Kristyn Brady

April 2, 2018

Featured Podcast: Why Hunters Should Care About the Farm Bill

Whit Fosburgh talks to Mark Kenyon at Wired to Hunt about Farm Bill basics and what’s at stake for habitat conservation and hunting access on private lands

We’re so grateful that podcasters like Wired to Hunt‘s Mark Kenyon are willing to geek out with us about conservation policy when it really matters. Even though we’d all rather be talking about what was on the trail cam yesterday, complex legislation like the Farm Bill will chart a course for the habitat and access projects of tomorrow.

Here are the basics on why it matters and what you need to know as lawmakers write and debate this bill.

 

Listen for more conservation news and deer hunting stories over at Wired to Hunt.

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There’s an Access Payoff for Reporting What Fish You Catch and Throw Back

Anglers who report catch data using the latest apps help fisheries managers adjust seasons in real-time, so why are some still resistant to sharing?

Recreational angler self-reported data has come a long way. As it has suddenly dominated many of the recreational fishery management discussions over the past year, one might think the concept has come out of nowhere. But the Snook and Gamefish Foundation (SGF) has been working on refining the process for almost a decade, and our work has provided some valuable results. The Angler Action Program (AKA iAngler), a service project of SGF, was born in 2010 after an historic cold event severely damaged a host of tropical Florida wildlife, including snook—a native and highly prized gamefish.

In response to the possible crisis, we partnered with Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to design and build a voluntary self-reporting database that would start to get a handle on just how hard the fishery was whacked by the extreme cold weather. Snook anglers—who range from passionate to completely obsessed—were an easy target for soliciting help.

There were many successes over the following years, most of them ‘firsts’ in the world of fishery management at the state level. After helping with the design of the database and angler survey, FWC left us to run and manage iAngler and its data. Participation was fairly high, with thousands of hours of snook-directed fishing trips reported within months of program initiation. FWC found data useful almost immediately in a few areas, particularly regarding data on the fish we let go, called ‘discards’ by researchers.

Within five years, iAngler was expanded to include all species of fish on a global range, and it was used directly in five different Florida stock assessments for snook, spotted seatrout, and red drum. This is the first time that data collected and managed by anglers was used in a state-level stock assessment.

Around that same time, a lab at the University of Florida began running some analysis of iAngler data and comparing it to numbers from the Marine Resources Information Program, which currently collects data for all federally managed fish species. Despite having some design flaws, especially where the program forces commercial models on recreational fisheries, MRIP is responsible for what has long been considered to be the “best available data” for use by federal agencies.

The UF studies focused on how many fish anglers are catching and how big the fish are. This is especially important with discards, as this is an area of fishery information where many species are ‘data poor,’ meaning whatever the best available data is, it ain’t enough.

In general terms, the UF study found that iAngler data in Florida did have some limitations, or biases, however for areas where enough anglers participated the data lined up nicely with MRIP.

Right around the time these very positive results of iAngler data analyses started rolling in, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) reached out to SGF to see if we could partner up with the goal of getting a better handle on the Atlantic Red Snapper situation. Similar to the Gulf of Mexico, recreational anglers have been reporting anecdotally that they are experiencing an explosion in the population of this prized fish, yet the season had been closed since 2014 in the South Atlantic because the current data and modeling suggest that the population is still in trouble. Managers understood that there is a problem, but until data collection was improved or at least changed, their hands were mostly tied.

This new partnership led to a reporting tool called MyFishCount, which will allow anglers in the South Atlantic to report their catches – keepers and discards, along with a host of other data points – by this coming summer.

A pilot program was launched during the 2017 Atlantic Red Snapper season, and the results were again very positive. Anglers were able to report a variety of aspects of their planned snapper fishing trips through the system, researchers were able to see the data in real-time, and managers reacted to the data nearly as fast.

For example, the 2017 red snapper season was originally set for six days over two three-day weekends. Through MyFishCount, biologists and managers were able to see that the vast majority of planned fishing trips never took place, because the weather was not favorable for offshore fishing on those dates. Using this information, SAFMC was able to open a third long weekend of fishing.

The point is that anglers were asked to contribute, and because they did, their data was put to immediate good use. In this case, it led to more fishing access.

Not for nothing, the weather on that third weekend was pretty horrible, too. But this is ok for anglers: It means that the estimated harvest over the full nine-day fishing season is unlikely to overestimate the fishing effort, which could have led to less access in years to come.

“This is one of the few instances where you have technology, industry, fishermen, and scientists all agreeing on one thing—that we need better data in the recreational fishery—and most of us are seeing a similar approach to reaching that goal,” says Dr. Chip Collier, an SAFMC fisheries biologist who has been involved with the MyFishCount project since its inception.

He and his staff are very excited to have a new and improved version of MyFishCount up and running before summer 2018, and it will be functional for a wide variety of fish species, not just red snapper. “One of the great things about having it ready before the summer is that will be able to show anglers what self-reporting actually looks like,” says Collier. “The ‘fear of the unknown’ can make a lot of people hesitant to take the first step towards getting involved, and this will help.”

“The amount of positive comments we’ve received from anglers who participated has been great, and it feels like it really gives a voice to management,” says Kelsey Dick, SAFMC’s fishery outreach specialist. “I have been very grateful to see people coming together and being supportive of this project.”

The benefits of self-reporting are many. Through this kind of reporting, managers and biologists will get a better understanding of angler behavior on the water.

“We don’t have enough time to interview a lot of recreational anglers, so we don’t really know if people are using descending devices, or circle hooks, or other behaviors.” Dick said.

Mass, real-time self-reported data opens the doors to these types of data streams and that is extremely critical when trying to get a handle on how to best set management rules for a given species in a given region.

For example, in 2017 MyFishCount anglers reported very low use of descending devices or venting tools in shallow water (less than 5%), yet a very high (over 90%) in deeper water. Without the opportunity to self-report behavior like this, Councils have no way of estimating how many anglers are taking extra measures to help ensure fish survive release. And when you are managing ‘data poor’ species such as red snapper, any uncertainty in the modeling usually translates to less access.

Still, with all indicators pointing in a very positive direction, there is a lot of work to be done, and it is going to take time. “Managing expectations across the board is hard,” says Dr. Collier. Fishermen, scientists, managers and the industry all want this issue solved.

It is going to take some time, but the more anglers that get involved now, the faster we can improve the system and expand the functional uses. This type of data is not yet ready to answer questions like overall effort or fish abundance – researchers first need to understand just how this information represents the fishing community at large. But the mindset has changed greatly over the past couple years, from ‘the data is no good’ to ‘we must understand and measure biases in data, then account for those biases.’ This is an extremely encouraging trend.

The Snook and Gamefish Foundation is working with The American Sportfishing Association, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and a host of other conservation and fishing industry groups, state and federal agencies to explore ways to better integrate self-reported data the use of technology to improve fisheries management.

Management is going to happen whether the data improves or not. So getting involved and reporting through iAngler now, no matter where you are, is a very important step for recreational anglers. It not only allows you to contribute immediately to a brighter fishing future, but also to keep tabs on how the technology is changing fishing behavior and management so you can help shape the direction in the future.

 

Brett Fitzgerald is the Executive Director of the Snook and Gamefish Foundation. He is also a contributing editor to Florida Sportsman Magazine, and a special education instructor in the Palm Beach County school system for where he promotes an academic curriculum through environmentalism and resource conservation. Fitzgerald is an avid guitar player, fly tyer, photographer and fisherman.

Kristyn Brady

March 28, 2018

What If You Could Level Up on Hunter Education to Get Better Access?

A new certificate program in Montana helps hunters understand more about conservation, ethics, and respect for private land in order to gain access to more of it

Asking permission to hunt on someone’s land is a vulnerable proposition. There’s a tremendous upside for your access close to home, but it all depends on the landowner taking a bet on you, your skills, and how you’ll treat their property. And we all know that one bad actor can make this ask even more challenging for others.

That’s why a Montana non-profit with an eye toward improving sportsman-landowner relations and hunting access has created a program to certify sportsmen and women that they can vouch for with private landowners—some of whom have never opened their gates to hunters before.

“Landowners might not know what they’re going to get—it really makes a difference when someone comes to your property with an understanding of your needs, respect for your land, and respect for the wildlife,” says George Bettas, project coordinator for One Montana’s new Montana Hunter Advancement Program, which was created to promote safe, ethical, and responsible hunting on enrolled private lands through its Master Hunter certification course. “Our goal is to send out skilled, ethical hunters who landowners know they can trust, to hopefully create new opportunities on properties that have provided little to no access for hunters in the past.”

The certification program has a core curriculum with three parts: A history of conservation and hunting ethics, a section on the value of agriculture and the landowner’s perspective, and a field session for testing and improving competency with a rifle or bow. They will accept 30 applicants into the pilot course for rifle hunters this spring. The cost is $200, which covers a weekend worth of instruction, ammo, provided lunches, and facilities—but scholarships are available. Program leaders are looking for a diverse range of ages, backgrounds, and skill levels for the pilot course.

Part of the process is generating an awareness of a visiting hunter’s impact on the farm or ranch, and what kinds of activities may be happening on private land at certain times of year. Bettas hopes this will help create a bond between landowners and sportsmen, who will know enough to avoid crossing freshly seeded winter wheat or tearing up an access road with tire chains just to get closer to a downed animal. He believes more educated, ethical hunters are less likely to put themselves in danger, take a shot where they can’t recover the animal, or give up on a critical contract with the landowner—to help manage wildlife that damage crops or property.

“I’m confident that when we send the first 30 graduates out to hunt the available properties, they will be great ambassadors for hunting, and the landowners are going to want them back again,” says Bettas.

Two hunters at a BLM annual pheasant hunt to learn safe hunting techniques while enjoying traditional pheasant hunting.

Certified Montana Master Hunters will be able to access an online reservation system for enrolled properties made possible by Huntable.com, an Airbnb-like service that allows landowners to approve certain dates and know who is going to show up when.

There has been some criticism on the group’s Facebook page about the course being “elitist,” but Bettas stresses that anyone with some hunting experience can apply and potentially receive assistance with the fee. “Overall the response has been tremendous, and we hope to eventually make some of the coursework available online for anyone who is interested,” he says.

With the decline in hunter participation and a wave of out-of-state and urban buyers taking over properties that have traditionally been open to hunting and fishing, sportsmen’s access and landowner certainty about who they are letting use their property are as critical as ever in Montana. The TRCP has been supportive of the Hunter Advancement Program and certificate course, because it enhances access, promotes conservation ideals, and helps to retain active hunters who keep the $887-billion outdoor recreation economy flourishing. And farmers and ranchers who believe the best of hunters and anglers can often have an outsize impact on the health of fish and wildlife habitat, too.

Of course, you don’t need to be certified to build a relationship of mutual respect with a private landowner. But it’s pretty cool to see this example of a solution that brings both sides together to find common ground.

Montana residents can apply for the program here until April 1. For the pilot course, just 30 rifle hunters will be selected, and scholarships are available. Visit mtmasterhunter.com for details and to watch for future courses.

Travis Cooke

March 27, 2018

How Maintenance Backlogs Could Affect Your Hunting Season

Deferred maintenance projects without suitable funding crop up on more than just national park lands, and it could waste your precious daylight hours afield—here’s everything you need to know about the backlog issue, proposed solutions, and why it’s personal

Picture this: You draw a special deer tag in a unit you’ve never hunted before, and like most people, you’re busy. So, you study maps and satellite imagery to mark roads and trails on your GPS, but family and work obligations prevent you from being able to get out there and scout in-person.

You could be pulling into camp the day before a six-day hunt, with your entire strategy reliant on being able to use access that you’ve never laid eyes on. It’s not ideal, but it happens. And there is a real possibility that you’ll be confronted with washed out roads and deep ruts that make passage difficult or impossible by vehicle, while some non-motorized trails are so overgrown that you can’t even find them to hike on.

No one wants to burn up half their hunt frustrated by road and trail conditions that fall short of their expectations. But this kind of access to public lands has become more difficult for America’s sportsmen and women because of the massive maintenance backlogs at many federal land management agencies—not just the National Park Service. It’s time to recognize the breadth of this challenge and how it plays out during your hunting and fishing season.

Know the Numbers

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 36 percent of American hunters depend on public lands for some or all of their access. In the West, where the BLM oversees 245 million acres of multiple-use public lands, 72 percent of hunters rely on public lands. When the roads and trails on these lands become difficult to navigate, these are the sportsmen and women who waste their precious time afield and get frustrated with land managers.

Currently, the Interior Department has a maintenance backlog totaling roughly $16 billion. While the bulk of that figure—or $11.6 billion—is tied to national parks, America’s sportsmen and women remain concerned about the backlogs at the Bureau of Land Management and the National Wildlife Refuge System, which have a combined backlog of $2.2 billion. Meanwhile, at the Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Forest Service has a backlog totaling more than $5 billion, an issue further exacerbated by the practice of “fire borrowing” before this fix.

Combined, these agencies manage public lands that provide some of the best hunting and fishing opportunities in the country. But nothing is more frustrating than having to ground-truth every route to make sure they are accessible as presented on a map. Especially in today’s world, when time is precious and most people don’t have extra days to spare.

Loss of access is often cited as the number-one reason hunters quit the sport. With hunting numbers already in decline, creating a ripple that reduces funding for state wildlife conservation, we can ill-afford to let a backlog of repairs put negative pressure on hunter retention and recruitment.

Finding a Solution

The deferred maintenance backlog across federal agencies and Americans’ access to public lands appears to be top-of-mind for the administration. In his recent infrastructure proposal, President Trump offered a new funding stream to address the maintenance backlog on lands managed by the Interior Department, including our nation’s parks and wildlife refuges. And Secretary Zinke has been outspoken about the maintenance backlog issue, even as he has urged agency staff through two Secretarial Orders to prioritize public access to outdoor recreation like hunting and fishing.

Creating a solution will be critical, but it can’t come at the cost of other important conservation programs. While the TRCP supports initiatives to address the significant maintenance backlog on our nation’s public lands, we are opposed to efforts to restructure programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund with an aim of shifting funding from one important need to another.

Instead, we need an all-of-the-above strategy: Reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund to continue creating access where there is none, recognize that the maintenance backlog issue is meaningful for more than just national park visitors, and identify new funding sources to deal with it.

We urge Congress and the administration to work together and find a bipartisan solution to address the maintenance backlogs on BLM lands, wildlife refuges, and national forests—in addition to a critical fix for our national parks. A true solution will also uphold the integrity and purpose of other critical public lands programs, like LWCF—it won’t rob Peter to pay Paul.

The future of our access and outdoor traditions depends on it. If you agree, sign the Sportsmen’s Country petition now.

Kristyn Brady

March 21, 2018

Spending Bill with Wildfire Funding Fix Is a Defining Conservation Achievement

Hunters and anglers have much to celebrate as lawmakers include a long-awaited fix for “fire borrowing” and many other wins for conservation in their must-pass spending bill

[This post has been updated.]

On March 21, Congress introduced its fiscal year 2018 spending bill with plenty for sportsmen and women to celebrate, including robust funding levels for conservation, a comprehensive fire borrowing fix, positive forest management reforms, and reauthorization of the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act (FLTFA). The House and Senate passed the bill Thursday and it was signed by the president on Friday.

“We are thrilled and relieved to see bipartisan support for many provisions in this spending bill that will benefit fish and wildlife habitat, clean water, sportsmen’s access, and the outdoor recreation economy, but hunters and anglers especially have reason to cheer for the wildfire funding fix, which will ensure that the Forest Service can get back to the business of maintaining healthy habitat and excellent facilities,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

“This kind of deal doesn’t get done without the hard work of many people, including conservation groups, sportsmen, industry stakeholders, and all levels of government—from appropriators and authorizers to leadership. The hunting and fishing community should be proud of what our decision makers have accomplished in finding consensus,” says Fosburgh.

The Fire Fix We’ve Been Waiting For

Provisions in the spending bill will finally help us shift away from the current model of funding for wildfire suppression and recovery, where the U.S. Forest Service is forced to dip into other accounts after running out of appropriated funds during catastrophic fire seasons.

There are two components to the fix: It freezes the ten-year average cost of fire suppression upon which appropriated funds are based and permits funding costs above that ten-year average using natural disaster funding. This ends the need for ever-increasing appropriations for fire and halts the steady erosion of funds for non-fire activities at the Forest Service, which currently spends more than half of its budget on fire suppression activities.

The language is equivalent to provisions supported by the TRCP and our partners in the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (S. 1842 and H.R. 2862).

There is also bipartisan support for provisions that will help the Forest Service expedite active management of forest habitat. Combined with the fire funding fix, the agency will not only have more tools to work on habitat restoration, they’ll have the funding to accomplish it.

Big Bonus for Conservation Coffers

The spending bill is a windfall for conservation funding, with Congress rejecting many of the steep cuts in the president’s budget proposal and giving most agencies a sizable boost, including:

  • $3 billion over FY17 levels at the Department of the Interior
  • $1.332 billion for the Bureau of Land Management, which is $79 million more than the 2017 enacted level, with $50 million to address the maintenance backlog on federal lands
  • $1.595 billion for the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is $75 million more than the 2017 enacted level, with $53 million to address the maintenance backlog at wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries
  • $425 million for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is $25 million more than the 2017 enacted level
  • $40 million for the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, which is $1.85 million more than the 2017 enacted level
Access Value from Public Lands Sales

Finally, the spending bill would permanently reauthorize FLTFA, a critical conservation tool for Western lands that ensures revenues from the sale of small or low-value parcels of BLM land are used to buy new public lands with hunting and fishing access or high-value habitat. Right now, proceeds from surplus sales simply go to the general treasury. The TRCP has been supportive of thoughtful FLTFA reauthorization bills introduced this session by Rep. Rob Bishop, Sen. Martin Heinrich, and Sen. Dean Heller.

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