Good Call: New Conservation Reserve Program Acres Will Enhance Duck Habitat in a Big Way
Today, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that an additional 800,000 acres will be eligible for enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), a Farm Bill initiative that has allowed agriculture producers to voluntarily conserve environmentally sensitive land—including prime wildlife habitat—for 30 years. Vilsack revealed this big boost to CRP, which he called “one of most successful conservation programs in the history of the country,” during his remarks to hunters and conservationists at the Ducks Unlimited National Convention in Milwaukee, Wis.
The backdrop is fitting, since 300,000 of these additional acres will be devoted to lands with duck nesting habitat, potentially doubling CRP acres that can benefit ducks in the future. The remaining acres will be split: 100,000 to wetland restoration initiatives and 400,000 to state acres for wildlife enhancement (SAFE)—all good news for sportsmen. For its part, Ducks Unlimited was recognized by Vilsack for leading three separate USDA projects resulting in an overall investment of $25.8 million in conservation efforts across the country.
Vilsack also announced that a general sign-up period would begin in December 2015 to get the ball rolling on CRP enrollment, to which supporters of the program are saying, It’s about time. There hasn’t been a general sign-up since 2013, and more than 15 months after passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, regulation of CRP has been lacking. Enrollment was 1.7 million acres below the prescribed enrollment cap as of April 2015, with contracts for an additional 1.9 million acres set to expire on September 30.
The TRCP has been working closely with our partners in the sportsmen’s and wildlife community, USDA, and Congress to advance many aspects of the program that were addressed by Vilsack’s remarks today. Our Agriculture and Wildlife Working Group galvanized the 12 Senators who sent this letter to the Secretary, calling for a general sign-up to support full enrollment of CRP. And we’re very eager to see USDA complete implementation of the program, including the delayed rollout of a new CRP working grasslands enrollment option, which the department has said to expect later this summer.
For a program that, in just three decades, has grown to 32 times its original acreage and continues to facilitate on-the-ground conservation that strengthens rural economies, we’re expecting great things from CRP. With proper support, this important program can flourish like the wildlife and habitat it benefits.
BLM looks to new landscape plans to enhance sage grouse conservation efforts
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) took a critical step forward in ensuring the future of the greater sage grouse today, when the agency released plans to amend nearly 100 resource management plans (RMPs) across the West to benefit the bird. The reveal of 14 environmental impact statements comes after years of federal, state, and local stakeholders working to better protect sage grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species while allowing for energy development, livestock grazing, and recreation.
The plans announced today take a landscape-scale approach that builds off initiatives like Wyoming’s core area strategy. Improvements include measures to minimize new and additional surface disturbance, enhance habitat, and reduce threats from rangeland fires. In the very best remaining sage-grouse habitat, mining activities will be prohibited. No surface disturbance will be permitted in most priority habitat and landscape surface disturbance caps will go into effect in other areas.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is set to decide whether to list the range-wide population of greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by September 30. The looming deadline has inspired unprecedented coordination among federal agencies, states, private landowners, and numerous other stakeholders. The BLM and the U.S. Forest Service manage nearly two-thirds of remaining sage-grouse habitat. Sportsmen’s groups are applauding the BLM’s new approach and support federal efforts on public lands as a vital foundation for the range-wide conservation of the species.
“The BLM should be commended for their work on these plans and today’s release is yet another step in the right direction for sage grouse, sagebrush ecosystems, and the stakeholders committed to balancing conservation with other uses of the land to achieve a positive outcome,” says Howard Vincent, president and CEO of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. “These federal plans, combined with strong state plans and contributions from private landowners through the Sage Grouse Initiative, and other efforts, will hopefully set us up for success in the form of a ‘not warranted’ decision on the listing in September.”
In order to reach this decision, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requires regulatory assurances and conservation measures grounded in the best available science that the agency can ultimately defend in court. “While we still need to review the details, the revised plans appear to have improved the conservation measures and assurances needed to prevent the listing,” says Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Ultimately, the decision to list the range-wide population will end up in a federal court, and the BLM has taken a positive step forward by producing plans that hopefully can be defensible to a judge.”
As the BLM finalizes their efforts on federal lands, Western states continue working on their own efforts for state and private lands. Some, like Wyoming, have had a strategy in place for years and have already begun implementing conservation measures. Other states have yet to finalize their approach to sage-grouse conservation. “We need the states to finalize their own plans to complement strong federal efforts and keep the momentum and collaboration going,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We also need Congress to step up to the plate by funding the federal agencies for long-term implementation and success rather than promoting delays to the process.”
Whether these RMP revisions will be enough to reverse declining sage-grouse habitat and population trends remains to be seen. “The bottom line comes down to implementation of the BLM plans and commitments to sagebrush ecosystem conservation that will actually improve sage-grouse populations,” says Miles Moretti, president and CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation. “We not only need strong conservation plans but also strong commitments and funding to ensure the plans manifest into real conservation actions and long-term improvements on the ground.”
The sagebrush steppe of the western U.S. stretches for hundreds of thousands of miles across 11 states. This massive ecosystem often goes overlooked and is frequently dismissed as “The Big Empty.”
But there’s more going on in this vast landscape than meets the eye. More than 350 plants and animals, including huge herds of pronghorn and mule deer, call the sagebrush home. The highlight of this menagerie is one iconic and somewhat peculiar bird: the greater sage-grouse.
The folks at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and PBS have teamed up to produce “The Sagebrush Sea,” a documentary that profiles the greater sage-grouse and the other species that call the sagebrush home.
The TRCP’s scouting report on sportsmen’s issues in Congress
The Senate is in session from Monday through Friday. The House is in session from Tuesday through Thursday.
You might say that it’s rush hour for members of Congress looking to fund the highway bill. Both the House and Senate will be scrambling to find common ground on stopgap funding levels for an extension to the existing highway bill set to expire on May 31. This process will reimburse the Highway Trust Fund, the funding source for most federal transportation projects, but this legislation has also been a critical funding source for federal conservation programs since 1992. It pays for programs vital to the establishment of historic easements, native habitat and wetland mitigation areas, scenic byways, and recreational trails. As such, it is imperative that a long-term funding solution be established in the coming months or, at the very least, that a short-term solution be implemented to ensure that vital conservation programs do not run out of funding.
In the current climate, where smaller pieces of legislation are almost always passed as amendments to larger “must-pass” legislative packages, the highway bill will also present a prime opportunity to lawmakers who need a vehicle for their priorities.
Republicans in the House lobbied for implementing a 7-month funding plan, but quickly realized that the $10 billion needed to do so was unavailable. They will likely acquiesce to Democrats who’d been pushing for a 2-month extension. With Memorial Day recess on the horizon, lawmakers are running out of road.
Water Rule Under Fire
The controversial clean water rule, which would clarify Clean Water Act protections over wetlands and headwater streams, will come under scrutiny this week at two back-to-back Senate hearings. Republicans, who feel the rule is a gross expansion of government and EPA authority, will use these hearings to draw Democrat support for their opposition.
The first hearing, held by the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife will center on S. 1140, which was introduced by Senators John Barrasso (R-WY) and Joe Connelly (D-IN) and has become the central legislative means of opposing the clean water rule. Details on this hearing can be found here. Details on an oversight hearing on Scientific Advisory Panels and Processes at the EPA can be found here.
Conservationists and sportsmen argue that the rulemaking process conducted by the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was thorough and inclusive, and attempts to block a rule that has not been published yet would be premature. More than one million comments were read and considered during the rulemaking process, and the publication of the final rule will not mark the end of the amendment process.
These two hearings come at a sensitive time, with Senate appropriators set to mark up their energy and water spending bill this week. It is likely that the clean water rule will be discussed, if not heatedly debated, during that amendment process. Last year, attempts to force a vote on amendments to the rule disrupted the entire discussion.
A joint hearing will take place on Wednesday as the House Natural Resources Subcommittees on Federal Lands and Water, Power, and Oceans will look at the legislative “sportsmen’s package,” the purpose of which is to enhance hunting, fishing, and target shooting opportunities on federal lands and waters. Details of the package can be found here. Land Tawney, the Executive Director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, will be the only witness.
For the past two years, a bipartisan sportsmen’s package failed in the Senate as discussions on the Senate floor were politicized and became focused on gun rights. The measure passed through the House in 2014, however, and this year’s draft bill features the same language.
The hearing is Wednesday. Additional details can be found here.
Sage Grouse in the House
Conservationists will testify on sage-grouse management authority before the House Natural Resources Committee tomorrow. The hearing will examine the methods and practices employed by states to manage greater sage grouse populations. The implications of dwindling sage-grouse populations could have profound impacts on the economies of the Western states if the birds are listed under the Endangered Species Act in September.
Epic collaboration among federal land managers, state agencies, and local stakeholders is resulting in conservation plans to ensure the sustainability of the species. These tactics will likely be a central part of tomorrow’s discussions, as the panel considers delaying the listing decision and/or shifting management responsibility to the states. Discussions will likely deal with concerns that the federal government is less-equipped to protect the species than the state governments.
Among those testifying is Ed Arnett, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s Senior Scientist, whose unparalleled experience on this issue will undoubtedly aid in the decision-making process.
Usually we’re in it for the meat, not the trophies, but the staff here at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is really proud to announce that we received a four-star rating from Charity Navigator for the second year in a row! That’s the highest possible rating from the nation’s largest independent charity evaluator, and this two-time recognition for our financial health, accountability, and transparency puts the TRCP in the top 19 percent of organizations rated.
In case you were curious, here’s a look at how we spent our budget last year, and even more information can be found in our annual report, where we also detail our conservation policy successes from 2014.
In a letter, John P. Dugan, founder and chairman of Charity Navigator, says, “This ‘exceptional’ designation differentiates Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership from its peers and demonstrates to the public it is worthy of their trust.”
We think trust is a huge factor in our ability to bring together partners, build coalitions, and champion bipartisan progress towards protecting sportsmen’s access, investing in conservation, and guaranteeing Americans our unique sporting heritage, which is reliant on the vitality of the outdoors. That’s why, while accolades are nice, we’ll keep working to protect the places you hunt and fish.
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.