Rob Thornberry

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posted in: General

May 11, 2016

Stoneflies: A Gift to Anglers and a Vigilant Monitor of Water Quality

The hatch that defines a season, drives local spending, and indicates the health of our trout fisheries

I roll over a riverside rock and smile. The stone’s now-exposed belly teems with life. Dozens of stonefly nymphs—at least three varieties—squirm. Some hunker down and twist into a circle to avoid detection. Others crawl for cover, diving back into the cobble and cold, pristine water of the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River.

The annual stonefly hatch is near, perhaps only days away. The nymphs have lived in the river for three years, and over the next two weeks they will emerge, molt, mate, lay eggs, and die. Trout will abandon caution and feast, putting on the weight they need for survival. Rainbows, cutthroats, browns, and brookies will shed their varying levels of suspicion and target adult stoneflies. It is a visual experience: Browns and bows savage the fly, cutthroats lazily pick them off, and brookies dart and dash.

Nate Rolston holds a brown trout he caught on the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River on a dry stonefly. Image courtesy of Jim Hardy.

It is a simple, enduring life cycle built on the availability of clean water.

Because of the vagaries of temperatures and runoff, the stonefly hatch plays out across two months as Western rivers seemingly take turns showing off their hatch, but the first is always here on the Henry’s Fork in late May. Then, like dominoes, other rivers follow: the Big Hole, the Madison, the South Fork, the Teton, the Gunnison, the Green, the Deschutes, the Yellowstone, and the Middle Fork.

A stout, well-provisioned angler can chase adult stoneflies for two months and not visit the same water twice. (Trust me: I’ve tried, but that is a story for another time.) The trout feeding frenzy brings anglers from around the world to the West in May, June, and early July. It is a semi-crazed, sleep-deprived tribe of fishermen in search of the big fish that single-mindedly hunt for stoneflies.

The hatch is not only a harbinger of summer but also a boon to local businesses, from fly shops to truck stops. Local fishermen complain about the crowds on “their” rivers as business owners cheer. Anglers eat and sleep in restaurants and hotels. Fly shops are full. Guides are booked. Shuttle drivers are flush. An Idaho Department of Fish and Game study claims the Henry’s Fork alone generates $40 million in recreation spending annually. And as long as we take care of the headwaters of our western rivers, it is a self-sustaining resource.

What joins all these rivers together is the cold, clean water that comes from public lands high in the Rockies. Near my Idaho Falls home, it is the flanks of Yellowstone National Park’s Pitchstone Plateau, the spine of the Wyoming Range, and the runoff from central Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. Trout especially rely on consistent conditions in these headwaters, as pure as they can be in an environment influenced by man.

Image courtesy of Bob Henricks/Flickr.

Since stonefly nymphs spend three years in water, they are an excellent—and accepted—measure of stream health. They require cool, well-oxygenated water and are susceptible to pollution, making them a low-tech monitor for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality’s Beneficial Use Reconnaissance Program. They are also used as an indicator species by the Environmental Protection Agency.

So, when I flip the rock again, and re-submerge the writhing pile of stonefly nymphs, I’m reminded that the hatch is our reward for thoughtfully managing our public lands, with an eye to the best-available science, and never backing down when it comes to threats that would compromise the fish and wildlife we treasure.

My friends and I launch our boat, hoping that at least a few bugs and a few fish are getting started early this year, and it is the opening move of a two-month ramble with stoneflies and trout. We journey through some of the best public lands the West has to offer.

Water rushes by as we fish. It is destined for use, agricultural or otherwise. Here and now, the water is a renewable resource and a business driver, the lifeblood of this magical time of year. We need to protect our public lands and waters to keep it that way.

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posted in: General

May 9, 2016

Glassing The Hill: May 9 – 13

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

The Senate and House are back in session after a weeklong recess. Here’s what’s in and what’s out of the bills currently up for debate, with only 50 days left on the legislative calendar.

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

IN: Provisions to transfer a popular wildlife refuge. On Tuesday, the House Natural Resources Committee is expected to release new language to address the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s financial problems. The rewritten bill is likely to include a modified provision to transfer the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge to Puerto Rico. Transfer of the refuge could mean loss of public access for Puerto Ricans whose government is in disarray and presumably ill-equipped to properly manage the refuge’s habitat. The Committee plans to mark up the bill at the end of the month.

OUT: The mission to muck up sage grouse conservation. The Senate Armed Services Committee and subcommittees will hold a three-day mark-up on their version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which does not include any language that would halt state and federal collaboration on critical habitat conservation plans for the greater sage grouse.

Before the recess, Congresswoman Tsongas (D-Mass.) offered a motion to strike this type of language from the House NDAA, but the motion failed along party lines. The House Armed Services Committee passed the NDAA with a 60-2 vote, and the legislation is expected to be considered on the House floor next week.

OUT: Using wetlands to address water quality. Before the break, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee marked up and passed “The Water Resources Development Act” (WRDA), which would address water resources that are administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The TRCP and its partners are encouraging lawmakers to include language that promotes the use of natural infrastructure, like wetlands, to benefit fish and wildlife while addressing other water resource issues, when the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee marks up their version of WRDA on May 19. That language was not included in the Senate version.

IN, still: A controversial amendment that is keeping Senators from regular order on appropriations. Two weeks ago, “The Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act” failed to pass on the Senate floor, due to controversy over Senator Cotton’s (R-Ark.) amendment that would block the U.S. Energy Department from purchasing heavy water from Iran. On Monday evening, the Senate will try again to pass the energy and water spending bill with a 60-vote threshold, but it’s unlikely that the Senate will pass the legislation.

Next week, the Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to mark up the agriculture appropriations bill. The House will begin considering appropriation bills on the floor next week, too. “The Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act” is anticipated to be considered first, followed by the energy and water development and agriculture spending bills.

Also IN… town to testify: County commissioners concerned with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Planning 2.0 Rule. A House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing will focus on the proposed extension of the public input period and suggestion that 2.0 will lead to a decline in local input on developing land-use plans.

What Else We’re Tracking

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Legislation impacting public lands in California, Oregon, and South Dakota, up for debate in this House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands hearing

The rising costs of natural disasters, to be discussed in a House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management hearing

Steve Kline

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posted in: General

May 5, 2016

A Brief History of the Tenuous Connection Between One Game Bird and Military Readiness

Must-pass legislation that funds our military is no place for attacks on critical conservation plans

Image courtesy of Mia Sheppard.

One doesn’t often think of the United States military and the greater sage grouse in the same breath. But for a small number of politicians in Washington, linking the bird with the armed services has become a tactic for undoing solid conservation on millions of acres of national public lands, while attempting to erase the first few chapters of a great conservation success story.

Because of a whole slew of factors—habitat fragmentation, invasive species, wildfire, and energy development, just to name a few—populations of greater sage grouse, a bird once widely hunted during long seasons with liberal bag limits, have been on a worrisome path of decline. Indeed, things for the bird were looking dire enough that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) considered listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act—a decision that would have had significant implications across the West.

But facing a listing decision led the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to revise dozens of land-use plans across the 11-state range of the grouse and prioritize the durable conservation of sage-grouse core habitat. At the same time, many of the states across the range crafted their own plans for non-federal portions of the bird’s habitat, and the Department of Agriculture prioritized funding for ranch and rangeland conservation efforts on private land. This mix of coordinated efforts proved robust enough that in September of 2015, the FWS decided that the bird did not warrant a listing.

Make no mistake, the conservation of core habitat included in the federal plans was the sine qua non of the agency’s unwarranted decision. Some lawmakers in Congress have bristled at the tough conservation initiatives that are required to keep the bird off the list, but they ensure that the bird continues to be managed by the states. So, in the summer of 2015, before the unwarranted decision had been made, several of those lawmakers made the case for including language in the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would have given the states nearly unfettered veto authority over sage-grouse conservation plans on national public lands, while freezing the bird’s conservation status for a decade.

If this mashup of national defense and birds on the lek still has you scratching your head, consider this: The NDAA is pretty important, given that it keeps our military funded and functioning, and Congress has passed this bill every year for as long as anyone cares to remember—it’s as close to ‘must-pass’ as we have these days in Washington. So, the sponsors of this short-sighted effort made the tenuous claim that a listing of the bird would have dire impacts on military readiness, and they got it included in the House version of the NDAA in 2015. Thanks to a lot of common sense and distaste for including something so beyond the pale, the Senate did not include similar language in their own version of the bill, and the NDAA ultimately signed by the President did not include the offending language either.

Conservation groups quietly celebrated a victory that few Americans really heard about.

Image courtesy of Jeannie Stafford/USFWS.

But bad ideas are pretty hard to kill in Washington, and this one’s no exception. Despite the fact that the bird was not warranted for listing, some in Congress are obsessed with undoing what might be the greatest achievement in Western public lands conservation in a generation. And we are gearing up for another run at keeping this bad language out of the NDAA.

The TRCP and many of our partners have already started the process of letting our lawmakers know that the best thing they can do for sage grouse is pretty easy: Simply see that adequate funding goes toward implementation of federal plans, that necessary resources go to the states, and that private lands conservation continues.

If implemented, these plans would be a windfall for the habitat of species like mule deer and pronghorns, not to mention a boon to sportsmen. And the plans keep the responsibility for the management of sage grouse in state hands. Undoing those conservation plans might be the best way to ensure a listing—bad news for just about everyone.

Be the first to know about sage grouse and the NDAA. 

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posted in: General

May 4, 2016

Pounding the Pavement to Safeguard Days on the Water and in the Woods

Our government relations associate describes the outdoor experiences and family traditions that drive her to work for better conservation policy in our nation’s capital

Image courtesy of Julia Galliher.

When it comes to skill in the outdoors, I didn’t have the most auspicious beginnings. In fact, on my first family fishing trip at the age of five, I ended up hooking my mom—not dinner. Fortunately, I’ve learned to watch my backcast, and I’ve grown from a girl with a Goofy rod and reel into a person who feels passionately about advocating for legislation that improves sportsmen’s access and benefits the fish and wildlife habitat we rely on. That’s why I’m here in Washington, D.C., working with my colleagues at the TRCP to guarantee all Americans quality places to hunt and fish.

In this town, I think it’s easy to get caught up in what we have on our to-do lists, and lose sight of why we’re doing it. To remind myself, I recently gave my dad a call. Since 2006, he has been involved with the Red-tail Land Conservancy, a not-for-profit land trust in Muncie, Indiana, that has conserved over 2,600 acres of private land. He’s also the person who taught me everything I know about the outdoors.

Image courtesy of Julia Galliher.

At 15 years old, I recall being aware of his participation in restoration projects and other volunteer work to further conservation, but until now I’d never asked him why he felt so compelled to give back. Like so many sportsmen and women, Dad credits our country’s fish and wildlife habitat for the best experiences of his childhood. His father—my Gramps—and grandfather took him fishing on the West Coast of Florida and many of the rivers and lakes in Indiana. Gramps taught him firearm safety and set him up with a BB gun and targets made from hanging acorns and fat flower blossoms. Dad grew up training his English setter, competing in field trials, hunting upland birds, and fishing whenever and wherever he could.

He jokes that he started taking us kids out so he’d have an excuse to take time off work or get out of household chores, but of course he wanted us to have these memories of family time in the outdoors, too. And I have many. Before hanging up, we chatted about our deep-sea and back-bay fishing trips in Florida, the walleyes and northern pike we caught in Manitoba, and our hunting expeditions for wild quail in Illinois.

All that time, Dad was showing me how to be a good sportswoman and steward of these resources, too.   Our most unforgettable stories aren’t about the biggest fish or the trophy-size bucks—they’re about connection and tradition. So, while there are times that I feel helpless and frustrated with Congress, whether for lawmakers’ actions or inactions on conservation priorities, I’m armed with the understanding that quality places to hunt and fish are worth fighting for.

Image courtesy of Julia Galliher.

What was important to Gramps and my dad is now what drives me to do this important work of advocating for habitat and access. So, the next time I’m headed into a meeting with a Congressional staffer, or rushing across town to attend an event hosted by one of our conservation partners, I’ll be thinking about my family, our cabin, Muncie’s White River and, yes, even Mom’s shriek as I tried to reel her in on that first cast.

If you’re hooked on the thrill of the outdoors, we want to hear from you. Who first taught you that being a hunter or angler means taking responsibility for our fish and wildlife? What do you want our lawmakers to know about the value of the outdoors

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posted in: General

May 3, 2016

Bringing back Lees Ferry

Back in the 1970s, the 15-mile stretch below Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River known as Lees Ferry was renowned as one of the finest tailwater fisheries in the world. Anglers flocked there to catch monster rainbows fattened on Gammarus scuds to the 10- to 20-pound range amid cold, clear river flows and spectacular desert canyon scenery.

The fishery has experienced ups and downs over the years. Today, the Lees Ferry trout fishery, while still good, is a shadow of its former self. Arizona Trout Unlimited and other partners would like to bring the fishery back to some semblance of its glory days.

Image courtesy of John Hamill.

Joe Miller of TU’s Arizona Council says managing flows from Glen Canyon dam is a key. “The Lees Ferry fishery has so much more potential than we’re realizing now,” he told me, “But we need to fine-tune the dam releases to find more sustainable and optimal conditions for the trout.”

The massive dam, completed in 1964, helped create a recreational coldwater fishery in a desert environment. But managing those flows over the years has proved tricky. Water releases and temperatures impact everything from the survival of juvenile trout to aquatic bug and food production.

In recent years, dam operations have led to a decline in bug life on the river and water conditions that fall short of a quality trout fishery. Gammarus scuds are greatly reduced, and main food base is now only midges and very small black flies. Several of the most common bug orders found in every other quality tailwater fishery in the West—mayflies, stoneflies and caddis flies—are totally absent from the Lees Ferry trout buffet.

Moreover, frequent High Flow Events (HFE’s) in the fall may be adversely impacting the rainbow trout fishery and the aquatic food base.

For the last 5 years, the Bureau of Reclamation, the dam operators, and the National Park Service have been developing the Glen Canyon Dam Long Term Experimental and Management Plan EIS (LTEMPEIS), which will determine how the Glen Canyon Dam operates for the next 20 years.

It’s a prime opportunity for anglers to have a direct say in how fishery is managed—but public comments for the EIS are due by May 9.

Some of the key LTEMPEIS recommendations from TU and other groups include:

  • recognize the Lees Ferry rainbow trout fishery as a priority resource “value” to be enhanced by dam operations.
  • test the use of sustained low and steady flows to increase the production and diversity of the aquatic insects in the Colorado River below Glen Canyon Dam.
  • modify the HFE protocol to shift more high flows from the fall to the spring to benefit a variety of resources besides sediment/sandbars, including aquatic food base and the rainbow trout fishery.  HFE’s should only be conducted in the spring if/when the condition of trout or the aquatic food base in Lees Ferry is poor.
  • reintroduce historic mayfly, caddis and stonefly species in the Lees Ferry reach.
Image courtesy of John Hamill.

These and other science-based recommendations (read the full report here) are supported by a wide range of conservation organizations and outfitters and guides, including Trout Unlimited and its Arizona Council and chapters, International Federation of Fly Fishers, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Arizona Wildlife Federation, Arizona Fly Casters, Desert Fly Casters, Orvis Company, Lees Ferry Anglers, Marble Canyon Outfitters and many more.  The Arizona Department of Fish and Game has issued a formal Lees Ferry Fisheries Management Plan based on those recommendations.

It’s time to get Lees Ferry back on track – go to the National Park Service LTEMPEIS website and express your support for trout-friendly dam operations and aquatic habitat restoration at Lees Ferry.

And please comment before May 9, 2016!

If we miss this opportunity, it could be decades before we get another shot at restoring Lees Ferry to its glory days.

Randy Scholfield is Trout Unlimited’s communications director for the Southwest region.

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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