Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced a grant program Monday that aims to improve the habitat and migration corridors of big game animals in the West. However, some groups are concerned that it’s not enough to mitigate potential harm caused by oil and gas development. The Department of the Interior has leased more than a million acres to oil and gas since President Trump took office.
The nearly $3 million grant comes from the federal budget along with ConocoPhillips. It’s aimed at clearing and restoring lands across the west that animals like elk, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope need for annual migration.
Paul Millhouser, a GIS specialist with the Colorado-based conservation nonprofit Rocky Mountain Wild, said he sees the move as a positive step for the Trump administration.
“This administration hasn’t been a real friend to conservationists in general,” he said. “A grant that’s aimed at protecting wildlife corridors is very much needed.”
He said it’s not a huge grant, given what it’s aims to accomplish, but it’s a start.
“At a time when the total amount of habitat is shrinking into smaller units, it’s even more important for [migrating animals] to be able to move from one area to another especially in the face of threats like climate change,” Millhouser explained.
He also said protecting these animals could also be an economic boost to the Mountain West region, which is home to large hunting and outdoor recreation industries.
But Dustin Bleizeffer, communications director with the nonprofit Wyoming Outdoor Council, takes issue with the Interior Department’s approach.
“The financial support is welcome,” he said. “However, more than money, the best thing the Department of the Interior can do is to not lease for oil and gas development inside corridors.”
Bleizeffer said research shows that wild animals avoid energy development and it changes their behaviors including migratory patterns.
Secretary Zinke’s office responded saying the department has already avoided leasing some oil and gas parcels along migration corridors and have included language in the contracts barring above ground development.
Critics like Bleizeffer counter that those notices carry little legal weight.
If nonprofits, government agencies, or Indian tribes want to apply for the grant, they can go to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation website for more information.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.