Ed Arnett

July 6, 2017

Conserve Habitat for the Long Haul or Count Sage Grouse Out

Long-term, sustainable populations of sage grouse are the ultimate goal, but habitat management must be the driver of conservation success

In order to get a shot at a wild cackling rooster pheasant or monster mule deer buck, you have to find the best habitat—so we hunt the healthiest grasslands, brushy draws, uncut milo, and sagebrush, hoping for those wonderful heart-stopping glimpses of birds flushing or antlers catching the light. As sure as any track in the dirt is a sign of game, we know that the best habitat is where we’re most likely to get an opportunity to take a shot.

And it’s habitat that we must conserve and improve if we want to sustain or boost these opportunities.

That’s why managing sage grouse populations towards some number, rather than a goal of quality habitat, is an unsustainable approach. Yet, even before announcing a Trump Administration review of conservation plans that kept sage grouse off the endangered species list, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has called for establishing population goals and managing for numbers, not habitat.

Besides the fact that the Department of the Interior has no authority to set such numbers for the states, this concept of managing strictly for the numbers is fatally flawed. Habitat quality and population strength are inextricably linked and cannot be separated. Here’s why we must follow through on habitat conservation plans crafted at the federal, state, and local level to maintain or boost the number of birds.

Numbers Are a Best Guess

It’s appropriate to ask how many animals of a particular species are out there and how many we need. It isn’t possible to count every single member of any species, but wildlife managers have fairly well-developed approaches for estimating the population size of some, like elk, pronghorn antelope, and deer. In fact, population objectives and harvest goals are often set for big game, and we do set recovery goals for species like grizzly bears or wolves. But regardless of the goal, there still must be enough habitat to support these animals.

Upland game birds aren’t like mammals, though, and sage grouse are notoriously difficult to count. While it’s fairly easy to watch and count male sage grouse dancing on their breeding grounds, or leks, in the spring, counting female grouse is challenging and unreliable. They visit leks only once or twice a season and are rarely observed thereafter. While the science on enumerating grouse is advancing, our current techniques rely on using the number of males counted at leks as an indication of how many sage grouse there might be across the landscape. Sage grouse counts are an educated guess.

How Many and How Well We’re Doing

What we really need estimated counts for is to determine how the birds are responding over time to conservation of their habitat, nearly 50 percent of which has been lost over the past century. Still, because of the volatile effects of drought, disease, and other factors out of our control, scientists and managers have to consider long-term trends in lek counts, not isolated gains from year to year. Short-term increases or decreases in sage grouse numbers just don’t tell the full story.

For example, state wildlife agencies recently determined that dancing sage grouse males increased by 63 percent in 2015, in large part because of increased conservation and rain returning to sagebrush country across the West. However, that was up from one of the lowest counts on record in 2013, and long-term trends across the birds’ range show a decline.

We have to track birds and habitat over long periods of time to best understand if conservation is working. The long-term goal for sage grouse numbers must be to reverse the negative trend and stabilize the habitat needed to sustain healthy populations.

The Politics of Managing Populations

It probably sounds good to say that we’ll increase bird numbers by any means necessary, including captive breeding programs, predator control, and disease management. But some would like to see restrictions on activities and development in sage grouse country minimized while captive rearing and other approaches are used as mitigation for habitat impacts. Science has proven that this won’t work.

Managing to a set population number by releasing pen-raised birds, shooting coyotes and ravens, or focusing on disease control is a flawed workaround that does not address the root cause of the problem for sage grouse in the long run—and that’s the health of the sagebrush landscape. These approaches are already available to wildlife managers and can help in limited situations, but they represent tools that should only be applied surgically. They are not conservation strategies in and of themselves. The truth is that these tools alone do nothing to overcome the habitat loss and fragmentation that is mostly responsible for the grouse’s decline over the past several decades.

Besides, if wild birds struggle to survive, successfully nest, and raise their young in degraded habitat, why do we expect that birds raised in a pen will do better?

Keep the Focus on Habitat

This is why the notion of managing for numbers, not habitat, is unpopular with wildlife agencies and the majority of governors in Western states who were key partners in creating conservation plans for sage grouse. Most have made it very clear to Sec. Zinke that they have little appetite for shifting the focus from habitat to population-based approaches. Furthermore, while some of the states still have a few issues to resolve with the federal government, the majority of states and the stakeholders want to keep the federal and state conservation plans moving forward without interruption.

The forthcoming review of federal plans has sportsmen and women concerned that the DOI may attempt to shift its focus away from securing quality habitat, the most critical factor in conserving sage grouse, and toward less scientifically-sound population management techniques. The collaborative effort to conserve sage grouse over the last decade has been the largest in history, and if largescale captive breeding or predator control efforts would have been effective, states would be using those tools today.

It was the promise of habitat-focused federal and state plans for public lands, along with voluntary conservation efforts on private lands, which led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to its historic decision not to list the species in September 2015. We need to implement those plans and track both habitat management and how the birds are responding to ensure we don’t wind up back where we started years ago, when this historic collaboration began.

12 Responses to “Conserve Habitat for the Long Haul or Count Sage Grouse Out”

    • Ed Arnett
      Ed Arnett

      Here here on cheatgrass eradication Frank. Predators do have an influence no don’t, but usually predation develops from habitat alterations that give predators an upper hand. Predator control can help some localized situations, but is not a long-term, range-wide solution – but rather a tool to use on an as-needed basis like any other management tool. The problem is that once you stop the control…the predators just come right back, so to me its a better strategy to restore habitat over the long haul. EA

  1. Lt Gov Pierre Howard

    To Secretary Zinke,
    The future of the Greater Sage-Grouse is in your hands. Please keep the conservation focus on habitat and not numbers. We sportsmen are depending on you.
    Thank you,
    Pierre Howard
    Atlanta, GA

  2. From my readings in the past couple of years, it is habitat loss that is hurting the sage grouse. If I understand it right, Protection for Sage Grouse Habitat is at odds with Ranchers. Ranchers want more grazing for their cattle and with humans populating more and more habitat is being lost. I believe that if the human race comes to an end it is going to be because we overpopulated. Resources are being fought over. Lastly, I believe every animal was put on this earth for a reason, and the elimination of one causes a ripple effect causing much more damage.

    • Ed Arnett
      Ed Arnett

      Susan… Sage grouse habitat can certainly be influenced by poorly managed grazing, but grazing is not a major threat to sage grouse. They are more threatened by habitat loss and degradation from development (highways, urbanization, energy, etc), invasive grasses and fire, and conifer trees encroaching on sage habitat than most anything else. If you go to the NRCS Sage Grouse Initiative website (https://www.sagegrouseinitiative.com/) you’ll quickly see many success stories on sustainable ranching and grouse and how compatible the two really can be. EA

  3. Leon Fisher

    Career wildlife managers and biologists know for a surety that good habitat management will be the ultimate deciding factor in the future of the sage grouse survival. This habitat also reflects the future of many other associated wildlife species.

  4. shane evans Nevada Rod and Rifle Outfitters Master Guide

    Focus on habitat,habitat,habitat and change the way blm fights wildfires… a more aggressive approach…..

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This Remote River is a Paradise for Sportsmen, But Will It Stay This Way?

How a float through the Owyhee River’s backcountry showcased a need for long-term flexible management

Drawn to the solitude and beauty of desert rivers, I recently set out with family and friends to raft the winding waters of the Owyhee River. Over the last six years, I’ve fished for bass and hunted chukars along the breaks, traveling past miles of public land. Starting in Nevada and meandering through Idaho and Oregon to the Snake River, the Owyhee is 346 miles long, shaped more than 12 million years ago by volcanic eruptions. You see the evidence as it cuts through vertical canyon walls of basalt, rhyolite, and volcanic ash.

It has a rich history, and petroglyphs, the images that were carved or picked into rocks up to 7,000 years ago, are a frequent sight. But this wild country also holds the future of many of our sporting traditions, with opportunities to pursue mule deer, California bighorn sheep, chukars, smallmouth bass, and wild trout.

Floating Through a Sportsmen’s Paradise 

Our trip started in the community of Rome, Ore., at the boat ramp located on BLM public land. As we launched our 15-foot inflatable raft, all tension faded away, and the oars set a rhythm. In harmony with the moving water, we followed the river, taking in the topography and staying on course by following the map and river markers.

Soon, we were rowing Class III and IV rapids, fishing for bass, scanning the hills for wildlife, and camping along the river. I’m a visitor here, but for some people, this is where they make a living and local hunters have filled their freezers with the Owyhee’s big game and birds for decades.

For my friend Dave, who has outfitted fishermen on this river for 20 years and is with us on this trip, this is a place that he would like to see kept the way it is, or made even better. Just how to manage these lands is a delicate balancing act—one that could be up for debate.

The Owyhee River corridor was dedicated by Congress as a Wild and Scenic River in 1984 to protect 120 miles of the free-flowing river and preserve the cultural values of the landscape around it. Adjacent to protected stretches are backcountry areas that are not permanently protected that provide important migration corridors for wildlife, grazing leases for ranchers, and great upland hunting opportunities. All of this is managed by the BLM’s Vale District office, which is responsible for balancing the demands on this valuable and intact backcountry.

The Owyhee country is an arid, hot desert, vulnerable to wild fires, noxious weeds, and illegal off-road vehicle use. For sportsmen and women to continue to enjoy the Owyhee backcountry areas for hunting and fishing, it is critical that the wildlife habitat is conserved and land-management is flexible enough to allow continual management needs of the entire landscape.

The Future of the Backcountry

This is why we’re working at the local level to encourage the implementation of backcountry conservation management areas through the agency’s Resource Management Plan, which serves as the outline for the BLM to manage public lands in a healthy way for wildlife and multiple uses. Every 20 years or so, the BLM Vale District amends their Resource Management Plan dictating how the BLM lands in the district are managed. This involves a public process through which citizens can give feedback on the management of areas outside protected corridors like the Owyhee River.

A float through #Oregon's Owyhee River showcases a need for long-term flexible #backcountry land mgmt: Click To Tweet

Given the aridity of the landscape, some active management is necessary to control wildfires, minimize the spread of noxious weeds, and maintain habitat quality. Backcountry conservation management areas make sense, because they are flexible enough to allow active management while protecting these special places.

The TRCP and our partners have recommended that backcountry areas are managed under the principle of multiple use—to conserve intact, undeveloped lands that contain important wildlife habitats, provide high-quality recreation opportunities, and retain other traditional uses of the land. If you enjoy visiting and using BLM lands, it’s important that you understand this is a public process and share your input as a sportsman on how these lands are a managed.

You can email the Vale District BLM Field Office at blm_or_vl_seormp@blm.gov and let them know that backcountry conservation management areas will maintain management flexibility, while protecting special places where you love to hunt and fish. Share how important these lands are for you and future generations of hunters and anglers.

Kristyn Brady

June 28, 2017

Sportsmen Unite Around Recommendations for Access and Habitat in the 2018 Farm Bill

Hunting, fishing, and wildlife partners reveal top priorities for conservation of private lands ahead of what may be the only Senate hearing to address the topic ahead of the next Farm Bill

In advance of the Senate Committee for Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry’s June 29 hearing on the future direction for the 2018 Farm Bill, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership has announced its “Sportsmen’s Priorities for Conservation and Access in the 2018 Farm Bill,” developed over months of consensus-building discussions with 24 organizational members of the TRCP’s Agriculture and Wildlife Working Group.

These priorities will serve as the rallying point for the community of hunters, anglers, and conservationists whose outdoor traditions depend on the policies and funding provided through the Farm Bill.

“When it comes to conservation of fish and wildlife habitat in this country, you can’t ignore that 70 percent of American lands are privately owned, and a majority of that acreage is in some form of agriculture,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Our community’s priorities for the next Farm Bill underscore the point that in order to guarantee quality places to hunt and fish, sportsmen need to work with our nation’s farmers, ranchers, and foresters to ensure productive habitat and clean water. Early on in these debates, we must be united around providing adequate funding and policy tools to support voluntary conservation activities on private lands, and we’re optimistic that tomorrow’s hearing—possibly the only Senate hearing that will address sportsmen’s 2018 Farm Bill priorities—will put a spotlight on these issues.”

The hearing takes place at a time when Congress and the administration are discussing ways to tighten an already trim conservation budget for the Farm Bill. Changes in the 2014 bill resulted in $4 billion in cuts from the conservation title alone. But the sportsmen’s community is urging Congress to restore some of the funding for private lands conservation—for programs including the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, Conservation Reserve Program, and Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program—in 2018.

“Private and working lands are crucial to the conservation of soil, water, and fish and wildlife resources, and as the largest source of federal funding for private lands conservation, the Farm Bill has far-reaching effects on fish and wildlife populations across the country,” says Ron Regan, executive director of the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies. “AFWA is looking forward to tomorrow’s hearing on conservation and forestry in the 2018 Farm Bill, and we are committed to working with the Senate Agriculture Committee and others in Congress to pass a new Farm Bill that reflects the priorities of the Association, as well as those of the wider sportsmen’s and conservation community, in order to promote recreational access and healthy fish and wildlife habitat for the benefit of all Americans.”

Several of the witnesses at Thursday’s hearing will be speaking about forestry in the Farm Bill, which is also a top priority for hunters and anglers. The forestry provisions of the Farm Bill are unique among the legislation’s conservation programs in that they address both private and public lands, which is critical to taking on landscape-scale concerns, including habitat connectivity and recreational access.

“We appreciate the committee’s bipartisan efforts to continue to improve farm bill programs for forest landowners,” says Becky Humphries, CEO of the National Wild Turkey Federation. “Forestry in the Farm Bill is about partnerships—between USDA and individual landowners, the states, and organizations like NWTF. We’re eager to hear from tomorrow’s witnesses on the successes and strengths of those partnerships, and on ways to advance them in 2018. The sportsmen’s and wildlife communities have long argued that long-term conservation and active management of our nations forests are critical to the future of wildlife habitat, water quality, and rural economies across much of our country, and the Farm Bill offers us a great opportunity to incentivize better practices on both private and public lands.”

View “Sportsmen’s Priorities for Conservation and Access in the 2018 Farm Bill” and the full roster of contributors here.

Learn more about the TRCP’s agriculture and private lands work here.

Header image courtesy of USDA/Flickr.

New National Poll Shows That Hunter and Angler Support for Conservation Crosses Party Lines

There is consensus among Republican and Democratic sportsmen and women on sage grouse conservation, clean water protections, national monuments, and public land management policies being debated right now

In a teleconference today, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Public Opinion Strategies revealed the results of a national bipartisan poll of hunters and anglers, which shows that sportsmen and women on both sides of the aisle agree when it comes to many of the major conservation issues being considered right now by Congress and the Trump Administration.

A national survey of 1,000 voters who identify as hunters or anglers was conducted online and over the phone in May 2017, and the data show:

  • 97% agree that protecting and conserving public lands for future generations is important
  • 95% agree it is important to maintain public lands infrastructure, like roads, trails, campgrounds, and historic sites
  • 87% want no cuts to conservation in the federal budget
  • 82% support the BLM’s plans to conserve the greater sage grouse
  • 4 in 5 support Clean Water Act protections for headwater streams and wetlands
  • 77% of Republicans and 80% of Democrats support keeping the number and size of existing national monuments that offer hunting and fishing

“In today’s polarized political climate, conservation has become a partisan issue with decision makers, but hunters and anglers strongly support conservation policies across the board, whether they’re Republican, Democrat, or Independent,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “This includes strong support for funding public land management agencies, like the U.S. Forest Service and BLM, and strong support for the BLM’s sage grouse conservation plans that are currently under review. Sportsmen are not split on supporting national monuments or balancing energy development with the needs of wildlife habitat. There’s also clear support for the Clean Water Rule, created to protect headwater streams and wetlands under the authority of the Clean Water Act.”

Sportsmen agree that investments in conservation are worth it, in part because they see returns for the American economy. Of the hunters and anglers surveyed, 9 out of 10 believe public lands provide net benefits for the economy, and 92 percent believe public lands are positive economic drivers.

Additionally, 95 percent agree that it’s important to have adequate funding and personnel to take care of public lands, 75 percent support providing financial incentives to farmers and ranchers to implement habitat conservation on private land, and 70 percent support an increase in funding for wildlife-friendly highway crossings and fences. Meanwhile, 67 percent oppose the idea of selling significant areas of public lands to reduce the budget deficit.

“These poll results just confirm what I’ve seen as a business leader in the fishing industry—there’s little to no argument about the value of conserving the places where we fish and hunt,” says K.C. Walsh, owner and president of Simms Fishing Products. “In fact, conservation and responsible management of public lands makes it possible for Simms to employ 180 hardworking people in Bozeman, Montana. Decision makers should be listening to what the public wants and to what makes sense for the American economy, like protecting isolated streams and wetlands under the Clean Water Act.”

And lawmakers should take note: Nine in ten sportsmen surveyed agreed that conservation issues factor into their support for elected officials. The results of the poll were presented yesterday to attendees of the Western Governors’ Association meeting in Whitefish, Mont.

“The public has made it clear that conservation and public lands are not controversial issues, so why do some make it partisan?” says Randy Newberg, who exclusively hunts public lands as the host of the Sportsman Channel show Fresh Tracks with Randy Newberg. “Most sportsmen agree that public lands need proper care and sound management and that these lands are worthy of our investment. This data overrules the partisan division we’ve come to expect, and that should embolden lawmakers. Improving and protecting the value of public lands for wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation means taking a stand with hunters and anglers. To do otherwise is setting camp with special interests who have little in common with the majority of America’s hunters and anglers.”

Download the fact sheets and learn more about the poll here.

Kristyn Brady

June 27, 2017

Repealing Clean Water Rule Creates Uncertainty for $887B Outdoor Recreation Economy

The EPA’s decision to withdraw Clean Water Act protections for headwaters and wetlands will impact trout, waterfowl, and businesses that rely on quality places to hunt and fish

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency have begun the process of rescinding the 2015 Clean Water Rule that clarified protections for headwater streams and wetlands under the Clean Water Act, despite broad public support for the rule and its benefits for fish and wildlife habitat. This is the first step in a two-step process to replace the rule, set into motion by an executive order in February 2017.

“If the president intends to fulfill his stated goal of having the cleanest water, he should direct his administration to identify paths forward for defending and implementing the Clean Water Rule based on sound science, regulatory certainty, and the national economic benefits of clean water,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Instead, today’s action to rescind the rule puts at risk the fish and wildlife that rely on more than 20 million acres of wetlands and 60 percent of the country’s streams, while the process for ensuring the protection of these clean water resources remains unclear.”

President Trump’s order directed the agencies to consider revising the rule with an eye toward minimizing regulatory uncertainty and cited former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion that seasonal streams and many wetlands do not merit protection. But hunters and anglers consider this vital habitat.

“The repeal and replacement plan is likely to roll back Clean Water Act protections for a majority of the nation’s streams and wetlands, including the headwater streams that are so important for trout and other species of fish, plus millions of acres of seasonal wetlands that store flood waters and provide essential habitat for more than half of North American migratory waterfowl and a diverse array of other birds, amphibians, and reptiles,” says Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.

The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers spent four years reviewing available science and engaging stakeholders to finalize the rule. Sportsmen, conservation groups, and many others submitted one million public comments to help shape the end product, which was celebrated for its potential to reverse a troubling trend of wetlands loss.

The repeal could impact outdoor recreation businesses that depend on certainty around clean water and healthy fish and wildlife habitat. The outdoor recreation industry fuels $887 billion in annual spending and supports 7.6 million jobs, including 483,000 jobs directly related to hunting and fishing. Many game species rely on headwater streams and wetland systems that would be under threat of pollution or destruction without the clarity of the 2015 Clean Water Rule.

“Clean water is a basic right of every American,” says Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited. “To be effective, the Clean Water Act must be able to control pollution at its source. Unfortunately today’s action by the EPA places the health of 60 percent of the stream miles and the drinking water of one in three Americans at risk. Trout Unlimited intends to work with our hundreds of thousands of members and supporters to convince the EPA to reverse course on this misguided direction.”

Going forward, sportsmen want this administration to maintain strong Clean Water Act protections for waters and wetlands. With the rule’s rescission today, the federal government’s decisions on Clean Water Act protections for sensitive streams and wetlands will once again be made on a case-by-case basis, throwing tremendous uncertainty back into the decision-making process.

“The Clean Water Rule is critically important to improving and protecting water quality nationwide,” says Scott Kovarovics, executive director of the Izaak Walton League of America. “It is based on extensive science but also common sense, which tells us that it is impossible to improve water quality in our rivers and lakes unless the small streams flowing to them are also protected from pollution.”

The TRCP will ask sportsmen and women to support the conservation benefits of the 2015 Clean Water Rule during any public comment period on the rule rescission. Learn more here.

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