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Opinion: The Interior Department has turned its back on Rocky Mountain big game

Colorado’s majestic landscapes and bountiful wildlife are not only our state’s greatest treasure, but also one of our most valuable resources. 

Our public lands provide Coloradans, as well as countless visitors, with world-class opportunities to fish, camp, hunt, hike and recreate.

Our outdoor industry generates $28 billion in consumer spending, $2 billion in state and local tax revenue, and more than 225,000 direct jobs.

Tehri Parker

Protecting these lands and the animals that call these lands home is critical for our environment, our economy and our continued way of life. 

Two years ago, on Feb.  9,  then Secretary Ryan Zinke of the Department of the Interior (DOI)  announced  a secretarial order to protect big game wildlife corridors in the West.

This order was meant to preserve habitats and enhance big game populations so that they would continue to thrive for years to come.  

Current Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil industry lobbyist, was charged with implementing the order.

Bernhardt has stated publicly numerous times that preserving migration corridors for future generations is a “priority” and something that the department is focused on under his leadership. 

Unfortunately, for conservationists, sportsmen and outdoor enthusiasts alike this assertion couldn’t be further from the truth.

Since  being confirmed to his current position in 2019, Bernhardt’s policies have done nothing but make key wildlife habitats and big game migration corridors more accessible for use by energy companies.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

 The DOI, with  Bernhardt  at the helm,  has  so far  put  millions  of acres of  public lands in jeopardy, leasing them for energy production.   

Secretarial Order 3362 specifically directs the DOI to work with western states “to enhance and improve the quality of big-game winter range and migration corridor habitat on Federal lands.”

The order also directed the agency to “review and use the best available science to inform development of specific guidelines for the Department’s lands and waters related to planning and developing energy, transmission, or other relevant projects to avoid or minimize potential negative impacts on wildlife.”  

However, the DOI under Bernhardt’s leadership has done little to improve and protect big game migration habitat and corridors.

In little over a year, Interior has tried to lease nearly 1.2 million acres to the energy industry in big game priority landscapes, and over half of that is in the most crucial habitat identified by states. 

Just in Colorado, in that same time frame, DOI has attempted to lease more than 91,000 acres in priority landscapes and more than 40,000 acres in what the state has defined as the most crucial habitat. 

Recent scientific studies show that oil and gas development in winter range and migration corridors is a significant cause of declining numbers of big game species.

While the oil and gas industry argues that big game grow accustomed to energy development, a  2019 study  shows that mule deer actively avoid gas pads and  are forced to  abandon their  normal winter ranges  and  stray farther away from oil and gas development.

 Another  study also shows  a clear  trend in areas where oil and gas development is most prominent: wildlife populations decline due to being displaced.  

We at Rocky Mountain Wild recently released an interactive online map that shows just how dire things have become.

This site, using wildlife habitat research done by  western states,  shows just how extensive  the  conflict is between Bernhardt’s energy agenda and  big game habitats and migration corridors.

 This tool  reveals  how concentrated oil and gas leasing is near  many key  corridors, as well as the amount of land and types of wildlife affected.   

No energy deal is worth sacrificing our landscape, our diverse wildlife, our jobs, our environment and our economic assets.  The DOI cannot continue to claim they are working to protect big game migration corridors when their policy priorities are clear. 

The U.S. Secretary of the Interior is a title  given to the person  in our government responsible for  conserving, managing and ensuring the prosperity of  our precious public lands.

On the anniversary of Secretarial Order 3362, it’s time we call for Bernhardt to stand behind these words and his own words and fulfill the duties he pledged to uphold.

It’s time for him to stand up for our lands and our wildlife and end oil and gas leasing in migration corridors.  

Tehri Parker is executive director of Rocky Mountain Wild, a Denver based nonprofit that protects wildlife and wild lands in the Southern Rocky Mountain Region.


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