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December 15, 2016

A Bucket List ‘Bout Empty in the Cowboy State

Ambassador Earl DeGroot exemplifies the lure of public lands in Wyoming

TRCP’s Ambassador program calls on sportsmen-conservationists to help advance our goals by offering local volunteer support. These #PublicLandsProud hometown heroes are not willing to sit idly by as the wild places we love are lost. They know there’s more to our sports than just hunting, fishing, and going home.

Meet Earl DeGroot, our volunteer ambassador in Wyoming. The promise of public lands inspired DeGroot to move to Wyoming some 32 years ago, so it’s no surprise that he’s ready to stand up to threats against them now. DeGroot is a man of action and an experienced asset for conservation. We talked to our latest ambassador recruit about the threats to public lands and what everyday sportsmen can do to help.

A beautiful bighorn taken in the Absarokas. Image courtesy of Earl DeGroot.

TRCP: What’s your earliest memory in the outdoors and how do you spend your time outside these days?

DeGroot: My earliest memories are of shooting ground squirrels (gophers) with my father and my uncle on my grandfather’s farm in North Dakota. I did this quite often from ages ten to 14.  I don’t know why, but that experience got me hooked on hunting and the outdoors. I loved staying at the farm and usually stayed there when I wasn’t in school back in the city where my parents lived.

Thirty-two years ago, I moved to Wyoming to be near an abundance of public land. These days, you will find me enjoying our federal lands for hunting, camping, hiking, snowmobiling, ATVing, snapping photos of wildlife. One of my favorite pastimes is exploring the millions of acres of federal land in Wyoming and Colorado. This year 2016 was extra special for me. I call it “the trifecta year.” I shot my first black bear in June. In September, I cashed in 21 preference points to go on a successful guided Wyoming sheep hunt. And in October, I accompanied my wife on a successful Colorado elk hunt that cost her 26 preference points. It was a banner year!

TRCP: What got you interested in TRCP and the work we do? How do you see yourself helping TRCP achieve our conservation mission?

DeGroot: The federal land transfer issue is a top priority for me. Being a decades-long Republican, I feel betrayed by the GOP for passing a resolution to transfer federal lands to the states. Having worked for and with Wyoming’s state government for 30 years (now retired), I am convinced that the state cannot afford to manage millions of additional acres of public land—they would need to extensively develop lands or sell some/most of them.

At this point, many of Wyoming’s elected officials have not responded to public opposition to transfer. Opposition is often dismissed as fringe group resistance from radical environmental groups, perhaps from out-of-state. To show there is strong grassroots, in-state opposition, a small group of us started a Facebook page entitled “Wyoming Sportsmen for Federal Lands”. The page has grown beyond expectations, currently to 3,500 followers, and has captured the attention of elected officials. One of the goals is to build so much public resistance to transfer that no politician would dare to introduce transfer legislation in the state of Wyoming. That maybe a lofty goal, but I believe we are headed in that direction. I look forward to assisting TRCP with their fight against federal land transfer in any way I might be of assistance.

TRCP: How can everyday sportsmen make a difference for fish and wildlife? Why is it so important?

DeGroot: If federal lands were to be transferred to the states, or privatized, there would be a hugely negative impact on wildlife populations and hunting and fishing access. At the current time, much of the western United States enjoys relatively unrestricted big game migration routes. Extensive development or privatization would make it difficult for big game to travel back and forth from summer range to winter range. Population numbers would almost certainly decline. This is just one example of the negative impact of federal land transfer.

While everyday sportsmen are important in the fight against transfer, their support alone is not enough. We must go beyond sportsmen and get the support of the voting public. Often times, outdoor organization focus too much on their membership which is a small portion of the voting public. They need to cast a wider net, and reach out to the general public.

TRCP: What has been your most memorable hunt?

DeGroot: My most memorable hunt was my spring 2016 black bear hunt. Starting a number of years ago, I began to see more black bear sign in my elk hunting area in southeast Wyoming. I even caught glimpses of a few bears while bow hunting. I have shot many elk, deer, and antelope, but I had never shot a black bear—I hadn’t even seen very many. So, my wife and I began baiting bears in both spring and fall. Baiting is legal in Wyoming and, in fact, it’s an important management tool, but it surprised us how much work it was. Much of the media portrays baiting as too easy and unfair. Our experience was anything but. It was a lot of work sometimes involving snowshoes and sleds, as we made numerous 250 mile round trips to tend baits and check trail cameras.

Last spring we were excited to see we had at least 10 bears on camera, but many of them came during the night when we couldn’t hunt. But we waited, sitting in a blind near the bait, which allowed us a clear short-range shot and provided plenty of time to ensure there were no cubs with the bear. After much time invested, I finally connected with an eleven year old black bear (as later determined by tooth analysis) early on the morning of June 5. Because of the level of difficulty, because it was entirely DIY, because we had to figure it all out ourselves, because it was on public land, and because bears are such an elusive animal, I consider this to be one of my most memorable and rewarding hunts. It was a very rewarding experience!

TRCP’s Wyoming ambassador with his 2016 public lands black bear. Image courtesy of Earl DeGroot.

TRCP: What’s still on your bucket list?

DeGroot: At age 68, most of my hunt bucket list has been accomplished. I now look forward to simply enjoying OUR federal lands.

TRCP: What’s your favorite Theodore Roosevelt quote?

DeGroot: “Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin you country of its beauty, its riches, or its romance.”

To find out more about the TRCP Ambassador program, please contact TRCP’s deputy director of Western lands, Coby Tigert, at CTigert@trcp.org or 208-681-8011.

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A Bucket List ‘Bout Empty in the Cowboy State

Ambassador Earl DeGroot exemplifies the lure of public lands in Wyoming

TRCP’s Ambassador program calls on sportsmen-conservationists to help advance our goals by offering local volunteer support. These #PublicLandsProud hometown heroes are not willing to sit idly by as the wild places we love are lost. They know there’s more to our sports than just hunting, fishing, and going home.

Meet Earl DeGroot, our volunteer ambassador in Wyoming. The promise of public lands inspired DeGroot to move to Wyoming some 32 years ago, so it’s no surprise that he’s ready to stand up to threats against them now. DeGroot is a man of action and an experienced asset for conservation. We talked to our latest ambassador recruit about the threats to public lands and what everyday sportsmen can do to help.

A beautiful bighorn taken in the Absarokas. Image courtesy of Earl DeGroot.

TRCP: What’s your earliest memory in the outdoors and how do you spend your time outside these days?

DeGroot: My earliest memories are of shooting ground squirrels (gophers) with my father and my uncle on my grandfather’s farm in North Dakota. I did this quite often from ages ten to 14.  I don’t know why, but that experience got me hooked on hunting and the outdoors. I loved staying at the farm and usually stayed there when I wasn’t in school back in the city where my parents lived.

Thirty-two years ago, I moved to Wyoming to be near an abundance of public land. These days, you will find me enjoying our federal lands for hunting, camping, hiking, snowmobiling, ATVing, snapping photos of wildlife. One of my favorite pastimes is exploring the millions of acres of federal land in Wyoming and Colorado. This year 2016 was extra special for me. I call it “the trifecta year.” I shot my first black bear in June. In September, I cashed in 21 preference points to go on a successful guided Wyoming sheep hunt. And in October, I accompanied my wife on a successful Colorado elk hunt that cost her 26 preference points. It was a banner year!

TRCP: What got you interested in TRCP and the work we do? How do you see yourself helping TRCP achieve our conservation mission?

DeGroot: The federal land transfer issue is a top priority for me. Being a decades-long Republican, I feel betrayed by the GOP for passing a resolution to transfer federal lands to the states. Having worked for and with Wyoming’s state government for 30 years (now retired), I am convinced that the state cannot afford to manage millions of additional acres of public land—they would need to extensively develop lands or sell some/most of them.

At this point, many of Wyoming’s elected officials have not responded to public opposition to transfer. Opposition is often dismissed as fringe group resistance from radical environmental groups, perhaps from out-of-state. To show there is strong grassroots, in-state opposition, a small group of us started a Facebook page entitled “Wyoming Sportsmen for Federal Lands”. The page has grown beyond expectations, currently to 3,500 followers, and has captured the attention of elected officials. One of the goals is to build so much public resistance to transfer that no politician would dare to introduce transfer legislation in the state of Wyoming. That maybe a lofty goal, but I believe we are headed in that direction. I look forward to assisting TRCP with their fight against federal land transfer in any way I might be of assistance.

TRCP: How can everyday sportsmen make a difference for fish and wildlife? Why is it so important?

DeGroot: If federal lands were to be transferred to the states, or privatized, there would be a hugely negative impact on wildlife populations and hunting and fishing access. At the current time, much of the western United States enjoys relatively unrestricted big game migration routes. Extensive development or privatization would make it difficult for big game to travel back and forth from summer range to winter range. Population numbers would almost certainly decline. This is just one example of the negative impact of federal land transfer.

While everyday sportsmen are important in the fight against transfer, their support alone is not enough. We must go beyond sportsmen and get the support of the voting public. Often times, outdoor organization focus too much on their membership which is a small portion of the voting public. They need to cast a wider net, and reach out to the general public.

TRCP: What has been your most memorable hunt?

DeGroot: My most memorable hunt was my spring 2016 black bear hunt. Starting a number of years ago, I began to see more black bear sign in my elk hunting area in southeast Wyoming. I even caught glimpses of a few bears while bow hunting. I have shot many elk, deer, and antelope, but I had never shot a black bear—I hadn’t even seen very many. So, my wife and I began baiting bears in both spring and fall. Baiting is legal in Wyoming and, in fact, it’s an important management tool, but it surprised us how much work it was. Much of the media portrays baiting as too easy and unfair. Our experience was anything but. It was a lot of work sometimes involving snowshoes and sleds, as we made numerous 250 mile round trips to tend baits and check trail cameras.

Last spring we were excited to see we had at least 10 bears on camera, but many of them came during the night when we couldn’t hunt. But we waited, sitting in a blind near the bait, which allowed us a clear short-range shot and provided plenty of time to ensure there were no cubs with the bear. After much time invested, I finally connected with an eleven year old black bear (as later determined by tooth analysis) early on the morning of June 5. Because of the level of difficulty, because it was entirely DIY, because we had to figure it all out ourselves, because it was on public land, and because bears are such an elusive animal, I consider this to be one of my most memorable and rewarding hunts. It was a very rewarding experience!

TRCP’s Wyoming ambassador with his 2016 public lands black bear. Image courtesy of Earl DeGroot.

TRCP: What’s still on your bucket list?

DeGroot: At age 68, most of my hunt bucket list has been accomplished. I now look forward to simply enjoying OUR federal lands.

TRCP: What’s your favorite Theodore Roosevelt quote?

DeGroot: “Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin you country of its beauty, its riches, or its romance.”

To find out more about the TRCP Ambassador program, please contact TRCP’s deputy director of Western lands, Coby Tigert, at CTigert@trcp.org or 208-681-8011.

Kristyn Brady

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posted in: General

December 13, 2016

Congress Fails Sportsmen on Many Conservation Priorities in Final Hours

Everglades restoration can begin, but provisions to improve fish habitat, wetlands health, and access to hunting and fishing get left behind again

Today, the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act awaits the president’s signature, the final step needed to authorize $1.9 billion in restoration projects to help reverse longstanding habitat and water quality issues in South Florida, while moving water south. This should be celebrated as a major win for anglers, guides, and other local businesses that rely on healthy fish habitat.

Image courtesy of Jesse Michael Nix/Flickr.

But in almost every other way, lawmakers overpromised and under delivered on the pending legislation important to hunters and anglers in the 114th Congress. Bipartisan support for provisions that would improve fish habitat, wetlands health, and public access across the country as part of a larger energy modernization bill brought the Sportsmen’s Act closer to the finish line than ever before. But it was not enough to finally do right by America’s sportsmen after attempts in three consecutive Congresses.

“For six years, or longer, we’ve needed this policy support for the very infrastructure of conservation and access, which keeps rural America in business during hunting and fishing season,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We owe a debt of thanks to senators who voted 97-0 to move conservation forward with the energy bill, but sportsmen and women should be angry and frustrated that good things like this can’t get done in the end.”

While major opportunities were lost by failing to authorize the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, National Fish Habitat Conservation Act, and Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act—a critical conservation tool for Western lands—there was also a disappointing last-minute addition to the water projects bill that would weaken protections for salmon and other fish.

“We are deeply disappointed that language was added to the bill that diverts water away from fisheries that are already struggling, puts wild salmon in jeopardy of extinction, and targets other sportfish for eradication,” says Scott Gudes, vice president of government affairs with the American Sportfishing Association. “Senators Barbara Boxer, Maria Cantwell, and all the Northwest U.S. senators, are to be commended for their efforts to defeat this last-minute water grab, which redirects water to agriculture and undercuts environmental protection for fisheries. Unfortunately its passage creates a significant threat to fishing communities, anglers, and the sportfishing industry in the state.”

The TRCP opposed the drought provision airdropped into final negotiations and was supportive of a provision to promote use of natural infrastructure, like wetlands, reefs, and dunes.

Image courtesy of Jennifer Hall/USFWS.

In a major defensive victory, language that would have undercut sage grouse conservation was removed from the final conference report of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) signed last week. And a continuing resolution passed in the wee hours of Saturday morning will keep the government funded through April 28, 2016 at decent levels for conservation. But additional threats to protections for sage grouse, headwater streams, and BLM backcountry lands could be yet to come in the new Congress, with the possibility of cuts, riders, and budget reconciliations.

Follow along with the TRCP in 2017, as we work to highlight the relevance of hunters and anglers to their elected officials in Washington and advance conservation in America.

Dani Dagan

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posted in: General

December 8, 2016

How Genetic Information from Sage Grouse Feathers Could Help Us Save Them

DNA pulled from more than 3,000 feathers is helping to set the course for the future of sage-grouse conservation

Successful hunters gather data. They climb trees, glass ridgelines, or use trail cameras to consider how critters are moving—the more you can comprehend a landscape, the greater your ability to get a shot.

The same kind of big-picture understanding is essential to conservation that benefits fish and wildlife. In the effort to conserve greater sage grouse habitat and avoid listing the bird, researchers and land managers have been using all the innovative tools at their disposal to fully understand the habitat conditions contributing to the sage grouse’s plight. The trouble is, with a range encompassing such a huge area of western North America—the birds are currently found in 11 states and some parts of Canada—that’s a heck of a lot of ground to monitor.

So, wildlife biologists got creative. They’re unlocking more comprehensive knowledge about habitat connectivity by pulling DNA from sage grouse feathers.

Image courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The DNA contained in feathers can paint a broader, more in-depth picture of how the birds interact with the landscape than was possible before this technology was widely understood. Genes, discrete bits of DNA, get passed from parents to chicks and vary from bird to bird like a signature. If you know how to decipher the code, it can reveal how related the birds are—and where the landscape might cut them off from one another.

Todd Cross and Mike Schwartz, wildlife biologists with the U.S. Forest Service, recently published a study that begins to unlock the ties between sage-grouse genetics, the sagebrush sea, and how to best conserve the species that depend on it. By recruiting friends and colleagues to help, scientists collected 3,481 sage grouse feathers from 351 leks across the West. Sportsmen were in on the action too—according to Cross, hunter-harvested wings provide the highest quality DNA samples.

Cross decoding DNA back in the lab. Image courtesy of Todd Cross.

Focusing on feathers from Montana and the Dakotas first, Cross and Schwartz looked at gene flow, which is similar to a game of hot potato: Genetic structure gets passed along until someone drops the potato. In a landscape with habitat connectivity, critters share genetic information across distances far greater than a single bird could travel. However, when some groups of sage grouse are isolated from others by fragmentation, birds in one region have different genetic markers than others down the line.

Cross wanted to identify where the landscape results in barriers for gene flow—the places where potatoes get dropped, so to speak—and he and Schwartz found a significant difference in the genetic structure of sage grouse across various parts of the landscape. They took what they learned from the genetic material and created a map indicating the location of subpopulations, clusters of sage grouse with discrete genetic structures, which is depicted below.

Three main subpopulations of sage grouse are colored in reds, blues, and yellows. Pairs of darker and lighter colors signify subpopulations with similar genetics to one another. Image courtesy of Todd Cross.

This discovery—both in terms of the research method they employed and the map they produced—is significant when it comes to conserving and managing sage grouse on the ground. In the words of Schwartz: “The beauty of this work is that it allows for informed decisions.”

The architects of the federal, state, and local conservation plans to reverse an overall decline in sage grouse populations have determined where management actions should be taken based on established priority areas for conservation (PAC)—habitat parcels that are essential for the species’ success.

Often, discussion surrounding PACs is focused on habitat quality in the specific area in question, which can miss critical ingredients for conservation success. Healthy conditions within one patch of habitat is important, of course, but it must also be connected to other swaths of sagebrush habitat for these birds to thrive. Sage grouse need the ability to move from place to place, and stakeholders must work in cooperation between discrete management areas accordingly—after all, grouse don’t recognize the boundaries between state, federal, and private lands.

“We can use the DNA study and other scientific data to better define landscape boundaries for conservation and mitigation actions, as opposed to drawing arbitrary or politically-based boundaries,” says Ed Arnett, TRCP’s senior scientist. Cross and Schwartz’s work helps map out how sage grouse are actually using the landscape.

Image courtesy of Ed Arnett.

Furthermore, the genetic isolation implied by their results in Montana and the Dakotas can be problematic in and of itself. Schwartz explains that inbreeding—a consequence of isolation—can lead to diminished fitness in the population. In other words, without new genes coming into a population from outside geographic areas, sage grouse might see a reduced ability to survive or breed.

“We know this from domestic stocks,” he says, referring to agriculture. “You see these consequences in things like reduced milk production. To keep the animals healthy, you have to see new blood coming into populations.”

So what does this mean for management? All the stakeholders—including agencies that manage distinct regions—must work together to establish more habitat connectivity to benefit sagebrush species. The good news is that sage grouse have a history of bringing people together.

“We have seen unprecedented coordination and planning efforts across 11 Western states that led to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision not to list the bird for Endangered Species Act protection in September 2015,” says Arnett. “This type of broad collaboration among the state and federal agencies and diverse stakeholders is a game changer for the future of conservation in America.”

Cross and Schwartz also shared a little about the future of their study: They’ve expanded their work to encompass almost all of the bird’s range, and they’re uncovering some exciting new information about this icon of the West. For example, they found that a sage grouse traveled more than 120 miles in a single season!

Relying on science to determine what’s best for fish and wildlife has always been a key tenet of the North American Model of Conservation. But the innovation it takes to reach informed decisions about land management and habitat restoration is pretty cool on its own.

Learn more about the sage grouse genetics study here. And if you think DNA pulled from a feather is fascinating, check out this mule deer migration study, where big game animals are literally sending their GPS coordinates to researchers’ smartphones.

Julia Peebles

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posted in: General

December 6, 2016

Glassing the Hill: December 5 – 9

The TRCP’s scouting report on sportsmen’s issues in Congress

The Senate and House are in session this week, and lawmakers are eager to leave D.C. as soon as this Friday, December 9. As the clock ticks, Congressional leadership remains optimistic about passing essential legislation that affects sage grouse conservation, the Everglades, and critical funding. The 115th Congress will convene on Tuesday, January 3.

Sage grouse conservation is safe—for now. On Friday, the House passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) conference report, which the Senate is expected to pass this week. A provision that would have allowed governors to veto sage-grouse conservation plans for federal public lands—effectively freezing the conservation status of the bird for a decade—was omitted from the report after significant push back from conservation and sportsmen’s groups. In fact, more than 3,000 sportsman-advocates responded to a TRCP action alert and sent letters urging lawmakers to allow sage grouse conservation success to continue. The exclusion of this language from the NDAA is a short-term victory though, and we’re prepared for this issue to resurface in the next Congress.

Government funding is on the docket, no strings attached. A new short-term continuing resolution (CR), which must pass before federal funds run out on Friday, will fund the government at 2016 levels through early spring, although the specific end date is not yet public. While these measures sometimes carry riders with implications outside of funding, the new CR is expected to be fairly clean.

Water legislation could bring good tidings for the Everglades. Leading members in the Senate Environment and Public Works and House Transportation and Infrastructure committees have indicated that they have come to an agreement on the Water Resource Development Act (WRDA), and they’re expected to pass it this week. The issue that kept the bill in limbo was a provision that provides emergency funds to combat the lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan. Since both the Senate and House versions of WRDA include authorization of funds for the Central Everglades Planning Project and promote the use of nature-based infrastructure, such as wetlands and marshes, the final negotiated bill should include these provisions, too.

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