June 15, 2016

A Whirlwind Tour of a Complex Landscape in the Prairie Pothole Region

Journalists get up close and personal with working lands and at-risk wetlands in North Dakota

After a week in legendary North Dakota—where every day I was up before dawn and in bed long after the northern summer sun set—I am sunburned, windswept, and my body feels like it was hit by a truck.

No this wasn’t a marathon hunt week—wrong season—but an exercise in living like a reporter on the road. I was there with 18 journalists and a handful of partners* to learn about what’s happening to wildlife habitat in the state. We were all hoping to see firsthand the impacts that rapid advances in ethanol, oil, gas, and agricultural production are having on the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR).

The PPR is home to a unique ecosystem, created over tens of thousands of years as glaciers retreated across the northern part of the continent. The glaciers left behind rocky soils and millions of shallow, seasonal wetlands known as potholes. These potholes, and the grasslands surrounding them, are prime waterfowl breeding habitat, lending the PPR its nickname: North America’s Duck Factory. Over half of the continent’s waterfowl are born in those grassland-wetland complexes.

The grassland-wetland complex on the left of the road is protected for conservation, while the land on the right has been converted for crops. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

Among the highlights of the trip was an outing to locate duck nests and candle the eggs, to see how well developed the ducklings inside are, estimate hatch dates, and determine nest success. The site we visited boasted about 460 nests, and it was a unique thrill to flush one hen after another from her nest among old Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) plantings. The hens will return to the nests despite our handling of the eggs, and eventually these mother ducks will march their ducklings up to three miles to a wetland to swim, feed, and possibly grow into one of the ducks you’ll hunt this fall.

Fresh down feathers line a nest of duck eggs. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

There’s a lot of other wildlife in the region, especially some of our favorite fish and game—walleyes, wild turkeys, pheasants, sharptail grouse, whitetail deer. We even heard rumors of moose in Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge, close to the Canadian border. Unfortunately, all of these critters are at risk because grasslands and wetlands are being converted for agriculture and other uses at a rapid pace.

A bird’s-eye view of the Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

The potholes and grasslands of the PPR were once naturally maintained by grazing herds of millions of bison. The bison are mostly gone from this landscape, but cattle have long been their surrogates, keeping the PPR relatively healthy and supporting prairie habitat.

Cattle grazing at sunset on the Black Leg Ranch. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

However, myriad factors are causing cattle to disappear from the land, nearly as abruptly as their native predecessors did. Newly developed seed types and farm equipment have allowed corn and soy crops to move north from the central plains, as those plants can now grow in the shorter northern seasons. Ethanol production and international markets have fostered that migration, as has wetland drainage, which also has the unfortunate side effect of causing flooding and overflowing lakes, literally submerging communities around Devil’s Lake. And the discovery of natural gas in the Bakken Formation has led to hundreds of wetlands being made into well pads. On a dollar-for-dollar basis, it’s hard for cattlemen to compete with these technological advances, and yet they are one of the last remaining forces helping the Duck Factory to persist.

A well pad in the Bakken. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

While the TRCP laments the loss of cattle from the landscape, we do not oppose energy development or technological innovation. We just want it to be done responsibly, in balance with other demands on our public and private lands, and to ensure that sportsmen and wildlife don’t get the short end of the stick.

Most folks in North Dakota, I think, feel the same way. Dozens of times during the trip we heard that sportsmen and wildlife enthusiasts are the heroes of conservation, for instance through our Duck Stamp purchases and backing of the Conservation Reserve Program. Many of the industry representatives we spoke with also hunt and fish and they want their children and grandchildren to be able to do the same, so they strive for a conservation-minded approach to development. And just this week, North Dakotans overwhelmingly voted to preserve Depression-era rules, which would limit corporate farm ownership in the state, thereby perpetuating a family farm structure that many believe to be far better for conservation than the alternative.

Summer storm clouds roll in near Jamestown, N.D. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

But the PPR is still suffering a slow death by a thousand cuts. Congress has passed laws through the Farm Bill which should limit grassland and wetland conversion for agriculture, but those laws are unevenly enforced—and even when they are, violators may not be penalized. When it comes to other types of development, there are currently no state or federal laws designed to protect this landscape.

The TRCP wants America’s farmers and ranchers to be successful and profitable, but not at the expense of sportsmen’s access and opportunity. This visit has reinforced our resolve to help develop policies that balance the needs of production agriculture and private landowners with the needs of sportsmen, fish, and wildlife, and that make conservation a financially-viable part of the farm economy.

The sun sets on a wetland near Devil’s Lake. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

*Many thanks to Delta Waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited, North Dakota Game and Fish Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, and the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources for helping to organizing the Prairie Pothole Institute.

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Kristyn Brady

May 18, 2016

House Passes Dangerous Sage-Grouse Rider in Defense Bill

 

State and federal progress to keep iconic Western gamebird off endangered species list could be undone by Congress

Today, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the National Defense Authorization Act. Contained in this ‘must-pass’ legislation that funds America’s military readiness was language that would force the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service to abandon successful sage-grouse conservation plans. These federal plans resulted from years of collaboration and millions of taxpayer dollars that successfully kept the sage-grouse off the Endangered Species Act list.

“Sportsmen across the country are very disappointed with the House’s action to play politics with our national defense by inserting unrelated and detrimental language about sage-grouse conservation into the bill,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “If language contained in the House bill were to become law, it would throw into question decades of statutory precedent, scores of environmental laws, and the subsequent legal decisions around those laws. This legislation is a Trojan horse for transferring public lands to the states and stands to have lasting repercussions beyond curtailing conservation efforts in sagebrush country.”

Opponents of the 2015 conservation victory would rather see state-developed plans implemented instead. The shift in management, elimination of judicial review, and long-term delay of any future listing decision erodes the implementation of bedrock conservation statutes—such as the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. While many of the 11 western state plans are good, some do not fully address threats to sage-grouse and need to be complimented by federal plans.

“Success for the greater sage-grouse was achieved in 2015 through the combination of strong conservation plans on federal public lands, coupled with state conservation plans and voluntary efforts from private landowners,” said Steve Williams, President of the Wildlife Management Institute. “Future success depends heavily on immediate and consistent implementation of all these combined efforts. Congressional efforts to eliminate federal plans would negate effectiveness of all efforts and result in a waste of both state and federal funds expended to date.”

“We are disappointed to see this effort by the House to snatch defeat from the jaws of a victory that has already been achieved,” said Howard Vincent, president and CEO of Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever. “The eleven western states, federal agencies, and private landowners must continue with their unprecedented efforts to conserve and manage sage-grouse. Congress simply needs to fund implementation of these combined efforts, especially private landowner efforts to conserve sage-grouse and 350 other sagebrush-dependent species.”

Sportsmen organizations continue to communicate to lawmakers that the best thing they can do for sage-grouse is ensure 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 habitat of species like mule deer and pronghorns, not to mention a boon to sportsmen. Undoing those conservation plans might be the best way to ensure a listing—bad news for just about everyone.

The Senate is expected to consider their version of the NDAA—which currently does not include the detrimental sage-grouse provisions – sometime next week. “This issue has no link to military readiness and it’s simply playing politics to suggest otherwise,” continued Fosburgh. “Our community looks forward to working with the Senate to ensure that these provisions to undermine sage-grouse conservation are kept out of their version of the legislation.”

Ed Arnett

November 10, 2015

Are the BLM’s Sage Grouse Conservation Plans Really Worse Than an ESA Listing?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) recent decision not to list the range-wide population of greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was perhaps the greatest collaborative conservation effort in the history of contemporary wildlife management—but it didn’t happen overnight or by accident. The years of planning, monitoring, research, and coordination among state and federal agencies, private landowners, and many other stakeholders have also resulted in a new model for conservation.

Image courtesy of Ed Arnett.

But rather than celebrate a great achievement, stakeholders at both ends of the special-interest spectrum have proclaimed that listing the bird would have been a better choice. Some in the environmental community have argued that far more should have been done to strengthen protections for the species and believe a listing is still warranted. Meanwhile, some industry proponents and members of Congress have cried out that a listing would have been better than the “draconian” federal overreach they see in the BLM’s amended land-use plans that will impact a majority of the bird’s remaining range.

All of this rhetoric makes for good soundbites and headlines, but would we really be better off? Is it possible that compliance with the proactive conservation measures needed to avoid a listing is actually a harsher reality than a listing itself? Let’s look at the facts about what could have happened under the law.

Project Management

Under a listing scenario, anyone with plans for federal land designated as sage-grouse habitat would need to comply with all the restrictions and conservations actions under the ESA and consult with the FWS on every future project, extending the timeline. This would apply to businesses, the BLM, the states, and private landowners—even those who have received funding or other resources from a federal agency for a project on their land. Compared to this case-by-case consultation process under a listing, the BLM land-use plans provide a firm set of guidelines to give every industry and community stakeholder the certainty they need to plan for the future.

Buffers and Caps

The BLM plans prescribe buffers and caps for the disturbance to breeding ground areas from human activity and development. One opponent of the plans has promoted the idea that an ESA listing doesn’t come with these buffers and disturbance caps. It’s true that the Act itself doesn’t mandate these restrictions, but immediately following any listing, there would be a designation of critical habitat and development of a recovery plan, which could include even more stringent buffer zones. It’s very doubtful that a post-listing plan would be weaker than the current federal plans.

‘Take’ Note

Obviously, sportsmen would lose the opportunity to hunt sage grouse if they were listed, but the concept of ‘take’ under the ESA also extends to the habitat of the listed species. Under Section 3 of the ESA, ‘take’ means “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.” Aside from hunting them, any activity that would disturb or harass the bird, or alter its habitat in a negative way, would technically be a violation of the ESA and could be subject to penalty under the law. If you don’t believe me, just ask the timber industry what ‘take’ meant to them after the northern spotted owl was listed.

Image courtesy of Jeannie Stafford/USFWS.

At Home and Afield

With a listing, mandatory enforcement of ESA restrictions extends to all critical habitat, which would include, at the least, everything currently considered priority habitat areas on public land, plus at-risk habitat on private lands. Regardless of ownership, any take of sage grouse or habitat on these lands could be subject to prosecution under the law, with the exception of those already enrolled in conservation agreements with the FWS. This includes applicable programs under the NRCS’s Sage Grouse Initiative or Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAAs), of which there are several million acres already enrolled.

The Best Path Forward

So, does a listing of the greater sage grouse really sound better than implementing the current federal and state plans? I’d say that this rhetoric is really just a last-ditch effort to thwart change and maintain business as usual. Perhaps some of the largest companies and landowners in the region could afford to comply with the ESA, but would this have been the best path forward for the West as a whole? Of course not.

Clearly, and without question, a listing scenario would be far more time-consuming, expensive, and disastrous for the Western economy than implementing the proactive conservation plans that have already been finalized. And that’s not to say that we’re settling for the devil we know. The decision not to list sage grouse required that strong federal plans, complemented by solid state plans and extraordinary voluntary efforts exhibited by private landowners, be developed with assurances that they’d be implemented. And all of this needs to stand up in court.

The next step should be to make sure everyone does what they said they would do to implement their plans. And Congress needs to ensure full funding for implementation of conservation measures in the federal plans and continue supporting the NRCS’s Sage Grouse Initiative to benefit these birds. Let’s not get distracted by attempts to dismantle the collaborative efforts that got us where we are today.

Take action now.

Kristyn Brady

September 22, 2015

Endangered Species Act Protection is Not Warranted for Sage Grouse

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced today that the range-wide population of greater sage grouse does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. This decision comes after years of coordination and planning among federal, state, and local stakeholders to better protect sage grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species, while allowing for energy development, livestock grazing, and recreation to continue.

The BLM finalized a critical step toward achieving the not-warranted finding by signing two Records of Decision that will amend nearly 100 resource management plans (RMPs) across the West to benefit the bird.

Sportsmen’s groups are encouraged by the decision and appreciative of the 11 states, federal agencies, private landowners, and other vested stakeholders that have come together in a daunting, often controversial effort. “The work to benefit sage grouse over the last five years has been the greatest landscape-scale conservation effort undertaken in modern times,” says Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The collaboration we’ve seen is unprecedented and extraordinary. It sets forth a model for what I believe to be the future of conservation in America.”

For many of the groups involved in this effort, today’s announcement comes with a cautious sense of relief. “For years, sportsmen, ranchers, developers, and biologists have anxiously awaited the day when the sage grouse listing decision would be made,” says Steve Riley, president and CEO of the North American Grouse Partnership. “Now, it is imperative that these collective conservation efforts are implemented and monitored for effectiveness in the long-term if we are to avoid winding up with sage grouse again at risk further down the road.”

Sportsmen have argued that an “all-of-the-above approach”—with distinct plans developed and implemented by the federal, state, and private sectors—was the only way to get to a not-warranted decision and sustain conservation into the future. Howard Vincent, president and CEO of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever notes that private landowner efforts, led in part by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, were a critical piece of the success leading to today’s decision. “Partnership-driven, voluntary conservation efforts have contributed to a positive decision for greater sage grouse and ranching communities in Western states, but our work has only just begun,” says Vincent. “We must continue to build upon this unprecedented level of management for sage grouse populations from federal and state agencies and the ranchers who are implementing landscape-level habitat improvements on private lands.”

Image courtesy of Ed Arnett.

The benefits of today’s decision, and the implementation of robust conservation plans already in progress, will extend to more than just sage grouse. “Thriving sage grouse populations are an indicator that sagebrush ecosystems are healthy, and this is important for more than 350 species of plants and animals, including many that are popular with sportsmen,” says Miles Moretti, president and CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation. “Now, we must remain invested in sustaining the health of this bird—and the landscapes that support it.” Land Tawney, executive director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, notes that sportsmen and women will benefit as well. “What is good for the grouse is good for the grandeur—the large landscapes being conserved will help sustain backcountry hunting opportunities and big game populations,” he says. “That’s positive for sportsmen and the local communities that depend on proceeds from outdoor recreation-based businesses.”

The work of implementing conservation on the ground is just beginning, and threats still remain. “We’re happy with today’s decision, which proves that collaborative conservation can work,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “But it is critical that state and federal agencies enforce the full implementation of their plans and that we continue to oppose Congressional attempts to weaken them.”

Management of sagebrush habitat is a long-term endeavor that costs money and resources, and no one understands that better than a former director of the agency responsible for today’s announcement. “Investment in sagebrush management that balances many uses of the land, including responsible energy development and sustainable ranching, with conservation is essential for our nation’s economy and the Western way of life,” says Williams. “We have the blueprint in place, and now it’s time to build our future. Congressional support and funding can help get us there.”

To see what our other partners are saying about today’s announcement, click here and here.

The Teddy Bear Delisting and ‘That Hunt’

You may know the tale of Theodore Roosevelt’s Mississippi black bear hunt in the fall of 1902, his second year in office. After all, it’s one of the most famous hunts to have taken place on American soil, and it inspired the most famous toy in the world—the Teddy Bear.

Image courtesy of Creative Commons. Above image courtesy of USDA/Flickr.

But shortly after Roosevelt came to Mississippi in the early 1900s, over-hunting and agricultural development in the Delta’s swamps practically eliminated the Louisiana black bear from its native range in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley. It was eventually listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as a threatened species by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1992, bringing about much concern from landowners, the timber industry, and wildlife professionals. This forward-thinking group hoped that the downward trend could be reversed and suitable black bear habitat within the region could be restored.

That same year, the Wetlands Reserve Program was instituted, building upon the successes of the Conservation Reserve Program, launched in 1985. Together, these programs resulted in the restoration of more than one million acres of black bear habitat, and black bear populations slowly began to rise across the bear’s historic range.

Now, Teddy’s bear is having a moment. After more than two decades of conservation efforts, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell has proposed removing the Louisiana black bear from the list of threatened and endangered species under the ESA. “The Louisiana black bear symbolizes how the Endangered Species Act can be a remarkably effective tool to protect and recover threatened and endangered species when we work in close partnership with states and other stakeholders,” Jewell said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, state agencies, non-profit organizations, and private landowners are all to thank for the Louisiana black bear’s success.

Image courtesy of USFWS.

According to Hunter Fordice, a landowner and son of Mississippi’s former governor, Kirk Fordice, “The first documented black bear cubs born in the Mississippi Delta in some 30 years were born in the middle of a 12-year-old Wetlands Reserve Program tract on my property in Issaquena County in 2007. The Wetlands Reserve Program and the Conservation Reserve Program have restored hundreds of thousands of acres of bottomland hardwoods across the Lower Mississippi Valley, which in turn has provided habitat suitable for the Louisiana black bear to once again thrive in its historical home range. As a landowner, it is very gratifying to see these conservation programs working so well.”

We think Roosevelt would be proud to see the population’s rebound and to know that the next generation of outdoorsmen will share the woods with the bear that “bears” his nickname. To celebrate, let’s hear the story of this famous hunt.

A Famous Hunt and Hunter

Almost every aspect of Roosevelt’s 1902 hunt at Smede’s farm was the responsibility of the uneducated, but extremely intelligent, 56-year-old Holt Collier, who was born into slavery and served as a Confederate scout before becoming a legend for his hunting skills. Roosevelt (who announced that he was to be addressed only as “Colonel” throughout the hunt) expressed his desire to participate in the chase. However his demands for a shot on the very first day, and the timidity of his hosts, condemned him to a stationary blind. He was placed to have a clear shot when the bear, driven by Collier’s pack of nearly 40 dogs, would emerge from one of the dense cane thickets on the farm.

Roosevelt and his hunting partner, Huger Foote, waited on the stand all morning. Around mid-afternoon they broke for lunch, annoying Collier, who’d worked extremely hard to bring a bear to that exact spot only to find the stand abandoned.  As Collier recalled,

“That was eight o’clock in the mornin’ when I hit the woods an’ roused my bear where I knowed I’d fin him. Den me an’ dat bear had a time, fightin’ an’ chargin’ an’ tryin’ to make him take a tree. Big ole bear but he wouldn’t climb nary tree. I could have killed him a thousand times… I sweated myself to death in that canebrake. So did the bear. By keeping between the bear and the river, I knew he’d sholy make for the water hole where I left the Cunnel [sic]. After a while the bear started that way and popped out of the gap where I said he’d go. But I didn’t hear a shot, and that pestered me… It sholy pervoked me because I’d promised the President to bring him a bear to that log, and there he was.”

Holt Collier: His Life, His Roosevelt Hunts, and the Origin of the Teddy Bear by Minor Ferris Buchanan 

It was at this time that the bear turned on the dogs. This put Collier in quite the quandary. He had been given specific orders to save the bear for Roosevelt, who was not to be found, and yet he had to protect the dogs from the deadly bear.

Image courtesy of Dale Divers.

Collier dismounted, shouting at the bear. He approached the bear and tried to distract it as someone rode to camp to get the President. In the meantime, the bear and the dogs fought viciously, and at one point his prize dog was caught in the bear’s grip. Collier swung the stock of his gun and landed a blow to the base of the bear’s skull. Stunned, the bear dropped the dog and Collier seized the opportunity to place a lariat around the bear’s neck so that, when Roosevelt and Foote arrived several minutes later, the animal was tied to a tree.

President Roosevelt refused to claim the bear, citing a “true sportsmen’s code” which holds that the taking of any animal that does not have a sporting chance is forbidden. This famous hunting event inspired the first widespread discussion of the modern code of “fair chase,” a tenet of the Boone and Crockett Club which Roosevelt founded. It is the oldest conservation organization in North America and the second oldest in the world.

Although Roosevelt did not count the hunt as “successful,” the press thought it a most delightful story and spread word of it across the country. Roosevelt’s refusal to kill a defenseless animal was far more newsworthy than the taking of a trophy bear, and as the news spread, Brooklyn toy store owners Rose and Morris Michtom wrote to ask his permission to name their stuffed toy bears after him. The President approved, and “Teddy’s Bears” were born.


James L. Cummins is executive director of Wildlife Mississippi, a Regular Member of the Boone and Crockett Club, and a member of the TRCP Policy Council.

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