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Journalists get up close and personal with working lands and at-risk wetlands in North Dakota
After a week in legendary North Dakota—where every day I was up before dawn and in bed long after the northern summer sun set—I am sunburned, windswept, and my body feels like it was hit by a truck.
No this wasn’t a marathon hunt week—wrong season—but an exercise in living like a reporter on the road. I was there with 18 journalists and a handful of partners* to learn about what’s happening to wildlife habitat in the state. We were all hoping to see firsthand the impacts that rapid advances in ethanol, oil, gas, and agricultural production are having on the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR).
The PPR is home to a unique ecosystem, created over tens of thousands of years as glaciers retreated across the northern part of the continent. The glaciers left behind rocky soils and millions of shallow, seasonal wetlands known as potholes. These potholes, and the grasslands surrounding them, are prime waterfowl breeding habitat, lending the PPR its nickname: North America’s Duck Factory. Over half of the continent’s waterfowl are born in those grassland-wetland complexes.
Among the highlights of the trip was an outing to locate duck nests and candle the eggs, to see how well developed the ducklings inside are, estimate hatch dates, and determine nest success. The site we visited boasted about 460 nests, and it was a unique thrill to flush one hen after another from her nest among old Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) plantings. The hens will return to the nests despite our handling of the eggs, and eventually these mother ducks will march their ducklings up to three miles to a wetland to swim, feed, and possibly grow into one of the ducks you’ll hunt this fall.
There’s a lot of other wildlife in the region, especially some of our favorite fish and game—walleyes, wild turkeys, pheasants, sharptail grouse, whitetail deer. We even heard rumors of moose in Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge, close to the Canadian border. Unfortunately, all of these critters are at risk because grasslands and wetlands are being converted for agriculture and other uses at a rapid pace.
The potholes and grasslands of the PPR were once naturally maintained by grazing herds of millions of bison. The bison are mostly gone from this landscape, but cattle have long been their surrogates, keeping the PPR relatively healthy and supporting prairie habitat.
However, myriad factors are causing cattle to disappear from the land, nearly as abruptly as their native predecessors did. Newly developed seed types and farm equipment have allowed corn and soy crops to move north from the central plains, as those plants can now grow in the shorter northern seasons. Ethanol production and international markets have fostered that migration, as has wetland drainage, which also has the unfortunate side effect of causing flooding and overflowing lakes, literally submerging communities around Devil’s Lake. And the discovery of natural gas in the Bakken Formation has led to hundreds of wetlands being made into well pads. On a dollar-for-dollar basis, it’s hard for cattlemen to compete with these technological advances, and yet they are one of the last remaining forces helping the Duck Factory to persist.
While the TRCP laments the loss of cattle from the landscape, we do not oppose energy development or technological innovation. We just want it to be done responsibly, in balance with other demands on our public and private lands, and to ensure that sportsmen and wildlife don’t get the short end of the stick.
Most folks in North Dakota, I think, feel the same way. Dozens of times during the trip we heard that sportsmen and wildlife enthusiasts are the heroes of conservation, for instance through our Duck Stamp purchases and backing of the Conservation Reserve Program. Many of the industry representatives we spoke with also hunt and fish and they want their children and grandchildren to be able to do the same, so they strive for a conservation-minded approach to development. And just this week, North Dakotans overwhelmingly voted to preserve Depression-era rules, which would limit corporate farm ownership in the state, thereby perpetuating a family farm structure that many believe to be far better for conservation than the alternative.
But the PPR is still suffering a slow death by a thousand cuts. Congress has passed laws through the Farm Bill which should limit grassland and wetland conversion for agriculture, but those laws are unevenly enforced—and even when they are, violators may not be penalized. When it comes to other types of development, there are currently no state or federal laws designed to protect this landscape.
The TRCP wants America’s farmers and ranchers to be successful and profitable, but not at the expense of sportsmen’s access and opportunity. This visit has reinforced our resolve to help develop policies that balance the needs of production agriculture and private landowners with the needs of sportsmen, fish, and wildlife, and that make conservation a financially-viable part of the farm economy.
*Many thanks to Delta Waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited, North Dakota Game and Fish Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, and the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources for helping to organizing the Prairie Pothole Institute.
News for Immediate Release
Jun. 14, 2016
Contact: Kristyn Brady, 617-501-6352, firstname.lastname@example.org
Two bills up for committee vote tomorrow are overt attempts to undermine public land ownership
WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Wednesday, the House Natural Resources Committee will vote on two bills that risk essential sportsmen’s access, quality fish and wildlife habitat, and economic balance for American communities. Since the bills were first debated back in February, sportsmen’s groups have been alarmed with Rep. Don Young’s H.R. 3650 and Rep. Raul Labrador’s H.R. 2316, which constitute overt attempts to undermine public land ownership.
“Make no mistake, these are the first votes on legislation that would legitimize the wholesale transfer or sale of America’s public lands, and sportsmen should be concerned with any ‘yea’ votes,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
Young’s bill is sweeping in its impact, allowing states to select and acquire up to two million acres of national forest lands to be completely owned and operated by states and managed primarily for timber production. The Labrador bill would transfer management authority for up to four million acres of our national forests to state-appointed “advisory committees,” but incredibly, these officials would not be required to have any professional experience in forest management.
Hunting and fishing groups have been vocal in urging lawmakers to oppose these bad bills. “With so many opportunities to do right by American sportsmen and women—by encouraging better active management of forests or bigger investments in public land management agencies, for example—these bills are dangerously distracting and certainly represent an attempt to get a foot in the door for public land transfer,” says Ben Bulis, president of the American Fly Fishing Trade Association. “This is bad for fly shops, their customers, and the communities surrounding our national forests.”
“Our public lands system, which includes our national forests, is unique in all the world—it supports our $646-billion outdoor recreation economy, but not without the mandate to keep public lands accessible and to balance the needs of hunters, anglers, and other outdoor enthusiasts with the many demands on our natural resources,” says Fosburgh.
The TRCP is urging sportsmen across the country to contact members of the committee. Here’s the easiest way.
To learn more about efforts to transfer, sell off, or privatize public lands, click here.
Inspired by the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt, the TRCP is a coalition of organizations and grassroots partners working together to preserve the traditions of hunting and fishing.
The TRCP’s scouting report on sportsmen’s issues in Congress.
The Senate and House are both in session this week.
The first vote on two bills that would threaten public lands is set for this week. The House Natural Resources Committee will mark up Rep. Young’s (R-Alaska) “The State National Forest Management Act” and Rep. Labrador’s (R-Idaho) “The Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act,” both of which we strongly oppose.
Rep. Young’s (R-Alaska) legislation would allow each state to buy up to two million acres of national forest land and manage it primarily for timber production. Rep. Labrador’s (R-Idaho) bill would allow up to four million acres to be transferred to state-appointed “advisory committees” that would be solely responsible for managing demonstration forests with little public oversight. Both bills are a major threat to sportsmen’s access to quality hunting and fishing habitat.
A red snapper bill is also in the lineup for this week’s markup. Rep. Graves’ (R-La.) “The Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority Act,” which we support, would allow flexible management of red snapper by the states, in an attempt to address widespread concerns from recreational anglers over ongoing federal management of the fishery. This year, the federal red snapper season for rec anglers in the Gulf was a scant nine days.
With only four legislative weeks left before lawmakers take an extended recess, Congress is running out of time to pass all 12 individual appropriations bills. The likeliness of a continuing resolution in the waning days of September continues to increase, as both chambers struggle to get through appropriations bills.
Before the Memorial Day recess, the House failed to pass the energy and water spending bill due to a controversial provision involving discrimination. Because of this surprise defeat, Republican House leaders have made a departure from their usual “open rule” policy on spending bills and intend to move future funding bills by restricting amendments. Because of this weekend’s tragedy in Orlando, many expect the gun control debate to once again roil consideration of funding bills.
The House Appropriations Committee is expected to mark up “The Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act” this week. The bill would cut funding for key conservation agencies—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) by $17 million, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) by $10 million, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by $162 million. Poison pill riders are also included in the base bill. One would block the Obama administration from implementing the Clean Power Plan to decrease carbon dioxide emissions from coal power plants.
Once the Senate takes a final vote on the NDAA, they will move on to consider “The Commerce and Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act” this week on the floor. The commerce bill would include a $33.5 million increase in funds for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). There are rumors that “The Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act” will be considered on the Senate floor, too. The agriculture funding levels would provide $147.7 billion in discretionary and mandatory funds, which is $7.1 billion above fiscal year 2016 enacted levels.
On Tuesday, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies will mark up their version of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) and environmental agencies spending bill. On Thursday, the full Appropriations Committee will begin marking up the legislation. The language has not been released, but committee leaders are confident that no poison riders will be included in the base bill. It could mean this legislation will see the Senate floor for the first time in years.
Both chambers are gearing up to tackle WRDA. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Ranking Member Boxer (D-Calif.) are aggressively trying to persuade lawmakers behind closed doors to push leadership to bring “The Water Resource Development Act” (WRDA) to the Senate floor. Inhofe and Boxer want to pass WRDA before July 15, the last day before Congress leaves for an extended August recess. For now, Senate leadership believes that appropriation bills take precedence over WRDA.
The House version of WRDA has passed full Committee, and is similarly waiting for floor time. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Shuster (R-Pa.) and Congressman Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) are reportedly going to meet in the near future to discuss incorporating additional natural infrastructure language into the underlying bill. Ribble would like the bill to include additional language that would encourage the use of natural infrastructure, such as wetlands and natural floodplains, in water resources projects.
Senate Democrats are reluctant to move forward to a conference on the Energy Bill. The four main players in the energy conference, Sen. Murkowski (R-Alaska), Sen. Cantwell (D-Wash.), Rep. Upton (R-Mich.), and Rep. Pallone (D-N.J.), are expected to meet this week to discuss the path forward for conferencing Senate and House energy bills. Cantwell and several other Democrats publically expressed their concerns with some House provisions.
While firefighters battle wildfires in the field, lawmakers are hashing out suppression and management on Capitol Hill. Members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee introduced a discussion draft of legislation that addresses concerns with forest management and funding for wildfires. Today is the deadline to submit comments on the draft to the committee. We anticipate a hearing will be scheduled on the discussion draft in the near future.
What Else We’re Tracking
Wednesday, June 15
Department of Interior spending bill, on the table with the House Appropriations Committee at a mark-up of the Department of Interior and environmental agencies appropriations bill
Coastal zone conservation, to be deliberated in the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee mark-up on the reauthorization of the Coastal Zone Management Act
National parks legislation will be the subject of a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks hearing
Thursday, June 16
DOI spending levels for fiscal year 2017 to be discussed at the Senate Appropriations Committee mark-up
Governors will soon reveal results of a year-long initiative to improve proactive conservation of our country’s most at-risk species
In the hunting community, the greater sage grouse and lesser prairie chicken have recently become the face of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). When these game birds were petitioned for listing several years ago, because their populations had declined dramatically due to habitat loss, it was arguably the first time in recent memory that popular game species required this kind of action.
Sportsmen understood what was at stake—losing the opportunity to pursue sage grouse and lesser prairie chickens would come with a full-blown listing. Industries and ranchers feared for their bottom lines, and livelihoods, too. Some pointed to the listing of the northern spotted owl, which brought a region and an industry to its knees in the 1990s. All sorts of political posturing and litigation ensued—in fact, it continues today, even after final decisions were made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the lesser prairie chicken as threatened in March 2014 and to forgo a listing of the greater sage grouse last September, based on the strength of collaborative conservation efforts from sportsmen groups, state and federal agencies, and private landowners promising to take widespread protective action.
There are wide-ranging opinions on the ESA, and it’s easy to get swept up in all the controversy and ignore the original intent of this critical legislation, which is to protect ecosystems and imperiled species from human development and other threats. The finger-pointing and contentiousness could make us forget that careful management by fish and wildlife agencies and the $1.6 billion dollars that hunters contribute annually to conservation is meant to keep us from the precipice of listing species in the first place.
Many decision-makers have called for reforms to the ESA. Congress has long suggested opening the Act, and some lawmakers would certainly use Paul Bunyan’s axe rather than a scalpel on certain provisions. So, it may surprise you that the Western Governors’ Association (WGA), a group of lawmakers who definitely have a vested interest in the ESA and its influence on the states, are not answering the call of some in Congress who want to tear down the legislation entirely.
The WGA, under leadership from Wyoming Governor Matt Mead and his staff, has spent the last year exploring ways to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the Endangered Species Act, while elevating the role of the states in species conservation. The group held several workshops across the West to bring diverse stakeholders to the table, where they shared their opinions and ideas on the ESA’s use, misuse, effects on the economy, and actual impact on the ground. The results of these workshops will be unveiled next week at the annual WGA summer meeting in Jackson, Wyo.
This should be encouraging to sportsmen, because whether or not the ESA should exist is not the right question. We need legislative checks and balances to conserve wildlife and habitat while allowing for other uses of the land to continue—history has proven that. Using the expertise of the people who rely on these lands, the Western governors are exploring not only how to improve the ESA, but also this: How do we shift from reacting to conservation crises requiring need for the ESA to launching proactive conservation measures that ensure we never get to crisis mode?
I generally agree that some reasonable reforms could likely improve the effectiveness of the ESA, but I also strongly believe that the very best solution for improving the Act is to avoid having to use it in the first place. This is where sportsmen are a very real part of the process and need to engage. And conservation efforts to benefit the greater sage grouse should be the model we celebrate. The future of species conservation has to focus on proactive, collaborative conservation efforts similar to what was recently accomplished for the sage grouse.
But until sportsmen, industry, private landowners, wildlife advocates and other non-consumptive users can take the proactive initiative to prevent these threats from happening in the first place, the regulatory hammer of the ESA remains necessary to force conservation into action. Until we make conservation a long-term investment, and no longer a nice thing to do only when discretionary funds are available, we can’t give into reforms that would weaken the ESA.
Shifting from reactive to proactive action will require change. The WGA has kickstarted the conversation, and now we need to incentivize a new way of doing business for all stakeholders. A key challenge will be securing investments in conservation and engaging stakeholders early in the process, so we’re pointed toward a common goal. Sportsmen can and should help move this revolution forward. Let’s start using an ounce of prevention, rather than paying for a pound of cure.
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