A deeper dive on the issues. Conservation is a complex topic, but what we care about boils down to this: We need habitat and clean water, plenty of access to hunting and fishing spots, and support for conservation funding and outdoor recreation businesses. Explore the legislation and management challenges related to these essential fights, and we’ll always give you at least one opportunity to take action and make a difference.
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The TRCP’s scouting report on sportsmen’s issues in Congress
Last week was the kick-off of the 115th Congress. Here’s what you may have missed:
Public lands were threatened on the first day. A provision was included in the House rules package that would allow the Congressional Budget Office to not consider the lost revenues from transferring public lands, potentially easing the path forward for transfer. The package passed the House on party lines.
Efforts were made to eliminate recent regulations during the first week. The House quickly passed two bills which aim to facilitate the removal of rules that were made in the final days of the Obama administration. “The Midnight Rules Relief Act” would allow a single joint resolution by lawmakers to disapprove multiple rules finalized in the administration’s final days, and “The Regulations from Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act” (REINS Act) would require congressional approval for any federal rule that would impact the economy with costs that exceed $100 million. The Senate introduced their own versions of these bills as well: S. 34 and S. 21.
Another way to undo previous rules might be used to weaken water protections. As Obama-era regulations continue to be a major focus of the new Congress, it seems likely that the Congressional Review Act (CRA) may be utilized to stop the most highly controversial rules. The CRA would allow Congress to consider stopping rules that were introduced after May 16, 2016 with only a simple majority. One rule the Republican leadership would like to see blocked first is the Stream Protection Rule, which would limit regulations for coal mining near waterways. The House is expected to begin considering rules under the CRA as early as January 30.
The national monument designation process is also under scrutiny. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and 25 Senate Republicans introduced “The Improved National Monument Designation Process Act,” which would require congressional approval, state legislature and local support, and a certification of compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act before national monuments and marine monuments can be declared by the president.
This is what we’re scoping this week:
We’ll be watching 2017 budget discussions for provisions that affect habitat and access. To this point, 21 amendments have been filed to the Senate Budget Resolution, with many more expected. The Senate is expected to be voting on budget-related amendments for the majority of this week, including a likely “vote-a-rama,” during which many votes will be stacked one after the other into a late-night voting session. Amendments must be written in a way that makes them germane to the budget, but can cover a wide range of policy issues.
The process of confirming Trump’s cabinet might begin this week with testimonies in nominees’ respective Senate committees. President-elect Donald Trump’s nominees for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, attended meetings with Republicans and Democrats last week in advance of confirmation hearings that will be announced soon. Congressman Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), Trump’s Interior Secretary nominee, will be meeting with Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee members this week in advance of a confirmation hearing that Chairwoman Murkowski pledged will happen before the inaugural ceremonies on Jan 20.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
WHAT WILL FEWER HUNTERS MEAN FOR CONSERVATION?
The precipitous drop in hunter participation should be a call to action for all sportsmen and women, because it will have a significant ripple effect on key conservation funding models.