Recent press concerning the Wyoming Outdoor Council’s efforts to protect critical pronghorn migratory habitat has caused a bit of a stir in certain circles — and we’d like to set the record straight with an important message for the WOC community and other Wyomingites.

In this first part of a two-part message, WOC’s executive director, Carl Fisher, lays out a recent experience we had with the media. Be sure to also read Part 2: On the Ground, in which program director Alec Underwood responds substantively on issues concerning parcel 194 and needed reforms for leasing of state lands.

You really can’t believe everything you read

For one Wyoming media outlet, the state’s Fourth of July celebrations must have fallen short,  because it decided to set off some fireworks of its own. Unfortunately, their bombastic display was itself pretty short on substance — being composed instead of the sorts of fictions that only exist in the imagination. As such, the Wyoming Outdoor Council was the undeserving recipient of what you might describe as an industry hit job. The result? WOC will no longer respond to media inquiries from Cowboy State Daily, until trust can be restored and these issues resolved. 

The issue erupted around a well-known news story from last year, about WOC going to great lengths to protect a state parcel within the Sublette Pronghorn migration corridor — including bidding on parcel 194. Subsequently, in this past Legislative Budget Session, an industry-initiated bill, HB141, directed modification of administrative rules defining what constitutes a “qualified bidder” in state oil and gas lease sales, and directed the Office of State Land and Investments to develop criteria for qualified bidders. The bill was passed and signed by the governor on March 8, 2024. From what we can tell, Governor Gordon recently put through an emergency order in an effort to enact the legislated policy (which had yet to take effect), due to pressure from industry and fear-mongering that “billionaires” and “activists” would wreak havoc on the auction. WOC, for one, had no intentions of this, and the media firestorm created by the Petroleum Association and Kirkwood Cos. could have been resolved with a simple phone call, as we frequently do for them.

For years, WOC and other wildlife and conservation organizations have had concerns about development of land, which lies directly in the path of migrating Sublette Pronghorn. These concerns became urgent in July 2023, when parcel 194 was put on the auction block for leasing. WOC did, in fact, legally bid on parcel 194 in last year’s July auction. WOC is not fundamentally against leasing for oil and gas, or the auction process for that matter. Just as oil and gas wishes there was better guidance around what constitutes a qualified bidder, we believe the state has an obligation to develop better guidance around which state parcels should be leased for development, and which should be protected for their importance for wildlife and other irreplaceable environmental attributes. 

According to Cowboy State Daily, WOC “duped” oil and gas companies during this auction and our sole intent was to drive up costs, play shenanigans, and start a bidding war. The titles and subtitles of the articles were bad, really bad, and the accusations of the reporter about WOCs intentions were malicious. Here are the reporter’s own words: “There’s a lot of disdain, I’m finding out, for the Wyoming Outdoor Council because they’ve gotten to the point now where, I mean, theoretically, you know, if you’re taking leases out of the hands of oil and gas companies, that hurts education in Wyoming, right? Because a lot of that money, that royalty money goes directly to education.” We think Cowboy State Daily was duped into carrying water for industry in penning these biased and one-sided articles. The reporter’s own bias clearly comes through in his words.

Over the course of several days (July 4–8), four articles (three written and one video) were published. As the situation developed, I had a very pleasant call with the editor of Cowboy State Daily, who ultimately agreed to modify the headlines, bylines, and add an accompanying editor’s note, and I look forward to working with them over the coming weeks and months to build trust. On one hand, I sympathize: The issues we and media outlets work on are complex and require a level of policy wonkiness I wouldn’t wish upon most people. Expeditiously translating these into the public vernacular is more an art than a science. On the other, it is the job of the media to report the facts, and Cowboy State Daily is, as its name implies, a daily — meaning the damaging and false narrative that was perpetuated is impossible to unsee. I remind my staff that you can’t un-ring a bell, and that it’s virtually impossible to put a bullet back into the barrel. Honesty and integrity are vital to our kindling of the public trust and our way of accomplishing our mission.

The irony is that Cowboy State Daily’s accusations lack basic understanding of the system that is set up to fund schools and a dozen or so other entities that benefit Wyoming citizens. And to put a bid in during an auction naturally increases the cost for the next person. We’d welcome Pat Maio, Pete Obermueller, and Steve Degenfelder to any livestock auction in the state to show that this is common practice — it’s how auctions work. Further, if another energy company offered up $5 when the last bid was $3, you’d say they were “outbid.” Cowboy State Daily stated that WOC “duped” them. Even the Office of State Land and Investment acknowledged we did nothing wrong. So, it appears the energy industry concocted a media strategy to drag WOC publicly, and Cowboy State Daily took the bait — hook, line and sinker.

Pronghorn and natural gas infrastructure (Image: Theo Stein / USFWS / FlickrCC)

Our intentions in bidding on parcel 194 were two-fold. First, we wanted to protect critical habitat in a migration bottleneck. Second, we sought to demonstrate that conservation interests and values could monetize state lands for beneficiaries. WOC showed up with real money over three times the prior bid. We were proud to try, and sad we failed — not for ourselves, but for the Sublette Pronghorn herd. And at the end of the day, the beneficiaries of state land leases won the day, as they do at any competitive auction that generates revenue for critical programs. Let’s talk about what royalties could and should emerge from a conservation lease. 

So, there is no mechanism for conservation leasing and a rule was just passed that clarifies who can bid on oil and gas lease sales. The amount of bellyaching and press that accompanies state protection of the oil and gas honeyhole — which is now less competitive — is pretty extraordinary. If you want to really generate some revenue for Wyoming’s beneficiaries, it’s time to make lease sales competitive again, and allow a diversity of monied interests to vie for these parcels, be it for energy, conservation, recreation, or one of Wyoming’s many other values in the land. The proof is right there in the pudding: They wanted to get it for $3/acre, we went to $18. Are we promoting auctions for the beneficiaries, or fire sales on Wyoming’s landscapes? We believe we can lease, monetize and protect.

Here’s my promise to the state and energy developers like Kirkwood Cos.: If they’re willing to give up the lease and protect the bottleneck, we’ll cut ’em a check, because we don’t believe you can put a price on the viability of this herd. We get it, energy development is critical to Wyoming, but so too are our wildlife, our water and air, how we manage and lease our land, and for whom. Human and natural systems are complex. Our solutions should not oversimplify the challenges, or else we’re shifting burdens to something else, sometimes unknowingly, but the worst of us do it knowingly and for our own benefit.

At the Wyoming Outdoor Council, we welcome your questions and opinions. As executive director, I encourage them. Your inquiries and ideas (whether from members, partners or media) improve our work. We work to answer them expeditiously, but if you don’t get an answer immediately, we respectfully request that you not fabricate an answer for us. Instead, politely try again, we’ll in turn, reciprocate. We will work to be solutions-oriented, innovative, not positional, pragmatic members of the communities to which we belong and call home.

We felt compelled to share this story because we don’t believe it to be a one-off. It was for me here at WOC, but I’ve heard a number of stories from within and beyond our organization. I look forward to straightening things out with Cowboy State Daily, and frankly with Steve Degenfelder and Pete Obermueller. For more information on what WOC did at the July 2023 lease sale on parcel 194 and what our motivations were, it’s important to read program director Alec Underwood’s piece On the Ground: Setting the Record Straight on State Oil and Gas Leasing.

Carl Fisher is the executive director for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, a statewide organization committed to protecting Wyoming’s environment and quality of life now, and for future generations. Our environment includes land, water, air, wildlife, vegetation, cultural resources, and people — past, present and future.

Banner image: © Scott Copeland Images



Executive Director