Guest Blogger Dustin Lynch

August 7, 2018

Reversing Habitat Degradation on a Delta in Duck Country

To restore a stream on the Arkansas Delta, conservationists faced down dead-zone-creating nutrient runoff, pernicious beaver activity, erosion, and many other challenges—here’s how wetland easements played a role in their success

Arkansas’ famed Delta region has historically been home to the largest continuous system of wetlands in North America and now serves as critical seasonal habitat within the Mississippi Flyway. Hunters kill more mallards in Arkansas than in any other state, and only Louisiana has a greater overall annual waterfowl harvest. What’s more, the Delta’s lowland rivers and lakes draw anglers in pursuit of bass, crappie, and catfish.

Hunting and fishing are woven into the fabric of life in this region, and money generated by sportsmen and women is crucial to the well-being of wildlife populations throughout the state. But the Delta also has a long agricultural history that has resulted in the serious degradation of some of its best habitat, requiring the committed work of conservationists to restore its waterways and wetlands, thus preserving the wealth of hunting and fishing opportunities found in the region.

Last year saw the completion of a five-year effort to support the area’s biodiversity, improve wildlife habitat, enhance water quality, and encourage the restoration of native vegetation by way of the Dark Corner Stream Restoration Project. Its success and many resulting benefits are thanks to the collaborative work of The Nature Conservancy, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, and the Natural Resource Conservation Services, with technical assistance from Cache River National Wildlife Refuge and Natural State Streams.

Now, this project could offer a model for similarly degraded waterways and wetlands throughout the region and across the country.

Photo: Dustin Lynch/Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission
The Degradation of the Delta

Otherwise known as the Mississippi Alluvial Plain, one of Arkansas’ six eco-regions, the Delta is defined and shaped by the flow of its rivers: the Mississippi, Arkansas, White, Cache, and St. Francis. The deep layers of soil, gravel, and clay deposited by these waterways make it one of the most productive regions in the world for large-scale agriculture.

As a result, the land has been largely cleared of native vegetation and drained for cultivation, leading to the widespread loss and degradation of wildlife habitat, while agricultural runoff contains fertilizers, sediment, herbicides, pesticides, and livestock waste. Water testing has typically revealed high concentrations of total suspended and dissolved solids, phosphorus, nitrogen, sulfates, biological oxygen demand, chlorophyll a, and fecal coliform.

Timothy Vail/The Nature Conservancy, Arkansas Field Office

Furthermore, the drainage canals and ditches widely used in the region separate rivers and their adjoining habitats from the rest of the natural hydrologic system and accelerate the transport of excess nutrients and sedimentation downstream. The effects of this pollution reach down to the Gulf of Mexico, seasonally creating a low-oxygen “dead zone” that renders thousands of square miles uninhabitable by most marine life. On a more local scale, the entrenched, heavily channelized nature of Delta streams results in turbid water conditions unsuitable for wildlife or human use.

Among the many waterways historically affected by these changes was Dark Corner Creek, a small feeder stream in the Bayou DeView watershed, which, in turn, is a major tributary of the Delta’s Cache River. Historically, the stream drained an area of approximately 7,000 acres, but extensive channelization through ditches created for agricultural use in the 1940s reduced the drainage area to 3,384 acres. Much of the Dark Corner watershed lies on Benson Creek Natural Area, part of a system of 73 such public lands across the state—many of which are open to hunting and fishing—managed by the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission.

Timothy Vail/The Nature Conservancy, Arkansas Field Office
Planning the Project, Getting to Work

In 2012, The Nature Conservancy identified the Benson Creek Natural Area as an ideal candidate for restoration according to a process that utilizes a number of scientific lenses to replicate as closely as possible the natural flow regime of the original watershed.

Because the property is subject to a perpetual Wetland Reserve Easement, the Natural Resources Conservation Service provided funding using a program dubbed “no easement left behind.” First implemented in the mid-1990s, these wetland easements provide economic benefits to landowners in perpetuity, with the cost covered by NRCS.

Currently the Arkansas Delta contains more than 250,000 acres of these wetland reserve easements with 4,000 to 6,000 additional acres enrolled each year. Other states also reap the benefits of this program, providing contiguous habitat totaling more than 700,000 acres across Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. In years past, these hydric soil landscapes of the Mississippi Alluvial Valley provided fair production for the local farmers, but recent changes in the frequency of spring flooding have made them very difficult to farm. This program allows landowners to choose an alternate use for their properties and even future income through leasing and guided duck hunts.

With funding in place, TNC secured the services of a private specialized contractor, Natural State Streams, whose team specializes in all aspects of stream restoration including erosion control, stream bank stabilization, and native riparian planting and establishment. Personnel from the nearby Cache River National Wildlife Refuge provided technical assistance, additional funding, and equipment.

Timothy Vail/The Nature Conservancy, Arkansas Field Office

Using a stream in western Tennessee with similar soils and habitats to use as a reference, the team determined the appropriate width, depth, and sinuosity (or degree of meander) that would allow the stream to function as it did prior to alteration, and they drew up plans for a new channel according to these findings.

The construction phase of the project brought many challenges. Due to heavy spring rains and a network of downstream beaver dams, the wetland proved difficult to drain for long enough to allow the work to get underway. As quickly as levees could be breached, beavers would rebuild the dams, necessitating their vigilant monitoring and removal throughout the process.

Before water could be diverted into the newly constructed stream, precautions against erosion were needed. Jute matting, a biodegradable material made of woven vegetable fibers, installed in the channel and along its banks offered temporary protection until newly grown vegetation, including live stakes of black willow planted during the project, could anchor the soil. Cutting these stakes from on-site trees ensured better rates of survival. Finally, the removal of a culvert immediately downstream allowed as much unrestricted flow through the system as possible.

A Model Success

Since the project’s completion in October of last year, water-quality samples collected twice a month have evidenced its effect on the ecosystem. The data already indicates a reduction in turbidity as the natural hydrology of the restored system filters nutrients and traps particulate matter, and further decreases are projected as vegetation in the floodplain takes hold. There has also been some reduction in nitrogen at the site, although it may take years for it to decline to historic levels.

Mike Wintroath/Arkansas Game and Fish Commission

A variety of aquatic species now utilize the newly constructed stream habitat. ANHC staff have documented fish species including largemouth bass, bluegill, spotted gar, and banded pygmy sunfish, as well as a variety of invertebrates and amphibians. Grasses, sedges, and broadleaf plants are flourishing at the site and will ultimately provide much-needed food for wintering waterfowl. Prior to construction of the new stream channel, the site consisted largely of a monoculture of American lotus, which has little nutritive value for waterfowl.

While restoration of a small creek in eastern Arkansas may seem like a small piece of a very large and complex puzzle with far-reaching consequences, it clearly epitomizes the conservation adage “think globally, act locally.” It is the hope of all the contributing partners that the Dark Corner Stream Restoration Project can serve as an example for future efforts throughout the region to tackle some of our most serious challenges when it comes to wildlife, habitat, and waterways.

 

Top photo courtesy: Mike Wintroath/Arkansas Game and Fish Commission

 

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Ed Arnett

August 3, 2018

This Policy Change Means Habitat Lost to Development Stays Lost

With public-land agencies weakening their stance on habitat mitigation, sportsmen and women may see unnecessary loss of habitat and opportunity

We accept that energy development is a necessary activity that, quite literally, powers our lives. But the conversation about where it should occur becomes more complicated when there could be a risk to fish and wildlife resources that power our hunting and fishing opportunities.

For years, there has been a kind of regulatory backstop to ensure that unnecessary impacts to habitat are avoided or compensated for. This is called mitigation, and the Department of the Interior just made changes that would weaken this foundational conservation tool.

If you’re familiar with our favorite metaphor for how mitigation works, the DOI just spilled your beer and walked away without a second thought.

The Beer Metaphor That Explains Mitigation

Here’s what we mean: Imagine I spill half your beer. Would you feel better about this loss if I bought you half a drink? How about if I soaked up your spilled beer with a napkin and squeezed it back into your glass? Truly mitigating the impact I had on your evening would, at the very least, mean buying you a new drink and possibly even the next round.

Now, imagine that the precious resource lost was not your favorite IPA, but fish and wildlife habitat. Mitigation calls for a hierarchy of steps to avoid, minimize, or compensate for habitat damage by providing for conservation on site or elsewhere.

But in recent weeks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rescinded its compensatory and Service-wide mitigation policies, and the Bureau of Land Management issued instructions to its offices that essentially halt the agency’s use of compensatory mitigation on BLM public lands.

What Does This Mean for Habitat?

Quite simply, from this point forward, if a development project can’t avoid damage to habitat on public land through early planning, or minimize its impacts during construction, then there will be no requirement to compensate for those damages. On the ground, this means loss of habitat or its quality—plain and simple.

Photo credit: BLM Nevada

Spilled beer can’t be un-spilled, just like some habitat can’t be unspoiled. But, now, the BLM won’t hold developers accountable to even try to make up for the hunting and fishing opportunities they may have cost you on your public lands. We can never hope for a net positive, or net zero, for fish and wildlife if this is the way that DOI does its math. We will always be losing ground where impacts occur and are not mitigated.

Greater Threat to Some Species

Conservationists have long viewed compensatory mitigation as a common sense approach to balancing development with fish, wildlife, and habitat values. It is a fundamental component of land-use management, habitat conservation, and recovery of endangered or threatened populations.

These decisions to scale back on mitigation are not only harmful for listed species, but also for species that are most at risk of being listed in the future.

In states like Colorado and Nevada, which rely heavily on mitigation for impacts to the sagebrush ecosystem for their conservation strategies, these policy changes also undermine collaborative work to restore sage grouse populations and habitat across the West.

Chipping Away at Conservation Bedrock

At the center of DOI’s argument for these changes is that the department and its agencies have no legal authority to require mitigation. That may be true in a purely legal context, but the BLM most certainly has the authority and ample discretion to require developers to avoid, minimize, and even compensate for habitat impacts under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the National Environmental Protection Act (better known as NEPA), and other statutes governing federal land management and development on these lands.

Application of the full mitigation hierarchy is critical for the BLM to achieve its multiple-use and land health standards mandated by federal policy and statute. And if the agency would like to avoid pushing developers for compensation after damage occurs, there’s a real incentive to do better up-front planning to avoid impacts in the first place—which is what we all want.

Taking away the last line of defense for fish and wildlife only creates a wildly uneven playing field: Inevitably there will still be developers who want to do the right thing and mitigate for damages, but the door will be open for bad actors to simply ignore the costs of doing business on our public lands.

The DOI has stated that the policy changes won’t affect state mitigation policies, but most states do not require mitigation. Perhaps it’s time for state legislatures and Congress to consider codifying legal requirements for mitigation, as political swings and varying interpretations of policy and law have clearly taken us many steps backward in balancing our management of public lands and energy development.

What Sportsmen Can Do

Ultimately, we are disappointed to see DOI take steps to weaken a fundamental management tool and potentially create huge setbacks for conservation of a species like sage grouse and the quality of our public land experiences as hunters and anglers. These decisions do not reflect balance nor adherence to bedrock conservation laws, like NEPA and FLPMA, which protect habitat and guide us toward a careful balance.

The TRCP will continue working with our partners and a wide range of stakeholders—including conservation and sportsmen’s groups but also landowners and businesses—to speak up for habitat mitigation, especially in this new era of expanded development on public lands.

And you can help. Visit sportsmenscountry.org to send a message to lawmakers that they need to do more than keep our public lands public—they need to support policies that keep our public lands well-managed for all the ways we use them. Show them we are paying attention.

 

Photos courtesy of Tom Koerner/USFWS. 

Travis Cooke

July 26, 2018

What Didn’t End Up in a Military Spending Bill Makes All the Difference

Find out what we mean when we say that this policy fight gives us “sage-à vu”

We’ve said it before, but when it comes to conservation policy, sometimes the most meaningful victories are celebrated when something doesn’t happen.

America’s sportsmen and women enjoyed that kind of win this week, as we defeated an attempt to nullify collaborative, landscape-scale conservation efforts for sagebrush species across the West. Without the strong, united voice of our community, we might have seen a crowning achievement of habitat conservation severely diminished under dubious pretenses.

The story should sound familiar—the same bad idea has been put down in multiple sessions of Congress—but that doesn’t make the intention any less threatening: In the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which sets annual policy priorities and funding levels for America’s military forces, some lawmakers included a legislative rider preventing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from listing the greater sage grouse and lesser prairie chicken as endangered species for at least 10 years.

The House and Senate passed separate versions of the NDAA earlier in the summer, setting up a conference committee to iron out the differences between the two bills—including the sage grouse language.

Remind Us: Who Said What?

Perennial proponents of the rider cite military readiness as a deciding factor and point to sagebrush habitat on Department of Defense lands. Conservationists argue that this is a smokescreen for legislating wildlife management in a must-pass bill and ultimately undermines the epic collaborative effort to conserve sagebrush habitat across 11 Western states.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ultimately decided not to list the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act in 2015, largely based on cooperative efforts to amend 98 land-management plans across the sagebrush steppe. These plans reflect the importance of managing lands to conserve quality habitat for all sagebrush species, rather than setting arbitrary population targets just for these birds.

Courtesy of Bob Wick, BLM

Preventing any consideration of a future listing in the next 10 years would do little to hold stakeholders accountable for conservation promises.

So, Why Attack Conservation Already In Motion?

Each of the amended plans placed limitations on certain activities, like energy development, grazing, and outdoor recreation, in some areas. But listing the sage grouse as endangered or threatened would have imposed far more restrictions with greater impact on rural economies.

Rather than taking steps to fully implement these plans and prevent a future listing, Congressman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and others have simply tried to take listing off the table and undermine scientific and collaborative efforts through poor legislating of wildlife management.

Then the Pentagon Weighed In…

Supporters of the provision, led once again by Rep. Bishop, claimed that adhering to the revised land-management plans would harm military readiness. The Pentagon, meanwhile, couldn’t seem to pick a side.

Last Wednesday, news circulated that the Pentagon opposed the anti-sage-grouse provision in the NDAA because it was “not necessary to protect military testing and training.” The next day, however, the Pentagon reversed course, and said it did in fact support the provision. Flip-flopping is certainly common in Washington, but a complete 180 overnight raised some eyebrows.

Winning Without a Major Champion

In previous years, the conservation community relied on the steadfast leadership of Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who insisted on limiting the NDAA to topics “germane” to the military. This left Rep. Bishop’s anti-sage-grouse language on the cutting room floor after three previous attempts. Unfortunately, Sen. McCain’s health concerns prevented him from managing this year’s NDAA, raising doubts as to who would champion efforts to keep the provision out.

Thankfully, after months of public outcry from sportsmen and women and much behind-the-scenes debate, the conference committee released its final report—and it does not contain the anti-sage-grouse rider.

Conservation and wildlife advocates can celebrate today, but the fight is hardly over.

The Forecast for Funny Business

Within the next week, Congress will likely pass the NDAA without any more grouse-y shenanigans, but there are other legislative opportunities for such mischief. The BLM and U.S. Forest Service are currently revising the sage-grouse conservation plans agreed upon in 2015, and many scientists say that changes to the plans could undermine protections for the bird. The final outcome must focus on conservation, not hitting a target number of birds, otherwise we’re in for a serious dose of what we’re calling “sage-à vu”—revisiting an endangered or threatened species listing for sage grouse.

But more is at stake than just sage grouse in these comprehensive conservation plans. The sagebrush ecosystem is home to more than 350 different species of plants and animals, including such iconic species as mule deer, pronghorns, and elk—all of which are important to American sportsmen and women.

If lawmakers are successful at legislatively preventing a future listing decision or gutting conservation plans that took years to craft, stakeholders throughout the West, such as ranchers, landowners, sportsmen, and wildlife managers, might not feel the incentive to preserve quality habitat throughout the ecosystem. This could lead to habitat degradation and fragmentation for each of these species that, in aggregate, contribute to the rich sporting heritage of the American West.

The Power of Our United Voices

This week helped prove, once again, that when America’s sportsmen and women unite, we usually win. Over the years, thousands of TRCP members have raised their voices in support of conserving quality habitat in sagebrush country, particularly. You have made an investment of time and effort that we are continually trying to defend. And we understand that many Americans’ livelihoods are tied up in the eventual outcome for the West’s most iconic game bird.

So, yes! We did it. But we’ll have to do it again.

 

Top and bottom photo courtesy of Tom Koerner/USFWS.

Scott Laird

July 20, 2018

Montanans: Show Up and Speak Out for Public Lands

This is YOUR chance to play a role in how our public lands are managed and ensure that sportsmen and women have a say about the places where we love to hunt and fish

The Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest encompasses over 2.8 million acres in seventeen different Montana counties—from the Snowies and the Highwoods to the Upper Blackfoot and the Rocky Mountain Front. These landscapes provide some of the finest hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation opportunities in central and western Montana, as well as important habitat for big game, upland birds, and wild trout.

Currently, the U.S. Forest Service is revising the plan that will determine the future management of these lands. The Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest’s Draft Forest Plan and Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) was released in June with a 90-day public comment period, and sportsmen and women must get involved to ensure that the best habitats are conserved and public access for hunting and fishing is maintained.

Please attend one of eleven local public meetings in the next few weeks (see schedule below). These events will offer updates on the planning process, allow the public to share their ideas and opinions on the draft plan, and explain ways for interested citizens to stay involved.

The best way to see that our priorities are included in the plan is to have a presence and provide input at these meetings. Meeting dates, locations, and times, as well as suggested talking points are listed below.

Thank you for taking the time to support our public lands.

Where and When
 Meeting Location  Date   Time  Address
 Stanford  July 23, 2018  11am – 1pm  Stanford City Hall, 102 Central Ave
 Lewistown  July 23, 2018  5 – 7pm  BLM Office, 920 NE Main St.
 Harlowton  July 24, 2018  11am – 1pm  Harlowton Library, 13 Central Ave N.
White Sulphur Springs  July 24, 2018  5 – 7pm  WSS High School Cafeteria, 15 First Ave SE
 Helena  July 25, 2018  5 – 7pm  Radisson Hotel, 2301 Colonial Dr.
 Boulder  July 26, 2018  11am – 1pm  Boulder Fairgrounds Volunteer Hall, 21 Whitetail Rd.
 Townsend  July 26, 2018  5 – 7pm  Townsend Library, 201 N. Spruce St.
 Lincoln  July 30, 2018  5 – 7pm  Lincoln Community Hall, 404 Main St.
 Choteau  August 1, 2018  5 – 7pm  Stage Stop Inn, 1005 Main Ave. N.
 Great Falls  August 2, 2018  5 – 7pm  Civic Center, 2 Park Dr. S.
 Browning TBD TBD Check back for updates

 

Suggested Talking Points
  • Conservation of unfragmented, functional habitats: These high-quality habitats benefit wild trout populations, and they provide the cover needed to support Montana’s 5-week general elk season. Backcountry public lands also enable hunters to get away from the crowds and enjoy a quality hunting experience.
  • Wildlife and fisheries restoration and enhancement: We encourage and support efforts to prioritize active habitat restoration and enhancement on the landscape to benefit cold water fisheries, big game and other wildlife species.
  • Public access: Public access is necessary for outdoor recreation. We encourage the forest service to maintain existing public access important for sportsmen and women, while expanding public access to parts of the forest that are difficult to reach because of surrounding private lands. Road access needs should be balanced with the habitat needs of deer and elk.

 

Photo courtesy of USFS Northern Region

Anna Grubb

July 19, 2018

Featured Podcast: Shortlisting the Most Critical Conservation Issues We Face Today

No matter where you call home, these are the conservation issues you need to know about right now—get caught up in less than 60 minutes

TRCP’s visionary founder Jim Range recognized that conservation won’t work well if we only fight for what we see outside our own windows every day. It can’t be about Western lands and Eastern lands when it comes to America’s public lands. We can’t afford to stand on opposite sides of a dividing line between saltwater and freshwater fishing or big game and small game hunting.

In short, we can’t win on generation-defining conservation battles if we’re not working together.

On a recent episode of the East to West Hunting Podcast, our president and CEO Whit Fosburgh urges sportsmen and women across the country to recognize our greatest challenges and unite to take action. From conservation programs in the Farm Bill, the looming expiration of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and a fresh legislative attack on ownership of America’s public lands to invasive species, forage fish management, and the future of deer hunting, there is so much opportunity to find common ground.

Give it a listen below!

“We can talk about whether you want wilderness or managed public lands, that debate is a luxury. As long as we still have those public lands, we can have those debates” 

 

 

Learn more about the East to West Hunting Podcast here.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

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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.

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