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The TRCP’s scouting report on sportsmen’s issues in Congress
The Senate will be in session all week, except on Wednesday. The House will reconvene Tuesday, with votes expected on Thursday and Friday.
The much-ballyhooed arrival of Pope Francis on Tuesday brings Congressional business to a standstill, and leaves Congress with just four legislative days to negotiate a budget agreement to keep the government from shutting down on October 1. A compromise on defunding Planned Parenthood may have emerged out of Majority Whip Steve Scalise’s (R-LA) office: He suggested linking the controversial issue with the budget reconciliation process and letting a clean funding agreement move forward in the meantime. Now, conservatives in both chambers just need to agree to that strategy. If they don’t, House Speaker Boehner will have to choose between using Democratic votes to keep the government open or siding with House conservatives to pass a bill that the Senate can’t pass and the President won’t sign, ensuring shutdown gridlock. His history seems to indicate a clean bill will come forward, but some in the most conservative wings of the House GOP caucus have begun to foment a rebellion against the Speaker if he takes the route of compromise.
In the Senate, the Majority Leader has filed cloture on the motion to proceed to the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, legislation that would ban abortions after 20 weeks. The Senate will consider it on the floor on Tuesday. The cloture effort is almost certain to fail, but may serve to illustrate more clearly that the Senate simply cannot move legislation dealing with abortion (including Planned Parenthood defunding.)
Anything else to worry about? Yep, September 30 is still the deadline for a listing decision from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on greater sage grouse (read about their most recent population numbers here) and reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (contact your lawmaker about LWCF here.)
On the Floor
The House will begin consideration of Rep. Marion’s (R-PA) RAPID Act (H.R. 348), legislation that would establish regulatory review for environmental assessments. Both Chambers will hold a joint session with Pope Francis on Thursday at 10:00AM.
The pending decision on federal protections for the greater sage grouse has dominated a lot of the recent discussion about conservation in America. After all, multiple industries and millions of people have a lot at stake when it comes to use of lands containing the iconic Western sagebrush habitat, where the birds are determined to be at risk.
‘But, wait,’ you might say, ‘I just read that the sage grouse populations are rebounding.’ You wouldn’t be wrong, but we have a long way to go, and there is still justification to move forward with landscape-scale conservation, the results of collaborative planning efforts like we’ve never seen before.
Let’s clear this up.
For many species of wildlife, like the greater sage grouse, it’s extremely difficult to count or estimate population sizes and trends. Gamebird populations are often cyclical—they can wax and wane over the course of up to 10-year cycles—and fluctuate closely with precipitation levels. Rain yields grass, grass serves as ground cover, and cover usually translates to good nest production and chick survival.
It’s easy to get depressed when bird numbers are down or get excited when they are up. It’s also easy to jump to premature conclusions about what those numbers really mean, if we forget that one year’s counts are just a small part of the bigger picture.
Just two years ago, amidst a serious West-wide drought, numbers of male sage grouse attending their dancing grounds, or leks, were at near-record lows. Recently, however, rains have drenched much of the birds’ range, and numbers have responded as most might expect. In fact, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) recently reported a range-wide increase in males attending leks in 2015—up 63 percent from 2013.
While this is great news, some opponents of federal land management plans, which are about to be signed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), are taking these numbers completely out of context to support their agenda. In an August 24 letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, the American Exploration and Mining Association said, “We believe this study demonstrates that state and private conservation efforts to conserve greater sage grouse and its habitat are working… It also demonstrates that the mineral withdrawals and draconian land use and travel restrictions in the proposed Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) land use plan amendments are unnecessary to provide meaningful protection of sage-grouse habitat. The WAFWA report provides ample data and evidence in support of BLM adopting each state plan as the land use plan amendments across the 11 sage-grouse states.”
Other groups have made similar claims that increased numbers of grouse somehow prove that the BLM plans are unnecessary and that state plans and voluntary efforts are adequate. These statements are wildly misleading for a number of reasons. First, and foremost, the recent increase in sage grouse populations has not altered the overall downward trend from 1965 to present—the average decline over the past 50 years is actually about one percent a year, slowly but surely chipping away at the basis for survival of the species.
Also, the 63-percent increase this year is relative to the second-lowest counts on record. While perhaps on the high end, this increase falls within the range of normal fluctuations for any gamebird population, especially given the climate conditions across much of the birds’ range. Fluctuations documented by the WAFWA report cannot be attributed to any one factor. This analysis was not designed to isolate the effectiveness of state plans, voluntary measures, or any other conservation effort, and shouldn’t be used to make that case. WAFWA makes this very clear in its report and in the accompanying press release.
Recently-employed conservation efforts have no doubt contributed to the improvement of conditions, but it is premature to say that increased numbers of males at leks are being driven by those efforts. It’s certainly inappropriate to debunk the need for strong conservation on federal lands that make up a significant portion of the birds’ range and that must be managed for multiple uses, like sustainable ranching, responsible energy development, and recreation. State conservation efforts are fundamental to achieving long-term conservation, but they cannot stand alone. And at this point, despite what opponents may say, there is no scientific data to prove that they should.
The good news is that climatic conditions have aided the population’s rebound and further conservation efforts are about to be put in place across the Western landscape by federal, state, and private sectors. This “all-of-the-above” approach is, in my opinion, the only way we’ll get to a place where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can say that sage grouse are not warranted for Endangered Species Act protections—and defend that decision in court. Only then do we have any chance of reversing long-term overall habitat and population trends from negative to positive.
One great benefit of working in fish and wildlife conservation is the opportunity to intimately familiarize myself with the areas where I hunt and fish, especially as I’m fighting to protect them. Last Wednesday I was lucky enough to get a truly unique perspective on our state’s South Park region, as I looked down on this haven for hunters, anglers, and recreationists from a six-passenger aircraft.
All of South Park’s legendary public lands and waters were spread out before me, including the section of the South Platte known as the “Dream Stream” and recognized by Colorado Parks and Wildlife as gold-medal waters. I also spotted the few lesser-known public hunting grounds that I frequent, hoping every season that these areas remain as under-the-radar—excuse the pun—as they are productive in turning out big bulls.
It made me think of “the big picture” that many stakeholders—including county agencies, ranchers, sporting groups, water utilities, environmental organizations, landowners, and extractive industries—as the BLM recently initiated its South Park Master Leasing Plan process. With America being so politicized these days, it’s hard to find consensus on issues dealing with land management in the West, especially when extremists are crying for the seizure and potential sale of our federal public lands. But this group’s level of collaboration has been refreshing and exceptional.
Of course the process hasn’t been without contention. Not everyone agrees on every aspect the plan for every township in South Park, yet everyone at the table seems to share the goal of maintaining an overall way of life in the valley—and it’s not all that different from how we live today. We’re working towards managing the federal public lands of this area in a way that maximizes the benefit to all users. That means protecting irreplaceable fish and wildlife habitat and putting industrialization pressure only on the lands that can handle it.
As we move forward in the BLM planning process, it is absolutely crucial that members of the community, especially hunters and anglers who rely on these public lands, make our voices heard. It may take a few years to finalize these plans, but they will dictate management activities through multiple presidential administrations and waves of bureaucracy over the next 20 years.
For more information, and to get involved, visit the BLM planning page.
In an increasingly crowded and pay-to-play world, America’s 640 million acres of public lands – including our national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands–have become the nation’s mightiest hunting and fishing strongholds. This is especially true in the West, where according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 72 percent of sportsmen depend on access to public lands for hunting. Without these vast expanses of prairie and sagebrush, foothills and towering peaks, the traditions of hunting and fishing as we have known them for the past century would be lost. Gone also would be a very basic American value: the unique and abundant freedom we’ve known for all of us, rich and poor and in-between, to experience our undeveloped and wild spaces, natural wonders, wildlife and waters, and the assets that have made life and citizenship in our country the envy of the world.
In Part Eight of our series, we stop in at Utah’s Book Cliffs.
Stretching almost 200 miles from Price, Utah, to Palisades, Colorado, the Book Cliffs comprise the longest continuous escarpment in the world. High plateaus of ponderosa pines, firs, and aspen groves, and staggered lines of towering cliffs and isolated canyons, open out onto arid plains. Because the terrain and the vegetation changes so much with altitude, it is near-perfect mule deer and elk country, where summer range and winter range are closely connected.
When American sportsmen began restoring the wildlife lost during the settlement of the West, it was BLM public lands like those in the Book Cliffs that made the experiment the most successful wildlife recovery on earth. Today, there’s a limited draw hunt for trophy elk and mule deer here. Colorado River cutthroat trout, wild bison, and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep have been restored, and pronghorn numbers are strong. All of these success stories were written almost entirely using sportsmen’s dollars on healthy public lands accessible to all Americans.
In 2012, the Utah legislature passed H.B. 148, “Transfer of Public Lands Act and Related Study,” a demand for 31 million acres of public lands like those in the Book Cliffs to be given to the state. You see, the cliffs are also a rich source of natural gas, coal, oil, helium, and potentially new reserves of oil.
Energy development under federal management has already been extensive enough here to pose real threats to big game and other wildlife resources. Federal management under the principles of multiple-use and sustained yield has forced the BLM to create management plans that at least lessen the impact of development on wildlife.
As reported in a recent Utah study, the transfer of public lands would mean that the state would face huge new expenses for land management—an estimated $280 million per year. Utah has already sold 4.1 million of the 7.5 million acres it was granted at statehood, and millions of acres of the most valuable public lands could still be sold to foreign companies and billionaires, cutting off public access forever. If the state were to retain energy-rich lands like the Book Cliffs, it would need to aggressively develop mineral resources in order to cover the enormous costs associated with the management of its other lands. Energy-producing landscapes like the Book Cliffs would be industrialized at a scale that far exceeds levels under federal management, leaving nothing behind worth accessing.
Utah remains the epicenter of the land seizure movement, and two bills were passed during the 2015 state legislative session that are aimed at undermining America’s public lands heritage. Fortunately, Utah’s fervor for public lands seizure is not matched in most other states, and sportsmen will continue working to keep it that way.
Stay tuned. In the rest of this 10-part series, we’ll continue to cover some of America’s finest hunting and fishing destinations that could be permanently seized from the public if politicians have their way.
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