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I was in an overcrowded and overheated hotel conference room in St. Louis, Missouri, talking about sage grouse when I started thinking about Chesapeake Bay striped bass.
What do sage grouse have to do with striped bass?
Well, both are iconic species, the very essence of the habitats they occupy. And both are widely sought by American sportsmen. Yet the future of each is uncertain, which should give hunters and anglers of all stripes a reason for pause: Increasingly it seems that the very species that define us as sportsmen find themselves in dire straits.
Just a couple weeks ago, in another hotel conference room in Annapolis, Maryland, the director of the Maryland Fisheries Service assured attendees at a symposium organized by the Coastal Conservation Association-Maryland that there is no striped bass crisis. But that does not mean fishery managers and fishermen aren’t worrying about the state of the Atlantic striper population.
When it comes to managing striped bass, officials care most about two factors: fishing mortality (i.e. the removal of fish from the stock due to fishing activities) and the spawning stock biomass (the number of female fish old enough to reproduce). When the spawning stock biomass drops, fishing mortality needs to drop with it; the arithmetic for a thriving fishery couldn’t be much clearer. For a decade, the striped bass spawning stock biomass has been falling, with a variety of factors, including habitat quality, nutritional issues and disease, all playing a role. But fishing pressure has not followed the downward trend. This means that striped bass may be subject to a fishing pressure that is unsustainable, promising very real problems for the fishery in the not too distant future.
There is no better way to ensure a crisis than by seeing one coming and doing nothing. While perhaps not a crisis today, a problem exists in striped bass country that requires action. Some combination of bigger minimums, reduced creels and/or shorter seasons are all on the table as fishery managers attempt to get out in front of a catastrophe in a major recreational fishery. The most aggressive steps will likely assure the best results, putting the fishery back on track in the shortest order. Of course, in exchange for maintaining the status quo today, some will champion a tepid response that kicks even tougher choices further down the road. Recreational anglers should reject this short-sightedness and support what the science indicates needs to happen.
And that is where we come back to the sage grouse, a species that is truly on the brink. Once widely hunted with long seasons and liberal bag limits, the federal government and 11 Western states are wringing their collective hands over a potential listing of the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. In striper country, we actually have the chance to write a different kind of story for our own iconic species.
I love the game of chasing chukar and watching bird dogs work the sagebrush of arid ranges in my home state of Oregon. Earlier this month, I decided to take my chances on another upland bird: the greater sage grouse. With the controversy surrounding the bird and its possible listing in 2015 under the Endangered Species Act, I decided to apply for a controlled hunt permit with the hope that this wouldn’t be my last opportunity to pursue the bird.
The sage grouse is a Western icon, known for its unique, breast-inflating courtship dance. It inhabits sagebrush rangelands throughout the West. State and federal agencies, ranchers, environmentalists and sportsmen are working diligently and cooperatively to prevent the bird’s ESA listing, which would eliminate any future opportunity for sportsmen to hunt sage grouse – and would have significant implications for other resource uses across 11 states.
The sagebrush ecosystem where these magnificent birds thrive is also home to more than 350 species of plants and animals, including many pursued by sportsmen. Mule deer, pronghorn, elk and other species all need healthy, intact sagebrush habitat for their survival. If we imaging a huge tent or umbrella with all these species protected beneath it, conserving sage grouse habitat translates into good wildlife and rangeland conservation. Sagebrush conservation is good for our nation’s economy, too, especially in rural communities.
Oregon is one of the few states a person can hunt sage grouse with a controlled hunting permit, with a two-bird limit per permit. In 2013, 659 people hunted sage grouse throughout Central and Southeast Oregon. Each of these sportsmen spent money on gas, food, lodging and gear for each hunt, and those dollars get distributed across rural areas all across the state.
After the postcard arrived in the mail validating that I drew a permit, the pre-planning began. My shotgun had not been fired for months and needed to be fitted, so I delivered it to a local gunsmith. Next, I had to decide where to go. The area I drew was in the Lakeview Bureau of Land Management district. Within that unit there is more than 1 million acres of public land available for hunting. I called the district biologist and a couple ranchers for their recommendations on places to go. I studied the BLM district maps for access roads and coordinated meeting a friend who also drew a tag. The trip was coming together.
With my gear packed and the dog ready to go, I began the five-hour journey to my destination. Some might wonder why I would hunt a bird that only has a bag limit of two and only a weeklong season. I see this as an opportunity to hunt a new place, experience wide-open spaces and watch bird dogs do what they do best – find birds!
The next morning we woke up early to get the dogs ready and drink that first cup of joe. Driving down the bumpy road anticipating the first bird, the dogs could sense our excitement. We parked near a spring, got the collars on the dogs and dusted off the guns. The sagebrush aroma filled my lungs, and Cedar, my pudalpointer, started working like a veteran. Though he never had hunted sage grouse before, he worked with authority searching for birds. This wasn’t his first rodeo.
We walked miles covering a flat, and after a few hours, we saw movement in the distance. It was a covey of sage grouse. The cover was low, and we were exposed, just like the birds, so we decided to walk a wide circle around them and approach them up wind. Keeping our eyes on the birds, we slowly moved in. They quickly spotted us and started walking. Soon they were out of shooting range, eventually flying off, splitting in two directions and landing a couple hundred yards away.
We decided to break apart and ambush the birds. Cedar and I worked the near side while Mellissa and her dogs worked in the distance. We eventually spotted the birds and moved in. They held, and Cedar crept in. The sage grouse looked at us. I moved in closer and closer. Finally they took wing. I took a shot, and a bird fell. Cedar circled around for the retrieve and pranced back with the smile of success.
Sportsmen can’t afford another loss of opportunity if the sage grouse is listed under the Endangered Species Act. Nor can sportsmen remain silent – our voices must be heard, and we must advocate for solid state and federal conservation plans for sage grouse that also will protect other species we enjoy pursuing. With hunter participation declining across the West, we must act and get involved to ensure sage grouse habitat is conserved and a listing is avoided. Sportsmen must define our own destiny and help conserve wildlife to retain all our opportunities – as well as those for future generations.
That statement is more than just a tagline. It is the simplest way to describe the mission of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the efforts we undertake every day to unite hunters and anglers around habitat conservation and sportsmen’s access. Without quality habitat and abundant critters we love to pursue, our time in the field or on the water would be greatly diminished. And without sportsmen’s access to those quality places, our opportunities to enjoy those resources will be limited.
Conservation and sportsmen’s access are fundamentally linked. While our mission might be simple, it will take all sportsmen working together to ensure conservation and access will continue to be linked for future generations.
TRCP’s Whit Fosburgh and Bass Pro Shops’ Johnny Morris co-authored an op-ed on this important subject in anticipation of National Hunting and Fishing Day on September 27th.
In a bipartisan display of contempt for sportsmen’s priorities last week, 262 members of the U.S. House of Representatives – 227 Republicans and 35 Democrats – voted to kill a rulemaking process to clarify the reach of the Clean Water Act.
Never mind that everyone up to and including the Supreme Court agrees the rulemaking is needed. Never mind that the public comment process – where sportsmen and any member of the public can provide input on and improve the proposed rule – is ongoing. And never mind that 13 leading sportsmen’s organizations wrote to Congress as recently as Sept. 8, 2014, urging the House to oppose the bill.
The message sportsmen should take away from this vote is these congressmen believe it is better to perpetuate the confusion that hinders effective use of the Clean Water Act in this country than restore protections for our wetlands and headwater streams.
You may have thought that the appearance this summer of a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico covering an area the size of Connecticut – an annual occurrence that is becoming all too commonplace – or an algal bloom in Lake Erie that cut off drinking water to 400,000 Ohioans would have persuaded Congress to consider ways to improve water quality. But the House is going in the opposite direction, and it threatens to continue the acceleration we are seeing in wetland loss and risks to headwater streams.
Fortunately, the legislation approved by the House stands little chance of becoming law in the near term. But these types of attacks against hunter and angler priorities should give all sportsmen pause. If we don’t let Congress know where we stand, they may eventually succeed.
To see if your member of Congress supported this attack on fisheries and waterfowl habitat, click here. (A “Yes” vote represents a vote against sportsmen in this case.)
In the last two years, policymakers have committed to significant investments in conservation, infrastructure, and reversing climate change. Hunters and anglers continue to be vocal about the opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations. Support solutions now.Learn More