On a Texas Crane Hunt with MeatEater’s Steven Rinella
Last December, I had the opportunity to join Steven Rinella, the host of the popular Sportsman Channel show MeatEater, for a sandhill crane hunt in Texas. I’d connected with Rinella at a few TRCP events and learned that he’d never hunted or eaten cranes, so I invited him to join me and biologist Mike Panasci, a Texas Tech University Ph.D. student I got to know as an adjunct professor. Rinella’s longtime friend Ronnie Boehme rounded out our group. Rinella’s been a great supporter of the TRCP and conservation, but besides that, he is my kind of hunter. I knew he’d appreciate the experience of hunting and tasting cranes for the first time.
Panasci did all the nitty gritty work of lining up lands to hunt on and making our “stuffer” decoys – skinned birds filled with wood and Styrofoam that draw other cranes toward our positions. He and another friend, Jon McRoberts, were responsible for exposing me to crane hunting after I joined the faculty at Texas Tech in 2009, and we’ve hunted together every year since. Hunting cranes is a lot like hunting geese: It’s all about scouting and patterning the birds, setting up the decoys just right, then hiding well in blinds and natural cover, and letting the birds work into the spread—when they cooperate, of course.
We had a few struggles on the front end of the hunt, as we quickly learned that hiding a couple of guys from wary cranes is pretty easy, but hiding three cameramen and four hunters is a bit more challenging. After testing a couple of setups and finding a prime location with better cover, we actually had a really successful hunt, as you’ll see in the resulting episode of MeatEater. We even bagged a rare banded bird—you’ll have to tune in to learn more about where that bird has been.
USDA’s Big (Ahem, $20M) Investment in Wildlife Habitat and Public Access
Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture started the week on a high note by announcing its $20-million dollar investment in giving you better access to hunting and fishing. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack shared the 15 projects that will receive funding under the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP) “to enhance wildlife habitat, protect wildlife species, and encourage new opportunities for local businesses.”
Created in the 2008 Farm Bill and reauthorized in 2014, VPA-HIP awards money to states to expand or create public access for hunting, fishing, and other wildlife-dependent outdoor recreation. The program offers financial incentives and reduces liability concerns for landowners who allow sportsmen to access their property, while also providing technical support for wildlife habitat improvement. Among the VPA projects selected this year are first-time awardees Connecticut, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Oklahoma. These four new states bring the total impact of this program to three-fifths of the country, where deer, turkeys, ducks, and other wildlife will benefit.
This will be the last round of VPA-HIP funding under the 2014 Farm Bill, under which $40 million was authorized for this program through 2018. That’s just a drop in the $956-billion Farm-Bill-bucket, but VPA is the only federal program aimed at enhancing public access to private lands for hunting and angling, making this $40 million extremely important.
Especially since more and more sportsmen and women are faced with fences, no-trespassing signs, or hefty access fees rather than publicly-accessible woods and waters. Lack of access is the greatest barrier to hunter and angler participation, recruitment, and retention, so access to privately-owned farms, ranches, and forests has become even more vital to the future of our uniquely American outdoor traditions. By helping landowners open new access, this program is breathing life into the hunting and angling community.
And our community shows up with our wallets: We spend $646 billion each year on our outdoor pursuits and support 6.1 million jobs directly related to publicly-accessible waters, prairies, forests, and mountains. And thanks to the sportsmen and women who buy hunting and fishing licenses and pay excise taxes on guns and ammo, our state fish and wildlife agencies receive dedicated conservation funding that improves habitat for game and non-game species alike.
Local groups could keep mine waste out of rivers like the Animas if not for this legislative roadblock
By now, you’ve probably seen reports of the mine accident in Colorado and the disturbing images of the Animas River turned yellow by the release of 3 million gallons of water contaminated with mine wastes. This occurred after an EPA-supervised cleanup crew accidentally breached a debris dam inside the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, last Wednesday.
As far as we know, there haven’t been reports of fish die-offs or drinking water contamination, and the river is starting to return to normal. The county has requested that the agency assist with analysis of the impacts to fish and wildlife, and outdoor recreation businesses are waiting for the all-clear to regain safe access to the Animas—we’ll be closely tracking news on all of this.
A great deal of blame has been directed at EPA—and deservedly so. Without question, there needs to be a full review of what went wrong and those responsible should be held accountable so this doesn’t happen again.
But we shouldn’t forget that while EPA may have caused this release, it didn’t create the pollution.
Our best estimate is that there are at least 161,000 abandoned mines, like the Gold King Mine, across the West. They are the dirty legacy of past mining booms that helped settle the region. The mines don’t just pollute our waterways after accidents; they are constantly leaking water polluted with heavy metals into rivers and streams—some at a trickle, and others at hundreds of gallons per minute. These mines were excavated prior to the creation of modern environmental laws that help ensure responsible mining practices, and there is no one to be held responsible for them now.
Federal agencies have stepped in to deal with the mess. Between 1997 and 2008, the EPA, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Forest Service spent $2.6 billion on abandoned mine cleanup, with EPA contributing the lion’s share ($2.2 billion).
Many other groups, like Trout Unlimited, want to help. TU wants to return fish to stretches of river so polluted by abandoned mines that they can no long support life, while watershed organizations want to revitalize their communities and boost their outdoor recreation economies and mining companies want to be good neighbors in the areas they operate. These good Samaritan and volunteer groups are stymied by provisions in environmental laws that would force them to be responsible for the entirety of an abandoned mine’s pollution should they even attempt a cleanup. That is a financial and technical burden that is impossible to bear. As a result, they can’t help clean up the worst of the pollution.
My former boss, Sen. Mark Udall (CO), repeatedly introduced legislation to fix this roadblock, and the time has come for other Western lawmakers to take up the cause and unleash the power of well-meaning groups to help clean up the West’s abandoned mines. As proven in the Gold King Mine incident, we can’t afford to leave anyone on the sidelines if they want to help.
Trout Unlimited has been fighting for years to address the problems of mine pollution in the West. To learn more about the abandoned mine problem and how to take action, go to sanjuancleanwater.org.
Grassroots Perspectives: What Sportsmen are Saying About the Clean Water Rule
With all the recent talk about Clean Water Act jurisdiction and the unceasing congressional attacks on a rule that protects wetlands and headwater streams, what seems to be getting lost is the message from hunters and anglers on the ground. Sportsmen care about clean water as much as anyone, and we’re the first to stand up and make ourselves heard when a favorite fishing hole is at risk or a wetland is impaired. And sportsmen have spoken up for our most cherished waters and wild places throughout the rulemaking process that led to the EPA’s recent announcement of the Clean Water Rule.
Tim Mauck and Dan Gibbs, lifelong sportsmen and county commissioners in Colorado, shared their view with the Denver Post, saying in a joint op-ed that “the Clean Water Rule keeps us moving forward in protecting and restoring our headwaters.” Mauck has also testified (not once, but twice) before Congress about the positive impacts that a restored Clean Water Act will have on his county and his sporting traditions.
Chris Hunt captured it succinctly in Hatch Magazine, where he said this rule “simply protects the waters that contribute to our sporting culture.”
No federal rule is perfect, and this one has been particularly contentious because of the many demands on our nation’s waters and wetlands, but sportsmen understand the great strides made for fish, wildlife, and habitat in the final clean water rule, which clarified significant Clean Water Act uncertainty. Now, as Bob Marshall wrote at Field & Stream, we are “infinitely better than where we were for the last 10 years, when the majority of our stream sides and waterfowl habitat, and many of our drinking water sources, were vulnerable to destruction.”
And champions of the rule aren’t just looking to improve their days afield. There are some whose livelihoods depend on quality fish and wildlife habitat. According to Dave Perkins, executive vice chairman of the Orvis Company: “The clean water rule is good for our business, which depends on clean, fishable water. Improving the quality of fishing in America translates directly to our bottom line, to the numbers of employees we hire right here in America, and to the health of our brick-and-mortar stores all over the country.”
Travis Campbell, president and CEO of Far Bank Enterprises, an integrated manufacturer and distributor of flyfishing products from Sage, Redington, and RIO, agrees. “My company depends on people enjoying their time recreating outside, especially in or near watersheds,” he said in a press release. “Clarifying which waterways are protected under the Clean Water Act isn’t a nice-to-have, it is a business imperative.”
Despite all the good that the final rule does for hunting and fishing, opponents are using hyperbolic misinformation to persuade their allies in Congress to attack the rule at every turn. This, too, has earned a response from sportsmen. “We must strongly oppose efforts to overturn the rule—and question the motives of those who would undermine it,” said Greg Munther, co-chair of the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “Consider everything Montana stands to lose if their efforts are successful.”
After nearly 15 years of Clean Water Act confusion and a multi-year rulemaking process that takes into account more than 400 meetings with stakeholders and over one million public comments, we finally have a restored Clean Water Act that protects fish and wildlife habitat and gives certainty to landowners. But the fight isn’t over.
We would do well to heed the words of Andy Kurkulis, owner of Chicago Fly Fishing Outfitters and DuPage Fly Fishing Co. in Illinois: “Anyone who has ever swam in our beautiful Great Lakes, or fished or boated on our abundant rivers and waters has benefited immeasurably [from the Clean Water Act]. Now is the time to raise our voices in support of clean water—our economy, and future generations of hunters and anglers, depend on it.”
The Land and Water Conservation Fund, a landmark American law, is up for reauthorization by Congress in less than 50 days, and 11 leading conservation organizations in Louisiana have expressed support—and urgency—for renewal of the law, which helps protect and improve habitat and sportsmen’s access.
This week, America’s Wetland Foundation, Audubon Louisiana, the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, Ducks Unlimited, Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, the Land Trust for Louisiana, Louisiana Black Bear Conservation Coalition, Louisiana Wildlife Federation, the Nature Conservancy of Louisiana, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and the Trust for Public Land released the following statement:
The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) has been enriching the lives of Americans for 50 years, creating thousands of public recreation sites from National Parks to neighborhood ballfields. Louisiana in particular has benefited from the LWCF, both in its federal and state components.
The LWCF played a major role in the development of Louisiana’s two National Parks, Jean Lafitte and Cane River Creole. Jean Lafitte National Historical Park has units in Acadia, Jefferson, Lafayette, Lafourche, Orleans, and St. Landry Parishes, while Cane River Creole is located in Natchitoches. Between them, these parks have received over a million visitors since they have opened, including tourists from around the country and world.
The LWCF has been utilized to create and expand 12 of the 24 National Wildlife Refuges in Louisiana: Atchafalaya, Bayou Cocodrie, Bayou Sauvage, Big Branch, Black Bayou Lake, Bogue Chitto, Cat Island, Grand Cote, Lake Ophelia, Bayou Teche, Red River, and Tensas River. These Refuges provide critical wildlife habitat and prime areas for public hunting and fishing.
The LWCF has also helped fund over 700 state and local projects in Louisiana, in hundreds of cities and communities, including parks, boardwalks, boat ramps, and recreation centers. The Office of State Parks utilized the Fund to aid its state plan in 1965, and to develop and improve over 36 sites since then as the state administrator of LWCF. Local parish governments have worked with private partners to match federal funds to benefit their residents and the tourists who visit their areas.
Projects completed and underway in Louisiana reflect the mission of the LWCF to promote outdoor recreation, and play an important role in the ‘Outdoors Economy’ that provides many benefits to our state, supporting 48,000 jobs, generating $225 million in annual state tax revenue, and producing $3.2 billion annually in retail sales and services. The LWCF is funded through offshore oil production revenues, rather than tax dollars, and is a specified recipient of a portion of revenues in the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (GOMESA), along with Gulf Coast States.
It is well understood now that the economic and environmental benefits of parks and refuges can extend beyond outdoor recreation and wildlife habitat. The area of the Red River National Wildlife Refuge added in 2014 included hundreds of acres that had been slated for development, but instead helped increase floodwater retention capacity in the recent (spring 2015) floods along the river. The Mollicy Farms Project on the Upper Ouachita National Wildlife Refuge, another project funded with the help of the LWCF, accommodated floodwaters that helped prevent a levee breach downstream in Monroe in 2009. Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, located just outside of New Orleans, contributes to the city’s natural and constructed hurricane protection system.
Flood retention, infrastructure support, and coastal resiliency and restoration are some of the wider benefits that point to the future potential of the Land and Water Conservation Fund to help Louisiana in years to come. We urge our Congressional delegation to support its reauthorization to help meet those needs.
The conservation groups cited a number of recent examples of the success of the LWCF in Louisiana and the diversity of the projects it has supported, including:
The Red River National Wildlife Refuge, which was expanded by over 1,700 acres with the help of the LWCF in 2014
The three newest National Wildlife Refuges in Louisiana, Cat Island, Bayou Teche, and Red River, which were all created with the help of the LWCF
A number of National Wildlife Refuges in Louisiana that have benefited from the LWCF, such as Atchafalaya, Bayou Cocodrie, Bayou Teche, Cat Island, Grand Cote, and Tensas, and played a key role in recovery efforts for the Louisiana Black Bear
Lake Arthur Park in Jefferson Davis Parish, which is being rebuilt through a LWCF grant
Improvements to the Camp Salmen Interpretative Trail in St. Tammany Parish, which were completed in 2014 through a LWCF grant
The town of Logansport, which utilized LWCF funds in 2013 to build a boardwalk near the Sabine River as part of Dennis Freeman Memorial Park
Bryan Park in Downsville, La., which was completed in 2012 using a LWCF grant
The pedestrian/bike path around University Lakes at Louisiana State University, which was completed in 2011 with the help of a LWCF grant
Park and recreation facilities funded through the LWCF are slated for completion over the next two years in Acadia, Concordia, Jefferson, LaSalle, Livingston, Pointe Coupee, St. Bernard, St. Martin, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa, and Washington Parishes. You might be surprised to learn what kinds of projects this important fund has made possible in your community.
It should come as no surprise that the sportsmen’s community is rallying around reauthorization of LWCF. But time is running out. Stay tuned for more information and how you can lend your voice.
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.