Guest Blogger Chris Adamo

December 11, 2017

Conservation Is Increasingly an All-Hands-on-Deck Endeavor on Private Lands

In the last decade, more and more Farm Bill dollars have been invested to enhance habitat and watersheds through creative partnerships on landscape-scale projects, and TRCP partners are some of the most prolific collaborators

With approximately $5 billion a year in conservation funding to invest across nearly 70 percent of our country’s land mass, conservation programs in the Farm Bill affect all of us who hunt and fish on or near private lands. Many of these initiatives help landowners improve hunting and fishing conditions acre by acre and problem by problem, from boosting wildlife habitat to overhauling water quality and soil health.

The current Farm Bill is set to expire in September 2018, and our community has recommendations for ways to tactically improve the conservation section of this massive legislation. Some have to do with supporting a recent trend: Increasingly, the unprecedented restoration of iconic watersheds and ecosystems is being achieved collaboratively among conservation groups, government agencies, private landowners, and even universities and private companies.

 

Conserving Better Together
Photo courtesy of FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.

 

These partnerships are changing the face of conservation and growing a restoration economy that can benefit not only farmers and sportsmen but entire communities. Notable examples are in places with longstanding conservation challenges, like the Chesapeake Bay, Colorado River, Great Lakes, Everglades, Mississippi River Basin, Prairie Pothole Region, Puget Sound, and the longleaf pines of the Southeast. Millions of people live in these watersheds, and they offer significant opportunities to hunt and fish.

We’re especially proud to have many of the partners in our 24-member Agriculture and Wildlife Working Group at the helm of these locally led efforts, which look very different from place to place.

In the Driftless Area of lower Wisconsin, for example, Trout Unlimited is helping landowners restore streams a dozen miles at a time on farmland to improve overall water quality downstream—this has resulted in a billion-dollar economic boost to the region. To similarly reduce nutrient runoff into waterways, the Nature Conservancy has partnered with agribusinesses to sell conservation to farmers in the Great Lakes region. Meanwhile, local land trusts in Central Florida work with ranchers to protect the headwaters of the Everglades from overuse by cattle and improve water flows downstream. Joining forces at a local level is making a big difference for these watersheds.

These landscapes are literally changing with rapid improvements for wildlife, water, and the climate. Wildlife Mississippi has helped restore and permanently protect more than 700,000 acres of forest and wetland habitat, benefiting local communities, waterfowl, and threatened species, such as the Louisiana black bear. Ducks Unlimited works with rice growers to create long-term benefits for waterfowl and wetland health while improving working lands. And the National Wildlife Federation is working with ranchers to create mesic habitat, such as beaver ponds, to restore scarce water reserves and create vital habitat for wildlife.

From Local to Landscape

For perspective, many of these kinds of strategic partnerships, which create more valuable conservation outcomes, have only come together in the past decade or so. As a conservation community, we are just learning how to create a larger restoration economy by working in concert to chip away at discrete problems. There’s a new Farm Bill every five years, and over the past couple of iterations we have moved from random acts of conservation to strategic and well-prioritized efforts for the benefit of entire communities—from those of us who like to hunt and fish to those who just happen to live downstream.

This is something we can only achieve by working together. Since the 2014 Farm Bill, hundreds of new partnerships have formed within iconic landscapes and watersheds, and there are some positive ways that this kind of collaboration can be encouraged and empowered in the next bill.

As everyone from NGOs to local water district managers are learning how to be more effective at meeting conservation challenges and work with a greater variety of people and landowners to craft solutions, we want to see a Farm Bill that will make more of these kinds of efforts possible by  supporting smart collaboration. Simply put, efforts like these and more across all parts of our country get more hands involved in conservation so that we can continue to meet our growing challenges.

Chris Adamo is a Farm Bill conservation consultant for the TRCP. Adamo helped lead the effort for the last farm bill as staff director of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee under Senator Stabenow and is currently a senior fellow at National Wildlife Federation. 

2 Responses to “Conservation Is Increasingly an All-Hands-on-Deck Endeavor on Private Lands”

  1. Scott Schaeffer

    The future of the ring necked pheasant lies with the 2018 Farmbill, and the CRP acreage therein. It’s that simple. Ask South Dakota small businesses how important this resource is to their economy!

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Christy Plumer

December 8, 2017

Five Organizations Leading Conservation Success in Sagebrush Country

This holiday season, we’re toasting to the success of our partners who are working together to build a better future for sagebrush habitat and #350species

With a quick glance across the West, it’s clear why cooperation is a cornerstone of conservation. This is the region where multi-generational ranching families move cattle, sportsmen and women pursue trophy elk and cutthroat trout, energy and timber companies extract resources, and outdoor enthusiasts climb peaks, bike single tracks, and explore some of our nation’s largest networks of public lands.

This rich diversity of demands on the land increases the pressure to conserve sagebrush habitat and the 350 species that depend on it. In recent years, an unprecedented effort to conserve the sagebrush ecosystem—which is home to iconic species like greater sage grouse, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope—brought together conservationists, ranchers, energy developers, federal and state agencies, local governments, and outdoor recreation businesses in a landmark victory for effective collaboration.

But because administrative action to not list a species doesn’t remove trees, plant sage, and improve habitat in and of itself, a policy win for sage grouse is only half the battle. It’s our partners who are at the forefront of on-the-ground conservation work, ensuring that habitat remains intact, energy development and grazing practices are done wisely, and sage grouse ultimately remain free of the threat of an Endangered Species Act listing for years to come.

As folks come together with friends and relatives this holiday season, we’re thinking about our family—the network of fine conservation groups that unite over wildlife, habitat, and our hunting and fishing traditions—and how working together is better than working alone, especially in sagebrush country. Here’s some of what they have accomplished.

Photo courtesy of USDA
The Removal Squad

In sage grouse country, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever have embarked on a mission to improve sagebrush habitat by treating areas of encroaching Utah juniper. This thirsty tree has invaded the sagebrush landscape and built up heavily wooded areas that can’t support sage-dependent species. Working with the Sage Grouse Initiative, PF has helped treat approximately 14,000 public acres, with another 12,000 scheduled for treatment over the next two years. That’s in addition to ongoing treatments underway on other state and private lands adjacent to the project.

The scale of the project is huge, especially considering all the organizations that must work together to gather the necessary land access, scientific expertise, and manpower, including local offices of the Bureau of Land Management, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, plus state wildlife agencies, conservation districts, local working groups, permit holders, and private landowners.

It’s a testament to how much can be accomplished by working together. Partnerships have enabled more on-the-ground success than any one individual group could have accomplished on its own, and this has allowed improvement of sage grouse habitat across fence lines, regardless of ownership.

 

The Big Game Boosters

Improving conditions for one species creates benefits for many others (one of the reasons conservationists are so obsessed with quality habitat), and that’s where the Mule Deer Foundation comes in. Muleys and sage grouse have the same habitat needs in many areas, especially on winter ranges, so responsible management of grazing and conservation of critical wintering areas benefits both species.

Throughout their range, mule deer populations are stagnant or declining, largely due to loss and fragmentation of habitat. In order to improve and restore mule deer habitat at an unprecedented level, MDF is working across sage grouse country in close coordination with (you guessed it!) partners. A 2014 study actually demonstrated that measures taken to conserve sage grouse in Wyoming also benefit mule deer migration routes, and it highlighted the role of state and federal agencies and NGOs working together.

Among agencies, tools like targeted easements on private lands and limitations of disturbance on federal lands can proactively conserve remaining migration corridors, stopover habitat, and winter ranges for mule deer. Included in those protective measures is the state of Wyoming’s sage grouse “core area” policy, which limits development in the state’s key grouse habitat, as well as conservation easements and agreements with private landowners to limit development.

To complement MDF’s existing habitat restoration program, the Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Sage Grouse Initiative have come on board to enable greater private landowner cooperation. With a substantial portion of mule deer winter range occurring on private land throughout the West, this partnership has enabled more conservation success than MDF could have achieved on its own.

Photo courtesy of Wildlife Management Institute

 

The Conveners

The Wildlife Management Institute has lent their leadership and science expertise to the sage grouse conservation effort through the annual WMI North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference. In our circles, we refer to this conference as simply “the North American,” and the fact that it is so widely recognized is a testament to how many people WMI has reached.

For several years now, the North American has included sessions on sage grouse to highlight and expand upon efforts by WMI, state fish and wildlife agencies, and partners to advance conservation. Together, we have an opportunity to address some of the toughest issues affecting sage grouse country, and getting together in the same room helps us to forge important connections and trade ideas.

 

Photo courtesy of BLM

 

The Solution-Oriented Seeders

The Nature Conservancy has been working to protect sage grouse by improving and expanding current conservation efforts across the sage-steppe ecosystem, not only for the iconic bird, but also to protect families and communities in the West. Along with partners like the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they’re innovating new techniques for sagebrush seeding and planting in priority landscapes, and collaborating with private landowners to drive forward on-the-ground action.

With restoration work so dependent on sagebrush itself, TNC believes better seeding and planting techniques will ensure better success rates for the plants and wildlife. Plus, improved methods are in the American taxpayer’s best interests, as hundreds of millions of federal dollars have been spent to restore sagebrush habitat with a very low success rate.

So, obviously, the solution is Italian food. The Conservancy’s Oregon chapter has discovered an innovative approach that uses industrial-grade pasta machines to efficiently create packets of sagebrush seeds. The seed blend improves germination by creating a microclimate and lends a “power in numbers” approach, increasing the number of seeds that can break through the dry, hard soil. This work is just hitting the ground in Oregon, but TNC staff and partners are already looking at ways they can expand these efforts in places with similar challenges.

Meanwhile in northwestern Utah, a joint collaboration with five ranching families and NRCS has secured $3.7 million in public funding to protect 9,312 acres of sage-grouse habitat. One of the families involved, the Tanners, has received awards from the National Cattlemen’s Association and the Sand County Foundation for their leadership and work to conserve sage grouse and other wildlife. The Conservancy’s efforts to restore sagebrush habitat and increase sage-grouse populations would not be possible without this kind of collaboration with local landowners.

 

Photo courtesy of Tim Lenz, USFWS, Katja Schulz, and USFS

The Grouse Specialists

Grouse habitat encompasses millions of acres of private and public land. These magnificent birds function as primary indicator species for the health of their particular habitats, and they are held in especially high esteem by sportsmen and women, birders, biologists, and land managers. The North American Grouse Partnership works to bring the plight of all declining grouse species and habitats to the attention of the public, provides oversight for the health of grouse populations, implements solutions to the problems causing grouse declines, and encourages public policies and management decisions that will enhance important habitats and grouse populations.

 

Mia Sheppard

December 4, 2017

It’s Time to Put the Most Engaged Public Lands Advocates Back to Work

RACs, the regional groups that help land managers balance multiple uses of public land, are allowed to start meeting again after a half-year hiatus, but there is a catch

Having partial ownership of 640 million acres is a unique privilege that comes with a huge responsibility, and that’s why you’ll often hear us say that sportsmen and women need to do more than simply keep public lands public. Quality management of America’s public lands requires balancing all the diverse demands on these lands.

This land belongs to all of us, and each stakeholder group—from hunters and anglers to ranchers and commercial interests—has its own distinct goals. This makes the grand ideal of multiple-use management pretty complicated to carry out on the ground. So, to make this juggling act work, land managers need to hear directly from local and regional interests.

Up until recently, one of our best channels for communication between locals and public land managers was temporarily shut down—we’re slowly getting back to the table to have meaningful discussions about how public land management impacts locals, but things have changed. Here’s what you need to know.

The RAC Pack
Above and top photo by Greg Shine.

Public-land resource advisory councils—commonly known as RACs—are collaborative committees made up of individuals from diverse interest groups, usually with relevant professional knowledge, who provide input on management of the natural and cultural resources on public lands. Having served on the RAC for Bureau of Land Management lands in Southeast Oregon since 2015, I’ve been a part of a developing recommendations on land-use planning, motorized vehicle access, sage grouse conservation, recreation fees, wild horse and burro management, grazing, and fire projects.

The Department of the Interior oversees more than 200 individual advisory committees, including 38 RACs that meet with the Bureau of Land Management—the largest public-land management agency in the country. There are two other TRCP field staffers serving on full RACs in Idaho on New Mexico and weighing in on issues affecting BLM lands. Or they did, until their meetings were suspended.

Per instruction from the Department of the Interior, the BLM notified all RAC members in May 2017 that meetings would be postponed until at least September in order for the agency to review the “charter and charge of each Board/Advisory Committee.” Members could not meet to discuss pressing local issues, like sage grouse conservation, or get clarity on public lands issues of a national scope, like the review of certain national monuments.

In short: Those of us who have been passionate enough to devote our free time to collaborating on the best use of our land were effectively asked to stand down during a time of important decision-making.

Slowly Returning to the Table
Photo by Larisa Bogardus.

In October, the suspension was lifted, and in Southeast Oregon, our full RAC has been able to have our first meeting back. But there’s a catch: Our subcommittee meetings are still not being scheduled, and since we can’t meet without approval from the national BLM office, our hands are tied.

Subcommittees might sound like a trivial thing, but they are where the action happens. These groups collaborate and compile detailed information and research on specific topics and pass recommendations along to the full RAC and district managers. Continued delay of the subcommittee meetings could mean a less effective RAC overall.

For example, I serve on the Lands with Wilderness Character Subcommittee. Before the suspension, we began some thoughtful discussions on land-use planning and possible management approaches to the district’s revised Resource Management Plan, a draft of which is expected in January. Our subcommittee’s feedback is not likely to appear in the draft, since we haven’t met to finalize any of our initial thoughts and recommendations—the final plan will guide the management of our BLM public lands for 20 years or more.

Put RACs Back to Work

RAC members care about our public lands and public participation. This is a platform where diverse users come together, talk about our differences, and, more often than not, find common ground to forge agreements. The longer we go without proper meetings, the harder it is to say that federal land management agencies value our local perspective.

Really, we just want the chance to get back to work for public lands.

Like all members of the public, there is something we can do in the meantime—let our decision makers know where we stand. A great place to start is the Sportsmen’s Country petition to support responsible management of public land and wildlife habitat.

Once you’ve signed, tweet this: It’s time to do more than #keepitpublic. Add your voice at sportsmenscountry.org Click To Tweet

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.

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.

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

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