Exposing Secretary Bernhardt’s Sabotage of Big Game Wildlife Corridors

A mule deer in a meadow in the Yosemite Valley, 2014.

Last Thursday, the Senate confirmed David Bernhardt to head the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI). Already the most conflicted of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees, Bernhardt is also now the interior secretary with the lowest level of senatorial approval in history. (see Methodology) And with ongoing investigations into his ethics and record keeping, Bernhardt starts his tenure on a shaky foundation.

During the confirmation process, senators confronted Bernhardt about his questionable ethics and suppression of science. And a number of senators sought assurances from Bernhardt that his so-called energy dominance agenda would not irrevocably harm the public lands and waters in their backyard. From preserving Florida’s coastline to respecting New Mexico’s cultural treasures, Bernhardt offered public and private assurances that he would listen to senators’ concerns when it comes to oil and gas drilling. However, senators who supported Bernhardt after these conversations would be well served to look beyond the secretary’s rhetoric.

Throughout the past two years that Bernhardt has been deputy secretary and acting secretary at the DOI, his rhetorical commitments to wildlife and conservation haven’t matched the reality of his actions.

Rhetoric: Bernhardt has made sportsmen’s issues and protecting wildlife corridors a core part of his agenda at the DOI. He refers to the DOI’s commitment to sportsmen frequently at events and on social media, calling the protection of migration corridors “a priority.” In February 2018, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke tapped Bernhardt to lead the implementation of a secretarial order to support key habitat for big game species such as elk, mule deer, and pronghorn, including by avoiding and minimizing development in critical winter ranges and migration corridors.

Reality: Despite these appearances, the Trump administration’s Interior Department has proven to be singularly committed to getting leases of public lands and waters into hands of the oil and gas industry. Since January 2017, the Trump administration has offered more than 4,500 oil and gas leases in the West—and this activity is only on the rise. Last year alone, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) offered 450 percent more western acres to the oil and gas industry than it did in 2016.

What’s more, these oil and gas leases are often in conflict with protecting the land, water, and wildlife Bernhardt has committed to protecting. A Center for American Progress analysis finds that nearly one-quarter of these leases are within a wildlife corridor or state wildlife priority area for big game. (see Table 1) The proportion of leases that conflict with known wildlife areas has been the highest in New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and Wyoming. The BLM has offered fewer leases in state-identified wildlife priority areas in Montana. And because Utah has not publicly identified much land as priority wildlife areas, it is likely that there is a higher percentage of leases in wildlife areas than this analysis shows.

New Mexico, where more than 4 in 5 BLM leases are in the state’s wildlife priority areas, provides a striking example of the extent to which these leases conflict with safeguarding migration corridors. Mapped below are the leases that the BLM has offered to the oil and gas industry within New Mexico’s state-identified wildlife priority areas.

Conclusion

As Secretary Bernhardt assumes his new role in the department, Congress must hold him accountable to more than just the oil and gas industry. Senators in New Mexico and Colorado—where the BLM has already offered large swaths of wildlife corridors to drilling—have a particular responsibility to ensure that Secretary Bernhardt backs up his heretofore empty promises to sportsmen and conservationists.

Jenny Rowland-Shea is a senior policy analyst for Public Lands at the Center for American Progress. Mary Ellen Kustin is the director of policy for Public Lands at the Center.

The authors would like to thank Kate Kelly, Marc Rehmann, Carlos Rivero Lopez, Ryan Richards, Tricia Woodcome, Bill Rapp, and Christian Rodriguez for their contributions to this column.

Methodology

CAP’s analysis cross-walked publicly available data on federal oil and gas lease sales with state-identified wildlife priority areas and wildlife corridors.

CAP’s analysis used data from oil and gas lease sales held from January 2017 through March 2019 in the states listed in Secretarial Order 3362 that had more than five leases offered. The authors used lease sale data available in a geographic information system (GIS)-ready format through EnergyNet with the exception of the February 2017 sale in Wyoming and the September 2018 sale in Nevada, where available spatial data found on the BLM’s website was used. However, available spatial data for the September 2018 Nevada sale does not appear to cover all leases offered.

Data on state priority areas were detailed in maps included in each state’s action plan. CAP used these maps to create a GIS layer demarcating the approximate boundaries of the migration corridors, key wintering grounds, and priority study areas that states identified. For Montana, a GIS layer of the state’s action plan boundaries was downloaded from the state’s Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. It is important to note that each state identified priorities using similar but not identical criteria. Some states provided spatial data depicting the movements of radio-collared animals or clearly mapped corridors, while others had more broadly defined priority regions. Utah’s Department of Natural Resources may be in the process gathering data, and thus the state currently has minimal priority areas.

Wildlife corridor data were also used in states where it was available, including elk, pronghorn, and mule deer migration corridors from the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife; pronghorn and mule deer movement corridors from the Nevada Department of Wildlife; and mule deer migration corridors from Wyoming Game and Fish Department. The authors considered the different migration corridors and state priority areas to be of equal importance for this analysis.

To determine that Bernhardt is the interior secretary with the lowest level of senatorial approval in history, CAP compared Senate floor votes for each of the previous 52 confirmed interior secretaries dating back to former Secretary Thomas Ewing’s appointment in 1849. Bernhardt’s 57 percent approval in the Senate was the lowest of recorded or voice votes.