This Threat to Sage Grouse Conservation is Giving Us Déjà Vu
One lawmaker has gathered up the remnants of a very bad idea and could try to make them stick to must-pass national defense legislation
Have you ever binged too many episodes of The Walking Dead and later woke up from a nightmare about trying to kill the same zombie over and over? Well, then you have an idea of what it feels like to work in Washington. Here, it seems, all victories are short-lived, because bad ideas, horrific talking points, and dangerous legislation just keep getting revived.
You may recall that in the summer of 2015—the year of the goat according to the Chinese Zodiac and the year of the greater sage grouse in our circles—Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) added an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would do all sorts of bad things for the imperiled grouse. The amendment would halt sage-grouse conservation measures already in progress, undermine ongoing collaborative efforts to protect the species, waste millions of taxpayer dollars invested in planning and management of federal public lands, force federal agencies to adopt state conservation plans, and delay a listing decision from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for 10 years.
Of course, sportsmen and other groups were vocal in their opposition, the amendment was withdrawn, and a few months later the greater sage grouse was not listed for Endangered Species Act protection, as long as the feds, states, and private stakeholders followed through with implementing conservation plans that everyone worked overtime to create.
Still, that doesn’t mean happily-ever-after for sage grouse or sportsmen. On March 15, 2016, Utah Representative Rob Bishop introduced “The Greater Sage Grouse Protection and Recovery Act of 2016” (H.R. 4739), which would allow Western states containing sage-grouse habitat to enact state management plans on the federal public lands within their borders, negating many key conservation measures and creating a recipe for potential range-wide failure of the bird. Success of this bill would also represent an unprecedented shift in management authority on America’s public lands, and it could be offered as an amendment to this year’s NDAA in just a few weeks.
Around the same time that Bishop resurrected this bad idea, the threat of which is no specter but very full-bodied indeed, lobbyists were sowing the seeds of some old, discredited rhetoric: That an endangered or threatened species listing would have been better than living with the constraints of the federal conservation plans. Here’s how bogus that line really is.
This is not a bad dream—it’s a serious affront. We’ll be working diligently with our partners to make sure that all the collaboration and investment in creating a three-part recovery effort—one that will take federal, state, and private-land conservation efforts in order to pull off actual, legally-defensible results for these birds and all sagebrush species—was not wasted. But we need sportsmen and women like you to be just as unrelenting. Your voices helped to hold lawmakers accountable less than a year ago, and you’ll be our most effective messengers once again. Don’t wake up in a cold sweat years from now wondering what might have been.
Proposed Sale of National Wildlife Refuge Could Set a Very Dangerous Precedent
This bill would allow thousands of acres of the popular Vieques National Wildlife Refuge to be sold by the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico
You don’t hear us talk much about conservation in the Caribbean, but a bill that’s being marked up this week in Congress deals with the economic stability of Puerto Rico in a way that could set a very dangerous precedent for all of America’s public lands. Section 405 of “The Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act” (PROMESA) would transfer thousands of acres of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge, voted fourth best in the entire refuge system in 2015, to the commonwealth as a bargaining chip to help address Puerto Rico’s financial crisis.
This portion of the refuge could be sold off to private interests, while Puerto Ricans could soon be saying goodbye to a chunk of fish and wildlife habitat that was painstakingly conserved from a former superfund site. Not only is this bad news for sportsmen and women who rely on access to the refuge on an increasingly urban island, but it could clear the way for Congress to take similar steps right here at home. But selling a treasured resource for short-term financial gain fails all tests of economic sensibility, and is akin to burning down your house to stay warm.
Help Us Make Some Noise
Does this fight sound familiar? It should. There are other Congressional attempts to get a foot in the door and open up public lands to being sold off or closed off forever. Here’s one way you can help: Sign the petition at sportsmensaccess.org. We will literally drop it on the desks of lawmakers to show them that hunters and anglers like YOU are opposed to this very bad idea—and at 25,000+ names, it makes some noise
Official Status of BP Settlement Means Conservation Can Finally Roll On
A few signatures kick off the next phase of oil spill recovery that could revive long-term habitat health in the Gulf
BP and a federal judge have finally made it official—the historic settlement between the states, the federal government, and BP has been signed. Now, the Gulf of Mexico’s fish, wildlife, and habitat—not to mention the communities that depend on outdoor recreation dollars—can move forward in the ongoing process of repairing damage caused by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.
The details of the settlement weren’t breaking news by the time U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier made the consent decree official with the stroke of a pen on April 4. In fact, many of the particulars, including the $20.8-billion total penalty, were released to the public after all parties agreed in principle last October.
This doesn’t mean that we’ll be breaking ground on ecosystem-scale restoration projects tomorrow. After all, BP has more than 15 years to pay in full. It does, however, mark another important milestone in a recovery effort large enough in scale that it could repair the damage caused by the spill as well as ongoing habitat losses and water quality impairments that threaten the long-term health of the Gulf.
The agreement also means that the veil can be lifted on the volumes of data collected by state and federal agencies intensively studying the adverse effects of the oil on fish, birds, turtles, marine mammals, and thousands of plants, crustaceans, insects, and other invertebrates that play a crucial role in the intricate Gulf ecosystem. Gag orders during ongoing negotiations prevented the sharing of most of that information with the public, which frustrated journalists, conservationists, sportsmen, and anyone else wondering about the true toll of the nation’s worst environmental disaster. Once that information is made public, we can better engage in and advocate for the projects that best address the damages.
If you’re interested in the nitty gritty details, BP will pay $5.5 billion in Clean Water Act penalties, 80 percent of which will go to economic and ecosystem restoration projects across the Gulf, thanks to the Restore Act signed into law in 2012. More than $8 billion will be paid in Natural Resource Damage Assessment fines to be used on projects that directly address the damage to creatures, habitats, and the users whose access to the resources was, and in some cases continues to be, disrupted by the spill. And, BP also owes states and local governments nearly $6 billion to make up for lost revenues.
The TRCP and its sportfishing and habitat conservation partners have been working diligently with hunters, anglers, policy-makers, the media, and elected officials across the region for the last five years to help ensure that Gulf fish and fishermen are made a priority throughout the restoration effort. This group has formally recommended projects and initiatives that improve habitat, increase and improve fisheries research and data collection, and improve access for anglers. Many of those recommendations have been incorporated into projects already selected to receive funding.
Considering that recreational fishing contributes more than $10 billion annually to the region’s economy and supports nearly 100,000 jobs in Gulf states, investing in projects that improve angling opportunities ensures the viability of coastal communities from Brownsville, Texas, to Key West, Fla. But, the only way those investments are made wisely is if anglers across the Gulf and throughout the nation continue to insist that restoration dollars make it to the habitat and fish. We can’t let this game-changing settlement get eaten up by legislative pet-projects, state budget band-aids, and bureaucratic boondoggles.
Anglers also need to keep a close eye on projects and initiatives that aim to limit or prevent fishing opportunities. The net result of this lengthy restoration and recovery effort should be more quality chances to hunt and fish, not fewer.
As the sixth anniversary of the spill approaches, the settlement’s approval is reason to be thankful that the funds needed to address damages and make the Gulf a better place won’t be tied up in a decade-long legal battle. However, the difficult task of ensuring that penalties have lasting, positive effects on the region’s natural resources and communities is just beginning.
The TRCP’s scouting report on sportsmen’s issues in Congress
The Senate and House are both in session this week.
Is this regular order or out of order? Even though Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has preached a return to regular order, this week the House Appropriations Committee will continue to mark up individual spending bills, despite having no House budget or 302(b) allocations set. They’re currently using top-line allocations from the 2015 budget agreement to move forward.
Spending bills for Agriculture and Energy and Water Development will be marked up on Wednesday by the relevant Senate and House Appropriation subcommittees. The Agriculture mark-up could possibly target federal crop insurance and conservation programs for cuts, while the House Energy and Water Development bill may include language to block funding for the administration’s Clean Water Rule.
The Senate doesn’t have its budget together either, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced his goal to tackle spending bills beginning in mid-May using top-line allocations from the 2015 budget agreement. The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development will hold a mark-up on Wednesday and a full committee mark-up on Thursday. This subcommittee faces similar issues with riders to block Obama administration policies, including the Clean Water Rule.
This Puerto Rican wildlife refuge could get voted off the island.The House Natural Resources Committee drafted a bill that would address Puerto Rico’s financial instability partly by selling off public land. Section 411 of “The Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act” would transfer thousands of acres of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, clearing the way for these public lands to be sold off to private interests. The committee will hold a hearing on the legislation on Tuesday and mark it up on Wednesday and Thursday.
Defense for sage grouse (again). Congressman Bishop, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and a member of the Armed Services Committee, has been persistent in requesting that his legislation, “The Greater Sage Grouse Protection and Recovery Act” (H.R. 4739), or a similar provision, be attached to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The House version of the NDAA will be marked up in the Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, April 27, and is scheduled to be considered on the House floor the week of May 16.
And both parties are actually on board with this water legislation. The Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which provides funds for Army Corps of Engineers’ projects, may become the vehicle for Senator Cardin (D-Md.) to promote his legislation that would more than triple funds for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. “The Firm, Unwavering National Dedication to Water Act” (S. 2583), is a positive piece of legislation that would provide consistent funding for the enhancement of water quality essential to hunters and anglers. Talks continue this week, but the earliest chance for a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee mark-up would be in May.
Here’s what else we’re tracking:
Tuesday, April 12, 2016
Small businesses and EPA regulations will be examined in a Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Waste, Superfund and Oversight Management hearing
Wednesday, April 13, 2016
The President’s climate policies, to be discussed by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee
Impacts of oil and gas production on rural economies will be discussed in a House Agriculture Committee hearing
Water in the West, in a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans hearing
Waste prevention, production royalties, and resource conservation, to be discussed in a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests, and Mining hearing regarding the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed rule
A Special Place, its Champions, and a Long Goodbye
After years of gathering critical habitat data and opening minds to the conservation possibilities in the Missouri Breaks, our longtime friend and colleague passes the torch
If you drive east out of Lewistown, Montana, for fifty miles or so—over the southern flanks of the Judith Range and along the course of McDonald Creek, through Grass Range and Teigen, a community that once anchored a ranch so big that it still has its own zip code—you’ll reach the little town of Winnett. With the vast sagebrush steppe unfolding in front of you and wind-scoured cliffs and coulees full of green grass on either side of the gravel road, it’s not uncommon to witness small flocks of sage hens flushing and rocketing away towards pronghorns lit pale-orange and white against a gray backdrop.
For the past two years that I’ve worked for the TRCP, I’ve been lost, both literally and metaphorically, in this landscape.
In the distance, the Missouri Breaks begin to appear, with dark lines of timber on the ridgeline. There’s little to suggest that you are on the brink of another world, yet you’re poised at the edge of what may be the best public-lands trophy elk hunting on the planet. Off to the east, you see the deeply incised and snaking lines of Blood Creek, Dry Blood Creek, Drag Creek, or the mother of them all, Crooked Creek, where big yellow-barked Ponderosa pines and rich grass replace the sagebrush. The creeks all cut steeply away towards the Musselshell River, which eventually joins the mighty Missouri.
The road takes you into what must be one of the most complicated systems of coulees in the world, a vast public lands puzzle of hidden sandstone cliffs, hogback ridges of soft white clay, and lost cul-de-sacs, where Old West outlaws held out well into the 20th century and where the traces of warring and hunting Native American tribes can still be found. Today it is home to the second-largest elk herd in the state of Montana, to mossbacked old mule deer bucks, mountain lions, sharp-tailed grouse, and a growing population of Merriam’s turkeys.
For so many Montana hunters, especially archery hunters, this is the heart of the state, and the heart of hunting itself—an experience and adventure like no other. Unlike our traditional Rocky Mountain elk country of aspens, high country meadows, and jagged peaks, in this strange place an elk hunter goes down into the earth. He leaves the prairies for the coulees, most of them branching off wildly, like nerves or arteries that are miles upon miles long and some of them hundreds of feet deep.
In early 2014, when the Lewistown field office of the Bureau of Land Management began working on a new Resource Management Plan for this area, I went to work for the TRCP to identify the local public lands that hunters most depend on, and the lands that have the best wildlife habitat, access, and opportunities for real backcountry recreation and experiences.
I talked with biologists and land managers from the state and BLM and with landowners, old time Montana conservation leaders, and, most of all, elk and mule deer hunters. I drove a couple of thousand miles of road, hiked over forty miles of ridge and coulee, followed elk, looked for horns in May, and shot sharptails in September. I was lost and desperately thirsty at least twice, and I whiteknuckled the incredible Dunn’s Ridge Road (Dunn’s is more like a one-lane path inscribed into the top of a narrow gumbo ridgeline, with cold-sweat-inducing drops on both sides) all the way down to the Musselshell bottoms. Rancher and conservationist Hugo Turek of Coffee Creek, Montana—a great supporter of our work—graciously let me hike across his fields and into the magnificent public lands of the Arrow Creek Breaks, a band of critical habitat for mule deer and sharptails, where Hugo has sustainably grazed his cattle herds for the past two decades, while maintaining access for hunters in the fall.
I took my then-eleven-year-old daughter on a hike through the Judith Mountains—named by William Clark in 1805, after his cousin and sweetheart, Judith Hancock—where we glassed the big-game winter ranges, trying to find a way into the deep canyons. This is where we found Collar Gulch Creek, where there is a population of native Westslope cutthroat trout—the easternmost population known to be remaining on earth—despite the “devil take the hindmost” history of gold mining booms of the 19th and early 20th centuries in the Judiths. Imagine that.
Drawing from dozens of interviews with local hunters and others who know the Breaks better than I ever will, the TRCP worked with some key sportsmen leaders and five other sportsmen’s groups to draw up a formal comment to the Lewistown BLM Field Office to explain that these valuable lands should be managed to conserve their intact character, maintain important public access, and support traditional uses through a moderate new conservation tool called Backcountry Conservation Areas (BCA). We included maps, descriptions of the hunting country and uses by sportsmen, and definitions of the BCA concept that, in its keep-it-like-it-is management strategy, fits so much of this public land like a leather workglove.
In the end, sportsmen nominated four individual tracts of BLM lands for BCA management. We included the Crooked Creek country, the Arrow Creek Breaks and the best of the Judiths, including Collar Gulch, and the intact expanses of big-game winter range that are so unique to this sky-island on the plains. Sportsmen and women are now hopeful that the BLM will consider managing these areas with the common sense BCA approach through the upcoming Lewistown draft Resource Management Plan.
It’s an even bigger opportunity for the TRCP to join with hunters across Montana and the U.S. to make sure the best of these lands are conserved with the existing access to them maintained. Where necessary and possible, it’s an opportunity to see that wildlife habitat and rangelands are restored and made more productive. The possibilities are almost endless: In my final discussions with some local community leaders, we discussed the need for a partnership between conservationists and grazers to control weeds and improve wildlife range, and how BCAs can be used as a way to focus our energy on conserving and restoring the best of the best lands for hunting, grazing, and recreation.
Now, I’m passing my work on to Scott Laird, whom I’ve known and respected for more than a decade and who will be able to take on this effort full-time, full-bore, and full-speed in a way I cannot. I’ve introduced him to some of the friends I’ve made in Lewistown and have no doubt that, with their support, and the support of a few hundred more like them, hunter-conservationists can make a permanent contribution to the future of the Missouri Breaks and the whole of Montana.
I’m leaving the TRCP as the same true believer that I was when I started. I’ll help in any way I can.
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.