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posted in: General

April 15, 2014

Bigger than bighorns

Big horn sheep
If politics and special agendas trump science-based wildlife management we all lose. Photo by Neil Thagard.

Most sportsmen agree that although fish and wildlife biology is complex, the decision to use the best available science in the management of valuable natural resources should not be. Unfortunately, the management objectives developed by fish and wildlife professionals too often are trumped by policymakers who undermine the science with special interest agendas. When this happens hunters and anglers inevitably lose.

We do not have to look far for examples, including the politically charged legal challenge to a decision made for bighorn sheep in the Payette National Forest of Idaho, which recently was settled after a lengthy court battle.

At the time of European settlement in the West, bighorn sheep were one of the most prominent large mammals on the landscape. Paleontological data indicates that there may have been as many as 2 million of these regal animals in America. But by the mid-1950s bighorn sheep had plummeted to only about 10,000 individuals. This decline was primarily due to unregulated hunting, forage competition from livestock grazing and the introduction of diseases transmitted by domestic sheep and goats. Today, we have regulated hunting and livestock grazing, but the disease transmission from domestic sheep and goats still occurs and is considered the No. 1 limiting factor to bighorn sheep recovery in the West.

According to Dr. Subramaniam Srikumaran, D.V.M., chair of the wild sheep disease research facility at Washington State University, large scale pneumonic die-offs have “decimated bighorn sheep populations time and time again.” These die offs are “unequivocally” the result of wild sheep being forced to share their native range with domestic sheep and goats.

Over the last 30 years bighorn advocates have worked with the domestic sheep industry on the only viable course of action currently available: separation of the two species. Mutually beneficial solutions such as buying out public land domestic sheep grazing allotments, converting them to another livestock type (such as cattle) or moving domestic sheep to alternative allotments outside of suitable historic bighorn sheep habitat all have been proposed. In a number of cases progress was made, yet in others, agreements could not be reached.

Then in March of 2005, the chief of the U.S. Forest Service announced a groundbreaking decision on an environmental impact study conducted in the Hells Canyon area of the Payette National Forest in Idaho. He determined that the forest had a responsibility to ensure there was habitat available to support a viable population of bighorn sheep and that allowing continued domestic sheep grazing in or near occupied bighorn sheep habitat would have adverse impacts on bighorn sheep populations. The final forest plan, completed in 2010, used the best available science to identify suitable rangelands for domestic sheep and goat grazing, while identifying other allotments on the Payette National Forest requiring closure.

This decision was a win for wildlife, wildlife managers, sportsmen and the economies that benefit from sustainable wildlife populations. However, it still came under fire as recently as this year when an appeal, challenging the science behind the transmission of disease from domestic sheep and goats to bighorns, was filed in federal court by the American Sheep Industry and several state woolgrower organizations. They asserted that the analysis performed by the U.S. Forest Service using best science was flawed. The federal judge in Boise, Idaho, denied their appeal and stood with the science and the analysis it supported, declaring that the victory for the bighorns decided in 2010 remained.

Big horn lambs
The successful recruitment of bighorn lambs is the future of any wild sheep population. Photo by Neil Thagard.

When you take a step back and look at all of the pressures our fish and wildlife face due to human induced factors, it is easy to see that this decision is not just a victory for the 500 or so bighorns that  now inhabit Hells Canyon or even for single species. From a conservation perspective, the case  is much bigger than bighorns.

This verdict set the precedent that science, not politics or special interests, should be the determining factor in wildlife management decisions. A different verdict would have opened the door to challenges of decisions that conserve everything from sage grouse to marine fisheries – and potentially by much more influential industries than the woolgrowers. This decision represents hope for the future of fish, wildlife and ultimately all life.

Neil Thagard is the Western outreach director for the TRCP and has been closely involved with wild sheep conservation throughout North America for the past 20 years, including his direct involvement with the Payette National Forest decision. He was the first U.S. citizen to receive the Lex Ross Wild Sheep Conservation Award presented by the conservation community in British Columbia, Canada, for his efforts.

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Chris Macaluso

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posted in: General

March 25, 2014

As marine fisheries legislation heats up, it’s time to revamp the federal management system

Congress is moving forward quickly to revise the federal act that governs our nation’s marine resources. The sportfishing and boating industries, along with recreational saltwater anglers, are stepping up efforts to ensure that their economic, social and conservation priorities are well represented.

As the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act reauthorization advances on Capitol Hill, Bass Pro Shops Founder Johnny Morris and Maverick Boats President Scott Deal, leaders in the recreational angling industry and co-chairmen of the Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management, will present A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries at the National Press Club on March 26, 2014, from 9:30–10:30 a.m.

The report, introduced to fishing and boating industry stakeholders on Feb. 13, 2014, at the Progressive Miami International Boat Show, is receiving critical acclaim as an important step toward commonsense saltwater fisheries management. Now, with strong support from the boating and fishing community, the commission is taking the report to the Hill to work with Congress as the Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization proceeds.

The Morris-Deal Commission assembled an expert panel of state and federal agency administrators, researchers, industry representatives and economists to promote a proactive vision for saltwater fisheries management. The current Magnuson-Stevens Act does not sufficiently address this important use of our nation’s public fishery resources. The commission’s report addresses recreational fishing specifically and differentiates the economic, social and conservation needs from those of commercial fishing.

According to NOAA Fisheries, 11 million Americans recreationally fish in saltwater each year. These sportsmen and -women contribute more than $70 billion to the nation’s economy and $1.5 billion for on-the-ground conservation of aquatic resources and habitats.

Who:     Johnny Morris, founder and CEO, Bass Pro Shops
Scott Deal, president, Maverick Boats

When:   Wednesday, March 26, 9:30–10:30 a.m. EDT

Where:  Fourth Estate Room, The National Press Club
529 14th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20045

RSVP to Lauren Dunn, National Marine Manufacturers Association, at ldunn@nmma.org; or Mary Jane Williamson, American Sportfishing Association, at mjwilliamson@asafishing.org.

Ed Arnett

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March 24, 2014

Conservation leaders meet to learn about responsible energy development

TRCP High Lonesome Ranch Reception
Attendees at the 79th North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference enjoyed food and beverages as they learned about the TRCP-High Lonesome Ranch model energy project at a TRCP-sponsored reception on March 13 in Denver, Colo. Photo by Ed Arnett.

Every year, professionals from state wildlife agencies, federal agencies, NGOs, industry and elsewhere gather to attend the Wildlife Management Institute’s North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference. These dedicated leaders come together to discuss policy, conservation and management of North America’s wildlife and other natural resources. The North American Conference hosts sessions on conservation topics, workshops and receptions enabling professionals to interact and learn.

As part of the event, the TRCP hosted its 3rd annual reception highlighting our energy work in western Colorado. In 2011, the TRCP and The High Lonesome Ranch, a working ranch that encompasses close to 400 square miles near the small town of DeBeque, launched a pilot project to demonstrate responsible energy development at the landscape scale. Paul Vahldiek, HLR president and CEO and a TRCP board member, generously offered the TRCP the opportunity to develop a project that focuses on partnerships, practices and policy. The project aims to demonstrate how a working landscape can be restored, conserved and managed for multiple-use values. By demonstrating energy development that is balanced with other resource values, we can help improve federal energy policy and establish a model for others to follow.

This demonstration energy project will implement the recommendations and principles that have been developed and championed by the TRCP and its conservation partners.  It will provide a real world example of how development can be done differently and therefore prevent the major loss of habitat and biodiversity and employing scientific approaches to wildlife management and mitigation.

Part of the TRCP mission focuses on developing partnerships for conservation success. To that end, the TRCP and HLR established a regional stakeholders group that includes sportsmen; local, state and federal government representatives; industry leaders; NGOs and local business owners to help guide the project. The group has met numerous times over the past year and a half to develop objectives and best practices and coordinate conservation activities for the project. This stakeholder process helps reduce conflict, increases investment in the project and builds local partnerships to help change policy and export our success.

The project was submitted to the Grand Junction Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management and is currently under review and consideration within the range of alternatives for the revision of its resource management plan, the final version of which is scheduled for release this fall. Field Manager Katie Stevens told attendees at the TRCP reception that “BLM is open to creative ideas that help the agency manage and balance multiple resource values.”

High Lonesome Ranch, undeveloped ridges, mule deer habitat.
Undeveloped ridges providing important habitat for mule deer, sage grouse and other wildlife would be protected as part of The High Lonesome Ranch project. Photo by Steve Belinda.

In his remarks at reception, Chad Bishop, assistant director, wildlife and natural resources, for Colorado Parks and Wildlife said, “The future of the West depends on finding ways to manage lands in economically viable ways while successfully conserving and enhancing our treasured wildlife resources. The multi-partner collaborative project on High Lonesome Ranch provides a model for the West and provides hope for the future. In that spirit, Colorado Parks and Wildlife considers The High Lonesome Ranch to be an exemplary private land partner.”

Scott Stewart, general manager of the HLR, said, “There’s something in this project for every stakeholder. This project has the opportunity to leave behind a legacy and a landscape that demonstrates how multiple uses can be managed and sustained for future generations.”

Energy development, fish and wildlife, and other resource values can co-exist. That’s the underlying philosophy of the HLR demonstration energy project.

Find out more about the project.

Read about the energy and stakeholder’s values of the project.

Read more about the project’s impact on sage grouse conservation.

Find out more about the TRCP-HLR demonstration energy project here or contact Ed Arnett, director of TRCP’s Center for Responsible Energy Development (earnett@trcp.org).

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March 20, 2014

Washington, D.C., goes to the Bassmaster Classic

Arkansas bass.
An Arkansas bass. Photo by Geoff Mullins.

Every other year B.A.S.S., that’s the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, hosts a conservation summit in conjunction with the Bassmaster Classic. While the Classic is the nation’s premier bass fishing competition, the summit is the premier gathering of conservation leaders from the bass fishing community. This year was no exception.

Nearly 100 state fisheries chiefs and state-based volunteer B.A.S.S. Nation conservation directors convened in Birmingham, Ala., last month to discuss conservation topics including invasive species, state and federal legislation affecting fishery resources and grant opportunities for conservation projects.

The TRCP was there as well, sponsoring a special discussion during the summit on the importance of water quality to successful bass fishing. The topic was especially relevant because the federal government is poised to release an administrative rule any day now clarifying where the unique safeguards provided by the Clean Water Act apply to important bass fisheries.

B.A.S.S. has been a great champion of this issue, because without quality water supplies we can’t have successful bass fishing, and the Clean Water Act is the most successful and powerful tool we have to keep pollutants out of our water.

Gina McCarthy, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, which is one of the two agencies proposing the Clean Water Act rule (the other is the Army Corps of Engineers), delivered recorded remarks at the conservation summit.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy addresses the 2014 B.A.S.S. Conservation Summit at the Bassmaster Classic about the need to protect wetlands, streams and rivers so we can sustain our nation’s hunting and angling heritage.

In addition, Ken Kopocis, policy advisor in EPA’s Office of Water, spoke to the group about the importance of clean water and the need for a rule that makes the Clean Water Act work effectively.

Mr. Kopocis’s most important message to summit participants? The draft rule won’t be perfect when it is released for public input. Bass fishermen – and sportsmen of all stripes – will have valuable advice for how to improve the rule, and the EPA will want to hear it – and needs to hear it!

This is a once-in-a-generation chance to restore Clean Water Act protections to waters sportsmen care about the most. As such, the TRCP will be facilitating sportsmen comments on the rule after it is released.

In the meantime, sign up to receive important updates about the development of the rule and notices about how to participate in the public comment process.

Chris Macaluso

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March 10, 2014

A Louisiana duck hunt: How sportsmen and conservation have restored a tradition

Louisiana duck hunters
The author and his father duck hunting in Louisiana. Photo courtesy of Chris Macaluso.

I love to duck hunt. If I was forced to pick the things I enjoy most about being a sportsman in Sportsman’s Paradise, they would be catching speckled trout on topwater baits, battling big mangrove snapper on the reefs and rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, pitching jigs and soft plastics against the cypress trees in the Atchafalaya Basin for largemouths – and hunting ducks in the marshes and swamps across South Louisiana.

This past season, my dad and I were invited to join a group of longtime, passionate, Bayou State outdoorsmen in Pecan Island. The community, which is not really an island, consists of a handful  of mostly elevated homes, hunting camps and a few businesses stuck smack-dab between the seemingly endless expanse of rice and crawfish farms of Southwest Louisiana’s “Cajun Prairie” and the fresh and brackish marshes to the south that eventually give way to the Gulf.

Hunters venturing to Pecan Island enjoy the best of the habitat provided both by agriculture and Mother Nature, with ducks and geese by the hundreds of thousands piling into fields and marshes to feed on a variety of flora and fauna. While I had hunted many times in flooded fields to the north and west, it was my first venture to Pecan Island, one of North America’s true “duck meccas.”

My dad and I were assigned a marsh hunt for the morning. After a short and chilly pre-dawn boat ride, we arrived at the pit blind, camouflaged with native Roseau cane and wax myrtle on the northern edge of a shallow pond loaded with submerged aquatic vegetation and teeming with bird activity.

The sunrise was spectacular. The decoys soon were buzzing with bluewing and greenwing teal. Our guide’s dog worked without a hiccup, and we shot just badly enough to allow us to hunt past 7:30 when the mallards and gadwalls started to work. It’s a day that my dad and I will long remember. However, without the aggressive work to restore that marsh over the last decade-plus, that day never would have happened.

As is the case with most hunts or fishing trips, half the enjoyment comes from the story swapping and talk of the good ol’ days with fellow sportsmen, though my “good ol’ days” don’t stretch near as deep into the past as many. The night before our hunt, Pecan Island hunter-historians recounted the 1980s and ’90s when they wondered if they were going to lose their precious marsh forever.

Habitat changes precipitated by efforts to drain nearby wetlands for agriculture, construction of canals to facilitate oil and gas exploration, and saltwater intrusion were limiting sediment distribution, killing grasses and making marshes more vulnerable to subsidence and hurricane storm surges.

Open water led to increased wave action, causing more open water. Without grass to filter sediment and break up waves, the water became increasingly turbid, further inhibiting grass growth and creating an environment far less fecund and hospitable for both the migrating waterfowl and the fish and crustaceans seeking nursery grounds and protection.

The salvation for the marsh, the reason ducks descended into that shallow grassy pond all morning, came from a state and federal effort paid for by the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act to build coastal habitat projects across Louisiana’s coast over the last 25 years. Louisiana’s Department of Natural Resources worked with the National Marine Fisheries Service in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as part of that larger effort, to build a series of marsh terraces and introduce more freshwater to keep the salt at bay, or more specifically, in the bay. The terraces, best described as a series of low, linear sediment piles, quickly reduced insidious wave action, helped sediments fall out of the water column and encouraged the return of native grasses. The project was a bargain as well, with more than 3,500 acres of terraces built with less than $3 million.

Marsh terraces certainly aren’t a wide-spread, long-term answer to the ever-present and drastic coastal land loss in Louisiana. A variety of projects and initiatives have been prescribed and must be utilized simply to sustain what remains of Louisiana’s coast, much less reverse the habitat loss and actually see new wetlands. But, in the case of Pecan Island, one project helped extend the life of a productive habitat for several decades in an area where few other options existed.

Last year, as I worked with the Coastal Conservation Association, Center for Coastal Conservation and American Sportfishing Association to host workshops with fellow anglers, charter captains, scientists and researchers and other conservation groups across the five Gulf States to identify habitat restoration projects to restore, enhance and sustain Gulf fisheries, I quietly celebrated that many of the habitat projects discussed for fish, especially the effort to comprehensively restore the Mississippi River Delta, also benefit a host of other wildlife like ducks. After all, how could I go on a “cast and blast” trip to hunt ducks in the morning and fish for redfish and speckled trout in the afternoon in Buras if there isn’t quality habitat to do both?

The projects identified in the workshops are the basis for a report released by the TRCP last fall titled: “Gulf of Mexico Recreational Fisheries: Recommendations for Restoration, Recovery and Sustainability.” Proudly, I can say that my fellow sportsmen used the workshops and the report to champion a host of efforts that should lead to better science, management and habitat for saltwater fish using oil spill recovery penalties. We are taking their recommendations back to federal and state decision makers who are determining how to spend the money.

Quality habitat is the tie that binds all sportsmen to each other and to the land, no matter where they fish or hunt. Without a concerted effort to conserve, protect, enhance and expand that habitat, like many of the projects recommended by Gulf anglers aim to do, the bind is certain to break.

Learn more about sportsmen’s recommendations for rehabilitating recreational fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

WHAT WILL FEWER HUNTERS MEAN FOR CONSERVATION?

The precipitous drop in hunter participation should be a call to action for all sportsmen and women, because it will have a significant ripple effect on key conservation funding models.

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