Kristyn Brady

November 30, 2017

105 Wildlife and Habitat Experts Urge BLM and Zinke to Stick to the Science on Sage Grouse

Former wildlife agency leaders, scientists, and other natural resource professionals warn that any changes to BLM’s sage grouse conservation efforts should be based on science and focused on the sagebrush habitat that supports 350 species

In a letter to Secretary Ryan Zinke, DOI staff, and the BLM today, more than 100 wildlife and natural resources professionals urged the administration to stick to the science when considering any changes to federal sage grouse conservation plans.

These professionals—each with ten to 57 years’ experience in wildlife and natural resources management, research, and conservation—came together to respond to the Bureau of Land Management’s intent to consider amending the current federal sage-grouse conservation plans finalized in the summer of 2015. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s landmark decision not to list greater sage grouse as threatened or endangered that same year was predicated, in part, on the effectiveness of these plans for millions of acres of the bird’s core habitat.

Many consider this to be the greatest landscape-scale conservation planning effort of modern times. “In the many years I worked as a wildlife agency director, I learned that strong cooperation between state and federal agencies is essential for successful wildlife management, and the collective compromise that kept the greater sage grouse off of the threatened and endangered species list is a shining example of wildlife management done right,” says Willie Molini, former director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife. “I believe that it would be best to let the existing sage grouse habitat plans work for a couple of years before any significant changes are considered.”

The letter asks that the plans be implemented and analyzed for effectiveness before they are altered. At the very least, the group would like to see the BLM exhaust all existing administrative methods of changing the plans before considering amendments that could delay or drastically re-chart the course for conservation. If amendments must be considered, they should be supported by science and maintain strong conservation outcomes for sage grouse. “We do not support weakening restrictions on development within priority habitat and feel any such actions would not be supported scientifically,” they write.

“We have a long way to go to keep that ‘not warranted for listing’ decision intact for sage grouse,” says Dr. Jack Connelly, a former wildlife research biologist with the Idaho Game and Fish Department, who spent most of his 41-year career working on sage grouse habitat issues. “Major changes, delays, or management actions that are not supported by the best-available science could threaten the entire conservation strategy that got us to this point—and that level of coordination and planning was an exceptional accomplishment.”

Hunting and fishing groups have been at the negotiating table in sagebrush country for years and recognize that some changes to the plans may be necessary. But a total overhaul of the plans would only serve a select few stakeholders in a diverse Western economy that has a lot riding on conservation outcomes.

“No land-use management plan—state nor federal—is perfect, so these plans should be improved upon over time,” says Dr. Ed Arnett, senior scientist for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Some changes to the plans may be acceptable right now, as long as they are science-based and don’t alter the entire course for conservation. We look forward to continuing to work with the Department of Interior and BLM to ensure sage grouse conservation is effective and also works for stakeholders across the West.”

The comment period on the BLM’s intent to consider amendments closed December 1. The agency will now begin analyzing feedback.

Read the letter from 105 wildlife and habitat experts here.

Signers include six former state agency directors, former U.S. Forest Service chiefs and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service directors, sage grouse scientists, habitat specialists, and wildlife biologists employed by state and federal agencies, universities, and non-profit conservation organizations concerned about the future of sage grouse and sagebrush conservation.

Top photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via flickr.

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Ed Arnett

November 22, 2017

There’s One Day Left to Speak Up for Conservation of a Western Icon

Two hunters recently followed sage grouse sign to the mule deer buck of a lifetime, but both of these species (and more) could be at risk if sagebrush conservation is set back

Sagebrush-covered hills spanned the horizon as my cousin Larry and I put a stalk on a group of mule deer we had just spotted. As we walked down into a draw, I noticed sign from a bird that many have only have read about in recent years. No sooner had I taken another step when four greater sage grouse busted from the brush. They could have spooked our quarry, but didn’t. (We still didn’t get a shot at those deer.)

The next morning, we crept through some of the best grouse habitat I’d ever seen—droppings, feathers, and birds were all around us. That’s where we got our buck, a beautiful mature muley that had been bedded down in the sage.

This is all to say that sage grouse have shared the sagebrush ecosystem with Western big game like mule deer and pronghorns for thousands of years. The same habitat that has been lost and fragmented by energy development, fire, and invasive species—decimating sage grouse populations—also supports 350 other species that could be struggling next. And the many varied stakeholders who want to see sagebrush thrive have a chance right now to make sure that the current administration stays the course on conservation plans that took years to iron out in the first place.

Here’s why we need your help by December 1.

The Conservation Compromise of a Lifetime

Once numbering in the millions, sage grouse populations have dropped precipitously in recent decades to only a few hundred thousand birds. Since the mid-2000s, this has put pressure on decision-makers to protect sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act—a potentially devastating outcome for American ranchers, sportsmen, energy developers, and others.

The shared goal of preventing a wide swath of the West from immense regulatory burden incentivized a unique coalition to agree on durable conservation plans at the federal, state, and local level to protect and restore core sage grouse habitat. These are the plans that convinced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to list the bird as threatened or endangered in September 2015—and these very same plans may be weakened if we don’t speak up now.

Balance Means You Can’t Please Everyone

Of course, lawsuits were filed in the wake of the USFWS decision: Some claimed that the federal plans do too much or too little—a reasonable indication that the federal plans actually did hit close to the mark of balance for conservation and multiple uses of public lands.

Despite this extraordinary collaborative achievement, some states remain dissatisfied, and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has ordered a review of the federal conservation plans. A report was publically released this summer outlining key issues related to energy development, grazing management, and measures to conserve habitat around sage grouse breeding sites. That report highlighted opportunities to set a clear direction on implementing plans, a reasonable suggestion, but also noted that amendments to the plans may be necessary in the long term.

These plans were signed just two years ago and have barely been implemented. Now we’re already talking about changing them, and perhaps even undoing our success.

Unfortunately, the amendment process could take years, possibly delaying time-sensitive work and creating even greater uncertainty for sage grouse habitat and all the stakeholders that are anxiously eyeing the landscape that sustains their way of life. While many problems can be addressed by the Bureau of Land Management without major changes or disruption, the administration is immediately seeking amendments to the plans rather than exhausting other options first.

No land-use management plan—state or federal—is perfect, and these plans should be improved upon over time. In fact, some minor tweaks could be acceptable now, as long as they are science-based and don’t change the entire course for conservation. That’s tough to be sure of when we’re barely on our first steps and don’t have much data to make informed adjustments.

The threat here is that opening up the plans for amendments invites mischief. Major changes, driven by the short-term desires of a few politicians and special interests, could destabilize the long-term certainty that all stakeholders need. And of course, there is a lot on the line for hunters, sage grouse, and the 350 other species that depend on the sagebrush-steppe. This is why we’re more comfortable with the BLM first using all their existing administrative options to resolve any immediate concerns.

Photo by Jennifer Strickland, USFWS
Let Sage Grouse Plans Work

One Oregon rancher coined the phrase “what’s good for the bird is good for the herd,” highlighting the fact that quality range management benefits plant diversity, wildlife, and livestock. The same holds true for the deer herd, as my cousin and I experienced this fall.

Fortunately, there is a public process around the review of the BLM’s conservation plans, but the comment period ends December 1. Sportsmen and women need to speak up to keep conservation moving forward. Delays or major changes would threaten all of the critters that depend on the sagebrush ecosystem, including many big game species that make this a special place for hunters.

Please take just a few minutes to urge Secretary Zinke not to pursue a total overhaul of widely supported conservation plans or make changes that aren’t supported by the science—send the message that the men and women closest to the landscape want to keep this historic collaboration moving forward and let these carefully crafted solutions work.

Take action now.

Jennifer Byerly

November 14, 2017

Atlantic States’ Vote on Management of Critical Forage Fish Opens Door for Better Study

Commission vote falls short of considering ecosystem-wide impacts in management of Atlantic menhaden but establishes new reference points for future decisions

BALTIMORE — Today, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) voted to continue its current management approach for Atlantic menhaden, the second-most heavily commercially fished species in the nation and a critically important food source for sportfish like striped bass. With this vote, menhaden will continue to be managed as a single species until menhaden-specific ecological reference points can be developed. The Commission further decided to allocate a 0.5% minimum for each state and set the coastwide total allowable catch at 216,000 metric tons for the 2018 and 2019 seasons.

Recreational anglers have strongly advocated for an ecosystem-based management approach that considers the menhaden’s role in the food chain and factors in predator/prey relationships when setting catch limits. Anglers, small businesses, environmentalists, and other stakeholders from all fifteen ASMFC-managed states submitted hundreds of comments and turned out for fifteen public hearings up and down the coast in support of Option E to advance a more aggressive timeline for an ecosystem-wide management approach, before the states ultimately decided to maintain current management practices.

“The recreational fishing and conservation community looks forward to working with the Commission to set and implement these new ecological reference points as quickly as possible,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership “We knew this would be a long-term process and we are ready to move forward with the best available science and are taking a long-term view. Moving to an ecosystem-based management of this important forage species is not only good for our fisheries, but also critical for our coastal economies, which get a substantial boost from reliable and sustainable recreational fishing opportunities.”

The importance of Atlantic menhaden, also known as pogey or bunker, is clear to recreational fishermen on the East Coast. As high-protein forage fish that striped bass, tuna, mackerel, sharks, drum, cobia, and tarpon depend on for food, the abundance of menhaden often determines the likelihood of a good day on the water. In addition, menhaden help filter water and improve marine habitats. By feeding on algae-causing plankton, an adult menhaden can filter 2.4 gallons of water per minute, providing a valuable service in a place like Chesapeake Bay, where nutrient runoff becomes concentrated.

Check the ASMFC’s website for the full meeting summary and latest menhaden stock assessments.

Nick Payne

November 13, 2017

Locals Helped Hammer Out a Plan for Responsible Energy Development on Public Lands in Colorado

The process checks a couple of boxes for decision-makers who want less top-down policy-making and fewer hurdles for development, but the future of the plan is uncertain

Park County is a small, rural Colorado county that finds its identity in the outdoors. Ranching, hunting, fishing, camping, and a rural way of life bring people to live and work in South Park. Home to world-class fishing waters, including several miles of the South Platte River’s Gold Medal “dream stream,” South Park attracts anglers from all over the country. The 1,000-square mile South Park valley also provides phenomenal habitat for elk, mule deer, pronghorns, bighorn sheep, and many other game animals. State and BLM land in the Reinecker Ridge area supports more than 1,000 wintering elk from three different herds. These elk attract thousands of hunters to Colorado, boosting the outdoor recreation economy that generated more than $17.7 million in economic activity from hunting and fishing in 2007, and supported 207 jobs in Park County alone.

It’s no wonder that the local community cares about how this land is managed.

There’s a good chance that over the next 20 years Park County will be targeted by the oil and gas industry for development. This is why the community—including sportsmen, small businesses, agricultural producers, and other local stakeholders—has been heavily involved in the BLM’s planning process for the last seven years. We want to find a balance between a complete shutdown of extractive industries and irresponsible oil and gas drilling, which some worry will lead to long-term litigation and significant deterioration of big game habitat, greatly hampering our hunting opportunities. Surely, we can continue forward with this responsible and balanced approach that will serve the community and our fish and wildlife resources.

See It to Believe It

Last week, I led a field tour of the area for Senator Gardner’s staff, and I was joined by two of the three Park County commissioners, the CPW Area Wildlife Manager, a local cattle rancher, and representatives from the Colorado Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited, and the National Wildlife Federation. As locals, we wanted to showcase all of the land’s many benefits. As stakeholders who have been engaged in the BLM planning process since day one, we wanted to make clear that we wouldn’t be happy to see all our efforts come to nothing.

The South Park plan could be a model to follow, with a coalition of the willing coming together, regardless of ideology, to hammer out a plan that will allow for extraction of the oil and gas we all depend on without jeopardizing the traditional use of the land that makes South Park the community that it is. Compromises on things like phased development, when and where to apply seasonal closures for big game, and using science to determine proper mitigation and restoration techniques are already in place. Landowner, cattle rancher, and local advocate for the plan, Terry O’Neill stated “I often hear from Park County residents how deeply appreciative of these efforts they are.” Now, it is time for our representatives to stand up and show support for this locally vetted plan as it moves up the chain to decision-makers in D.C.

Field tour participants pictured on location at the James Mark Jones State Wildlife Area. From left to right: Lew Carpenter, National Wildlife Federation; Tyler Baskfield, Trout Unlimited; Samantha Gunther, Senator Corey Gardner’s office; Mark Lamb, Colorado Parks and Wildlife; Mark Dowaliby, Park County; Terry O’Neill, Park County resident. Cover photo of the author fishing on the South Platte River in the Charlie Meyers State Wildlife Area by Amber Hooper.

If the current administration has been vocal about anything, it’s the need for local stakeholders to be involved in shaping the policies that affect them and their livelihoods. This planning process in South Park is a textbook example of that. Our decision-makers are also committed to streamlining development, and having local support up front is a great way to give certainty to industry, too—as long as they’re willing to come to the table.

We’re hopeful that the vision and management direction decided on by South Park’s stakeholders moves forward as intended, and potentially serves as a great example for how to get things done elsewhere. This is an open call to decision-makers across the country to step up and do what’s right for America through comprehensive, responsible, and locally-driven energy development planning. As sportsmen and women, we’re counting on your leadership and commitment to solutions that make sense for the long-term health of our economy, public lands, and hunting and fishing traditions.

Dani Dagan

November 9, 2017

Farm Runoff and Why It Stinks for Sportsmen and Fish

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. The word “nutrient” is often associated with positive effects on human health, but they can become dangerous pollutants in our watersheds.

In 2016, 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 was perhaps the biggest legal action on water quality in decades, specifically addressed 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 sportsmen and women should care deeply about this problem and work with landowners to support solutions.

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.

Farm Bill Solutions

The Farm Bill already supports some of the most successful programs for improving water quality and reducing harmful nutrient runoff from private lands, but the 2018 bill provides an opportunity to bolster water quality efforts where they’re needed most. For example, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program was introduced in the 2014 Farm Bill partly to allow landowners to partner with organizations to improve soil, water, and wildlife habitat conditions, but enrollment has been cumbersome so far. The TRCP and our partners are urging decision makers to clarify this funding arrangement in the next farm bill and create more flexibility to promote conservation innovations at the landscape scale.

Learn more about our vision for the 2018 Farm Bill here. And visit CRPworks.org to take action for one of the most successful programs for conservation on private lands.

 

This was originally posted October 12, 2016, and has been updated.

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