Ariel Wiegard

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posted in: General

January 28, 2016

Streambank Restoration on Private Land is Putting More Brookies in Your Favorite Fishing Hole

Why CRP works for trout and other freshwater fish

The national Conservation Reserve Program is 30! The CRP was signed into law by President Reagan as part of the Farm Bill on December 23, 1985, to help agricultural producers to voluntarily conserve soil, water, and wildlife. The TRCP and our partners are celebrating the 30th anniversary of CRP throughout 2016, by highlighting the successes of this popular bipartisan program—regarded by many as the greatest private lands conservation initiative in U.S. history. Here on our blog, we’re devoting a series of posts to the critters that have seen tremendous habitat benefits: upland birds, wild turkeys, waterfowl, and freshwater fish. CRP works for wildlife, and it works for sportsmen.

On this blog, we’ve written a lot about the Conservation Reserve Program and how it benefits wildlife. Because the program incentivizes landowners to use their land for conservation instead of for crops, it makes sense that a lot of the program’s results would visible on the landscape itself, where pheasants, turkeys, ducks, and the other wildlife benefit from upland and wetland cover. But CRP is also working beneath the surface, and improved water quality downstream is giving brookies and other fish a serious boost.

CRP enhances the watershed

In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, anglers are counting on a CRP initiative known as the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), which targets high priority conservation projects on a local, rather than a national, level. Federal resources for CREP are often augmented by the state where the project takes place, meaning more funding is available for landowners to implement conservation.

The various Chesapeake Bay watershed states each have their own version of CREP, but they share a goal of helping to “Save the Bay,” which has been degraded over time by runoff from agriculture, industry, and cities. All throughout the watershed, landowners are voluntarily enrolling thousands of acres along waterways large and small to help make the Bay fishable and swimmable.

When it comes to agricultural land, one of the most important things the CREP can do is keep cattle out of farm streams by paying farmers to build fences. When they wade around and into the water, cows eat the plants that shade banks and provide cover for critters and insects. Plus, cattle hooves quickly erode stream banks, allowing farm nutrients and sediment to flow into the water. Cows also defecate in the water, further affecting the biology of the stream.

Image courtesy Scott Robinson/Flickr.

The end result is terrible for native fish like brook trout. Lack of shade can dramatically raise the temperature of the water, which, aside from generally causing fish stress, lowers oxygen levels. Where trout spawn, heavy sediment and cow pies turn gravelly stream beds to muck, making it impossible for fish to lay their eggs. Brookies need consistently cold, clear water with a high level of dissolved oxygen to live, feed, and reproduce, but cow pasture streams tend to be hot, muddy, and suffocating.

That’s why groups like Trout Unlimited have rallied around a special CREP effort in the headwaters of the Potomac River, which flows into Chesapeake Bay. The resources that TU can deliver to farmers through CREP are often greater than what other state or federal conservation programs can offer, which means the infrastructure these projects create, like fences and bridges, is often higher quality and has a long shelf life—often as long as a 10- to 15-year CREP contract. And because CREP offers a rental payment for each acre of land taken out of agricultural production, farmers can afford to commit more acres of streamside land to the program and place cow fences further back from the stream bank—at least 35 feet, but sometimes as much as 300 feet on both sides. Given this room to breathe, floodplains can replenish the natural ecosystem over time.

Aside from fencing for cattle, TU’s dedication to this program has helped farmers to plant mature trees and native grasses along waterways, stabilizing the banks and providing the shade that is absolutely critical to regulating water temperature. Cooler streams are more fishable. And Chesapeake Bay farmers want that as much as anglers do.

Healthy Systems, Not Just Healthy Pools

Many farmers have inherited land from family, and they remember their grandfathers teaching them to fish on a particular bank—they want to be able to teach their grandchildren to do the same, and maybe reclaim a little bit of their own childhood in the process. To date, tens of thousands of acres of stream buffers have been applied throughout the watershed, and brookies are returning as a result. Of course, privately-owned stream banks, no matter how well restored, may not be accessible for most anglers in the region. But every step in conservation is incremental, and the impacts multiply both upstream and downstream.

Image courtesy USFWS.

Restored headwaters, even if they are private, serve as spawning grounds and nurseries for the entire river system. Work that has been done over the last twenty years has helped to restore large, healthy populations of native brook trout to the system, greatly reducing the need to stock the streams each spring. These native trout tend to grow larger, live longer, and travel farther than their stocked cousins. In fact, they have been tracked swimming from their West Virginia headwaters to popular public fishing areas like Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and the Potomac River flowing straight through Washington, D.C. Of course, each restored acre will ensure that those downstream waters will be cooler and cleaner, too, thanks to the fast-flowing, gravelly headwaters upstream.

Programs like CREP incentivize healthy systems, not just isolated healthy pools, and brook trout are an indicator of that health. If a headwater stream has brookies, the top-level native aquatic predator, its river banks will also have good habitat for a variety of wildlife and be full of fish food like frogs, mayflies, and crickets. There will be sufficient shade from mature trees, and the stream bed will be gravelly and have places for young fish to hide. The CRP, with its local habitat enhancement program, can’t accomplish this alone, but it is certainly an important tool for helping farmers and landowners to do the right thing for fish and sportsmen.

Read how the CRP works for other game species.

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posted in: General

January 27, 2016

Real Conservation Has Been Blocked at Malheur: Who Will Foot the Bill?

A legislative tool could make criminal fines work for wildlife 

For much of the last four weeks, while extremists have occupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, we have focused on how sportsmen and women are being robbed of their access to hunt and fish on the refuge and how the militants’ views on public lands management are inconsistent with that of the Burns community. Now, information is being released on just how much damage the incident could inflict to ongoing conservation efforts. With refuge staff barred from the site, years of progress and millions of dollars spent combating invasion species, like common carp, could go to waste.

Image courtesy of Carla Burnside/USFWS.

Fisheries biologists had already installed screens and traps that prevent the carp from moving between bodies of water to spawn in unwanted areas, but the militants’ stakeout interrupted routine maintenance of the screens. Flooding from winter weather has permitted carp again to move freely between these waters. What’s more, the growing carp population could kick up mucky water that would keep sunlight from reaching other aquatic vegetation that is a critical food source for migratory bird species like waterfowl. And when all this is over, taxpayers, including sportsmen, will pay for these losses.

Agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Park Service operate under a law called the Resource Protection Act (RPA), which allows them to benefit from fines collected after an incident like Malheur. The Fish and Wildlife Service is not eligible for RPA funds to help restore damage to the refuge, but it could be.

Image courtesy of Carla Burnside/USFWS.

A bill to divert criminal fines back into the National Wildlife Refuge System has been introduced in previous sessions of Congress, but as of now, the penalties from criminal activity at Malheur will be placed directly into the National Treasury, leaving the Fish and Wildlife Service to pay for the restoration efforts without additional funds. The Malheur occupation is not the first time the refuge system has dealt with criminals jeopardizing conservation efforts. In 2005, a pipeline excavated without permission on the San Bernard NWR in Texas resulted in $7.6 million of damage to fish and wildlife habitat and $11,000 in fines went straight to the Treasury. Eleven years later, the refuge still hasn’t seen the funds to perform the necessary restorations.

Let’s not allow Bundy’s gang to leave a similar legacy at Malheur. If there’s any benefit to their attention grabbing, let it be the discussion of real solutions for funding repairs and mitigation at the refuge and for ongoing land management issues in the West.

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posted in: General

January 26, 2016

Public Lands Changed the Way I Hunt

A lifelong private-land hunter becomes a public lands evangelist

Although I’ve been hunting deer, ducks, and turkeys for as long as I can remember, the thought of hunting public lands never really crossed my mind until high school. Having grown up in central Virginia, there was no need—friends, family, and neighbors all provided endless connections for me to pursue my outdoor passion on privately-owned farms or leases. But, when my father and I started planning a hunting trip out West for my 16th birthday, we quickly realized that guide services were well outside our budget and researched what would become my first all-public-lands adventure.

That fall, I spent a week with my bow in the Idaho backcountry, chasing elk and mule deer entirely on public land, and I was completely blown away. The landscape that lay before me every morning was breathtaking—and it was all mine. That trip opened a whole new door to the hunting and fishing world that I’d never considered before.

A few years later, I moved south to attend college. While asking permission to hunt private lands certainly taught me lessons I’d never trade, I found myself in exciting and unchartered territory for my hunting and fishing pursuits, and I didn’t know a single person. Realizing I couldn’t put my passion on hold for four years, I researched public hunting and fishing areas all over the Southeast. I stalked deer in wildlife management areas, called in ducks on national wildlife refuges, and had gobbling toms in close range on national forests and my school’s experimental forest.

I even started exploring publicly accessible areas closer to home on school breaks and made it a point to invite die-hard private land hunters to join me.

I had become a true public land sportsman.

Image courtesy of Cyrus Baird.

After graduation, the first thing I did after securing my new apartment in Memphis was locate all the public access areas within a half-day’s drive. As a result, I had good success duck hunting many of the state-owned lands in western Tennessee that season. When I found out I was being relocated to North Dakota for a campaign assignment, I immediately downloaded the PLOTS (Private Lands Open To Sportsmen) book to map out all my hunts there. In a span of five years, I’d gone from never even considering hunting on public land, to using it for almost 90 percent of my waterfowl and small game needs.

Image courtesy of Cyrus Baird.

I still have friends and relatives who hunt entirely on private spaces, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s more important than ever that all sportsmen understand the critical role that public lands play in the overall future of hunting and fishing, because loss of access is the single largest threat to hunter retention and the livelihood of our sports.

Fewer hunters in the deer woods may seem nice on opening day, but we all realize the impact: Fewer dollars for conservation. Fewer stewards of our lands and waters. Fewer champions to stand up for our traditions.

Image courtesy of Cyrus Baird.
Image courtesy of Cyrus Baird.

Even if you plan to continue to hunt solely on private lands, the opportunities to enjoy public places will always be there for you, should you reconsider. Our hunting and fishing traditions are woven into the fabric and topography of our country through our public lands. If I’d never left my hometown, maybe I wouldn’t have been able to understand this in quite the same way. But I’d urge every sportsman and woman to pledge themselves to preserving our access to public lands for future generations of hunters and anglers.

Here’s a good first step: Sign the petition at sportsmensaccess.org and prevent the sell-off of YOUR public lands.

Ariel Wiegard

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posted in: General

January 21, 2016

Private Lands Conservation Combats a Different Kind of Empty Nest Syndrome

How CRP delivers “duck factory” products nationwide

The national Conservation Reserve Program is 30! The CRP was signed into law by President Reagan as part of the Farm Bill on December 23, 1985, to help agricultural producers to voluntarily conserve soil, water, and wildlife. The TRCP and our partners are celebrating the 30th anniversary of CRP throughout 2016, by highlighting the successes of this popular bipartisan program—regarded by many as the greatest private lands conservation initiative in U.S. history. Here on our blog, we’re devoting a series of posts to the critters that have seen tremendous habitat benefits: upland birds, wild turkeys, waterfowl, and freshwater fish. CRP works for wildlife, and it works for sportsmen.

Image courtesy of Pheasants Forever.

Land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program can currently be found in 47 states and Puerto Rico, but nowhere is the program as important to waterfowl as in the Prairie Pothole Region.

The PPR—covering parts of Iowa, Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Montana before extending north into Canada—is a globally unique ecosystem of wetlands and grasslands, formed when the glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago. Millions of depressions that became “pothole” wetlands, intermixed with lush grasslands, make up some of the world’s best migratory bird nesting habitat.

Waterfowl do nest elsewhere, of course, but there’s a reason the PPR is called North America’s “Duck Factory.” It’s estimated that as much as 70 percent of American waterfowl—millions of canvasbacks, mallards, pintails, gadwall, teal, and other subspecies—originate in the PPR, and migrate to every state, province, and territory in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, plus several South American countries. It’s possible that you have a PPR duck or two in your freezer right now!

Threats Are Abundant, Too

For better or worse, however, the unique ecology of the PPR is highly valued by more than just waterfowl. Ranchers have long found the prairie well-suited to raising cattle, and farmers know the soil to be ideal for sowing crops. Today, more than 90 percent of the region is privately-owned, and when crop prices are high, critical habitat is at great risk of being turned into corn or soybean fields.

As of 2009, approximately 61 percent of the 17 million acres of historical wetlands had already been lost, and about 1,500 acres of temporary and seasonal wetlands, disproportionately favored by breeding ducks, continue to be plowed up each year. Grassland—once 80 percent of total PPR land cover—now only comprises about 22 percent of the region, even when you add up native prairie, CRP grassland, and other planted pasture. Nearly all—95 percent—of these total losses have been attributed to agricultural conversion.

When the Conservation Reserve Program peaked at 36.8 million acres nationwide in 2007, just under a quarter of those acres (8.2 million) were located in the PPR and played an outsized role in protecting wetland and prairie habitat. However, as we’ve written about here and here, CRP has decreased over the last several years to just 23.4 million acres (as of November 2015), and the program in the Pothole region has taken a direct hit—only about 6.5 million acres of CRP are currently enrolled across the five PPR states, and not all of that is in “pothole country.” Degradation and fragmentation of the habitat that remains in the region, including existing CRP lands, are major threats to hundreds of wildlife species that live and breed on the prairie.

Ducks Love CRP—and So Do We

There is a lot for sportsmen to worry about when it comes to loss of waterfowl habitat. Thankfully, people are paying attention and providing data we can use to advocate for more CRP in the Prairie Potholes.

Image courtesy of Ryan Hagarty/USFWS.

Last year, for instance, the Prairie Pothole Joint Venture published a study detailing how to best target CRP enrollment to maximize benefits for migratory birds. The organization’s work builds upon years of research which, in a nutshell, once showed that more than two million waterfowl are produced each year in this region on CRP land alone. That’s equivalent to one-third of the entire U.S. harvest of waterfowl species studied in a single year. Unfortunately, the recent report lowers that estimate to about 1.5 million birds (still a lot of ducks to be thankful for). C

The study also found that all types of ducks preferred CRP over all other cover types, and that nest success was higher in CRP lands than elsewhere.

So what is it about CRP that ducks are so fond of? The answer is fairly simple: The number of waterfowl settling and breeding in the PPR is driven by the number of available permanent, temporary, and seasonal wetlands surrounded by upland grasses. And CRP provides incentives to landowners to protect the very wetlands and grasslands favored by waterfowl. There’s even a special “duck nesting habitat” practice within CRP, only available in the PPR states, which can help landowners to restore wetlands that had once been used for agriculture.

CRP is also often used to help separate wetlands from crop land, allowing perennial grasses and wildflowers to improve water storage in the soil, contribute to cleaner water with lower concentrations of pesticides, and promote increased plant and insect diversity and abundance (read: duck food!). In some documented cases, CRP is providing habitat that is better than public lands habitat managed specifically for waterfowl.

As the Prairie Pothole Joint Venture notes in their report, the CRP isn’t the only tool for private land managers who want to improve their conservation practices, but it is an especially important one in the PPR toolbox. It’s great for ducks and waterfowl hunters nationwide get to reap the rewards. That’s why the TRCP will continue to advocate for a CRP that works for wildlife.

Learn how CRP is benefiting other species in the rest of our blog series.

The study also found that all types of ducks preferred CRP over all other cover types, and that nest success was higher in CRP lands than elsewhere. 

Kristyn Brady

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posted in: General

Dispatch from the Desert: Talking Conservation at SHOT Show

New products aren’t the only focus at the landmark firearms industry trade show in Las Vegas

Our staff was on the ground in Las Vegas, Nevada, this week for the Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show—the largest firearms industry conference of its kind—and I am pleased to report that the spirit of conservation is alive and well at SHOT.

Image courtesy of Jenni Henry.

If you were to stand in the main thoroughfare of the Sands Expo Center—where 62,000 industry professionals, including buyers, marketers, and media, are streaming through the doors to a showroom bursting at the seams with 1,600 exhibitors launching innovative new products—you might only see commerce. And it’s true that, at SHOT, the economic impact of the shooting sports hits you, well, right between the eyes.

But over the last three days, our conversations on the floor, in events, and with colleagues new and old have been about a much bigger picture: collaboration, a sense of responsibility, and an openness to change that will undoubtedly come. Brands want to showcase their commitments to tradition and ethics, including conservation. They want to serve the underserved. They want to examine what’s working (and not working) in the marketplace and in our sports.

Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation wants our community to show the country that #HuntingIsConservation. Outdoor Life magazine wants hunters and recreational shooters to think about the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, fed by excise tax dollars—it’s a success story, but should it remain unchanged?

At the TRCP’s annual Conservation Roundtable on Wednesday, competitive shooting luminary Julie Golob stood in front of conservation group leaders, state and federal wildlife agency directors, and members of the outdoor media and called for better collaboration on policy issues outside the scope of the second amendment. As a well-recognized shooter, she’s a champion of the right to bear arms, of course, but as a hunter and a mom, she doesn’t want to feel sequestered from efforts to improve conservation. And now is the time to unite on our issues.

That’s why we asked roundtable attendees to forecast which conservation priorities our community should rally behind in a presidential election year and what one issue they’d ask a candidate to address—an appropriate topic to mull over with Donald Trump waiting in the wings to present at the Outdoor Sportsman Awards ceremony Thursday night.

Image courtesy of Jenni Henry.

The National Wildlife Federation’s Lew Carpenter said, definitively, public lands staying in public hands. Nick Wiley, executive director of the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, suggested more creative partnership between state and federal agencies on wildlife management. Miles Moretti, president and CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation, touted using sage grouse conservation as a new model for collaborative solutions in the face of declining species. Some suggested taking a good, hard look at the Endangered Species Act itself.

Howard Vincent, president and CEO of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, pointed out that the idea of clean, abundant water touches all of our issues on public and private lands. It powers the fishing industry, certainly, but it also connects the interests of sportsmen, agriculture, cities, and wildlife under one very basic notion: We all need it. We all need places to pursue our sports, as well. The TRCP’s Joel Webster reiterated that access to hunting and fishing on public lands is the great equalizer—it doesn’t matter whether you get there on a private jet or on a Schwinn, those lands are yours to explore and they should be protected.

Armed with these rallying points and the enthusiasm felt from all sides at SHOT Show, I think we’re all hoping to get caught in an elevator with Mr. Trump.

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