Until Now, Conservation of Shad and River Herring Has Only Focused On Half Their Habitat
Why anglers support an important step in making conservation efforts whole for this important mid-Atlantic fishery
Each spring, the sportsmen and women of Washington, D.C., head to the Potomac River to shake off the rust of winter and take advantage of the return of the American and Hickory shad. This is a time-honored tradition—George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were shad fishermen—as Americans of all stripes have counted on the return of these fish for thousands of years.
But the shad run, which coincides with the river herring migration, isn’t what it was in the days of the Founding Fathers. Both species of fish spawn in the far reaches of rivers, but spend most of their lives in the open ocean, and are subject to threats and problems in both places. So, any effort to conserve the species and rebuild stocks must combine efforts targeting both their freshwater spawning grounds and their saltwater habitat.
For years, freshwater anglers have supported state-based attempts to address the challenges in rivers and streams: namely poor water quality and fish passages blocked by dams and culverts. Millions of public and private dollars have been spent on fish ladders and stream restoration up and down the rivers of the East Coast, and harvest restrictions have turned a once-important local food supply into an entirely catch-and-release fishery.
But stocks haven’t rebounded. At a time when our waters are literally full of conservation success stories, these highly migratory keystone species have remained stubbornly short of restoration targets. And fishermen and fishery managers are left to scratch their collective heads, wondering when the return on their investments might swing back upstream.
This is because the conservation puzzle for shad and river herring has been missing a glaring piece: the conservation of these stocks in the open ocean.
Generally, shad and river herring are not targeted by commercial fishermen, but they frequently find themselves in commercial nets as untargeted bycatch, mixed in with other saleable bait species, or thrown dead over the side. Without a fisheries management plan that includes shad and river herring, all of this ‘incidental’ take has gone unaccounted for, and no one could really say how many shad and river herring were being harvested as bycatch.
All the money and effort on the state side will continue to be unsuccessful if the fish can just be wantonly harvested on the open ocean.
House members vote to send the Water Resources Development Act to conference, meaning anglers are one step closer to better fish habitat in at-risk waters
The U.S. House of Representatives has passed the Water Resources Development Act of 2016 (WRDA), which matches Senate-passed provisions to jumpstart much-needed restoration of Everglades fisheries and water quality improvements across the country through strategic use of wetlands, reefs, and other natural infrastructure.
The bipartisan bill would authorize $5 billion in water projects overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, including $1.9 billion for the Central Everglades Planning Project, which would fast-track efforts to restore natural water flows, remove pollutants, and reverse algae blooms and other conditions devastating South Florida’s fisheries.
“The sportfishing industry recognizes that it is vital for the Florida Everglades to receive funding as soon as possible to expedite the implementation of multi-year projects that will help fix the water quality and water management challenges that plague south Florida,” says Scott Gudes, vice president of government affairs with the American Sportfishing Association. “These projects have been through an extensive review process and will provide significant environmental benefits by moving more water south from Lake Okeechobee. However, Congressional authorization is required before construction can begin.”
The House bill would also emphasize the use of nature-based infrastructure—like wetlands, dunes, and reefs—over new man-made structures to reduce flood and storm damage, improve water quality, and protect vital fish and wildlife habitat in the process. This provision, which sportsmen have been calling for since June 2016, was added as an amendment after a strongly bipartisan voice vote.
Similar provisions in the Senate version of WRDA, which passed 95-3 on September 15, would clear a path toward making these conservation measures happen. The two bills will need to be conferenced, with any differences hammered out, before legislation can go to the president’s desk.
“It should be encouraging to sportsmen that Congress is making definitive moves to advance important conservation measures with major impacts for fish, wildlife, and water quality at a time when they are tasked with so much,” says Steve Kline, director of government relations with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “There will be as much, or more, competing for lawmakers’ attention going into a conference on these bills, but there is no time to lose when it comes to reversing destruction in Florida’s fisheries or prioritizing projects that have mutual benefits for habitat and infrastructure.”
World-Renowned Angling Destinations Are Literally Sinking into the Gulf of Mexico
Historic flooding in and around Baton Rouge last month was just the latest crisis for coastal towns dealing with the escalating threats of land loss and rising sea-levels
Historic flooding focused the nation’s attention on South Louisiana a little more than a month ago, as more than 100,000 homes and businesses were inundated by as much as 30 inches of rain that fell over a three-day span.
Streets and neighborhoods far removed from boundaries on federal flood maps became angry lakes and frenzied streams. All of that rain ripped and clawed its way into drains, ditches, bayous, and rivers and, when those couldn’t contain the deluge, water rushed back out the through banks of those waterways and into people’s homes.
In the weeks since that unprecedented rainfall, some South Louisiana communities that were unaffected by the massive downpour have flooded, as well, though it’s doubtful the rest of the country heard much about it.
Small coastal fishing towns like Cocodrie, Delacroix, Leeville, and Dulac flooded, not because of storms that actually made landfall, but simply because the wind blew hard out of the southeast for a couple of days and a tropical system hit hundreds of miles away.
Flooding that covers roads and docks and water creeping into yards, under homes and camps, has become pretty routine for those who live in those towns or visit local marinas to launch boats in pursuit of speckled trout, redfish, flounder, and bass. It happens every couple of months.
Why So Water-Logged?
The Gulf of Mexico is rising, as is every other sea and ocean. In that respect, the threat of increased flooding is not unique to Louisiana’s coast. But what does separate Louisiana’s coast from that of its neighbors is the constant, menacing subsidence—this means that, for a variety of geological reasons, the land, created by millennia of sediment deposits from the Mississippi River, is slowly but surely sinking into the Gulf. The combination of rising Gulf waters and receding land mass, called relative sea-level rise, means Louisiana’s coastal towns are feeling the impact of higher water sooner and more frequently than other parts of the Gulf region.
This is not breaking news to coastal residents, who have had to elevate homes over the last two decades to keep their feet dry. Scientists and engineers are keenly aware of the threat, and are trying to design and build wetland restoration projects and extensive flood-protection systems to help shield New Orleans, Houma, and other coastal Louisiana cities from hurricane storm surges.
An Intensifying Threat
It was recently revealed by the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority—staff working on the state’s revised coastal restoration Master Plan, due out in early 2017—that the latest models show relative sea-level rise may claim much larger swaths of what’s left of Louisiana’s coast over the next 50 years than previously predicted. The last time Louisiana’s blueprint of projects to restore critical habitat and protect coastal communities was updated in 2012, coastal engineers, planners, and wetland ecologists predicted that the worst-case scenario for areas south, east, and west of New Orleans was two to four feet of relative sea-level rise.
Now, those models indicate that might be the best-case scenario for those same areas, and as much as six feet or more of average sea-level rise can be expected in the coming 50 years.
That is sobering news for those optimistic about the future of one of the world’s most fertile areas for fish and wildlife, and the communities that provide access for hundreds of thousands of anglers, hunters, and commercial fishermen. If the models are correct, Louisiana towns like Venice and Shell Beach, renowned as world-class angling destinations, may be more submerged than they are dry—or worse, simply uninhabitable, even with elevated homes and businesses.
Levee systems will be pressured more and more as water regularly laps at their bases. The rebuilt marshes that were supposed to provide protection to the levees and help restore the critical nursery grounds for fish and their forage could succumb to more frequent wave action and saltwater intrusion. And rivers, like the ones overwhelmed by the August rains, and even the Mississippi, will increasingly struggle to push their way into coastal lakes, bays, and eventually the Gulf.
In the diagrams used by coastal planners to show the expected results of relative sea-level rise (above), red ink means land lost, while green demonstrates where sediment deposits will create new wetlands. Unfortunately, those diagrams look like a Santa Claus suit with a single sprig of mistletoe stuck to it.
But those charged with creating these models are quick to point out that this picture represents a future without action. This is what could happen if we do nothing. The upcoming plan includes projects to create marsh, elevate homes, and protect communities that could put a lot more green on the map.
A $20-Billion Opportunity
The settlement with BP over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster will bring as much as $6.8 billion to Louisiana, and $20 billion in all to the five Gulf States, over the next 15 years. That money will be used to restore and enhance coastal ecosystems and local economies, meaning Louisiana’s coastal planners have their best opportunity yet to take action to address sea-level rise and land loss.
A draft of the 2017 Louisiana Coastal Restoration and Hurricane Master Plan will be released in January of 2017, and the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority will accept public comments when the draft is released. We’ll let hunters and anglers know when they can make their voices heard on this important step in the planning process.
For more information about the master plan and the effort to restore Louisiana’s coast, please visit the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority website.
Sage Grouse Still Face Issues One Year After Conservation Milestone
On the anniversary of the historic decision not to list the greater sage grouse for endangered species protection, population numbers are up—but there’s still plenty of work to do
Shortly after first light on opening day, my Labs and I maneuvered through the sagebrush in northwest Colorado searching for sage grouse. As we approached a fenced-off meadow, I noticed there were tags on the wires, markers designed to deter grouse from flying into the fence, which many ranchers and others are using to reduce accidental deaths. There definitely had to be birds in the area.
No sooner had I rested my gun on a wooden post to cross the fence when the sagebrush in front of me exploded with the unmistakable sound of a covey flush, and ten sage grouse flew off safely into the sagebrush sea.
Just four years earlier, I’d been hiking what felt like forever in one of my favorite Wyoming honey holes and no birds were to be found. I’d sat on a hillside wondering, “How did we get to this point?” How could a gamebird once so common, widely distributed, and liberally harvested have become so scarce?
That was in the fall of 2012, when drought continued to plague the West. Grouse numbers were low just about everywhere. In fact, the following spring yielded the second-lowest number of male sage grouse attending their breeding grounds in nearly 50 years. But it was more than just drought affecting sage grouse. More than half of the species range had been lost to development, cropland conversion, fire, or invasive juniper trees that the birds generally don’t like. The threats to habitat were so great and bird numbers so low that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was considering whether to protect sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.
Almost exactly one year ago, the agency decided that the bird was not warranted for listing, and this was heralded as a landmark success for collaborative conservation. On a perfect Saturday morning afield with my dogs, fortunate enough to be hunting sage grouse again, I might agree. But sage grouse are not yet in the clear—here’s why.
The Best Laid Plans
A listing would have dealt a crippling blow to the West and its economy. So, voluntarily, yet with the hammer of the ESA looming overhead, state and federal agencies, private landowners, and numerous stakeholders undertook what will be remembered as perhaps the largest coordinated conservation planning effort in the history of contemporary wildlife management.
Wyoming led the way for the states and dove in head first in 2008, launching its own version of a conservation strategy. Today, all states within the bird’s habitat have some version of a conservation plan for sage grouse. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) recognized early on how vital private landowners are to sagebrush conservation and initiated its own strategy, the Sage Grouse Initiative, in 2010. The NRCS immediately began advising and cutting checks to willing landowners to help improve conditions for sage grouse. The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service also began their own historic collaboration and developed conservation measures that would amend more than 100 land-use plans to better conserve and manage the sagebrush ecosystem. Finally, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) and the Department of Interior led planning and coordination efforts to combat wildfire and invasive species, like cheatgrass, that threaten sagebrush habitat.
It paid off. On September 22, 2015, the USFWS decided that sage grouse did not require ESA protections. However, that decision was predicated on strong conservation plans, especially on federal public lands, and with assurances that they would be implemented and effective.
Many of the states are implementing their plans. Some like Wyoming have been doing it for several years, but others are barely getting started. Now, one year after finalizing their plans, the BLM just issued guidance to all its field offices on how sage grouse conservation is to be implemented on our public lands.
Hopefully the actual implementation of federal plans doesn’t get as bogged down.
Onward and Upward
So where are we today? Bird numbers are up across most of the range. According to WAFWA, 2015 saw a dramatic increase in males attending their leks—a 63-percent increase over what was recorded in 2013. Many have touted these numbers as evidence that the plans are working, but conditions have been naturally favorable. In 2014, rain finally found its way back to much of sagebrush country, improving habitat and helping to bridge the gap while conservation plans were developed. But there’s no doubt that ongoing conservation efforts are helping too—and it can only get better with more widespread support for the whole suite of conservation plans.
On the private lands front, NRCS has continued to sign on landowners under the Sage Grouse Initiative, with more than 1,200 participating so far. The Initiative has cleared 457,000 acres of encroaching juniper to open up sagebrush habitat, protected more than 400,000 acres from development, improved rangeland and grazing practices that benefit both grouse and livestock on nearly 2.8 million acres, and marked nearly 630 miles of fences to help grouse avoid collisions with deadly wires.
While hunting has never been identified as a major threat to sage grouse, sportsmen sacrificed opportunity in most states either with outright closures or curtailed seasons and smaller bag limits. But we also contributed to the solution with hundreds of millions dollars from hunting licenses, fees, and Pittman-Robertson funding dedicated by the states to sage grouse research and conservation.
Don’t Mess With Success
But not everyone agrees with all of the conservation efforts that are planned or ongoing. The strength of the federal land-use plans has been called into question in no less than six pending lawsuits in which the plans are being called either too onerous or not rigorous enough.
Unfortunately, some in Congress continue to meddle with success by trying to force the federal agencies to use only state-developed plans. The problem is that some state plans cannot stand alone to address the threats to sage grouse, and many are based on voluntary efforts with weak assurances they will be fully implemented. Lawmakers who would rather see state plans adopted across the bird’s range are attaching legislation to the only things moving through Congress—our national defense spending bill and other appropriations bills that keep the government funded.
There should be no language in any future legislation that seeks to delay, defund, or otherwise undo the federal sage grouse conservation plans on millions of acres of America’s public lands, and 105 business leaders agree. These retailers, outfitters, and gear manufacturers, who rely on sportsmen having access to quality fish and wildlife habitat, are urging lawmakers to let sage grouse conservation happen. Read the letter here.
The True Test of Conservation
It’s still far too early to claim victory for sage grouse, and quite honestly, I think we dodged the proverbial bullet. Without rain over the past three years, we may have seen a different scenario play out last fall. The documented increases in bird numbers only reflect a short-term uptick; the long-term trend is still one of gradual decline.
The true test of conservation is yet to come.
If oil prices perhaps break $60 per barrel or if we experience another drought in sagebrush country, then we’ll get to see how well the conservation plans really work. All game bird populations go through cycles, and sage grouse numbers will always fluctuate. But what we do next will determine if the species can emerge from particularly tough times.
The Next Chapter
As for my sage grouse hunt last weekend, the story ends like this: I saw exactly where the covey put down, and soon afterward my dogs and I were on the birds. Once again, I heard the telltale sound of flapping wings, and two shots later we had finished our quest for the iconic bird of the West.
How will the story end for sage grouse across their range? That chapter is still being written.
We must stay on track with implementing the conservation plans—all of them—that were so crucial to the not-warranted decision made one year ago. And we must be wary of political meddling. Congress should ensure that there is adequate funding to implement conservation plans and support the states and private landowners. A new presidential administration will take over soon, and no matter who wins, they too must stay the course for sagebrush conservation.
We have little time to spare, as drought will once again hit the American West, as it always has, and pressures to extract resources from the land will continue to compete with our conservation goals.
Sure, as sportsmen, we want to continue to have opportunities to pursue these birds, trek through brushy landscapes with our dogs, and hear the flush of flapping wings. But, as Americans, we should be proud of a collaborative process that’s working—one that represents our scientists, land managers, private landowners, elected officials, and businesses working together—and see it through to a happy ending for the sagebrush sea.
Farmers Might Be Breaking a Conservation Compact, But We Wouldn’t Actually Know
Turns out that botched implementation of the USDA’s conservation compliance program goes deeper than we thought, says internal watchdog report
Earlier this spring, the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General—an internal watchdog for the agency that oversees the conservation programs funded through the Farm Bill—quietly issued an interim report that indicated USDA isn’t doing enough to guarantee that, in exchange for federal support payments, farmers are meeting a minimal threshold for avoiding environmental harm. The report isn’t exactly a page-turner (we broke it down for you here in May), but there could be serious consequences for wildlife habitat and water quality as a result of the USDA dropping the ball.
Now, the OIG has come out with a sequel to their initial report and, like so many summer blockbusters, it’s even worse than the original.
On a very basic level, here’s what you need to know: Compliance creates a conservation compact between taxpayers and agricultural producers. Farmers who use government programs to help manage risk and grow their operations must also affirm that they have not planted crops in wetlands or on highly erodible land.
The OIG’s interim report in March outlined a serious problem with compliance enforcement between 2012 and 2015. The data the agency was supposed to be using to conduct random compliance checks on farmers was incomplete, and many thousands of farmers who had received payments weren’t considered for review during those four years. In fact, in 2015, not a single farmer from ten major agricultural states was on the list to be checked for compliance. So, the areas in greatest need of monitoring for wetland drainage and soil erosion managed to receive the least attention.
This is an inexcusable lapse in enforcement by a federal agency, and thankfully the USDA has begun to take steps to correct the problem. Sources there have told us that they have followed the recommendations of the OIG, and revised procedures are now in place which guarantee that more than two million records, across all states, will be subject to on-site agency reviews. This is great news, but the story doesn’t end here.
Part two of the OIG’s report now reveals that the USDA’s mismanagement of compliance goes beyond a botched data pull. Here’s what else has been going wrong:
The USDA does not have consistent national standards for compliance checks. Farmers in different states—sometimes in different counties in the same state—have been subject to varying levels of scrutiny, and it’s not even clear which field conditions are considered compliance issues. Further, the national quality control processes set up to check the accuracy of the compliance reviews are also applied with varying degrees of consistency across states.
The compliance checks that did get done were incomplete or improper. OIG found that agency staff sometimes stopped their field reviews after identifying a single violation, potentially missing other violations elsewhere on the property. The agency even failed to properly conduct site visits for its own employees who receive farm payments. The watchdog report notes that the agency needs to clarify the rules specific to USDA employees to ensure fair and consistent treatment of all producers.
Field staff don’t know how to proceed when maps and field conditions are inconsistent. Staff who conduct compliance checks rely heavily on wetland inventory maps, which are over 25 years old, despite knowing that these maps often don’t reflect the current size or location of wetlands. You know, as of 2016. As a result, staff frequently check only the previously-identified wetlands for compliance, ignoring national guidance to survey entire tracts for violations. Moreover, national and state officials have incompatible ideas about whether and when staff should offer updates to the maps to reflect actual conditions in the field.
Oh, and more data is missing than they thought. In addition to the data issues noted in the interim report, OIG found that the agency missed 325,000 additional records when it compiled its data for 2015 compliance reviews, because of an error tracking county codes. The agency also incorrectly exempted tens of thousands of acres from review, in cases where individual producers farm in multiple areas.
The agency has agreed with OIG’s recommendations, and has committed to corrective action by the end of 2016. But the fact remains that conservation compliance, as currently executed, may not be able to guarantee equal treatment of the farmers who are required to follow the wetland and highly erodible land provisions. It doesn’t seem to guarantee a successful compliance program to the American taxpayer, either.
USDA pays producers about $14 billion per year through farm programs that are subject to compliance, but those payments may go to agricultural producers who have—knowingly or not—violated their end of the bargain. This is a bad deal for farmers, taxpayers, and sportsmen-conservationists who have invested in working lands conservation and deserve plentiful habitat and clean water in return.
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.