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Conservation can’t just happen at point A or point B, because travel conditions impact the health of species like mule deer
As the great Thanksgiving migration commences on Wednesday, the busiest travel day of the year, it seems like an appropriate time to discuss these intrepid travelers—the mule deer herd that makes one of the longest known annual migrations of their entire species in the Western U.S. Last year, research using global positioning system collars revealed that the deer travel about 150 miles from the Red Desert in south-central Wyoming to the high mountains near Jackson Hole.
This month, the University of Wyoming’s Ruckelshaus Institute and the Wyoming Migration Initiative convened more than 160 scientists, wildlife managers, landowners, industry groups, and conservation professionals in Laramie, Wyo., to share more cutting edge science on big-game migrations in the West. I was among the participants gathered to discuss the next chapter for conserving and maintaining these critical migration corridors. Here’s what I learned:
Travel Conditions Matter
If you’re a waterfowl hunter or an avid birder, you know all too well how important migration is for these creatures. You would also know the importance of what are known as “stopover” habitats—places where animals can rest and refuel during their migrations before continuing on their journey from point A to point B. Recent advances in technology have allowed scientists to gather information on the exact location of migration corridors and stopover habitats with far greater accuracy. Researcher Hall Sawyer found that radio-collared mule deer traveling from the Red Desert to Hoback Junction in Wyoming spend up to 95 percent of their migration period in stopover habitat. Without these places, deer might not make it to their winter range in a healthy enough condition to survive the harsh winter. Sawyer summed it up best by asking us to imagine driving a long distance between two cities with no hotels, gas stations, or grocery stores in between.
This just illustrates that you can make every effort in the world to protect and enhance winter range, but it won’t mean much if the animals simply can’t get there, or if they arrive in poor condition.
It doesn’t take too much effort to see why sportsmen should care about the lengths that mule deer go to reach summer and wintering habitat, and the conditions they’re met with in between. I suspect the giant muley buck that my friend Steven Rinella shot this fall moved a good distance between summer and winter ranges and undoubtedly stopped many times along the way. Would he have even seen a buck like this if that migration corridor had been severed by a highway or other barrier five years earlier? Many migration routes have been lost in this way over the past several decades, which could be a key factor in long-term declines for mule deer populations across the West. And of course we know that decreased hunter opportunity translates into loss of income for many businesses in rural communities that are so dependent on sportsmen’s dollars.
Wanted: Better Data, More Support
More research on migration corridors and stopover habitats is necessary for us to more holistically conserve big-game populations across the West. Most of the information currently available comes from years of observations by biologists, game wardens, and sportsmen, but it’s often anecdotal, at best. Very few migrations have been identified using the latest in GPS technology, which pinpoints animal movements and plots maps with incredible accuracy.
But beyond getting more data, we also need greater understanding and engagement from the people who manage, own, or otherwise impact these lands. The science is helping us understand what we need to do, but landowners, industry officials, and sportsmen will have to champion the effort, like we do for so many habitat challenges. Building trust, clarifying expectations, quelling fears, will pave the path toward finding solutions for protecting these habitats.
Along Comes Policy
Public awareness and good science becomes even more critical when you consider that there are currently no specific policy or management requirements for migration corridors or stopover habitats on federal or state lands open to the public. State wildlife agencies often make recommendations to protect migration corridors and stopovers, but there are no policy guarantees to back them up or hold anyone accountable, including those who negatively impact this habitat. We need greater assurances for the future. At this month’s conference, Under Secretary of Agriculture Robert Bonnie and Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Jim Lyons shared their support for the conservation of migration corridors. Their agencies are exactly who we need to work with to develop a management strategy for migration corridors with policy assurances for the long-term commitment to improving conditions for big game and many other species.
Aldo Leopold noted that “to keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” We’re long overdue for an intelligent plan that does more than just tinker with our big game populations. It’s time to get the wheels turning toward a solid future for the West’s extraordinary big game populations and our uniquely American hunting heritage.
Watch a video of the mule deer migrations:
The plan sets a precedent for improving resiliency to drought and disaster without sacrificing fish and wildlife resources
On Thursday, the final version of a statewide plan for water conservation, the first of its kind in the Centennial State, was revealed at a Colorado Water Conservation Board meeting. The Colorado water plan is the result of a comprehensive two-year process to set statewide targets for cities and towns to meet in conserving precious water resources and ensuring the health of rivers and streams. The plan also includes proposed annual funding for river restoration projects and makes some assurances that new, costly, and controversial trans-mountain diversions will be avoided.
“The final Colorado water plan is a milestone in the long-term effort to protect water resources, fish and wildlife habitat, and the needs of agricultural producers and Front Range communities,” says Jimmy Hague, director of the Center for Water Resources at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP). “Hunters and anglers who submitted public feedback over the past year, during which 30,000 comments were considered, should be especially proud of their impacts on the planning process. It is clear that Colorado residents value the water resources that allow us to fish, kayak, and pursue healthy deer and elk.”
Earlier this year, the TRCP was joined by the Bull Moose Sportsmen’s Alliance, Colorado Wildlife Federation, Colorado Trout Unlimited, and Backcountry Hunters & Anglers in calling for a plan that prioritizes healthy rivers and streams and discourages large new trans-mountain diversion projects. These five groups sent a letter to Gov. Hickenlooper and Colorado Water Conservation Board leadership in April 2015.
“Of course, it does no good if these precedent-setting goals are simply filed away—sportsmen must remain engaged in implementing the plan, as it was intended, and get support from Colorado lawmakers to make it a success,” says Hague.
From river breaks to high mesas, and from sage coulees to semi-arid mountain ranges, America’s 245 million acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) public lands are some of the best places to hunt and fish remaining on the planet. Sportsmen and women in the West depend on publicly-accessible, healthy BLM lands to produce quality big game, robust fisheries, and sustainable opportunities for recreation.
These lands are Sportsmen’s Country—and it’s your turn to weigh in on how they are managed:
The Idaho High Divide is possibly the most unique and important public landscape in North America. This awe-inspiring terrain in eastern Idaho provides connectivity for species dependent on large landscapes and critical habitat for fish and wildlife species that are valued by sportsmen. Opportunity is incredibly diverse here: Hunters can pursue deer, elk, black bears, mountain lions, pronghorns, moose, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats, while anglers can land grayling in high-mountain lakes and cutthroat trout, steelhead, Chinook salmon, and sturgeon in the mighty Salmon River.
Oregon’s Beulah Wildlife Management Unit contains Westfall and Beulah buttes in Eastern Oregon, and hunters and anglers come from all over to experience the high-quality hunting and solitude here. Of course, year-round Beulah WMU is an Oregonian’s playground. During 2010’s mule deer season, rifle hunters enjoyed a 53-percent success rate, harvesting 1,348 deer, but these are popular hunting grounds for archery hunters in pursuit of elk, as well.
Then, of course, in the heart of Oregon lies the mighty Deschutes River. This major tributary of the Columbia River on the east side of the Cascade Range wanders north through basalt cliff canyons and offers world-class trout fishing for anyone who chooses to reach the river canyon through public land.
New Mexico’s Otero Mesa provides excellent habitat and hunting opportunities for mule deer, Barbary sheep, bighorn sheep, and the state’s only remaining native pronghorn antelope herds. A large portion—about 1.2 million acres of public land—is managed by the BLM, and a resource management plan (RMP) is currently in development for the area. Now is the time to speak up for this complex ecosystem featuring many native plants and more than 1,000 other species of wildlife.
Northwest Colorado is home to the largest elk herd in North America and elk hunting is a huge part of the state’s identity. Even with a booming population and trophy bulls being harvested year after year, demand is so high for public lands elk hunts in this part of the state that it can take up to 20 years to draw a license.
Not too far away, the Piceance Basin ‘mule deer factory,’ the second-largest mule deer herd in North America, has been in decline in recent years, due to development pressures and more roads weaving through the core of the population’s range. Sportsmen continue to cherish the large bucks being produced in this area and are intimately involved in decisions being made about mule deer habitat to help ensure that this herd remains healthy for generations to come.
The Arkansas River valley remains a crucial area for fish and wildlife and a haven for sportsmen in central Colorado, providing opportunities for bird and big game hunting and world-class wild trout fishing. Even more prized by sportsmen in this valley are its Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. Each year, a few luck hunters have the opportunity to pursue them in a mostly-intact and undeveloped backcountry setting—factors that are known to produce the hunt of a lifetime.
Thousands of sportsmen flock to South Park every year from the Front Range and around the country to fish the gold-medal waters of the South Platte River drainage. Great fishing access on several of these streams and rivers would not be possible without the surrounding federal public lands, state lands, and cooperation between private landholders and various land management agencies. The stretch of the South Platte known as the Dream Stream is well-known by flyfisherman across the country for consistently producing large brown and rainbow trout.
Want to contact your lawmakers and stand up for your favorite public lands? You can do it in just a few clicks—starting with this one.
The bipartisan package of bills would prioritize recreation on federal lands and reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund
Today the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted to advance S.556, “The Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act of 2015,” which would protect and enhance public access for hunting, fishing, and target-shooting on federal lands. The legislative package would require federal land managers to consider how management plans affect opportunities to engage in hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting and that the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service keep lands open to these activities. The bill also includes reauthorization of two key conservation programs.
“Lack of access is one of the major barriers to sustaining our uniquely American heritage of hunting and fishing—one that powers local economies and provides local jobs,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, who testified before the committee in support of the Sportsmen’s Act back in March. “We’re eager to see this legislation move forward and empower our federal land managers to make these assurances for the next generation of sportsmen and women.”
The Act mandates that, barring an emergency, publicly accessible hunting, fishing, and shooting areas cannot be closed without consultation of state fish and wildlife agencies or public notice. “For recreational fishermen, guides, and outfitters who drive spending in their local communities, the weather and water conditions can be unpredictable—but access to public waterways and boat ramps shouldn’t be,” says Ben Bulis, president of the American Fly Fishing Trade Association. Other provisions would allow the vehicular transport of safely secured bows and crossbows within federal parks and promote the use of volunteer hunters for wildlife management.
First introduced by Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Martin Heinrich in February 2015, the legislation also deals with reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act.
“It is just as important to uphold the public’s ability to access key lands and waters as it is to conserve them, so we thank Committee Chair Murkowski and Ranking Member Cantwell for including compromise language for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, one of our nation’s most popular and successful conservation programs, in the bill,” says Land Tawney, president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “The Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act of 2015 is a path forward for funding conservation programs that enhance fish and wildlife habitat and secure public access for hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation. We appreciate the committee’s commitment to advancing their portion of this important legislation.”
Hunting, fishing, and conservation groups are calling for both chambers to make floor time for a comprehensive sportsmen’s package as soon as possible, and certainly before the end of the 114th Congress.
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