July 27, 2017

Why This Sportsmen’s Bill is About More Than Just Wolves

Let’s not allow the strongest legislative package of conservation priorities in years to be overshadowed by controversy

Yesterday, for the second time in as many years, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted to advance a package of conservation provisions that have long been a priority for the sportsmen’s community. The legislation would reauthorize programs to benefit fish, waterfowl, wetlands, big game habitat, and sportsmen’s access across the country.

Since 2012, sportsmen have been trying to get these provisions across the legislative finish line, and each time, we’ve failed. Good legislation has been mired in generally unrelated partisanship and political games, with good ideas held hostage by process and bickering.

Where a few years ago sportsmen-advocates in Washington looked to our Sportsmen’s Act lobbying with fairly enthusiastic promise, I will admit that it has been hard to get excited about yet another run in the 115th Congress, especially as the window of opportunity has seemed even narrower than usual. But Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) have assembled the “HELP for Wildlife Act” (S.1514), which has breathed new life into this effort.

We called it the strongest package of sportsmen’s priorities in years, because right from the outset, it deals with meaningful conservation measures for fish and wildlife populations, habitat, and access. The bill would reauthorize the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, to enable strong partnerships and funding for conservation. The bill also includes what would be the first ever statutory authorization for the National Fish Habitat Conservation Act, a program that funds on-the-ground fish habitat restoration projects across the country.

It also addresses the needs of the Chesapeake Bay Program, which provides grants to the six states in the bay watershed, not only improving water quality on the main-stem Chesapeake (and my own home waters) but also the health of small streams and rivers throughout the watershed.

Free from the controversial and distracting provisions of past iterations, this is a legislative package unfettered by poison pills, and sportsmen should be eager to see it move to the Senate floor. But, in these days of often blistering partisan warfare, it seems nothing is completely free of controversy. In the case of HELP, provisions meant to delist the gray wolf in Wyoming and the Great Lakes from Endangered Species Act protection seems to be overshadowing the very real conservation benefits of the bill.

Photo by Herbert Lange c/o Wisconsin DNR/Flickr

Just the mention of endangered species usually sends folks running for cover, but in this case, the TRCP supports the gray wolf provision as grounded in sound science. This is an idea whose time has come. Generally we don’t support legislative meddling in species-level management, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service indicates that it is time for wolf management to be returned to the state fish and wildlife agencies, and we have full confidence in USFWS science and the state agencies’ ability to manage the wolf population.

This package is about way more than wolves. Unfortunately, the bipartisan passage of this bill out of the EPW Committee this week—which should be celebrated—is just the start of a long process before the package can be presented to President Trump for his signature. There is currently no companion version of this legislation in the House of Representatives and no clear path for consideration by the full Senate.

So sportsmen simply must engage; hunters and anglers must make their voices heard now. In the absence of that outreach, sportsmen, and our legislative priorities, might once again wind up on the cutting room floor at the end of the 115th Congress next December.

It has happened before, and it can happen again.

10 Responses to “Why This Sportsmen’s Bill is About More Than Just Wolves”

  1. George Lindquist

    Wolves met all requirements to be delisted in the Great Lakes States 15 yrs. ago. They were supposed to be delisted then. They need to be managed just as our deer and bear do. The primary reason our moose numbers are falling is wolf predation. Sure hope this bill finally gets passed. Thank you!

  2. John D Yarbrough

    The scientific and carefully prescribed management of all American species of animals is the responsibility of us all. Please do not allow the emotionally based arguments for keeping wolves on the endangered species list stand in the way of preserving the outstanding work of Americas wild life biologists, volunteers, and legislators in restoring natural wolf populations across this great country. Passing this legislation with the deluding of wolves provision intact will also ensure that states have the ability successfully manage all of the natural animal species residing in their borders as a shared asset for the countless generations of citizen conservationists to come. As an Eagle Scout and son of a forestry major I was raised a conservationist but not a hunter. As a conservationist I believe all Americans have a duty to set aside their selfish emotional motivations for conservation related issues and follow the scientific based need of the wildlife in this country that we are all called to care for and preserve.


    John D. Yarbrough

    • Eddie Paulson

      Well presented “sportsmen”! The wolf needed to overshadow . You function out of greed without true care about wildlife . If you did you would understand that without the preservation of the wolf there will be no wildlife left . Educate yourself please .

  3. Christopher Fries

    With attacks on the scientific method, & science in general plus budget cuts at both the state & federal levels eliminating scientists at the USFWS & DNR’s I do not have much confidence that these agencies will properly manage our natural resources. I am thinking if this bill passes then wolves will become the sacrificial lambs. If you contact your representative and/or senators ask them to strengthen the bill to add a layer of scientists to the USFWS.

    • The USFW has already showed through science that wolves have reached a sustainable population and are continuing to expand. This was done prior to any budget cuts you mention. Are you saying no science is sound if it disagrees with your opinion? We need this bill to pass regardless of the wolves. They won’t be sacrificed. They will be managed by individual states.

  4. Som Sai

    If managing species via the North American Model is too onerous to include in this bill well maybe we need to re think this bill and work on the Endangered Species Act itself.

  5. Managed by individual states will essentially place the species back on track to extinction. I fully agree with the science aspect, and other species would be celebrated for their strong resurgence and delisting. The wolf (and grizzly) are unique creatures in the ESA. The emotional people also include those who have exchanged science for superstition, fear, rural gossip and associate the wolf with a political party hatred. The emotional people who like zoos and pictures won’t plan entire weekends around eradication of wolves; emotional people who can’t comprehend the science of the wolves’ place in the local ecology and envision eradication as a strong political and ideological statement…. will. I wish the wolves could safely be delisted and managed thru regulated hunts, but one look at Wyoming’s original management plan reminded me of how intellectually and morally bankrupt the state’s politicians and lobbyist really are. Much like James Madison warned, the states can’t be trusted.

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July 20, 2017

Ten Maps That Show Farm Bill Conservation at Work Across the U.S.

Think the Farm Bill doesn’t affect habitat or clean water where you live? Check out these maps

Recently, we highlighted on the blog how the Farm Bill, which may be most familiar to agriculture-minded folks in the Midwest, helps the greater sage grouse, one of our most iconic and imperiled Western game species. It drew attention to the fact that some people might not be aware that the Farm Bill touches down in all corners of the country.

But if we’re going to get Congress to pass a new Farm Bill that helps to guarantee all Americans quality places to hunt and fish, we’ll need every hunter and angler to engage with their elected officials about the programs that matter in the places where they live and spend time outdoors.

One of our goals at TRCP is to educate sportsmen and women on the key conservation provisions of the 1,000-page, trillion-dollar Farm Bill, so we put together a primer on where Farm Bill conservation touches down. Think your area isn’t affected by Farm Bill conservation, because there isn’t eye-high corn in view? Think again.

Congress must write a new #farmbill that helps guarantee Americans quality places to hunt and fish #crpworks #originalconservationists Share on X
Conservation Reserve Program

Over the last three decades, it has been proven that the Conservation Reserve Program works for wildlife, water quality, agricultural producers, and sportsmen. You may not be in a major CRP state like Iowa, Kansas, or the Dakotas, but check out whitetail country in Pennsylvania and the major clutch of CRP acres around eastern Washington’s lakes. Your hunting and fishing is benefiting from conservation improvements on private lands wherever you see a dot of blue on this map.

Unfortunately, the current breadth of CRP is far less than we used to have. Is your town on this map, but not the one above? Then you’ve lost CRP’s benefits. Around 2007, crop prices started to rise dramatically, and landowners began to choose crops over habitat—now, nearly 13 million acres of CRP grasslands, wetlands, and forests have disappeared from the landscape, the vast majority of which were lost in hunting strongholds like Montana, North Dakota, and Colorado. If you have a minute, go to our petition at CRPworks.org and tell Congress that you want to see these acres restored to the land.


Long-term easement agreements under the Farm Bill’s Agricultural Conservation Easement Program support the voluntary restoration, protection, and enhancement of wetlands and forests, while protecting working agricultural lands from subdivision and development. If your region is on this map, you’re lucky to have easement acres in the mix to benefit critters, water quality, and rural areas. For instance, states like Texas, Wyoming, and Montana are leading the drive for private ranchland protection on an acre-by-acre basis.

But the states getting the most dollars include Iowa and Louisiana, where farmland and wetlands in expensive, highly-developed areas are in great need of protection. Landowners in those regions need more money to conserve even very small areas, and the Farm Bill is critical to making this happen.

Regional Partnerships

Public-private partnerships that work through the Farm Bill’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program coordinate conservation projects across landscapes, rather than incentivize a thousand random acts of conservation here and there around the country. RCPP was designed in part to focus on eight Critical Conservation Areas, which line up with areas TRCP and our partners care deeply about, including the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, Mississippi River Basin, Prairie Grasslands Region, and Colorado River Basin.

These focus landscapes encompass more of the country than you think—for example, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed stretches far outside of Maryland. (In fact, the health of the Bay’s rockfish fishery partly depends on farms in rural Pennsylvania.) RCPP helps incorporate the farthest reaches of these CCAs into more cohesive conservation plans.

Conservation on Working Lands

Working lands programs in the Farm Bill, like the Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program, provide financial assistance to landowners to improve habitat, reduce erosion, and prevent nutrient pollution on lands that are in active crop production, grazing, and forestry. CSP and EQIP were two of the best-funded conservation programs in the 2014 Farm Bill—combined they put more than $2.5 billion in projects on the ground in 2016.

CSP funding is highly targeted to the Midwest and Plains states. In fact, the pheasant capital of the U.S. in South Dakota—also home of the World’s Only Corn Palace—comes out on top at $93 million.

But EQIP dollars have a much more balanced distribution across the country. California and Texas take the prize for top dollar thanks to sheer size, but other sportsmen-friendly states like New Mexico and Arkansas also rank very high for number of contracts and acres. If your state is in deep green on the map, it’s a good bet that agricultural producers are working to make your waterways just as vibrant as their farms.

Public Access on Private Lands

Through 2015 (the last time USDA offered up these program funds) 29 states have received grants through the Farm Bill’s Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program to open private lands for public recreation. States like Minnesota, Kansas, Pennsylvania, and even Connecticut use VPA funds to support walk-in access in a number of ways: by paying landowners to open their lands (many open their CRP habitat to hunters), posting signs on the property and publishing the location of access points in brochures and online, improving habitat, repairing roads and fences, patrolling access points for poachers and other bad actors, and even covering the costs of liability insurance for landowners, in case a sportsman gets hurt on their property. East of the Mississippi, where some states are 99 percent privately owned, this is an essential way to ensure quality days afield.

We See You, Nevada

Let’s talk about Nevada for a second. You may have noticed that Nevada comes up blank or nearly blank on many of these maps. And no wonder—when we talk about Farm Bill we’re talking about the conservation of private lands. About 85 percent of Nevada is comprised of public land. This doesn’t mean there’s zero opportunity for Nevadans to benefit from the Farm Bill. In fact, with a big chunk of sage grouse core habitat in the northeast of the state, ranchers can make a real difference by marking livestock fences or participating in habitat improvements through the Sage Grouse Initiative.

Recreation in Rural America

According to the USDA, 229 counties (in blue on this map)—ranging from Lake and Peninsula Borough, Alaska, to Monroe County, Florida—are economically dependent on recreation. That’s no surprise to sportsmen and women who have seen firsthand how hotels, gas stations, bars, and diners in rural and coastal areas empty out when the season’s over. This map shows a country where hunting and fishing support more jobs than the oil and gas industry. And the Farm Bill contributes to the complex conservation picture that supports this important $887-billion outdoor recreation economy.

We already know that hunters and anglers, regardless of political party, support conservation funding: 75 percent agree we should provide financial incentives to farmers and ranchers to implement habitat conservation on private lands, and 87 percent do not want to see cuts to conservation programs, in the Farm Bill or anywhere else.

These maps further show that support for Farm Bill conservation shouldn’t break along party lines or state lines. If you agree, follow us on social media as we enter the 2018 Farm Bill debate—because if Congress crosses the line and tries to cut these programs, we’re going to need your help.



July 12, 2017

In an Area Once Resembling a Checkerboard, It’s Sportsmen’s Move

The consolidation of public lands in Montana’s Blackfoot Valley has led to a golden opportunity for restoration and conservation

Western Montana’s Blackfoot Valley lies along the southern edge of the Crown of the Continent, a vast complex of land comprised primarily of the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas and Glacier National Park. A popular destination for hunting and fishing, the outdoor appeal of the Blackfoot Valley is a critical component to the local economy. Healthy populations of deer and elk inhabit the valley year round, and the Blackfoot River flowing down the middle of the valley supports critical populations of Westslope cutthroat and bull trout. This area also provides important habitat linkage from the Crown of the Continent ecosystem to the Garnet Mountain Range, which runs along the southern edge of the valley.

Today, the BLM’s Missoula Field Office is responsible for the management of 156,000 surface acres in the Blackfoot Valley and the adjacent Garnet Range. The Missoula BLM is currently in the process of updating their Resource Management Plan: a document that will provide goals, objectives, and direction for the management of these lands for the next 20 to 30 years. But before we look at recommendations for the future, it’s important to understand how we got to where we are today.

A Fragmented Past

The area has an interesting past and a long history of conservation efforts. As early as the 1860s, many of these lands were owned by the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroads. A hundred years later, these lands belonged to corporate timber companies. As a result, vast acreages resembled a checkerboard pattern of public and private land. This fragmented layout made land management more costly and made access challenging.

Starting in the late 1970s, public and private landowners and stakeholders in the valley came together to guide conservation decisions on the future of this extraordinary place. Since that time, hundreds of millions of conservation dollars, from both public and private sources, have been poured into the valley to restore sensible ownership patterns and shore up large tracts of vital wildlife habitat.

The results point to one of the most effective community-based conservation efforts in the country—anchored by the 40,000-acre Blackfoot Clearwater Game Range, one of the oldest state-owned game ranges in Montana. The first conservation easement ever placed on private land in Montana occurred in this valley, and now more than 100,000 acres of private lands are in permanent protection for the benefit of fish and wildlife.

Another example of the Blackfoot’s conservation efforts can be seen in the areas around Marcum and Chamberlain mountains. Much of these lands were corporate timber land, but as these logging companies moved out of the area, these parcels were offered for sale. Local and national conservation organizations acquired these lands, eventually transferring ownership to the BLM, guaranteeing long-term, conservation-minded, multiple-use management.

The Blackfoot Today

To build on the last 40 years of conservation achievements wrought by sportsmen and women, federal and state agencies, and private landowners, we need to continue to sustain traditional uses of the land, but do so in a way that conserves this important fish and wildlife habitat from the impacts of surface disturbance and development. We need to maintain public access, but in a way that balances road access and habitat needs. And we need to focus land management on the conservation, restoration, and enhancement of key habitats that also support our economy. These lands provide unique opportunities for hunting, fishing, hiking, and other healthy and enjoyable outdoor activities. It is important that these lands are restored and kept intact.

To achieve all of these goals and still allow traditional uses, such as timber management and livestock grazing, to continue, sportsmen are asking the BLM to consider backcountry conservation management for certain areas as the agency revisits its Resource Management Plan. This land management tool exists to help conserve, restore, and enhance large areas of generally intact and undeveloped BLM-managed lands that foster recreationally important fish and wildlife species.

The aforementioned Marcum and Chamberlain mountains fit this bill perfectly. According to the BLM, more than half of the hunter-harvested whitetail deer in the entire district come from these two hunting areas. Also being recommended for backcountry conservation management are portions of the Hoodoo and Ram Mountains, home to healthy populations of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and cutthroat trout—two of Montana’s most sought-after game species. Collectively, these four areas offer important big game habitat and are heavily utilized by sportsmen during hunting season.

With your help, we’ve let the BLM know that by managing these areas for backcountry conservation management, the agency would be ensuring that this sort of sustained use continues well into the future. Of all the letters submitted during the 60-day comment period, 63 percent were from TRCP members in favor of backcountry conservation management.

Encouraging backcountry conservation, Montana TRCP members sent the BLM 63% of all comments. Here's why Share on X
What’s Next?

BLM-managed lands in the Blackfoot Valley are a significant part of one of the most successful landscape-level conservation efforts in the county. As the BLM spends the next few months drafting their planning proposals for the area, we ask that you stay tuned for opportunities to weigh in by becoming a member of TRCP today (it’s free).

In the future, we’ll keep you posted on this and any other issues that affect your hunting and fishing heritage, specifically regarding places that are too valuable to risk, like Montana’s Blackfoot Valley and the surrounding Marcum, Chamberlain, Hoodoo, and Ram mountains.

Four Life Lessons From a Year of Conservation

One of our staffers says goodbye and reflects on what our work to enhance habitat and access for American sportsmen and women has taught her

Last spring, I drafted a cover letter that would ultimately land me my job at the TRCP. At the time, I hadn’t hunted or fished much, but I explained that my experience with wildlife science and policy had granted me respect for the mission and work of the organization. I wrote that I believed “pragmatic conservation approaches depend on hunters and anglers.”

In the little more than a year since, I’ve been proven right. Amid challenges that come with the close of a congressional session and start of a new administration—not to mention blatant bills and incremental changes threatening to undermine our public lands, fish and wildlife habitat, and sporting traditions—sportsmen have had, and will continue to have, a unique seat at the table in Washington. We have the opportunity to moderate change in a way that creates balance and benefit for America’s fish and wildlife.

And that’s not all that I’ve learned in my time here.

A Win Rarely Looks Like a Victory
Sorted by darkness of roast.

Once, not long after I started at TRCP, I walked into the office kitchen to find Steve Kline, our government relations director, intensely focused on organizing the coffee pod rack. He told me, only half-jokingly, “This is the most visible work product I get to see all day.”

I think about that moment often. No matter how many meetings we have, conservation doesn’t really have an end point. We may never be able to declare a definitive victory. And when we do engage in discrete battles, success can be hard to see, especially in the federal policy sphere where the TRCP operates (and where Steve often leads the charge.) Sometimes it’s clear, and we either gain ground or lose ground. But often, winning just means we held the line.

Last fall, we shared a list of the top four things lawmakers could do for conservation by the end of 2016, with the second item being “let sage grouse conservation plans work.” That’s it, just don’t mess up what we’ve already got. Yet decision makers continue resurrecting attempts to dismantle conservation plans. Whether it’s a dangerous rider on a defense bill or a secretarial order that threatens to shift focus away from habitat, each time a risk emerges, we round up the troops to defend the good policies already in place. And at times we’re able to celebrate an invisible win: the fact that nothing changed at all.

It’s Better to Be a Bridge Than an Island

Conservation should never be red or blue—and as far as sportsmen are concerned, it’s not. Hunters and anglers agree that clean water, sportsmen’s access, wetlands protections, wildlife-friendly infrastructure, and federal funding for conservation should be supported and prioritized by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

But in the wider political climate, these issues can become partisan, as we saw last year in a House Natural Resources Committee vote on a bill to sell public lands for the primary purpose of timber production. The vote came down almost entirely on party lines, except for a ‘nay’ vote from then-Congressman Ryan Zinke.

That’s why sportsmen’s voices are especially important. We understand that taking good care of our natural resources is an American ideal regardless of one’s political affiliation, and that helps bridge hard political divides and ultimately gets good, bipartisan conservation policy done, like the recent sportsmen’s package. The key is that we have to keep reminding lawmakers that we’re here, we’re paying attention, and these issues are important to us.

Sportsmen can moderate change in a way that creates balance and benefit for America's fish and wildlife. Share on X
The Things You Don’t Hear About Can Be the Most Important

Earlier this year, when Rep. Jason Chaffetz introduced H.R. 621 to dispose of federal public lands, opposition went viral largely because we didn’t have to explain what the bill meant. The intent was explicit right there in the title. And while the volume of grassroots backlash has largely quelled overt attempts at wholesale transfer or disposal, bad public lands bills aren’t gone for good. They’re just dressed a little differently.

If you ask me, the most important work we do isn’t as flashy as combatting the H.R. 621s of federal policy. More often, we strive to turn your attention to the wonky, technical issues that might slip by you if following them isn’t your full-time job.

Take the Farm Bill, for example. At nearly $5 billion in funding for habitat, technical assistance, and sportsmen’s access, it’s the largest driver of conservation on private land, which makes up 70 percent of the country. There’s a lot to keep track of, but along with our partners we make it our mission to follow what’s going on with the many farm-bill conservation programs (CRP, RCPP, VPA-HIP, EQIP, and more) that you may have never heard of.

Because at the end of the day that big bowl of alphabet soup can make or break your opportunities to hunt and fish.

Don’t Shun the Non-Believer
With a little help from new friends, their homemade slate call, and support (read: gear) from TRCP coworkers, I’d say my first turkey hunt was a success.

I wasn’t raised among sportsmen, and most of my friends and family see hunters as the antithesis of conservationists. In their minds, it doesn’t make sense that people who kill cute woodland creatures also want to protect them.

When I joined the TRCP team and began considering myself a part of the sportsmen tribe, I fielded this reaction over and over again. And, yeah, it was pretty irritating. I tried to explain how hunters and anglers have a very tangible reason for wanting to sustain critter populations, and how they’re willing to invest their hard-earned money to do so. But despite having the words to explain, I could tell my friends weren’t getting it.

Gradually though, that started to change. When I shot my first turkey and my friends asked me what it was like, I didn’t shy away from explaining the part where I killed an animal, even though I knew it made them uncomfortable. But I also told them about hours spent sitting serenely in silence, the experience of getting out before dawn, and the satisfaction of eating what I’d harvested.

A good friend of mine was genuinely angry when I started working at TRCP, thinking I was somehow betraying conservation ethics. But now, a year later, she’s supportive of my entry into hunting and even asked me to take her clay shooting. She may never kill game herself, but she surprised me in her ability to open her mind to a different perspective.

Hearts and minds can be changed, if only we speak to them with honesty and integrity. And when it seems like there’s bad conservation policy everywhere we turn, that gives me hope for the future of America’s outdoor heritage.

July 6, 2017

Conserve Habitat for the Long Haul or Count Sage Grouse Out

Long-term, sustainable populations of sage grouse are the ultimate goal, but habitat management must be the driver of conservation success

In order to get a shot at a wild cackling rooster pheasant or monster mule deer buck, you have to find the best habitat—so we hunt the healthiest grasslands, brushy draws, uncut milo, and sagebrush, hoping for those wonderful heart-stopping glimpses of birds flushing or antlers catching the light. As sure as any track in the dirt is a sign of game, we know that the best habitat is where we’re most likely to get an opportunity to take a shot.

And it’s habitat that we must conserve and improve if we want to sustain or boost these opportunities.

That’s why managing sage grouse populations towards some number, rather than a goal of quality habitat, is an unsustainable approach. Yet, even before announcing a Trump Administration review of conservation plans that kept sage grouse off the endangered species list, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has called for establishing population goals and managing for numbers, not habitat.

Besides the fact that the Department of the Interior has no authority to set such numbers for the states, this concept of managing strictly for the numbers is fatally flawed. Habitat quality and population strength are inextricably linked and cannot be separated. Here’s why we must follow through on habitat conservation plans crafted at the federal, state, and local level to maintain or boost the number of birds.

Numbers Are a Best Guess

It’s appropriate to ask how many animals of a particular species are out there and how many we need. It isn’t possible to count every single member of any species, but wildlife managers have fairly well-developed approaches for estimating the population size of some, like elk, pronghorn antelope, and deer. In fact, population objectives and harvest goals are often set for big game, and we do set recovery goals for species like grizzly bears or wolves. But regardless of the goal, there still must be enough habitat to support these animals.

Upland game birds aren’t like mammals, though, and sage grouse are notoriously difficult to count. While it’s fairly easy to watch and count male sage grouse dancing on their breeding grounds, or leks, in the spring, counting female grouse is challenging and unreliable. They visit leks only once or twice a season and are rarely observed thereafter. While the science on enumerating grouse is advancing, our current techniques rely on using the number of males counted at leks as an indication of how many sage grouse there might be across the landscape. Sage grouse counts are an educated guess.

How Many and How Well We’re Doing

What we really need estimated counts for is to determine how the birds are responding over time to conservation of their habitat, nearly 50 percent of which has been lost over the past century. Still, because of the volatile effects of drought, disease, and other factors out of our control, scientists and managers have to consider long-term trends in lek counts, not isolated gains from year to year. Short-term increases or decreases in sage grouse numbers just don’t tell the full story.

For example, state wildlife agencies recently determined that dancing sage grouse males increased by 63 percent in 2015, in large part because of increased conservation and rain returning to sagebrush country across the West. However, that was up from one of the lowest counts on record in 2013, and long-term trends across the birds’ range show a decline.

We have to track birds and habitat over long periods of time to best understand if conservation is working. The long-term goal for sage grouse numbers must be to reverse the negative trend and stabilize the habitat needed to sustain healthy populations.

The Politics of Managing Populations

It probably sounds good to say that we’ll increase bird numbers by any means necessary, including captive breeding programs, predator control, and disease management. But some would like to see restrictions on activities and development in sage grouse country minimized while captive rearing and other approaches are used as mitigation for habitat impacts. Science has proven that this won’t work.

Managing to a set population number by releasing pen-raised birds, shooting coyotes and ravens, or focusing on disease control is a flawed workaround that does not address the root cause of the problem for sage grouse in the long run—and that’s the health of the sagebrush landscape. These approaches are already available to wildlife managers and can help in limited situations, but they represent tools that should only be applied surgically. They are not conservation strategies in and of themselves. The truth is that these tools alone do nothing to overcome the habitat loss and fragmentation that is mostly responsible for the grouse’s decline over the past several decades.

Besides, if wild birds struggle to survive, successfully nest, and raise their young in degraded habitat, why do we expect that birds raised in a pen will do better?

Keep the Focus on Habitat

This is why the notion of managing for numbers, not habitat, is unpopular with wildlife agencies and the majority of governors in Western states who were key partners in creating conservation plans for sage grouse. Most have made it very clear to Sec. Zinke that they have little appetite for shifting the focus from habitat to population-based approaches. Furthermore, while some of the states still have a few issues to resolve with the federal government, the majority of states and the stakeholders want to keep the federal and state conservation plans moving forward without interruption.

The forthcoming review of federal plans has sportsmen and women concerned that the DOI may attempt to shift its focus away from securing quality habitat, the most critical factor in conserving sage grouse, and toward less scientifically-sound population management techniques. The collaborative effort to conserve sage grouse over the last decade has been the largest in history, and if largescale captive breeding or predator control efforts would have been effective, states would be using those tools today.

It was the promise of habitat-focused federal and state plans for public lands, along with voluntary conservation efforts on private lands, which led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to its historic decision not to list the species in September 2015. We need to implement those plans and track both habitat management and how the birds are responding to ensure we don’t wind up back where we started years ago, when this historic collaboration began.



Theodore Roosevelt’s experiences hunting and fishing certainly fueled his passion for conservation, but it seems that a passion for coffee may have powered his mornings. In fact, Roosevelt’s son once said that his father’s coffee cup was “more in the nature of a bathtub.” TRCP has partnered with Afuera Coffee Co. to bring together his two loves: a strong morning brew and a dedication to conservation. With your purchase, you’ll not only enjoy waking up to the rich aroma of this bolder roast—you’ll be supporting the important work of preserving hunting and fishing opportunities for all.

$4 from each bag is donated to the TRCP, to help continue their efforts of safeguarding critical habitats, productive hunting grounds, and favorite fishing holes for future generations.

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