwest Wyoming to see oil and gas wells. They come, and they bring their money, because of our outdoor recreation values. Twenty years from now, the energy industry will have changed greatly with new technology and new fuels—will we look back on what we’re doing today and think, ‘What have we done?’”
Dennis said the livelihoods of many hunting and fishing outfitters and retailers depend heavily on intact fish and game habitat in the Wyoming Range and throughout western Wyoming, and he referenced the numbers contained within TU’s protest letter to prove it. This is an economy the state can count on in perpetuity, Dennis said, and protecting the quality of fishing and other outdoor experiences in the Wyoming Range is a good place to start.
“You don’t just find fishing like we have in the Wyoming Range everywhere,” Dennis said “This is one of those special places where everything comes together just right. When you’re up there, you feel like you’re in Alaska—it’s as close to Alaska as we get in Wyoming. Messing with that balance could tip the scales and just trash a priceless fishery. Then what do we have?”
The lease sale, according to TU Technical Advisor Cathy Purves, is poorly formulated and based on data that’s more than a decade old.
“A lot has changed in the last 12 years or so,” Purves said. “Wyoming residents are waking up every day to changes brought on by development—things like air quality are now very real concerns, and they’re not addressed in the environmental analysis of this sale.”
Purves also notes that development on the Bridger-Teton has already exceeded a development forecast completed in 1987. Couple these issues with other uncertainties—there’s now evidence the area is used by endangered Canada lynx, for instance—and it would appear that a supplemental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act is in order.
“This area is just too fragile to leave to chance,” she said. “And if this sale goes forward, we’ll be leaving a lot to chance.”