Randall Williams

August 7, 2019

Sportsmen Respond to Forest Service’s Plans for Southwestern Colorado

New management guidelines address some priorities for hunters and anglers, while other important areas were excluded from needed management direction

Yesterday, the Rio Grande National Forest released its Final Environmental Impact Statement and final Land Management Plan for the forest. The planning process involved nearly five years of engagement by hunters and anglers and provides high-level direction for management of these crucial resources over the next 20 years. The final Rio Grande National Forest plan will be the first to be finalized under the new planning direction and will serve as an example for future forest plans.

Overall, sportsmen and women are considering the pluses and minuses regarding a new plan for the management of 1.86 million acres in southwestern Colorado that includes important big game winter and migratory habitats, vital riparian and aquatic areas, a stronghold for Rio Grande cutthroat trout, and thousands of acres of excellent backcountry hunting and fishing opportunities.

Some important aspects of the new planning rule will have big impacts on hunting and fishing. The Forest Service will be placing greater focus on landscape-level management, social and economic sustainability, ecological sustainability, plant and animal diversity, and the use of the best available scientific information. The Rio Grande plan addresses these areas of focus, but also lacks sufficient management direction for some areas that are crucial for fish and wildlife in the field office.

“This plan does well to ensure quality hunting and fishing opportunities over the life of the plan in some regards, while other areas need improvement” said Nick Payne, Colorado representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We’re glad that that the Forest Service took our community’s input throughout this process and incorporated some of it into the final plan. This includes the addition of bighorn sheep to the list of species of conservation concern, and the clear direction from the planning rule.”

“While the positive changes are appreciated,” Payne said, “it’s also important that the Forest Service take steps during the objection period to address ‘Special Interest Areas’ so they’re managed as needed to help maintain our outdoor traditions on the Rio Grande National Forest and surrounding lands. This 60-day objection period is our last chance to get this right.”

The release of the draft plan starts a 60-day objection period, ending October 1st, during which members of the public can raise objections to specific parts of the proposed plan.

Details on how to comment can be found here: https://cara.ecosystem-management.org/Public//CommentInput?Project=46078

 

 

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Ed Arnett

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August 5, 2019

Forest Service Unveils Final Changes to Sage Grouse Conservation Plans

Amended plans for 5 million acres of sage grouse habitat follow a concerning trend

The U.S. Forest Service has released its final proposed amendments and records of decision for plans to conserve greater sage grouse habitat in Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. The new plans replace forest plans from 2015, which helped to give the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confidence that the bird did not yet require listing as threatened or endangered.

While these state-specific plans maintain the basic framework of the originals, which were created through years of collaborative effort, there is concern that the new plans do not provide the same safeguards for certain sagebrush habitats. Priority habitat has been reduced and there is more potential for development and mineral extraction within sage grouse habitat in the new plans.

Similar changes were made to the Bureau of Land Management’s sage grouse conservation plans earlier this year.

“While perhaps not surprising, these changes are another mixed bag, with some addressing legitimate concerns from the states and others rolling back smart protections for core sage grouse habitat,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Ultimately, we need federal land managers to commit to an approach that produces positive results for sage grouse habitat and populations. And we will continue working with the Forest Service, BLM, Western states, industry, and local partners to ensure that happens.”

The final plans identify and address potential environmental impacts for 19 national forest units with more than 5 million acres of potential greater sage grouse habitat. In this version, the strongest level of habitat protection given in the 2015 plans were weakened for more than 865,000 acres of sagebrush focal areas in Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming, and overall priority habitat management areas were reduced by about 160,000 acres.

General habitat management areas were removed altogether in Utah. While the original no-surface occupancy policy remains—meaning infrastructure for development cannot be built on priority habitat—the revised plans also give the Service and BLM more flexibility to waive these protections if they feel it’s necessary.

Unlike the BLM’s new stance on habitat mitigation, the Forest Service retained its compensatory mitigation requirements to offset the impacts of development in sage grouse habitat. However, for all states except Nevada, the plans shift the bottom-line goal for conservation away from a habitat gain to a no-net-loss standard.

This is really the least the agency can do to retain existing habitat, but it might not keep these birds off the endangered species list in the future, which was the goal when mitigation was included as a fundamental component of the 2015 plans. We can support better alignment with the states’ individual approaches to mitigation, but all habitat impacts must be mitigated and should also account for the future risk of losing the habitat.

The release of these new plans kicks off a 60-day objection period that will end October 1, 2019, and final decisions will be made by the Forest Service in December. At this point, it will be important for all federal agencies to move forward swiftly with implementation of these new plans to conserve sagebrush habitat and begin tracking the effectiveness of conservation measures.

Dr. Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, reminded us of this when the BLM plans were released: “The outcomes for sage grouse and sagebrush conservation and management must be legally defensible. If the agencies do not provide enough regulatory certainty, if there is too much flexibility leading to negative impacts on habitat, or if we find out later that actions were not effective, we will likely end up facing legal challenges deeper than those from the past. At that point, it’s difficult to see a future where sage grouse aren’t reconsidered for listing.”

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July 25, 2019

Sportsmen’s Groups Throw Support Behind Renewable Energy Legislation

Today’s House hearing will consider a measure that our coalition says will help protect wildlife and public lands with thoughtful planning and revenue for conservation

Sporting groups have rallied around a bill that would balance development of renewable energy with fish and wildlife conservation on public lands. The Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act of 2019, reintroduced earlier this month, was debated in a hearing this morning in the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.

The bill sponsored by Reps. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) and Mike Levin (D-Calif.) would:

  • Establish a forward-looking and efficient management system for wind and solar projects on public lands.
  • Direct at least 25 percent of royalties to a conservation fund.
  • Direct another 50 percent to state and local governments where projects are located.
  • Encourage smart planning and balance between development and protection of fish and wildlife resources.

Royalties directed into the newly established conservation fund could be used to restore fish and wildlife habitat affected by development and maintain access to hunting and fishing opportunities on public lands.

The bipartisan measure is aimed at building the framework for more efficient, responsible development of renewable energy on public lands. By planning ahead and identifying priority areas for wind, solar, and geothermal development, PLREDA encourages smart siting and efficient permitting of projects in places with high potential for energy and low impact on wildlife and habitat. (We outlined how PLREDA would work as it moved through Congress in 2017.)

Hunters and anglers are supportive of the development of renewable energy resources on public lands when it is done in the right places and in a manner that conserves fish and wildlife habitat as outlined in this bill.

“Renewable energy on public lands offers great potential to society, but it must be done right,” said Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited. “This bill does it right. It compensates local communities for the impacts of development and requires smart planning from the start. It creates a restoration and mitigation fund that ensures we take care of the fish, water, and wildlife resources upon which our nation depends. Trout Unlimited is grateful to the co-sponsors for their support of this important legislation.”

“This bill would achieve a rare win-win scenario by thoughtfully balancing renewable energy development and habitat needs, while creating a consistent stream of revenue to fund essential fish and wildlife management projects,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We’re heartened to see momentum behind this legislation, which will create opportunities to enhance sportsmen’s access, clean water resources, and critical habitat for important game species. This bipartisan bill and common-sense approach to conservation funding have TRCP’s full support.”

“Hunters and anglers support multiple uses, including energy development, on public lands with the understanding that fish and wildlife and the interests of sportsmen and women are acknowledged as a top priority,” said John Gale, conservation director for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “PLREDA does this by facilitating clean energy infrastructure, elevating considerations for fish and wildlife habitat and supporting local economies. We thank Reps. Gosar and Levin for their bipartisan leadership on this issue.”

Public lands contain some of the most valuable fish and wildlife habitat in the nation. These lands also provide a great opportunity for well-planned and properly mitigated renewable energy development projects that could contribute to job creation, reduce carbon pollution, and boost the conservation of natural resources for the benefit of this and future generations.

Conservation has been a hot topic with lawmakers in recent weeks. Learn more about a new bill that would invest roughly $1.4 billion in proactive, voluntary conservation efforts to benefit the most vulnerable species.

 

Top photo by Jim Hardy.

Kristyn Brady

July 18, 2019

TRCP Pitches Congress on Creating Better Drought Solutions While Improving Habitat

TRCP’s senior counsel and Colorado River expert speaks at a Senate hearing in support of legislation that would prioritize collaboration and natural solutions to water storage challenges

Melinda Kassen, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s senior counsel, testified this morning before the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power and offered the organization’s support for legislation that would help build drought resilience in the West.

“Hunters and anglers need water in the landscape,” said Kassen. “Outdoor recreation infuses $887 billion into the U.S. economy and is especially important for rural America. Fish swim in clean, flowing rivers and streams. Migratory birds feed and rest along the wetlands of our major flyways. Local bird populations nest along riparian corridors. But the TRCP, its partners, and other NGOs recognize that many interests compete for the West’s limited water supplies. Our experience shows that cooperation among diverse interests is the only path leading to durable solutions.”

Kassen testified on the Drought Resiliency and Water Supply Infrastructure Act (S. 1932), a bill that would strengthen the nation’s water supply and improve systems that help us respond to drought. She suggested several modifications to the proposed bill, including changes that would encourage better cooperation with Western state governments and allow more projects to improve natural water-storage systems, such as wetlands and riparian aquifers.

“Natural infrastructure allows the landscape to retain water and then release it for other uses,” said Kassen. “Like built water storage, natural storage makes wet season precipitation or runoff available during the next drier season with high water demand.”

She also called for funding to improve water conservation and efficiency efforts, including bold new programs to reduce water demand or boost voluntary conservation activities that will be critical in the Colorado River Basin and across the West.

Kassen is the third expert witness from the TRCP to testify in congressional hearings this year. In March 2019, Chief Conservation Officer Christy Plumer highlighted ways that Congress can support fish and wildlife this session, and President and CEO Whit Fosburgh offered solutions for tackling America’s public land access challenges.

Watch a video of Kassen’s testimony here:

Randall Williams

July 15, 2019

Sportsmen Respond to New Effort to Lease and Drill the Ruby Mountains

New proposal for oil and gas leasing highlights the need for congressional action

Sportsmen and women are vocally opposing a new effort to open up the Ruby Mountains to oil and gas development concerns over impacts ot habitat and wildlife.

Days after the U.S. Forest Service denied authorization for leasing 54,000 acres in Nevada’s Ruby Mountains, energy developers submitted two new requests to open this prized landscape to oil and gas drilling. A private entity filed new Expressions of Interest (EOIs) to lease 88,000 acres for oil and gas development in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. Many of the parcels would affect the same areas previously rejected for leasing.

“Sportsmen and women see this new threat to the Rubies as further proof that lawmakers must act to conserve this special place for future generations,” said Carl Erquiaga, Nevada field representative with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “The Ruby Mountains, known as Nevada’s Swiss Alps, are home to Nevada’s largest mule deer herd, critical populations of the threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout, and numerous other fish and wildlife species.”

In January 2019 Senator Cortez Masto introduced the Ruby Mountain Protection Act (S258) which would permanently withdraw from oil and gas exploration 450,000 acres in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest’s Ruby Mountain Ranger District. A coalition of 14 influential hunting, fishing, and wildlife conservation groups, Sportsmen for the Rubies, has called for lawmakers to pass the legislation.

“The Ruby Mountains, one of the most rugged and beautiful landscapes in the west, supports Nevada’s largest mule deer herd and offers untold hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation opportunities. This latest attempt to lease the Rubies underscores the need to pass S258 quickly,” said Pam Harrington, Nevada field coordinator with Trout Unlimited.

By law, federal agencies must respond to these EOIs through a formal process, representing a considerable demand on budgets and human resources. The previous round of leasing requests required more than a year and a half of work before the “no leasing” decision could be made. Now the agency must go through the process again with no certainty that the outcome will be the same.

“It’s clear that the threat to the Rubies won’t go away unless Congress takes action,” continued Erquiaga. “Hunters and anglers in Nevada are counting on lawmakers to do the right thing for this one-of-a-kind landscape.”

Learn more and take action at SportsmenfortheRubies.com.

 

Photo: USFS

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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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