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April 6, 2016

A Special Place, its Champions, and a Long Goodbye

After years of gathering critical habitat data and opening minds to the conservation possibilities in the Missouri Breaks, our longtime friend and colleague passes the torch 

If you drive east out of Lewistown, Montana, for fifty miles or so—over the southern flanks of the Judith Range and along the course of McDonald Creek, through Grass Range and Teigen, a community that once anchored a ranch so big that it still has its own zip code—you’ll reach the little town of Winnett. With the vast sagebrush steppe unfolding in front of you and wind-scoured cliffs and coulees full of green grass on either side of the gravel road, it’s not uncommon to witness small flocks of sage hens flushing and rocketing away towards pronghorns lit pale-orange and white against a gray backdrop.

Image courtesy of Bob Wick/BLM.

For the past two years that I’ve worked for the TRCP, I’ve been lost, both literally and metaphorically, in this landscape.

In the distance, the Missouri Breaks begin to appear, with dark lines of timber on the ridgeline. There’s little to suggest that you are on the brink of another world, yet you’re poised at the edge of what may be the best public-lands trophy elk hunting on the planet. Off to the east, you see the deeply incised and snaking lines of Blood Creek, Dry Blood Creek, Drag Creek, or the mother of them all, Crooked Creek, where big yellow-barked Ponderosa pines and rich grass replace the sagebrush. The creeks all cut steeply away towards the Musselshell River, which eventually joins the mighty Missouri.

The road takes you into what must be one of the most complicated systems of coulees in the world, a vast public lands puzzle of hidden sandstone cliffs, hogback ridges of soft white clay, and lost cul-de-sacs, where Old West outlaws held out well into the 20th century and where the traces of warring and hunting Native American tribes can still be found. Today it is home to the second-largest elk herd in the state of Montana, to mossbacked old mule deer bucks, mountain lions, sharp-tailed grouse, and a growing population of Merriam’s turkeys.

For so many Montana hunters, especially archery hunters, this is the heart of the state, and the heart of hunting itself—an experience and adventure like no other. Unlike our traditional Rocky Mountain elk country of aspens, high country meadows, and jagged peaks, in this strange place an elk hunter goes down into the earth. He leaves the prairies for the coulees, most of them branching off wildly, like nerves or arteries that are miles upon miles long and some of them hundreds of feet deep.

In early 2014, when the Lewistown field office of the Bureau of Land Management began working on a new Resource Management Plan for this area, I went to work for the TRCP to identify the local public lands that hunters most depend on, and the lands that have the best wildlife habitat, access, and opportunities for real backcountry recreation and experiences.

I talked with biologists and land managers from the state and BLM and with landowners, old time Montana conservation leaders, and, most of all, elk and mule deer hunters. I drove a couple of thousand miles of road, hiked over forty miles of ridge and coulee, followed elk, looked for horns in May, and shot sharptails in September. I was lost and desperately thirsty at least twice, and I whiteknuckled the incredible Dunn’s Ridge Road (Dunn’s is more like a one-lane path inscribed into the top of a narrow gumbo ridgeline, with cold-sweat-inducing drops on both sides) all the way down to the Musselshell bottoms. Rancher and conservationist Hugo Turek of Coffee Creek, Montana—a great supporter of our work—graciously let me hike across his fields and into the magnificent public lands of the Arrow Creek Breaks, a band of critical habitat for mule deer and sharptails, where Hugo has sustainably grazed his cattle herds for the past two decades, while maintaining access for hunters in the fall.

Image courtesy of Bob Wick/BLM.

I took my then-eleven-year-old daughter on a hike through the Judith Mountains—named by William Clark in 1805, after his cousin and sweetheart, Judith Hancock—where we glassed the big-game winter ranges, trying to find a way into the deep canyons. This is where we found Collar Gulch Creek, where there is a population of native Westslope cutthroat trout—the easternmost population known to be remaining on earth—despite the “devil take the hindmost” history of gold mining booms of the 19th and early 20th centuries in the Judiths. Imagine that.

Drawing from dozens of interviews with local hunters and others who know the Breaks better than I ever will, the TRCP worked with some key sportsmen leaders and five other sportsmen’s groups to draw up a formal comment to the Lewistown BLM Field Office to explain that these valuable lands should be managed to conserve their intact character, maintain important public access, and support traditional uses through a moderate new conservation tool called Backcountry Conservation Areas (BCA). We included maps, descriptions of the hunting country and uses by sportsmen, and definitions of the BCA concept that, in its keep-it-like-it-is management strategy, fits so much of this public land like a leather workglove.

Hal Herring afield with his son and dog. (Image courtesy of Hal Herring)

In the end, sportsmen nominated four individual tracts of BLM lands for BCA management. We included the Crooked Creek country, the Arrow Creek Breaks and the best of the Judiths, including Collar Gulch, and the intact expanses of big-game winter range that are so unique to this sky-island on the plains. Sportsmen and women are now hopeful that the BLM will consider managing these areas with the common sense BCA approach through the upcoming Lewistown draft Resource Management Plan.

It’s an even bigger opportunity for the TRCP to join with hunters across Montana and the U.S. to make sure the best of these lands are conserved with the existing access to them maintained. Where necessary and possible, it’s an opportunity to see that wildlife habitat and rangelands are restored and made more productive. The possibilities are almost endless: In my final discussions with some local community leaders, we discussed the need for a partnership between conservationists and grazers to control weeds and improve wildlife range, and how BCAs can be used as a way to focus our energy on conserving and restoring the best of the best lands for hunting, grazing, and recreation.

Now, I’m passing my work on to Scott Laird, whom I’ve known and respected for more than a decade and who will be able to take on this effort full-time, full-bore, and full-speed in a way I cannot. I’ve introduced him to some of the friends I’ve made in Lewistown and have no doubt that, with their support, and the support of a few hundred more like them, hunter-conservationists can make a permanent contribution to the future of the Missouri Breaks and the whole of Montana.

I’m leaving the TRCP as the same true believer that I was when I started. I’ll help in any way I can.

2 Responses to “A Special Place, its Champions, and a Long Goodbye”

  1. Alan Wentz

    Hal,
    Thank you for your tremendous work for sportsmen and TRCP in particular — on the Missouri Breaks and so many other things critical to conservation and sports men and women! We really appreciate all your efforts and I look forward to seeing your future work!

    Alan Wentz (former TRCP Board Member)

  2. Kirk Otey

    Hal:

    You were the first person to show me the Breaks, and from the AIR, as we shared that small 4-place plane flying from Great Falls down past the Highwoods, then over to the Musselshell Valley to the Missouri, up over the Breaks National Monument back to the airport.

    You shared your love of that landscape and the other people who cherish it. The threats from development are very real, but you and your allies in Montana, along with the staff of TRCP, have done a great job crafting a call for protecting the most valuable places, while endorsing wise multiple uses for energy development and transmission.

    Thank you for your labor of love and all those great words you spin,

    Kirk Otey

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Critter Madness: A Repeat Champion

Critter Madness 2016 has come to a close and the elk are your repeat champions! The tournament started with a field of 16 from all over the country representing the best of the best in game species.

Right out of the gate in round one there were heated battles and huge upsets. The Largemouth Bass splashed out of nowhere to stun the number one seeded Brook Trout, last year’s Cinderella story. The elk barreled through the big horn sheep to set up an interesting “west vs. east” matchup in the next round.

The second round, though a bit calmer than the first, was still met with great matchups. The turkeys strutted past their arch upland foes in the pheasants. The Chinook swam past the blue marlin while the Rainbows edged out the largemouth bass by one vote .

The semi-finals showed just how dominant the elk were, breezing past the turkeys and besting all of their opponents by over 543 votes! The rainbows took down the mighty Chinook to become the only non-one seed to make it to the semi-finals or finals.

The final matchup pitted last year’s victor, the mighty elk against the underdog in the rainbow trout. When it came down to it, the trout never had a chance. A valiant effort on the part of anglers everywhere voting for their favorite fish to claim the crown, but they just weren’t strong enough to beat the king of the West!

Thank you to everyone who voted this year and helped us crown the 2016 champion critter!

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April 5, 2016

Glassing The Hill: April 4 – 8

The TRCP’s scouting report on sportsmen’s issues in Congress

The Senate will be in session this week, while House members continue to work in their districts until April 12.

Road blocks continue for the bipartisan energy bill. Consideration of the Energy Policy Modernization Act on the Senate floor has once again been pushed to a later date. As you may remember, the bipartisan energy bill was a potential vehicle for a portion of the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act. Senator Murkowski (R-AK) and leadership have been trying to resolve issues stemming from the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and a legislative hold on the bill from Senator Lee (R-UT) since February. The bill has to come to the Senate floor before May, when the Senate will likely turn its attention to appropriations.

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

In the meantime, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decided to move forward with “The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act of 2016” (S. 2658). The FAA bill is certainly not a small issue, since it funds air traffic control and other aviation advancements, so it could potentially occupy the Senate floor for weeks, thereby complicating the path forward for the energy bill.

And, speaking of appropriations… Because of the Republican and Democratic conventions at the end of July and the presidential elections in November, Congress has a narrow window to focus on appropriations. This week, various Senate appropriations subcommittees will continue to examine agency budgets, with an eye towards having individual appropriations bills on the Senate floor in May. Reminder: The goal is to pass the 12 individual appropriations bills needed to fund the government, rather than a sweeping omnibus funding package, by September 30 for the first time in—well, a long, long time.

The House is slightly further along than the Senate when it comes to appropriations, and several subcommittees plan to begin marking up their spending bills as early as next week. The Energy and Water appropriations bill is one of the first, and it’s one to watch because 120 House Republicans are requesting that appropriators add a rider to block funding for the Clean Water Rule that sportsmen celebrated last year.

We’ll be scanning for other riders that are bad for fish and wildlife habitat, access, or conservation funding throughout the appropriations process.

It’s ba-ack: An old threat re-emerges to undo sage-grouse conservation. Last year, Congressman Bishop (R-UT), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, added a greater sage-grouse provision to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in order to give governors veto authority over federal conservation plans aimed at boosting critical greater sage-grouse habitat. Because of good work by lawmakers and sportsmen, the Bishop provision was not included in the NDAA that was eventually signed by the President.

Now, Congressman Bishop has introduced a standalone bill that, while not as sweeping as last year’s efforts, would still potentially jeopardize the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision not to list the sage grouse for Endangered Species Act protection. A mark-up of the bill has yet to be scheduled in the House Natural Resources Committee, but expect a hearing on this issue in the near future. We also anticipate that this provision will be included in the House version of the NDAA, scheduled to be marked up by the Armed Services Committee on April 27.

What We’re Tracking

Budget requests for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and U.S. Forest Service

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Rural development programs and their economic impacts, to be discussed by the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Subcommittee on Rural Development and Energy in a hearing about the U.S. Department of Agriculture initiatives

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Habitat science and research will be on the table in a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on conducting oversight for the U.S. Geological Survey, the agency that collects, monitors, analyzes, and provides scientific understanding about natural resource conditions, issues, and problems.

Water infrastructure and costs, up for debate in a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing

Jonathan Stumpf

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March 31, 2016

Spot the Hoax in Our April Fool’s Day Quiz

Did we make up these wacky headlines? Take the quiz to reveal the real stories

Mia Sheppard

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Compassion: A Surprising Ingredient in the Recipe for Cool, Clean Water

Our Oregon field rep hangs up her waders for a high-profile public-speaking opportunity in D.C., where she discovers a spirit of hope for water solutions

Last year, Oregon experienced the worst drought on record, with many adverse effects on our rivers and fish. I saw firsthand the results of drought and dam regulations in my own backyard on the Deschutes River, renowned for its native Redside trout. Water temperatures reached up to 74 degrees as salmon arrived, searching for a cooler refuge from the Columbia River—but the cooler water wasn’t there. The rising water temperatures caused an algae bloom that clung to the banks and rocks. Warm-water macroinvertabrates, such as water skippers, were abundant, but the expected cool-water mayflies and stoneflies were few and far between.

The river I knew was almost unrecognizable.

Image courtesy of Marty Sheppard.

Access to suitable water resources seems like a human right, but our fish and wildlife have rights to clean, cool water, too. As an angler, I know that salmon, steelhead, and trout need the right water conditions to thrive. While there are some policies in place that begin to help during a drought crisis, we need federal decision-makers to prioritize actions that invest long-term in better water quality for healthy, viable rivers and our outdoor recreation opportunities.

I recently hung up my waders to walk the halls of the Eisenhower building, part of the White House complex, in a navy blue suit. And I felt the energy of change, as people hustled around me.

In celebration of World Water Day, the White House convened a water summit where innovators, policy-makers, advocates, and media were gathered to discuss our country’s water future. I was honored to attend and share my personal connection with water through fishing, especially as one of the only representatives of the sportsmen’s community. I had three minutes to reflect on the importance of considering fish, wildlife, and outdoor opportunities in concert with infrastructure challenges, human consumption, and water use for agriculture and forestry. I talked about the Deschutes and found myself getting choked up as I told the crowd, “When fish lose, we lose.” I guess that was the moment that I really felt the impact of what I’d seen during the drought and dam regulators were drawing  the warmer surface water of Lake Billy Chinook

Image courtesy of Marty Sheppard.

I felt confident and composed, however, when I shared that the TRCP’s petition recognizing serious threats to rivers and streams and calling on federal decision-makers for action has been signed by more than 1,000 sportsmen and women. It was nice to know these kindred spirits were standing with me, in a sense, at the podium.

As the summit came to a close, Pueblo Tribal Councilman Nelson Cordova from Taos, New Mexico, recited a prayer in his native tongue asking for the wisdom, strength, and compassion to deal with our water issues. Compassion, which was the last thing I expected from a D.C. crowd in suits and heels, was certainly what I heard from longtime colleagues, strangers, and local anglers after my speech. I’d shown more emotion than I’d intended, but many people assured me they felt the same way.

If you want to learn more about the changing water conditions on the Deschutes River, click here.

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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