Dani Dagan

December 8, 2016

How Genetic Information from Sage Grouse Feathers Could Help Us Save Them

DNA pulled from more than 3,000 feathers is helping to set the course for the future of sage-grouse conservation

Successful hunters gather data. They climb trees, glass ridgelines, or use trail cameras to consider how critters are moving—the more you can comprehend a landscape, the greater your ability to get a shot.

The same kind of big-picture understanding is essential to conservation that benefits fish and wildlife. In the effort to conserve greater sage grouse habitat and avoid listing the bird, researchers and land managers have been using all the innovative tools at their disposal to fully understand the habitat conditions contributing to the sage grouse’s plight. The trouble is, with a range encompassing such a huge area of western North America—the birds are currently found in 11 states and some parts of Canada—that’s a heck of a lot of ground to monitor.

So, wildlife biologists got creative. They’re unlocking more comprehensive knowledge about habitat connectivity by pulling DNA from sage grouse feathers.

Image courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The DNA contained in feathers can paint a broader, more in-depth picture of how the birds interact with the landscape than was possible before this technology was widely understood. Genes, discrete bits of DNA, get passed from parents to chicks and vary from bird to bird like a signature. If you know how to decipher the code, it can reveal how related the birds are—and where the landscape might cut them off from one another.

Todd Cross and Mike Schwartz, wildlife biologists with the U.S. Forest Service, recently published a study that begins to unlock the ties between sage-grouse genetics, the sagebrush sea, and how to best conserve the species that depend on it. By recruiting friends and colleagues to help, scientists collected 3,481 sage grouse feathers from 351 leks across the West. Sportsmen were in on the action too—according to Cross, hunter-harvested wings provide the highest quality DNA samples.

Cross decoding DNA back in the lab. Image courtesy of Todd Cross.

Focusing on feathers from Montana and the Dakotas first, Cross and Schwartz looked at gene flow, which is similar to a game of hot potato: Genetic structure gets passed along until someone drops the potato. In a landscape with habitat connectivity, critters share genetic information across distances far greater than a single bird could travel. However, when some groups of sage grouse are isolated from others by fragmentation, birds in one region have different genetic markers than others down the line.

Cross wanted to identify where the landscape results in barriers for gene flow—the places where potatoes get dropped, so to speak—and he and Schwartz found a significant difference in the genetic structure of sage grouse across various parts of the landscape. They took what they learned from the genetic material and created a map indicating the location of subpopulations, clusters of sage grouse with discrete genetic structures, which is depicted below.

Three main subpopulations of sage grouse are colored in reds, blues, and yellows. Pairs of darker and lighter colors signify subpopulations with similar genetics to one another. Image courtesy of Todd Cross.

This discovery—both in terms of the research method they employed and the map they produced—is significant when it comes to conserving and managing sage grouse on the ground. In the words of Schwartz: “The beauty of this work is that it allows for informed decisions.”

The architects of the federal, state, and local conservation plans to reverse an overall decline in sage grouse populations have determined where management actions should be taken based on established priority areas for conservation (PAC)—habitat parcels that are essential for the species’ success.

Often, discussion surrounding PACs is focused on habitat quality in the specific area in question, which can miss critical ingredients for conservation success. Healthy conditions within one patch of habitat is important, of course, but it must also be connected to other swaths of sagebrush habitat for these birds to thrive. Sage grouse need the ability to move from place to place, and stakeholders must work in cooperation between discrete management areas accordingly—after all, grouse don’t recognize the boundaries between state, federal, and private lands.

“We can use the DNA study and other scientific data to better define landscape boundaries for conservation and mitigation actions, as opposed to drawing arbitrary or politically-based boundaries,” says Ed Arnett, TRCP’s senior scientist. Cross and Schwartz’s work helps map out how sage grouse are actually using the landscape.

Image courtesy of Ed Arnett.

Furthermore, the genetic isolation implied by their results in Montana and the Dakotas can be problematic in and of itself. Schwartz explains that inbreeding—a consequence of isolation—can lead to diminished fitness in the population. In other words, without new genes coming into a population from outside geographic areas, sage grouse might see a reduced ability to survive or breed.

“We know this from domestic stocks,” he says, referring to agriculture. “You see these consequences in things like reduced milk production. To keep the animals healthy, you have to see new blood coming into populations.”

So what does this mean for management? All the stakeholders—including agencies that manage distinct regions—must work together to establish more habitat connectivity to benefit sagebrush species. The good news is that sage grouse have a history of bringing people together.

“We have seen unprecedented coordination and planning efforts across 11 Western states that led to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision not to list the bird for Endangered Species Act protection in September 2015,” says Arnett. “This type of broad collaboration among the state and federal agencies and diverse stakeholders is a game changer for the future of conservation in America.”

Cross and Schwartz also shared a little about the future of their study: They’ve expanded their work to encompass almost all of the bird’s range, and they’re uncovering some exciting new information about this icon of the West. For example, they found that a sage grouse traveled more than 120 miles in a single season!

Relying on science to determine what’s best for fish and wildlife has always been a key tenet of the North American Model of Conservation. But the innovation it takes to reach informed decisions about land management and habitat restoration is pretty cool on its own.

Learn more about the sage grouse genetics study here. And if you think DNA pulled from a feather is fascinating, check out this mule deer migration study, where big game animals are literally sending their GPS coordinates to researchers’ smartphones.

Do you have any thoughts on this post?

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

November 30, 2016

When One Program Opens Access and Improves Habitat, Everyone Wins

We dig into the across-the-board benefits of a key Farm Bill conservation program on private lands

For every walk-in access sign there are numerous forces at play, granting you permission to use the land and ensuring quality habitat for critters. On private acres, your experience might be thanks in part to Farm Bill conservation programs. One in particular, the Volunteer Public Access and Habitat Improvement Program, provides $40 million specifically to support quality hunting and fishing access on private land—but its benefits don’t stop there.

Private land access helps keeps the sport alive.

Westerners are flush with public lands, while the rest of the nation’s sportsmen and women make do with smaller, isolated public patches that may not be close to home. Some of the non-Westerners among us may travel to Big Sky Country once a year, but access can be a significant barrier for beginning hunters and anglers or anyone who doesn’t have a big-ticket trip with out-of-state license fees in his or her budget.

Of course, this means non-Westerners rely heavily on access to private lands.

In 2012, there were more than 914 million acres devoted to agriculture across the United States.  These acres can make for excellent habitat teeming with some of our favorite species—sage grouse, quail, whitetails, doves, and geese—and present some of the best hunting opportunities in the nation, assuming hunters are allowed in.

public lands map
Image courtesy of State of the Birds 2011.

As its name suggests, VPA-HIP has two primary goals: securing public access and improving habitat. Authorized and funded in the 2008 Farm Bill and renewed in the 2014 Farm Bill, VPA-HIP helps states incentivize landowners to implement conservation-minded practices, such as clearing a forest understory of invasive plant species or creating stream buffers. In exchange, landowners allows the public to hunt, fish, trap, and observe wildlife on their property.

In short, VPA-HIP invests money in states like Illinois, Nebraska, Connecticut, and South Dakota—often in parts of the country where public lands are relatively scarce—to help give more Americans opportunities to hunt and fish.

Local economies get a boost.

Last month, TRCP’s government affairs director Steve Kline spent some time chasing upland birds on private land in eastern Montana, and he’ll be the first to tell you that hunting season supports rural economies. At this time of year, even in otherwise sleepy towns, you’ll see bustling restaurants, packed sporting goods stores, and busy streets—and the economy is better for it.

The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA) calculated the actual economic impact in a 2012 study and found that for the $9.1 million invested into VPA-HIP in 2011, 322 jobs were created and $18.1 million in gear- and travel-related spending was associated with hunters accessing newly enrolled private lands. That’s double the investment!

And that figure only covers direct spending. The economic boost echoes down the entire supply chain with more production, jobs, and higher profits, which stimulates even more spending. The report calculates that once those amplifying effects are taken into account, the return on investment for VPA-HIP funds was actually more than $73 million in a single year.

Report Assessing the Economic Benefit of VPA-HIP: 2011, produced for the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies by Southwick Associates. See the full document for more information.

This isn’t just free money.

A common point of criticism for incentive programs like VPA-HIP is that the government shouldn’t give handouts to the agriculture industry. However, this money isn’t free. VPA-HIP isn’t a charity, it’s a payment for services rendered to wildlife and the public. Landowners invest funds into habitat improvements, which critters need to survive. Instead of laying crops all the way up to a stream’s edge, for example, VPA-HIP dollars help a landowner create buffers to keep water clean so fish and waterfowl can thrive. After all, access is basically worthless without quality habitat.

Furthermore, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)—the branch of the USDA that governs VPA-HIP—is highly selective when it comes to choosing grant recipients. NRCS prioritizes funding for state and tribal applications that maximize acreage, ensure appropriate wildlife habitat, and are likely to receive matches from other funding sources. States that receive grants are then responsible for deciding which landowners may enroll, and they are similarly selective. Wisconsin, for example, prioritizes larger properties with more usable cover, as well as lands that are in close proximity to existing public hunting or fishing grounds. This kind of scrutiny ensures that every dollar invested creates the largest possible benefit to the public and to wildlife.

Everybody’s a winner!

Sometimes public lands and agricultural lands are viewed as polar opposites fighting for a share of resources in a no-sum game. But when it comes to VPA-HIP, that paradigm is shattered. When landowners and agricultural producers transform acres into valuable wildlife habitat, they’re improving conditions for the critters we love to pursue, while receiving compensation and technical assistance. It’s important to their business plans because, often, the land that is least productive for crop production is the most valuable for wildlife anyway. On top of all that, the public gains access to otherwise closed-off lands. That means more places for moms and dads to take their kids hunting or fishing, more kids growing up loving the outdoors, and more hearts beating for conservation far into the future.

It’s a total win-win-win.

BONUS: We are extra proud of VPA-HIP, because TRCP’s co-founder helped put the program in motion almost a decade ago. For the other two posts in our three-part series on this important part of the Farm Bill, click here and here. And learn more about other Farm Bill conservation programs that work for farmers, sportsmen, and wildlife.

Ed Arnett

November 9, 2016

Yes, Let’s Set Politics Aside on Sage Grouse Conservation

This op-ed originally appeared in The Hill on Oct. 27, 2016. 

An Oct. 14 post on the Congress Blog (“It’s time to put politics aside on sage grouse”) gets many things wrong about greater sage grouse conservation efforts designed to keep the bird off the endangered species list. As wildlife biologists and lifelong sportsmen—a group the author attempts to discredit—we’d like to set the record straight.

First, claims that the federal land-use plans benefiting sage grouse impose restrictions that disadvantage our military are incorrect. In fact, they have been repeatedly denied by the Department of Defense, most recently in a letter to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) confirming that the plans adopted by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service “do not pose any threat to military readiness.”

It is true that sage grouse numbers are up across most of the bird’s range, but the 63-percent increase noted in the article is compared to historic lows recorded in 2013. Many have touted these numbers as evidence that state and voluntary conservation plans are adequate, but conditions have been naturally favorable since 2014, when rain finally found its way back to sagebrush country. The whole suite of conservation plans—federal, state, and private landowner efforts—must be allowed to work in unison to reverse an overall downward trend of about one percent per year between 1965 and 2015. Additionally, successful restoration measures across the range of sage grouse must be defensible in court.

That said, there’s not yet enough evidence to show that state plans, which vary in strength and assurances, can stand alone to address all threats to the bird in the absence of federal plans. Furthermore, the legislation referenced would block bedrock conservation statutes and judicial review while allowing state gubernatorial veto power over federal land management decisions on public lands—an unprecedented shift in management authority to the states that is reminiscent of other efforts to force our public lands into state and, likely, private control.

For all the doubt cast on national and Western-based sportsmen’s groups and businesses—105 of which signed a letter to decision-makers opposing bad provisions for sage grouse in any future legislation—we strongly agree with the author about one thing: None of us want to see a Western landscape devoid of humans, responsible grazing, balanced development, or hunting. We too want to see lawmakers set politics aside and allow science-based sage grouse conservation efforts to work.

Make your voice heard to help save this iconic bird and our hunting traditions.

Dr. Ed Arnett is the Colorado-based senior scientist for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Dr. Steve Williams is president and CEO of the Wildlife Management Institute and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under George W. Bush.

Chris Macaluso

October 26, 2016

There’s More Than One Way to Build a Marsh (and We Need Both)

To combat the world’s worst bout of wetland loss, we can’t afford to use just some of the tools available—especially when you look at where marsh projects will be in 50 years 

To dredge or to divert?

That is the question many South Louisianans have asked over the last decade when considering the best approach to restoring and sustaining the imperiled wetlands of the Mississippi River Delta. Some residents, whose livelihoods depend on marine fisheries or a certain way of life, call for one solution over the other, but this has never been an either/or scenario for most coastal engineers and wetland ecologists trying to solve the world’s greatest wetland-loss problem. Here’s why.

Scaling Up Sediment Success

To give this world-class fish and wildlife habitat a fighting chance, it has always been recommended to combine approaches. Water containing floating sediment needs to be diverted from the Mississippi River into adjacent wetlands through gates built in the levees that protect New Orleans and communities north and south from floodwaters. At the same time, marshes, ridges, and barrier islands need to be rebuilt with sediment dredged from the Mississippi and other waterways.

However, some coastal residents have argued strongly against the diversions. Many of them are commercial fishermen, who are worried that redirecting freshwater into coastal estuaries will displace the shrimp and oysters they depend on for their livelihoods. They contend diversions are too expensive to construct and they don’t build land as fast as dredging. The toll that freshwater could have on their businesses means dredge pipes—and only dredge pipes—are the way to go.

Those arguing against diversions often look past the fact that in the handful of areas where the river is currently spilling into estuaries—the shallow lakes, bays, and marshes home to redfish, bass, speckled trout, countless forage fish, and wintering waterfowl—it is already building new land by dropping essential sediment into existing wetlands. In some places, that land-building process has been aided by the construction of small islands or a series of terraces, piles of sediment built to break wave action and encourage vegetation growth, placed in the diversion outfall areas to slow water flow and help the sediment drop out quicker.

Now, the engineers and wetlands experts preparing to build Louisiana’s largest controlled diversions are using these small-scale successes as a model for large-scale success upriver.

Borrowed Building Materials

Diversion designers and planners with Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) have identified a dozen areas in the Mississippi River channel where sediment can be dredged and used to build land. A dredge in the river picks up sediment from “borrow areas,” then pipes and booster pumps move the material as far as 20 miles or more to build new marsh. The holes created by dredging the material are filled in again in as little as five years with additional sediment coming down river.

Many of the borrow areas are close enough to where diversions will be flowing into degraded marshes to allow for terrace construction in advance of diversion operation. The terraces can then help slow the river water coming from the diversion, causing the sediment to drop out quicker. Advanced modeling and historical analysis of river conditions has also helped planners determine the times of the year and flow rates when peak sediment loads are in the river, giving them a better idea of when the river’s land-building capacity is at its best. In general, those peak sediment events occur in the winter when the basins adjacent to the river have their lowest water levels.

Opening diversions at these peak conditions, combined with the construction of wave-breaking terraces, would maximize land building, while minimizing freshwater inundation and the impact to many saltwater species of fish and crustaceans.

Furthermore, when vegetation and marshes build on the terraces, those diversions will help them survive longer. Models show that subsidence—the natural sinking of land—and sea-level rise will work together to submerge those marshes built with no diversion near to supply sediment within 30 years. However, projects built in conjunction with diversion to feed sediment into the system are able to stay above the water line beyond 50 years, which is the furthest into the future that models can predict, according to CPRA officials.

Using diversions to deliver sediment into adjacent wetlands will always be part of any realistic approach to sustaining the Mississippi River Delta. It’s a reality that even the staunchest diversion opponents can’t change or escape. By using dredged sediment to build land in combination with sediment carried by water, diversion proponents and opponents can reach an outcome they both agree upon – the creation of essential fish and wildlife habitat as quickly and efficiently as possible.

That’s why the TRCP is working with Louisiana coastal restoration officials and other conservation groups to advance coastal restoration efforts like this. We’re supportive of developing a new plan for coastal restoration and hurricane protection that could see legislative approval in 2017. For more information about that plan, please visit coastal.louisiana.gov.

Steve Kline

October 5, 2016

Until Now, Conservation of Shad and River Herring Has Only Focused On Half Their Habitat

Why anglers support an important step in making conservation efforts whole for this important mid-Atlantic fishery

Each spring, the sportsmen and women of Washington, D.C., head to the Potomac River to shake off the rust of winter and take advantage of the return of the American and Hickory shad. This is a time-honored tradition—George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were shad fishermen—as Americans of all stripes have counted on the return of these fish for thousands of years.

But the shad run, which coincides with the river herring migration, isn’t what it was in the days of the Founding Fathers. Both species of fish spawn in the far reaches of rivers, but spend most of their lives in the open ocean, and are subject to threats and problems in both places. So, any effort to conserve the species and rebuild stocks must combine efforts targeting both their freshwater spawning grounds and their saltwater habitat.

For years, freshwater anglers have supported state-based attempts to address the challenges in rivers and streams: namely poor water quality and fish passages blocked by dams and culverts. Millions of public and private dollars have been spent on fish ladders and stream restoration up and down the rivers of the East Coast, and harvest restrictions have turned a once-important local food supply into an entirely catch-and-release fishery.

But stocks haven’t rebounded. At a time when our waters are literally full of conservation success stories, these highly migratory keystone species have remained stubbornly short of restoration targets. And fishermen and fishery managers are left to scratch their collective heads, wondering when the return on their investments might swing back upstream.

This is because the conservation puzzle for shad and river herring has been missing a glaring piece: the conservation of these stocks in the open ocean.

Generally, shad and river herring are not targeted by commercial fishermen, but they frequently find themselves in commercial nets as untargeted bycatch, mixed in with other saleable bait species, or thrown dead over the side. Without a fisheries management plan that includes shad and river herring, all of this ‘incidental’ take has gone unaccounted for, and no one could really say how many shad and river herring were being harvested as bycatch.

All the money and effort on the state side will continue to be unsuccessful if the fish can just be wantonly harvested on the open ocean.

This week, the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council is meeting in New Jersey to vote on a sensible step forward. By including these fish in a formal Fisheries Management Plan, the council could ensure that conservation efforts cover the shad and river herring’s full range, from the skinny waters of their early spring spawn in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia all the way to the open Atlantic. TRCP is strongly supportive of this overdue action, and we are confident that with this step, the conservation strategy for these historic fish will be made whole.

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.

Learn More
Subscribe

You have Successfully Subscribed!

You have Successfully Subscribed!