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posted in: Farm Bill

April 4, 2016

Good News for Landowners During That Other Spring Season — Tax Season

Donors of conservation easements can take advantage of this new tax incentive right away 

Every spring, men and women across America experience an overwhelming sense of nervous anticipation. It motivates them to throw open drawers, haul boxes down from the attic, and gather all the essentials ahead of the big day. No, we’re not talking about the spring turkey opener or the Mid-Atlantic shad run—we’re talking about tax season.

Image courtesy of Matt Wells, Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust.

Ok, sure, filing your taxes isn’t nearly as fun or exciting as springtime in the outdoors, but there’s positive news for landowners, fish, and wildlife this tax season. We’re not tax experts*, but with less than two weeks before April 15, this may be one incentive you need to know about.

In December 2015, Congress made permanent a federal tax incentive for the donation of conservation easements to encourage landowners to conserve important natural resources while retaining ownership of their property. The law now adds the following benefits for donors:

  • The incentive raises the annual deduction a donor can receive for donating a conservation easement from 30 to 50 percent of his or her income.
  • Qualifying farmers and ranchers can deduct up to 100 percent of their income each year.
  • Donors can carry forward the tax deductions for a donated easement for 15 years, up from just five years.

(Our partners at the Land Trust Alliance put together a handy brochure that explains the changes in more detail—here’s where you can view it online.)

If you donated an easement last year, the incentive is retroactive to January 1, 2015, meaning you can take advantage of this new deduction right away. And if you own property and want to protect your lands and waters, you should consider donating a conservation easement in 2016. Conservation easements can be very flexible; they are tailor-made to the needs of each landowner and each piece of land, allowing you to continue to hunt and fish, farm, ranch, and harvest timber, as long as you preserve the land for natural habitat, open space, historical importance, or outdoor recreation or education.

And the added bonus for hunters and anglers? You can feel good knowing that your children and grandchildren will enjoy this land, and the fish or wildlife it supports, just as you did.

 *TRCP doesn’t handle conservation easements, but many of our partners do. Organizations like Land Trust Alliance, The Nature Conservancy, and Ducks Unlimited can help you get started. And, of course, you should contact your tax attorney or accountant for further guidance. 

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Kristyn Brady

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posted in: Farm Bill

February 1, 2016

Big Game Migration Corridors Are Getting More Consideration in Wyoming

Here’s how mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, and pronghorn will benefit

The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission has approved policy updates that will benefit big game animals along migration corridors. Last week’s decision came after more than a year of developing new science-based conservation strategies for these important movement corridors between winter and summer habitats for species like elk, mule deer, and pronghorn.

“No different than migratory birds, big-game animals must have access to quality habitat where they can rest and nourish themselves along their migratory journey,” says Ed Arnett, senior scientist for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Migration corridors and stopover areas have not received much attention or priority in conservation decisions, and we’re pleased to see that tide turning.”

Image courtesy of Nick Dobric.

Migration corridors are already recognized by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s policy as “vital” habitats, meaning they should be managed to ensure no net loss of population or habitat function. New data has introduced the need to define migratory bottlenecks—where animal movement becomes constrained, perhaps by a highway or fence—and stopover areas where animals feed and rest during migration. These policy definitions become important as the Game and Fish Department coordinates with federal land management agencies and other state agencies on common goals and decisions regarding energy development, mining, or recreational activities that may impact wildlife health and survival.

Updates to the policy were prompted by recent studies of mule deer migrating from Wyoming’s Red Desert to Hoback in the western half of the state. Mule deer are an icon of the American West and highly sought after by sportsmen in Wyoming and beyond. “Healthy populations of mule deer and other big game are a key economic driver for Wyoming’s economy,” says Josh Coursey, President and CEO of the Muley Fanatic Foundation. “The Commission’s decision will begin benefiting the wildlife and people of our state today and provide a model for others to follow in the future.”

“Sportsmen support multiple-use management, energy development, grazing, and other uses of our western landscapes, but we believe that all uses must be balanced with wildlife habitat needs,” says Joy Bannon, Field Director for the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, who added that collaboration made the new strategy possible. “Meetings between sportsmen, wildlife managers, and other stakeholders enabled us to collaboratively formulate a reasonable strategy for protecting our migrating elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and pronghorn.”

Coby Tigert

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posted in: Farm Bill

January 7, 2016

A Great Year in the Outdoors: Brought to You by Public Lands

To enjoy our best year of hunting and fishing yet, there can be no off-season for defending sportsmen’s access

As we flip the calendar to 2016, we’re given an opportunity to reflect on the past year. It also becomes painfully clear that we have many pages to turn before another fall season of hunting and fishing. For most sportsmen, fall is the culmination of a year’s worth of anticipation and preparation. It’s all-too-brief and usually departs imperceptibly, like a ghost buck on the edge of a field at last light.

Last year, I spent September chasing screaming elk near the Wyoming border. In October, I followed my bird dogs in pursuit of sharptails and partridges in the Tex Creek Wildlife Management Area near Idaho Falls, Idaho. In November, I was trying to outsmart rutting whitetails along the Snake River. The brief opportunity to catch Macks as they ventured into shallower waters to spawn in Bear Lake or to fight a powerful Salmon River steelhead fresh from the ocean was all that could persuade me to leave the woods. As a hunter, I give that time grudgingly. As an outdoorsman, I appreciate the change of pace. A couple of late-October days wading cold water is not just good for the soul—it provides a needed respite for legs pushed to their limits over untold miles before I charge into high-desert rim rocks and canyons of the Owyhees for chukars or jump-shoot mallards on open eddies and backwaters of the Snake.

Fall wouldn’t be so special—and I wouldn’t yearn for it the way I do—without healthy fish and wildlife habitat and abundant public access to the places where we can take on these challenges. Certainly, for millions of sportsmen around the country, America’s public lands are essential to the hunting and fishing experiences we’ve come to expect.

Photo by Coby Tigert

No matter the season, we all have a joint stake in America’s network of 640 million public acres—national lands that provide the habitat needed for fish and wildlife to thrive and access for all of us to pursue our sports. This is a uniquely American concept, dating back to the days of Theodore Roosevelt, and serves as the basis of our sporting heritage. We should not take it for granted.

All year long, the TRCP will continue working to galvanize sportsmen and women against the public land transfer movement in the West—and in Washington, D.C.—and there can be no off-season when it comes to these efforts. The future of our hunting and fishing opportunities and the legacy we leave for our children depend on us standing up for public lands today.

So, while we all yearn for fall, and hopefully enjoy a good bit of meat still in the freezer, I urge you not to forget these feelings: that hunting season will always feel too damned short, but we’re privileged to enjoy. There truly is no other place in the world quite like this.

There is still time to speak up for your hunting access. Sign the petition or learn more at sportsmensaccess.org.

Ed Arnett

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posted in: Farm Bill

November 10, 2015

Are the BLM’s Sage Grouse Conservation Plans Really Worse Than an ESA Listing?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) recent decision not to list the range-wide population of greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was perhaps the greatest collaborative conservation effort in the history of contemporary wildlife management—but it didn’t happen overnight or by accident. The years of planning, monitoring, research, and coordination among state and federal agencies, private landowners, and many other stakeholders have also resulted in a new model for conservation.

Image courtesy of Ed Arnett.

But rather than celebrate a great achievement, stakeholders at both ends of the special-interest spectrum have proclaimed that listing the bird would have been a better choice. Some in the environmental community have argued that far more should have been done to strengthen protections for the species and believe a listing is still warranted. Meanwhile, some industry proponents and members of Congress have cried out that a listing would have been better than the “draconian” federal overreach they see in the BLM’s amended land-use plans that will impact a majority of the bird’s remaining range.

All of this rhetoric makes for good soundbites and headlines, but would we really be better off? Is it possible that compliance with the proactive conservation measures needed to avoid a listing is actually a harsher reality than a listing itself? Let’s look at the facts about what could have happened under the law.

Project Management

Under a listing scenario, anyone with plans for federal land designated as sage-grouse habitat would need to comply with all the restrictions and conservations actions under the ESA and consult with the FWS on every future project, extending the timeline. This would apply to businesses, the BLM, the states, and private landowners—even those who have received funding or other resources from a federal agency for a project on their land. Compared to this case-by-case consultation process under a listing, the BLM land-use plans provide a firm set of guidelines to give every industry and community stakeholder the certainty they need to plan for the future.

Buffers and Caps

The BLM plans prescribe buffers and caps for the disturbance to breeding ground areas from human activity and development. One opponent of the plans has promoted the idea that an ESA listing doesn’t come with these buffers and disturbance caps. It’s true that the Act itself doesn’t mandate these restrictions, but immediately following any listing, there would be a designation of critical habitat and development of a recovery plan, which could include even more stringent buffer zones. It’s very doubtful that a post-listing plan would be weaker than the current federal plans.

‘Take’ Note

Obviously, sportsmen would lose the opportunity to hunt sage grouse if they were listed, but the concept of ‘take’ under the ESA also extends to the habitat of the listed species. Under Section 3 of the ESA, ‘take’ means “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.” Aside from hunting them, any activity that would disturb or harass the bird, or alter its habitat in a negative way, would technically be a violation of the ESA and could be subject to penalty under the law. If you don’t believe me, just ask the timber industry what ‘take’ meant to them after the northern spotted owl was listed.

Image courtesy of Jeannie Stafford/USFWS.

At Home and Afield

With a listing, mandatory enforcement of ESA restrictions extends to all critical habitat, which would include, at the least, everything currently considered priority habitat areas on public land, plus at-risk habitat on private lands. Regardless of ownership, any take of sage grouse or habitat on these lands could be subject to prosecution under the law, with the exception of those already enrolled in conservation agreements with the FWS. This includes applicable programs under the NRCS’s Sage Grouse Initiative or Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAAs), of which there are several million acres already enrolled.

The Best Path Forward

So, does a listing of the greater sage grouse really sound better than implementing the current federal and state plans? I’d say that this rhetoric is really just a last-ditch effort to thwart change and maintain business as usual. Perhaps some of the largest companies and landowners in the region could afford to comply with the ESA, but would this have been the best path forward for the West as a whole? Of course not.

Clearly, and without question, a listing scenario would be far more time-consuming, expensive, and disastrous for the Western economy than implementing the proactive conservation plans that have already been finalized. And that’s not to say that we’re settling for the devil we know. The decision not to list sage grouse required that strong federal plans, complemented by solid state plans and extraordinary voluntary efforts exhibited by private landowners, be developed with assurances that they’d be implemented. And all of this needs to stand up in court.

The next step should be to make sure everyone does what they said they would do to implement their plans. And Congress needs to ensure full funding for implementation of conservation measures in the federal plans and continue supporting the NRCS’s Sage Grouse Initiative to benefit these birds. Let’s not get distracted by attempts to dismantle the collaborative efforts that got us where we are today.

Take action now.

Kristyn Brady

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posted in: Farm Bill

September 22, 2015

Endangered Species Act Protection is Not Warranted for Sage Grouse

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced today that the range-wide population of greater sage grouse does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. This decision comes after years of coordination and planning among federal, state, and local stakeholders to better protect sage grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species, while allowing for energy development, livestock grazing, and recreation to continue.

The BLM finalized a critical step toward achieving the not-warranted finding by signing two Records of Decision that will amend nearly 100 resource management plans (RMPs) across the West to benefit the bird.

Sportsmen’s groups are encouraged by the decision and appreciative of the 11 states, federal agencies, private landowners, and other vested stakeholders that have come together in a daunting, often controversial effort. “The work to benefit sage grouse over the last five years has been the greatest landscape-scale conservation effort undertaken in modern times,” says Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The collaboration we’ve seen is unprecedented and extraordinary. It sets forth a model for what I believe to be the future of conservation in America.”

For many of the groups involved in this effort, today’s announcement comes with a cautious sense of relief. “For years, sportsmen, ranchers, developers, and biologists have anxiously awaited the day when the sage grouse listing decision would be made,” says Steve Riley, president and CEO of the North American Grouse Partnership. “Now, it is imperative that these collective conservation efforts are implemented and monitored for effectiveness in the long-term if we are to avoid winding up with sage grouse again at risk further down the road.”

Sportsmen have argued that an “all-of-the-above approach”—with distinct plans developed and implemented by the federal, state, and private sectors—was the only way to get to a not-warranted decision and sustain conservation into the future. Howard Vincent, president and CEO of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever notes that private landowner efforts, led in part by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, were a critical piece of the success leading to today’s decision. “Partnership-driven, voluntary conservation efforts have contributed to a positive decision for greater sage grouse and ranching communities in Western states, but our work has only just begun,” says Vincent. “We must continue to build upon this unprecedented level of management for sage grouse populations from federal and state agencies and the ranchers who are implementing landscape-level habitat improvements on private lands.”

Image courtesy of Ed Arnett.

The benefits of today’s decision, and the implementation of robust conservation plans already in progress, will extend to more than just sage grouse. “Thriving sage grouse populations are an indicator that sagebrush ecosystems are healthy, and this is important for more than 350 species of plants and animals, including many that are popular with sportsmen,” says Miles Moretti, president and CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation. “Now, we must remain invested in sustaining the health of this bird—and the landscapes that support it.” Land Tawney, executive director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, notes that sportsmen and women will benefit as well. “What is good for the grouse is good for the grandeur—the large landscapes being conserved will help sustain backcountry hunting opportunities and big game populations,” he says. “That’s positive for sportsmen and the local communities that depend on proceeds from outdoor recreation-based businesses.”

The work of implementing conservation on the ground is just beginning, and threats still remain. “We’re happy with today’s decision, which proves that collaborative conservation can work,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “But it is critical that state and federal agencies enforce the full implementation of their plans and that we continue to oppose Congressional attempts to weaken them.”

Management of sagebrush habitat is a long-term endeavor that costs money and resources, and no one understands that better than a former director of the agency responsible for today’s announcement. “Investment in sagebrush management that balances many uses of the land, including responsible energy development and sustainable ranching, with conservation is essential for our nation’s economy and the Western way of life,” says Williams. “We have the blueprint in place, and now it’s time to build our future. Congressional support and funding can help get us there.”

To see what our other partners are saying about today’s announcement, click here and here.

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