Sportsmen Concerned for Wildlife Conservation in USDA Department Shuffle
Department changes could shift the focus of the Natural Resources Conservation Service away from habitat programs to farm services
At a press event today, Secretary Perdue announced restructuring at the U.S. Department of Agriculture that would move the Natural Resources Conservation Service to a newly-created Farm Production and Conservation mission area to also house the Farm Service Agency and Risk Management Agency. A new undersecretary position has been created to oversee all the on-the-ground needs of America’s farmers, ranchers, and private foresters.
The move could provide opportunities to better align farm programs and improve conservation delivery. However, the concern from the sportsmen’s community is that this could shift the priorities at NRCS—the agency responsible for hugely successful programs benefiting water quality and game species like sage grouse—to focus more on farm productivity and perhaps give short shrift to fish and wildlife conservation on private lands.
NRCS is one of the most important federal agencies for conservation in America, wielding approximately $4 billion annually in conservation funding and boasting great success working with farmers and ranchers to improve soil health, water quality, and fish and wildlife habitat. The stewardship of private landscapes through voluntary actions by agricultural producers has helped create rural American sporting destinations that support jobs and healthy communities.
With so many benefits to landowners, hunters, anglers, and businesses on the line, sportsmen’s groups hope that USDA moves forward with this reorganization plan in a way that maintains the department’s integrity and focus on soil, water, and wildlife program goals.
Creating Drought Solutions for the Overworked Colorado River
It may be “America’s hardest working river,” but the drought-hammered Colorado River can’t support current demand from cities, farms, and fisheries without collaborative conservation
No offense to your trout stream back home, but only the Colorado holds the title for being “America’s hardest working river.” If you live in the Southwest, chances are the water you drink came from the Colorado River Basin. Want a salad in January? Well, 70 percent of the river’s water goes to irrigate millions of acres of cropland, where virtually all of the nation’s winter lettuce is grown. Turbines on the river’s dams power large swaths of California as well as Arizona’s cities and farms.
Along with its major tributaries—iconic waterways in their own right, including the Green, Yampa, Roaring Fork, and Gunnison—the Colorado is part of a massive river network that encompasses some of the most legendary fish and wildlife landscapes, winding through seven states and ten of America’s national parks, including the Grand Canyon. In Wyoming, Colorado, and along its Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona tributaries, sportsmen and women can hunt mule deer, elk, and pronghorns and fish for native cutthroats and other trout.
The river supports an estimated $1.4 trillion in annual spending and supports 16 million jobs. Water and nearby recreation accounts for $27 billion a year. It is, quite literally, the lifeblood of the region, but many of the hunting and fishing opportunities the river supports could dry up if sportsmen and women don’t take action.
Restoring Balance to the Colorado River Basin
Sportsmen, farmers, businesses, and families all depend on the Colorado. But a 2012 federal and state joint study confirms that there’s more demand for water in the region than is available in the river, and this problem becomes compounded as the population grows and droughts worsen. While 2017 has been a wet year for most of the basin, it doesn’t fix the growing imbalance between water supply and demand.
That’s why local stakeholders, including sportsmen and conservation groups, are trying to incentivize users to share and conserve water in ways that maintain farms, let cities grow, and keep the rivers flowing, all within the confines of the Law of the River. The federal government and U.S. water interests are working with Mexico, too, to update the treaty governing how we share the river.
California, Arizona, and Nevada are working on a drought contingency plan that will actually pay water users to conserve water and store it in Lake Mead, the giant reservoir near Las Vegas that is currently only half full. Meanwhile, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico are also trying to find ways to conserve, share, and maybe even “bank” water to ensure it would be available, even during a drought.
Along with realistic conservation plans and a sober-eyed assessment of what additional new water development might be sustainable, sportsmen agree that these state plans must also create incentives to keep water in the river for the benefit of fish and wildlife. This would bolster the American outdoor recreation economy in basin states and have additional benefits downstream in Mexican communities that have traditionally fished on their side of the border.
With so many interest groups in the ring, hunters and anglers must stay engaged to speak for fish and wildlife and our sporting traditions.
The Value of Water Transcends Politics
Luckily for us, folks in the Colorado River Basin have learned to work together on water issues. Ensuring that every interest has access to clean, reliable water really isn’t a partisan issue in our communities, and it shouldn’t pit rural users against city dwellers.
Local stakeholders are finding more and more ways to partner with federal agencies on water issues. A century ago, the federal government played an outsized role in creating the West’s water infrastructure through the Bureau of Reclamation’s work to build dams and pipelines in the Colorado River Basin. Today, Reclamation and other federal agencies still bring funding and programs to the region that are key for modernizing water management.
But lawmakers need to keep hearing from us. Sportsmen and conservation groups are currently asking members of Congress to maintain the critical funding that keeps key federal programs and policies working in the Colorado River Basin. (Read the TRCP Water Working Group’s letter here.)
We’ll make sure you hear about every opportunity to speak up and remind lawmakers not only of the dollars we need to make conservation happen, but also of the dollars we spend in rural communities across the Colorado River Basin and the rest of the country. Make sure you’re signed up for our weekly Roosevelt Report to be the first to know.
The True Story of a National Monument From the Hunters Who Helped Create It
An unprecedented review of 21 years of national monument designations appears to be about rolling back government overreach, but could it also roll back hunting and fishing?
For more than 50 years, my friends and I have hunted what is now the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. I remember quail hunting before the monument designation thinking to myself that this place was special. A decade before this half-million-acre parcel was designated as a national monument, I was actually one of the many local sportsmen who joined conservation organizations in calling for the assurances that a monument would bring to fish and wildlife habitat and public access for outdoor recreation.
I’m proud of the role sportsmen and women played in this designation. We were critical to the effort, representing the more conservative side of the community, and helped to bridge any gaps between conservation groups and people who might otherwise oppose the monument. The ranching community, for example, thought that the monument would threaten their livelihood. It did not, however, as grazing is still allowed in the monument. From Doña Ana County to D.C., we—the locals—fought for this and we were heard.
It was an appropriate use of the Antiquities Act because there was a great need to protect these areas, but after many years of repeated attempts in Congress, we weren’t getting anywhere. Now, my buddies and I can continue to hunt these lands for mule deer, Gambel’s, Mearn’s, and scaled quail, and ducks and doves, when there’s water in the playas.
Initially, some sportsmen were skeptical of a monument designation, until they realized that national monuments managed by an agency with a multiple-use mandate—such as the Bureau of Land Management—allow hunting and fishing. There would be no locked gates or closed roads. The only thing the designation would change is the threat of these lands being pulled out from under sportsmen and other recreational users.
Once sportsmen understood this, it was easy to get behind.
That said, monument designations must be pursued in a way that addresses the priorities and values of the community, including its sportsmen. This means a process that is locally driven, transparent, incorporates the science-based management and conservation of important fish and wildlife habitat, and upholds continued opportunities to hunt and fish within the boundaries of a proposed monument. This is exactly the process used to obtain the OMDP National Monument designation.
Along those lines, 28 hunting and fishing groups and businesses developed a set of tenets that we believe should be followed when new monuments are created in areas important to hunters and anglers. These tenets, which we sent to Trump back in April, include the following:
The monument proposal must be developed through a public process—one that includes hunters and anglers—as well as appropriate state and local governments.
The monument proclamation should clearly stipulate that any existing state management authority over fish and wildlife populations will be retained by state fish and wildlife agencies with the coordination and flexibility necessary to fulfill public trust responsibilities to conserve fish and wildlife and achieve wildlife management objectives including the ability to establish seasons, bag limits, and regulate method-of-take.
BLM and U.S. Forest Service lands must remain under the authority of a multiple-use-focused land-management agency.
Reasonable public access must be retained to enable continued hunting and fishing opportunities.
The input and guidance of hunters and anglers must be included in management plans for national monuments.
Important fish and wildlife habitat must be protected.
The proposal must enjoy support from local sportsmen and women.
Sporting opportunities must be upheld and the historical and cultural significance of hunting and fishing explicitly acknowledged in the monument proclamation.
The greatest conservation president of all time, Theodore Roosevelt, established the Antiquities Act 111 years ago this June. Since then, 16 presidents—eight democrats and eight republicans—have used the act to protect lands important to our hunting and fishing heritage.
Certainly, here in New Mexico, the hunters I know would be left scrambling to find a new spot to hunt mule deer, javelin, pronghorn, and a trio of our favorite quail species. The other 170,000 annual users of OMDP National Monument would be out of luck as well.
Mule Deer and Pronghorn Migration Corridors Are Still Overlooked When it Comes to Conservation
After a winter spent traversing the West in search of green food, big game species are on their way back to your favorite hunting spots—if they can make it
As we shed our extra woolen layers, pull tarps from our boats, and head out to turkey blinds and our favorite fishing holes, big game species like mule deer and pronghorn antelope across the West are moving from their wintering grounds to summer ranges in massive annual migrations. Their ability to make the trip, survive the elements, navigate man-made barriers, and find enough food along the way dictates whether these critters will be around come opening day, but thousands of miles of migration corridors have been more of an afterthought in the conservation equation.
Here’s why this doesn’t add up.
Following the Food
Big game animals can live in some of the harshest and most remote areas in the West, but only if they can move freely across the landscape at key times of the year to access nutritious food. Each spring, these animals gradually move from their low-elevation wintering habitats toward summering areas to follow the “Green Wave”—the swaths of lush green grass and forbs emerging as the snow recedes. In the fall, these critters follow the same general path back, as snow covers their food and drives them lower and lower into wintering habitat.
Their ability to move across the landscape to find food is why the West has such large and flourishing herds of big game. But migration is tough on animals and many barriers can threaten their ability to move freely. Fences, highways, housing developments, and oil and gas development can change animal movement patterns or close off migration corridors altogether.
Big game animals need big landscapes. That’s why conserving all habitats they use—including their migration corridors—is vital for big game populations. It doesn’t matter how much work we put into maintaining or restoring mule deer summer range if critters starve, perish, or become unhealthy along the way. Therefore, conservation planning has to look at the big picture when it comes to balancing other uses of the land with the needs of migrating animals. This also means working with private landowners and public land managers to achieve the goals for migrating big game—great conservation work by a private landowner could be all for naught if adjacent public lands aren’t managed in a compatible way to meet those goals.
Filling the Data Gap
State wildlife agencies and their biologists know how important migration corridors are, yet only some have detailed information about where they exist. Worse yet, few agencies have any information on the threats these animals face along their journeys. This makes the conservation and management of big game animals difficult, at best.
In Wyoming last year, the Game and Fish Commission took some unprecedented steps to protect vital migration corridors by developing an assessment strategy to determine threats to animal movement and shape recommendations on necessary conservation actions. The first assessment of its kind was recently completed by biologists studying the Sublette mule deer herd as they migrated from the Red Desert to Hoback, Wyoming. It builds off prior work by the Wyoming Migration Initiative and field biologists who helped identified 11 segments of the 150-mile-long migration route these mule deer traverse each spring and fall. Once finalized, the new assessment and its recommendations should provide a roadmap for conserving this particular migration corridor.
Both President Trump and Secretary Zinke have pledged to follow the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt, and we remain hopeful that both will do great things for wildlife during their tenure in office. A good first step would be to carefully examine what’s working and what’s not, rather than roll back previous policies and actions that could enhance wildlife habitat, protect migration corridors, and properly mitigate the unavoidable impacts of development. And Executive Orders could just as easily be used to do positive things for fish, wildlife, and overlooked habitat in areas where outdoor recreation jobs are just as critical as energy jobs. (Take a look at where outdoor recreation stacks up with other industries in the Outdoor Industry Association’s most recent report, and you’ll see why we have a mandate to balance all the many demands on America’s public lands and waters.)
We don’t yet know how conservation will be affected in the coming months and years, but the TRCP has always believed that energy development, responsible grazing, and the many other vital uses of our public lands can be balanced with the needs of fish, wildlife, and sportsmen and women. One thing we do know is that we don’t want to be migrating out to our favorite hunting spots only to wait for mule deer or pronghorns that never show.
Rinella and Western Governors Receive Top Honors for Conservation Achievement
Meateater‘s Steven Rinella, Wyoming Governor Matt Mead, and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper were celebrated for their leadership and advocacy to advance policy outcomes for wildlife and access
At the ninth annual Capital Conservation Awards Dinner last night, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership celebrated three honorees for their leadership in ongoing collaborative conservation efforts and advocacy: Meateaterhost and author Steven Rinella, Republican Governor Matt Mead of Wyoming, and Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado.
The gala event, held at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C., brought together policy-makers, outdoor industry innovators, and conservation group leaders. Tucker Carlson, host of FOX News Channel’s Tucker Carlson Tonight, and Rachel Maddow, host of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show, served as co-masters of ceremony and set the tone for the evening with their opening remarks on the inclusive, non-partisan nature of hunting and fishing. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke made closing remarks emphasizing the value of America’s public lands.
Rinella received TRCP’s 2017 Conservation Achievement Award for his demonstrated willingness to raise awareness about habitat and access issues while spurring hunters and anglers to take action. His outreach to fans and readers about Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s H.R. 621, a bill that would have disposed of 3.3 million acres of America’s public lands, was integral to rallying opposition on social media that ultimately pressured Chaffetz to withdraw the bill.
“Steven Rinella is not only an excellent ambassador for hunting and fishing, he’s dedicated to advancing conservation so that our sports can prosper long-term,” says Whit Fosburgh, TRCP’s president and CEO. “His influencer status makes Steve the ultimate sportsman’s role model, and his willingness to use that platform to bring clarity to complex policy issues and urge rank-and-file sportsmen to become informed advocates is incredibly meaningful to the American conservation movement.”
After accepting his award from Sen. Martin Heinrich, a 2016 Capital Conservation Awards honoree, Rinella restated his commitment to demystifying the public land transfer issue, and other conservation imperatives, for the average sportsman. “I grew up within a couple of miles of the Huron-Manistee National Forests in Michigan, and as a kid it was as if that public land just appeared there for me to use—I never thought about why, or how it was a part of a great American legacy of conservation,” he said. “I work to open the eyes of guys like me, who just never thought about it before. It’s not an easy to poem to write, but it’s critical.”
Governors Mead and Hickenlooper were presented with the 2017 James D. Range Conservation Award—named for TRCP’s co-founder, a conservation visionary, and presented to one Democrat and one Republican each year—for their collaborative efforts to help restore sagebrush habitat as co-chairs of the Western Governors’ Association Sage Grouse Task Force. They are the first state governors to receive the award, which is typically given to one Democrat and one Republican in Congress.
Gov. Mead shared credit with his task force colleagues and cited Wyoming’s unique outdoor-recreation-driven economy and future generations of outdoorsmen and women as his inspiration. His award was presented by Jim Ogsbury, executive director of the Western Governors’ Association.
Gov. Hickenlooper accepted his award from Sen. Michael Bennet and addressed the many benefits of public lands for Coloradans—including hunting and fishing access—and “the magic” of the simplest outdoor experiences.
Learn more about the TRCP’s Capital Conservation Awards here and here.
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.