The TRCP’s scouting report on sportsmen’s issues in Congress
The Senate and the House will be in session this week.
Flint could derail a sweeping energy bill while Obama delivers his last budget request. The Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015 enters its third week on the floor of the United States Senate this afternoon, after a Thursday cloture vote to end debate on the measure failed and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) held negotiations over the weekend. Hundreds of amendments have been filed, but the real question is whether the water crisis in Flint, Mich., will hold things up indefinitely. If an agreement on providing aid to Flint can be reached, the Energy Bill is expected to move forward, with a slew of votes and final passage tomorrow. However, without an agreement on Flint, the Senate may be forced to move on to North Korean sanctions later in the week.
The Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act, has also emerged as an issue in the wide-ranging energy bill. Senator Murkowski has offered only the half of the Sportsmen’s Act that passed out of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee as an amendment (reminder: here’s what’s in that half), an action that leaves the other portion of the bill, recently passed by the Environment and Public Works Committee, on the cutting room floor. This would prevent a clear path forward for the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA), National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, or the Fish Habitat Conservation Act. We expect all of these issues to be resolved, one way or the other, by the end of the day Tuesday.
On the same day, President Obama will publicly announce his final presidential budget request, for fiscal year 2017. It was revealed last week that the budget proposal will include full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) at $900 million. Read more about that here. You may remember that Congress passed a two-year bipartisan budget agreement back in October 2015, so the expectation is that Congress will move directly to appropriations measures for FY2017.
What we learned from Louisville locals at last week’s Deer & Turkey Expo
Everyone likes a day out of the office, but we really cherish opportunities to be in the field, chatting one-on-one with sportsmen and women who have deep personal connections to the conservation issues we work so hard to drive, fund, or promote.
Late last week, we got the chance to do that in Louisville, Ky., at the Field & Stream/Outdoor Life Deer & Turkey Expo. This was the first of five regional expos this year and our very first time participating in one, and we were blown away by the people we met—hunters from the Upper South and Midwest, representatives from 150 exhibitors, and experts running workshops on everything from calling and decoying gobblers to hunting for shed antlers with dogs.
We were thrilled (but not surprised) to find that so many sportsmen in the region share our feelings about access, habitat, and quality days afield. Here’s what was important to the folks we talked to:
Access: Kentucky—and much of the region—is mostly locked up in private lands, so it’s fairly obvious that sportsmen do much of their hunting on private property. But we kept hearing that even private land access is disappearing as landowners face down liability issues and encroaching development. This raises the stakes for the few public lands, like wildlife management areas, available to local hunters. Although these local WMAs can’t hold a candle to the vast public lands out West, they are in some cases the only viable option, especially for budding outdoorsmen who aren’t ready or able to invest in a lot of travel to hunt or fish. We talked with one ten-year-old boy, already an avid hunter, who called himself “privileged” and “blessed” to have access to public lands in his home state. At that moment we couldn’t have been more proud of the work we do to ensure all sportsmen have quality places to hunt and fish.
Healthy habitat: Access means nothing without decent cover or a hardy food source for the game we pursue. We traded tips and tricks for turning private lands habitat into a honey hole—everything from planting quality food plots to taking advantage of state and national programs that can cover the cost of attracting game. For instance, many landowners that we spoke with didn’t know that CRP works for sportsmen and for wildlife by paying cost-share for food plots, tree plantings, or field and stream buffers—all things that make whitetails and wild turkeys fat and happy.
Quality days afield: Everyone loves a “big fish” story, and we heard many deer-woods equivalents as we swapped hunting stories from the past season with expo attendees. Even when hunters told us about going home empty-handed, they still told a terrific tale. As our partners at the Quality Deer Management Association say: “We measure success in memories made, not inches of antler.” That said, there were many inches of antler on display, too! The trophy deer contest was one of the highlights of the event, and we gladly congratulated hunters on their trophy mounts—another reminder that solid resource management on public and private lands means bigger, better harvests for sportsmen.
All in all, it was a fantastic event, and we’re looking forward to swapping more tips and tales later this year. We’ll be at the Deer & Turkey Expos in Madison, Wis., from April 1 to 3 and in Bloomington, Ill., from August 12 to 14. If you’re in the area, we hope you’ll stop by our deer camp and talk conservation with us. See you there!
Louisiana Biologists Are Tracking Potential Monsters in the Depths of Lake Pontchartrain
How telemetry tag data could improve the odds of redfish and trout reaching trophy size
Ashley Ferguson may not be a fish surgeon, but she’s become pretty handy with a scalpel and sutures over the last four years. Ferguson is one of a half-dozen fisheries biologists with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries who implant telemetry tags in redfish, speckled trout, sharks, and—hopefully—tarpon in the Lake Pontchartrain Basin.
Each tag sends a unique signal in the form of a “ping” to a series of yellow buoys anchored in strategic locations throughout Louisiana’s largest brackish-water lake. Analysis of data from the buoys is helping biologists better understand how fish use different types of habitat and react to changes in temperature, forage, and salinity.
“We have a buoy on every artificial reef, on each of the major bridges, and in the passes leading into and out of the lake,” says Ferguson. “If one of our tagged fish swims within 500 yards of a buoy, we can download the information and establish a pattern of where those fish are moving—and why.”
The study was launched in 2012 as a cooperative effort between Louisiana State University and the department, but it has been run by Wildlife and Fisheries in the last two years, thanks to grants from the angler-driven Sport Fish Restoration Fund.
Avid Lake Pontchartrain anglers are in on the project in a hands-on way, as well. For three to four days each year, anglers aim to catch trout that are longer than 18 inches and redfish that are longer than 21 inches and keep them in their live wells for the journey to the Percy Viosca, Jr., a converted aging shrimp boat where fish are held in oxygenated tanks.
That’s where Ferguson and her team get to work cutting and stitching.
Once a telemetry beacon is inserted, the fish’s backs are marked with a light blue tag to help anglers recognize them as part of the study so they can be released. From the launch of the project through the end of 2015, the team tagged 244 trout, 64 redfish and 18 bull sharks.
On a rare windless day in early January, I joined biologists and a handful of anglers on Lake Pontchartrain to add to the trout and redfish totals. Gulls diving on hand-sized white shrimp pointed to the location of huge schools of trout and redfish along the south shore. By noon, more than 20 new tags were pinging silently from stomach cavities.
Biologists were particularly interested in capitalizing on the ideal fishing weather because of the changes coming to Lake Pontchartrain this winter and spring. Just 48 hours after the fish were tagged, the Army Corps of Engineers opened the Bonnet Carre Spillway, a relief valve that directs sediment-laden flood waters from the Mississippi River into the lake when river levels threaten to overtop levees in New Orleans. Bonnet Carre’s gates only open about once a decade, but this year’s opening comes just five years after record flooding that forced the opening of spillways throughout the Mississippi River Basin.
“This year is the first time since we started the study when we’ve had a spillway opening, and we want to see where the fish go, if they leave, and how long it takes them to come back,” says biologist and fish tagger Craig Gothreaux. “Usually, a spillway opening causes a temporary displacement, and the saltwater fish return when salinities come back up a couple of months after the gates are closed. But, do the redfish behave differently than the trout? Does opening the spillway this early in the year have an effect because the water is colder? Hopefully we can figure that out by looking at what we get from the tags.”
What biologists have figured out, spillway open or not, is that many of the area’s renowned trophy trout leave the lake in early June to spawn in the saltier adjacent waters of Mississippi Sound and Breton Sound. Buoys in the passes leading to and from the lake light up again in early fall as trout return to feast on annual crops of white shrimp and menhaden—which get even larger after a spillway opening.
“If they leave the lake or just stay here and find the pockets of salty water, we’ll be able to read the buoy data and know,” Ferguson says. “Even if they go to Mississippi or Alabama by chance, we’ll know because researchers there use the same equipment and each tag sends a unique signal.”
Ferguson adds that the data shared among Gulf States is helping track other species, like the endangered Gulf Sturgeon, and will allow for an expansion of tagging efforts across the region on fish like red snapper, grouper, and even highly-migratory king mackerel and tuna.
The TRCP and its conservation partners have recommended expanding on projects like Louisiana’s telemetry tagging effort, which will be essential to the long-term monitoring of fish stocks in the wake of the 2010 oil spill. The data collected will help biologists establish baseline information vital to understanding how future disasters and weather events affect fisheries. The tagging efforts also give anglers an opportunity to be more involved in helping scientists gather important information—consider it a normal day of fishing with a little biology lab thrown in.
Want a peek at the travel routes of these fish? Click here.
To learn more about the TRCP’s work in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond, visit our website: trcp.org
The TRCP’s scouting report on sportsmen’s issues in Congress
Snowcation is over. Both the Senate and House are back to work this week.
It’s primary caucus day in Iowa, y’all, and Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton hold leads in the Hawkeye State. Next Tuesday, February 9, is the New Hampshire primary, where Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders hold polling leads.
Meanwhile, back in D.C., the Senate will continue floor consideration of the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015. This bipartisan energy bill has been subject to an open amendment process, resulting in hundreds of amendments being filed on such controversial issues as drinking water contamination in Flint, Mich., the administration’s recent halt of new coal leases on federal lands, and the ongoing financial crisis in Puerto Rico. Senator Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Senator Cantwell (D-Wash.) will need to navigate the amendment process in a way that does not erode support for the underlying legislation, which, as it stands, is widely supported. Senate leadership expects the comprehensive energy bill, the first on the Senate floor since 2007, to be concluded by the end of this week.
One widely-supported amendment is the bipartisan Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act, filed by Senators Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) to create a renewable energy permitting program and expedite project permitting in areas identified as having the best renewable potential and lowest conflicts for wildlife and recreation. The amendment would create a revenue stream from public lands renewable energy generation that would be divided to pay into permit processing fees, counties, states, and a fund for wildlife, land, and water conservation projects. Many sportsmen’s groups have gone on record in support of this important amendment, which may come up for a vote this week in the Senate.
The House will be attempting to override the President’s veto of an Obamacare repeal measure, although the vote is expected to fall short of the two-thirds requirement. The House will also vote on legislation that would prevent the Obama administration from lifting sanctions on Iran.
What We’re Tracking:
Tuesday, February 2, 2016
Northeast coastal fisheries, to be discussed in aHouse Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans hearing regarding the EEZ Clarification Act and legislation on exempting importation and exportation of sea urchins and sea cucumbers
Energy infrastructure, in a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power hearing regarding this legislation
The 2016 Water Resources Development Act—legislation that authorizes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to carry out navigation, flood control, shoreline protection, hydropower, dam safety, water supply, recreation, and environmental restoration and protection activities—will be discussed by theHouse Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment
Wednesday, February 3, 2016
Water crisis in Flint, Mich., in a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing
Water quality and the Endangered Species Act will be the subject of a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on the Stream Protection Rule and how it impacts bedrock conservation legislation, like the ESA and the Clean Water Act
Emissions regulations on the docket in a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power hearing regarding two EPA bills, including one that would ease up on emission requirements for coal-burning power plants
Real Conservation Has Been Blocked at Malheur: Who Will Foot the Bill?
A legislative tool could make criminal fines work for wildlife
For much of the last four weeks, while extremists have occupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, we have focused on how sportsmen and women are being robbed of their access to hunt and fish on the refuge and how the militants’ views on public lands management are inconsistent with that of the Burns community. Now, information is being released on just how much damage the incident could inflict to ongoing conservation efforts. With refuge staff barred from the site, years of progress and millions of dollars spent combating invasion species, like common carp, could go to waste.
Fisheries biologists had already installed screens and traps that prevent the carp from moving between bodies of water to spawn in unwanted areas, but the militants’ stakeout interrupted routine maintenance of the screens. Flooding from winter weather has permitted carp again to move freely between these waters. What’s more, the growing carp population could kick up mucky water that would keep sunlight from reaching other aquatic vegetation that is a critical food source for migratory bird species like waterfowl. And when all this is over, taxpayers, including sportsmen, will pay for these losses.
Agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Park Service operate under a law called the Resource Protection Act (RPA), which allows them to benefit from fines collected after an incident like Malheur. The Fish and Wildlife Service is not eligible for RPA funds to help restore damage to the refuge, but it could be.
A bill to divert criminal fines back into the National Wildlife Refuge System has been introduced in previous sessions of Congress, but as of now, the penalties from criminal activity at Malheur will be placed directly into the National Treasury, leaving the Fish and Wildlife Service to pay for the restoration efforts without additional funds. The Malheur occupation is not the first time the refuge system has dealt with criminals jeopardizing conservation efforts. In 2005, a pipeline excavated without permission on the San Bernard NWR in Texas resulted in $7.6 million of damage to fish and wildlife habitat and $11,000 in fines went straight to the Treasury. Eleven years later, the refuge still hasn’t seen the funds to perform the necessary restorations.
Let’s not allow Bundy’s gang to leave a similar legacy at Malheur. If there’s any benefit to their attention grabbing, let it be the discussion of real solutions for funding repairs and mitigation at the refuge and for ongoing land management issues in the West.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
CONSERVATION WORKS FOR AMERICA
As our nation rebounds from the COVID pandemic, policymakers are considering significant investments in infrastructure. Hunters and anglers see this as an opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations.