The Three R’s of Boosting Hunter and Angler Participation (and Conservation Funding)
The groups behind the movement to recruit, retain, and reactivate more sportsmen share a few simple ways you can celebrate our hunting and fishing traditions
In the hunting and fishing community, very few days are held more sacred than the opening day of your favorite season. The long wait to get into your treestand or duck blind is finally over. It’s marked on the calendar with a giant red circle, a day when you can’t be expected to take an extra shift, clean the gutters, or go see the in-laws (unless they’re waiting for you at deer camp.)
But there is another day that should be just as important to sportsmen—National Hunting and Fishing Day, this Saturday, September 24, when we celebrate the contributions hunters and anglers have made to conservation in this country and reflect on the freedom we have to enjoy America’s great outdoors.
We should also take this opportunity to reckon with the state of our sports and the serious decline in hunting and fishing since the 1980s. For the last several years, it seems that almost every study has shown that our worst fears are, in fact, reality.
It’s no secret that sportsmen foot much of the bill for conservation in this country through the purchase of our hunting and fishing licenses, permits, and stamps, plus the excise taxes on hunting, shooting, and fishing equipment through the Pittman-Robertson Act and Dingell-Johnson Act. That money is a primary source of funding for state fish and wildlife departments; in some cases it’s the majority their funding. And while the “user pays” model is one that sportsmen and women should be proud of, we should also be concerned that the future of that funding source is tied to waning participation in our sports.
That’s a huge, huge problem, but it isn’t going unanswered.
Welcome to the R3 Community. R3 stands for “Recruit, Retain & Reactivate.” The whole concept focuses on finding new ways to get potential sportsmen outside (recruit), making sure that current sportsmen continue to hunt and fish every year (retain), and finding sportsmen who maybe haven’t hunted or fished in a while and bringing them back into the sport (reactivate). The R3 Community has created a “National Plan” aimed at boosting participation in our sports and, therefore, conservation funding.
Here’s what you can do to become an R3 advocate: Tomorrow, take someone hunting or fishing for the first time, and perhaps make someone a sportsman for life. If you haven’t bought a hunting or fishing license in recent years, Saturday is the perfect time to do so. And if you already plan on being in the field or on the water this weekend, buy an extra box (or five) of shells—don’t worry, it’s going to conservation.
If you want more information on National Hunting and Fishing Day, click here. To learn more about the Council to Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports, visit their website.
The Fisheries Crisis Just Down the Road from the Largest Sportfishing Trade Show on Earth
While innovation was on display in Orlando, devastation wasn’t far from anyone’s thoughts
Last week’s ICAST show brought more fishing industry brands, buyers, and broadcasters to Orlando than ever before. But in a time of great prosperity for our sports nationwide, there’s a water quality crisis of epic proportions in Florida.
This is why, on day two of our Saltwater Media Summit at ICAST, the TRCP brought together the scientists, researchers, conservation leaders, businesses, and fishermen who are stepping up to figure out what Florida needs to do both short and long term to solve water pollution on the coast lines and restore the Everglades. As our Marine Fisheries Director Chris Macaluso said in welcoming the crowd of over 80 reporters, partners, and interested show attendees, it is an emotional, complex issue, and we all know that we want to do something to protect Florida’s waters wildlife and people. The trick is figuring out how to throw our weight behind the same plan to sway lawmakers and save Florida’s coast and the Everglades.
Costa’s Al Perkinson, vice president of marketing for the influential sunglasses-maker and lifestyle brand, set the stage for the issue by debuting an emotional video about the impact of development on Florida’s fisheries and the Everglades. The centerpiece of Costa’s #fixFlorida campaign, the video is narrated by angler, guide, and TV host Flip Pallot.
Dr. Steven Davis, a wetlands biologist with the Everglades Foundation, led off with a breakdown of exactly what’s causing this crisis. He explained that the areas in and adjacent to the Everglades and Florida Keys generate nearly $2 billion from saltwater angling, but much of that economic activity is being threatened by the mishandling of freshwater from the Lake Okeechobee Basin. Water that once moved south through the Everglades is now being moved via man-made canals and locks to the east, down the St. Lucie River, and to the west through the Caloosahatchee River. This is leading to fish kills, algae blooms, and thousands of lost fishing opportunities on both the west and east coastlines of Florida.
While those brackish and saltwater areas are being inundated with unnatural freshwater flows, Florida Bay, on the southern end of the Everglades, isn’t getting enough freshwater, and unnaturally high salinity levels are killing seagrass beds and other vital habitat while causing additional algae blooms. Poor water management issues are being compounded by the presence of excessive nutrients traced back to aging septic systems and farm runoff from cattle ranches and sugar cane fields.
Without long-term action to address these issues and restore habitat, many of South Florida’s most popular fishing areas face a bleak future. But Davis pointed out that two comprehensive restoration plans do exist: One is incrementally being shepherded by the state and one still requires Congressional approval to get off the ground.
“There is a comprehensive plan already under way, with a lot of components closer to completion and others ready to come online soon,” said Kellie Ralston, the Florida fishery policy director for the American Sportfishing Association. “But the plan is looking at 30 years—that’s too long. And the 50-50 split between federal and state agencies tends to slow the process down. We need to fast-track these projects and work collectively as a group. With a conservation plan waiting to be authorized by Congress, that’s something we can focus on.”
And the grassroots support is certainly there—Captains for Clean Water helped introduce the #NowOrNeverglades declaration of support for conservation and funding just a week before ICAST, and Capt. Daniel Andrews says they already have more than 13,000 signers and 200 organizations backing it. “We formed Captains for Clean Water because a lot of people were angry, but didn’t know what they could do,” said Andrews, who also showed a video that the group produced with hook manufacturer Mustad. “I grew up in South Florida, fished Florida Bay and the Caloosahatchee, and I’d seen the destruction firsthand. This is degrading the river that made me want to become a fishing guide. That’s why we want to get companies and individuals together and be part of a solution.”
There’s no research left to be done, added Dr. Aaron Adams, director of science and conservation for the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust. “It’s a statement you’ll rarely hear a scientist make, but we don’t need more data,” said Adams. “When it comes to fixing Florida’s water problem, we have actionable knowledge. It’s a political and economic issue at this point.” He explained that time is of the essence, because a lot of the affected habitat is already at a deficit: 50 percent of the area’s mangroves and 9 million acres of wetlands are already gone. “The assembly line that creates healthy habitat is already weakened,” Adams said, adding that restoration can’t begin until the water quality, flows, and storage issues are addressed. “It’s like giving a lung transplant to someone who refuses to quit smoking. If we’re going to preserve Florida as the sportfishing capital of the world, we need to fix the hydrology, reduce contaminated inputs, and then talk about restoring habitat.”
Here’s what needs to happen now:
Plans to restore water flows and improve habitat—known as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project, or CERP—need to be adequately funded and implemented, as promised.
The Central Everglades Planning Project needs to be fast-tracked.
Conservation dollars approved by Florida voters need to be used to purchase land south of Lake Okeechobee, which has already been identified, to create reservoirs for storing and cleaning water.
We need to develop comprehensive strategies to reduce the amount of nutrients in the freshwater entering the estuaries—this includes curbing sewerage, septic leakage, and excessive fertilizer use.
Natural freshwater flows, taking into account the time of year and how much water is flowing, need to be restored.
Marshes must be restored to filter nutrients from the freshwater that is entering estuaries.
With the momentum of ICAST behind us, the TRCP is joining this coalition of engaged and enthusiastic sportsmen working to improve the Lake Okeechobee Basin. We recently hired our first-ever Florida field representative, Ed Tamson, to roll up his sleeves and work alongside the sportfishing partners, conservation leaders, grassroots advocates, and state and federal agencies trying to restore Florida’s fisheries. We welcome our new colleague Ed, and the challenge of collaborating with many different stakeholders to improve the water quality on the east and west coasts of Florida and restore the Everglades to its former glory.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.