Ariel Wiegard

January 5, 2017

From the Good News Desk: USDA Rolls Out Huge Investments in Conservation

In the final month of 2016, private land conservation sees an $830-million increase to projects and habitat beneficial to sportsmen

When it comes to national policy news, no one could call the end of 2016—or the start of 2017, for that matter—boring. With all the talk about President-elect Trump’s cabinet appointments, Congress’s failure to follow through on a bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act (for the third consecutive Congress), and, just this week, a move made by House Republicans to make it easier to sell off public lands, it was easy to miss some of the good news coming out of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including some huge investments in conservation. Here’s a round-up of some of the more positive USDA stories you may have missed:

$725 Million Invested in the Regional Conservation Partnership Program

In December, the USDA announced $225 million, for 88 new Regional Conservation Partnership Program projects designed and submitted by state, local, and NGO partners. These government and organizational partners also contributed an additional $500 million to the projects. More than half of these projects will improve the nation’s water quality or combat drought, a quarter will enhance fish and wildlife habitat conditions, and the remainder will boost soil health and tackle other resource concerns. Since RCPP was created in the 2014 Farm Bill, USDA has invested $825 million in 286 projects, involving more than 2,000 partners and private investments totaling an additional $1.4 billion for private lands conservation. Wow! You can learn more about the new projects here.

Image courtesy of USFWS.

$32 Million Committed to Forest and Grassland Ecosystems

Through an initiative called the Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Partnership, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Forest Service announced funding for ten new projects and support for 26 ongoing projects that will improve ecosystems where public forests and grasslands connect to private lands. As with RCPP, local partners will match federal funding, bringing an additional $30 million to the table and helping to extend the Joint Chiefs’ project to 29 states. Brook trout, sharptail grouse, and other critters beloved by sportsmen are slated to benefit from this investment.

$33 Million Announced to Help Landowners Improve Water Quality

Now in its sixth year, USDA’s National Water Quality Initiative delivers high-impact conservation to watersheds around the county by helping farmers, ranchers, and landowners to implement practices that protect and improve water quality where it is needed most. This includes areas besieged by algal blooms and dead zones in places like the Mississippi River Basin, Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay, and Great Lakes. This year’s announcement covers 197 high-priority watersheds across the country, where communities can expect cleaner drinking water, better fish and wildlife habitat, and improved access to recreation.

11 New “Working Lands for Wildlife” Projects Added to Restore and Protect Habitat

The Working Lands for Wildlife initiative has helped farmers, ranchers, and foresters to restore 6.7 million acres of habitat for seven at-risk species—notably, WLFW helped restore private lands over much of the greater sage grouse’s range, which helped to prevent the listing of the species in 2015. The new projects will directly support game and fish such as northern bobwhite quail, American black ducks, greater prairie chickens, cutthroat trout, and sockeye, chinook, chum, pink, and coho salmon. Even though other projects aren’t designed around sport species, all the critters in these areas will reap the benefits of ecosystem improvements.

Image courtesy of USFWS/Pat Hagan.

Cranking Up the Conservation Reserve Program

USDA’s Farm Service Agency administers the Conservation Reserve Program, in which landowners make a ten- to 15-year commitment to conservation. The biggest parameters defining CRP are locked in by the federal Farm Bill—such as the 24-million-acre cap that the USDA is currently operating under—but the agency does have the ability to tweak the program to make sure CRP works as best as it can for the largest number of people. Recently, FSA has announced a number of small and moderate changes that could add up to big benefits for sportsmen and women:

  • Providing $10 million to manage forests enrolled in CRP. Pursuant to the 2014 Farm Bill, FSA will cover some of the costs for landowners to thin, burn, or otherwise manage forests in CRP. This is a long-awaited incentive, which will enhance wildlife habitat, increase biodiversity, improve water quality in these landscapes, and help extend CRP’s benefits to underserved corners of the country.
  • Shoring up water quality and wildlife habitat with four different restoration initiatives in one. FSA launched a new Clean Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers (CLEAR) initiative to assist landowners enrolled in CRP who want to improve the quality of the water flowing from their lands. At the same time, the agency also boosted the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) initiative by 700K acres, added 300,000 acres of eligible wetlands, and tapped 11,000 additional acres of pollinator habitat—with benefits for upland and grassland game birds.
  • Partnering with farmers and ranchers to protect more than 500,000 acres of working grasslands. FSA accepted over half a million acres into the CRP Grasslands program, which helps landowners to maximize the productivity of their land by combining livestock activities that are good for business, like haying and grazing, with prairie conservation activities  that are good for water quality, wildlife, and sportsmen. Nearly 60 percent of the accepted acres are in wildlife priority areas and nearly 75 percent are working under a wildlife-focused conservation plan. This is good news for America’s prairies, which are under severe threat of being completely and irreversibly destroyed to make room for row crops and urban/suburban development.

Back-of-the-napkin math shows that these USDA programs add up to a total investment of more than $830 million on 1.9 million acres, supporting dozens of projects and initiatives all across the country in the name of conservation. This is just a fraction of the roughly $5 billion that the USDA spends on conservation every year.

As you can see, the USDA can have an immense impact on the landscape. That’s why the TRCP and our partners are committed to working with these decision-makers on conservation funding initiatives that make sense for landowners, fish, and wildlife. As we kick off 2017, welcome a new presidential administration, and take a hard look at the next Farm Bill, we’re happy to celebrate this good conservation news.

Here’s hoping there’s much more to come!

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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.

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.

Dani Dagan

October 12, 2016

Farm Runoff and Why Sportsmen Should Care About This Sh*t

Does it seem like you’re reading more and more headlines about algal blooms, dead zones, and water crises across our country? Here’s why

Water is always moving. The Lake Erie waters dripping off a just-landed walleye contain billions upon billions of molecules that traveled untold miles over time, picking up all kinds of chemical hitchhikers, which include nutrients—nitrogen and phosphorus—from farm fertilizer. While the word “nutrient” is often associated with positive effects on human health, they can become dangerous pollutants in our watersheds.

On September 22, the Environmental Protection Agency released a memo renewing a single call to action: reduce nutrient pollution. Why? Because it “remains one of the greatest challenges to our Nation’s water quality and presents a growing threat to public health and local economies.” In other words, nutrient pollution makes our water toxic to drink and costs communities millions of dollars to treat.

Nutrient pollution comes from many sources, including storm runoff from cities, but a lot of it drains into our water via poorly managed agricultural land. Nutrients in fertilizers make farms more productive, but when rain washes over those fields, nutrients can pollute entire watersheds. The Des Moines Water Works lawsuit, which is perhaps the biggest legal action on water quality in decades, specifically addresses pollution caused by nitrogen, one of the major components of fertilizer. The downstream impacts are bad for human health, sportfish, waterfowl, and even your Labrador retriever.

While the nutrients themselves can be toxic, the effects of added nitrogen and phosphorus can ripple out with devastating effects. Nutrient pollution leads to algal blooms, which decimate fish and wildlife populations not only near the agricultural lands where nutrients are sourced, but also downstream at some of the best freshwater fishing, saltwater fishing, and hunting spots—on both private and public lands and waters.

That’s why you, the hunting and angling community, should care deeply about this problem.

What’s Feeding the Beast

Nutrients facilitate algae growth, just like fertilizer on a farm facilitates crop growth, and the algae need little else to survive. While there is typically more than enough light and water to keep algae reproducing, the presence, or lack, of nutrients in water is the limiting factor keeping algae populations in check. Reduce nutrients and growth stops. Add them, and growth explodes uninhibited.

The critters that we love—fish, ducks, and more—thrive in conditions with low levels of algae. When we add fertilizer to the equation, everything gets out of whack, and resulting algal blooms become a big, big problem. Here’s why:

Graphic
How nutrient pollution impacts fish and waterfowl. Up arrows indicate an increase in amount or population, and down arrows indicate a decrease.

First, and most simply, some types of algae are toxic if consumed by fish, wildlife, and humans. When these toxic algae bloom, they can create dire scenarios for public health. This has led to states of emergency in cities and towns across the country, including parts of Florida, the Great Lakes, and Utah. In 2014, half a million residents of Toledo, Ohio, were banned from drinking the city’s water, or using it to cook or brush their teeth, for three days. Similarly, algal blooms are also toxic for fish, wildlife, and pets (including your bird dog) and can cause massive die-offs.

Second, algal blooms lead to a depletion of oxygen. As algae dies it decomposes, and the business of decomposition requires a lot of oxygen. All that oxygen consumption leads to hypoxia, the absence of dissolved oxygen in water, which causes sportfish such as trout and salmon to literally suffocate. This is what’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay dead zones.

Third, mats of algae block sunlight from entering the water, harming aquatic plants by limiting their ability to convert sunlight into energy. This causes vegetation to disappear from wetland and coastal areas, removing an important food source for fish and waterfowl and a source of oxygen that is urgently needed in water where algae are decomposing.

All of this is to say that when you read or hear about clean water initiatives, you should be as concerned as you would about a threat to your public access, because toxic water means losing opportunities to hunt and fish.

And when you think about conservation, remember that watersheds often start on private lands and that landowner conservation practices—like restoring wetlands, maintaining stream buffers, and planting cover crops—are critical to maintaining healthy fish and wildlife habitat. Visit CRPworks.org to learn about one of the most successful programs for conservation on private lands, and take action to support even better habitat initiatives in the next Farm Bill.

 

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