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UPDATED 1/23/2018: On Monday, Congress ended the three-day government shutdown by passing a short-term funding agreement through February 8. Congress now has just a few legislative work days to figure out a more durable and bipartisan path forward on a host of issues before facing another shutdown crisis. By that time, the federal government will have been funded by short-term agreements for at least one third of fiscal year 2018, which began on October 1, 2017.
Congress’s failure to pass a stopgap spending bill means on-the-ground conservation professionals across the federal government won’t be reporting for work
This morning, the federal government will begin the process of closing, after the Senate was unable to pass a stopgap spending bill Friday night.
The effects of a government shutdown will be felt most acutely by sportsmen and women who were planning late-season hunts on national public lands and those who fish on lakes, rivers, and reservoirs administered by the Army Corps of Engineers or Bureau of Reclamation. Conservation projects will come to a standstill as federal land management agency staff are furloughed until Congress can reach an agreement.
“Although there’s less disruption to hunting and fishing opportunities at this time of year, we’re still disappointed to see this inability to find common ground and keep funds flowing to agencies that administer conservation and public access to America’s best fish and wildlife resources,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
The closure of national forests, national wildlife refuges, and other public lands during the 16-day shutdown in October 2013 sparked outrage and prevented licensed sportsmen from accessing hunting and fishing areas, while many outdoor recreation businesses were forced to cancel client bookings at the start of the lucrative fall season. This time around, the Interior Department has said that public lands will remain “as accessible as possible,” but that some areas could be closed without staff, campground maintenance crews, or rangers to patrol culturally sensitive or backcountry areas for visitor safety.
The impacts of a federal shutdown are not limited to national public lands and waters. Private lands conservation professionals at the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service will be staying home instead of helping farmers and ranchers write conservation plans or prepare for the critical spring planting season. And everything from fish passage projects to chronic wasting disease research will be on hold.
“Hunters and anglers have a long list of things that Congress needs to address, including a much-needed funding fix for catastrophic wildfires,” says Fosburgh. “The continued brinksmanship on Capitol Hill serves no one; it only locks in problems and pushes real solutions further down the road. The public deserves better from its elected leaders.”
Top photo by Wisconsin DNR via flickr
For decades, 500 Wilderness Study Areas in the West have awaited individual acts of Congress to resolve how they should be managed, and those closest to the land are finally helping to make the call—wilderness or something else?
When archery hunter Harvey Dalton drew a coveted bighorn sheep tag for the Dubois Badlands in Wyoming, he knew he was in for a hunt of a lifetime. After all, he’d been applying and collecting preference points for 40 years before drawing the tag.
Unlike most bighorn hunting units where it takes hours in the saddle or on foot to get into the backcountry of rugged northwest Wyoming, the Badlands has plenty of road access. But it certainly wasn’t flat hiking further into the steep draws where sheep are often tucked away. The sweat equity Dalton put in over four weeks made connecting with a big ram even more meaningful, but he was troubled by evidence of ATV and dirt bike use he saw in areas where there should have been none.
Unfortunately, while the Dubois Badlands remains a Wilderness Study Area—one of more than 500 parcels of public land across the West set aside decades ago as potential wilderness—there continues to be confusion from public land users, and even land managers, about what kinds of activities are allowed there.
In 1976, legislation directed the Bureau of Land Management to inventory undeveloped public land for areas that could be managed as wilderness, for the opportunities to find solitude or pursue traditional outdoor recreation. This resulted in almost 13 million acres identified as Wilderness Study Areas, but they weren’t meant to stay in limbo forever. It takes an act of Congress to change the status of these areas, by either designating them as wilderness or releasing them to be managed for other uses, so the process of reaching a final resolution has been slow—as in decades long.
Wyoming has yet to resolve any of its 42 Wilderness Study Areas encompassing 570,000 acres, including the Dubois Badlands. Sportsmen and others are hoping to finally make some progress through the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative—a process where stakeholders, including the public, can weigh in on how the land ought to be managed and make recommendations to legislators.
Here is how the WPLI works: Counties have the option to join the initiative and develop citizen advisory committees made up of hunters, ranchers, energy industry representatives, and other public land stakeholders. Committees listen to public comment and data from agencies, spend time on the ground, and work to reach recommendations for whether Wilderness Study Areas in their county should be designated wilderness, released to be managed for multiple-use, or given some other type of designation. Recommendations from across the state go to elected officials and, if all goes according to plan, eventually become law. It’s no simple task.
This collaborative, local approach has worked well in other Western states. Nevada has been a leader in addressing Wilderness Study Areas since the 2000s—compromises came out of the counties and eventually resulted in bipartisan bills from Congress that struck a balance between conservation and development needs. Some of these efforts were successful within just a few years; others took public land users on a decades-long rollercoaster ride.
It was always worth it, but it had to be done thoughtfully, one study area at a time. One-sided proposals that either designate all areas as wilderness or release all of them get introduced in almost every legislative session—and die as fast as an antelope shot through the heart.
In fact, right now in Wyoming, proposed legislation that would release many of Wyoming’s Wilderness Study Areas is causing confusion and could undermine the work that locals have accomplished through WPLI.
While we currently know them as Wilderness Study Areas, these are also the places where we’ve enjoyed epic fishing with friends, camping in remote canyons with more deer sign than human tracks, or the sheep hunt of a lifetime. These areas matter and we owe it to them to follow through on what we started in 1976. The WPLI effort is an opportunity to clarify the future management of these lands and provide certainty to all who rely on them.
This is why the TRCP is representing sportsmen on the Fremont County committee and collaborating with our local partners—like Bowhunters of Wyoming, where Dalton serves as vice president—in other counties to finally resolve the status of these public lands. We want to make sure that the best possible path forward for management of fish and wildlife is clear, not confusing, and that areas like the Dubois Badlands continue to provide quality backcountry hunting and fishing opportunities.
But we can’t do it alone. Sportsmen and women are some of the most active users of our public lands and, as such, perhaps some of the most knowledgeable about current conditions. We also have a lot at stake in management changes. If you want to share your input with the WPLI committees or attend a meeting, learn more here.
You can also encourage our decision makers to advocate for responsible management of public lands, especially through initiatives that bring locals to the table, by signing the Sportsmen’s Country petition. It’s our latest effort to safeguard public-land hunting and fishing opportunities by not only keeping public lands public, but also keeping them well-managed. Help us get to 10,000 signatures this year!
Top photo courtesy of Bill Sincavage @jakeysforkwyoming.
Now that breakthroughs in wildlife research and GPS technology have taught us more about big-game migration corridors, we can’t ignore the value of these habitats—we have to conserve them
Wildlife management on public lands has benefited greatly from advancements in technology. In particular, our understanding of how and where big game species migrate has grown exponentially in recent years.
When I was a graduate student researching Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep in the late 1980s, satellite or GPS radio collars were simply not available. Back then, researchers had to capture their study animals, fit them with collars made with technology of that era, and follow animals around trying to determine their locations and habitat-use patterns.
Sometimes this meant three researchers all scrambling up to separate high points to triangulate where an animal was, using a telemetry receiver and antenna. Each one of us would determine the direction of the strongest signal emitting from the animal’s collar, aim a compass in that direction, and plot the bearing on a map. The place where our three lines intersected was theoretically where the critter was located. But times sure have changed.
Today, advances in GPS telemetry are remarkable. Scientists merely have to catch the animals they’re studying to fit them with GPS collars that are accurate to within a few feet. No more worrying about triangulating compass bearings and human error—we know exactly where these critters are spending their time. GPS collars can also be programmed to mark multiple locations for each animal over any desired 24-hour period and automatically send this data to the scientist’s computer, tablet, or smartphone. Software has been developed that can sift through the data and build our maps for us.
Scientists now have the capability to build a travel log for the spring or fall journey of each antelope, bighorn sheep, or mule deer. Locations can be easily plotted in a GIS—a computer system for data related to positions on Earth’s surface—to create accurate, detailed maps showing where the animals traveled, how much time they spent in certain areas, and which habitats they preferred during these annual migrations between winter and summer range.
In Wyoming, scientists used this technology to follow mule deer 150 miles from the Red Desert to Hoback Junction, south of Jackson Hole, and transformed their research into a broader effort called the Wyoming Migration Initiative. Their goal is to advance the understanding and appreciation of Wyoming’s migratory big game species through science and public outreach, and they are currently working to expand to other Western states. This could help broaden the available data and build awareness among sportsmen and women, wildlife managers, and lawmakers across the region.
But the problem remains that our conservation policy and planning tools haven’t been updated, even as we’ve learned so much more, and these critical habitats are still largely overlooked.
The discovery of the Red Desert-to-Hoback migration corridor led the state of Wyoming to revise their policy definitions and develop a strategy for conserving vital migration corridors. This should help the Wyoming Game and Fish Department as they work with the BLM on conserving this often overlooked habitat, so it could be a model to follow.
Hopefully these efforts will help advance conservation with good policy, because when migration corridors are not given this kind of attention, they may be damaged, developed, or lost from the landscape. Loss of these corridors could have drastic impacts on big-game herds, hunting opportunities, and the outdoor recreation economy.
All of the fancy data and maps in the world would be pointless without adequate policy and management actions to conserve the migration corridors that we now understand are important for big game species’ survival. We need to use what we’ve learned to ensure that the iconic big game herds of the west can be sustained well into the future.
Now that mule deer can literally send scientists mobile notifications of their whereabouts and preferences, it’s time for a policy upgrade based on this new information. It’s not enough to maintain and restore the habitat where wildlife spend most of their time, especially if degraded habitat conditions along migration routes can prevent them from getting there.
It is not enough anymore, either, for sportsmen and women to simply fight for keeping public land public. It is critical that hunters and anglers get involved in public land management decisions that could help accomplish more, like conserving migration routes and stopover areas.
Improving the management of our public lands will undoubtedly be a long journey. Sign the petition at sportsmenscountry.org to take the first step.
Top photo by John Carr/USFWS via flickr
This story was originally published February 25, 2016 and has been updated.
Updates to the Missoula Field Office’s resource management plan will help balance multiple uses of 162,000 acres in Montana for the next 20 years or more
The Bureau of Land Management’s Missoula Field Office has revealed proposed updates to its resource management plan, which outlines how more than 162,000 acres of public lands should be managed for the next 20 to 30 years. The planning process helps balance multiple uses of public lands, including much of Johnsrud Park along the Blackfoot River Corridor and sizeable sections of the Garnet Mountain Range and the John Long Range.
“We are encouraged by the direction of this draft plan, which incorporates measures that would benefit fish and wildlife habitat as well as recreational opportunities for Montana sportsmen,” says Scott Laird, Montana field representative with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “It’s a step in the right direction that reflects the values of local sportsmen and women, so it’s crucial that we remain at the table as this planning process advances.”
The area is popular with hunters for its whitetails, mule deer, elk, and forest grouse, and many of the tributaries to the Blackfoot River and Rock Creek are critical spawning habitat for bull trout and westslope cutthroats.
“The draft plan recognizes the importance of conserving areas that support recreational fisheries and provide valuable access for anglers,” says David Brooks, executive director for Montana Trout Unlimited. “These outdoor recreation opportunities are part of Montana’s identity and define a local way of life. That’s why it’s worth it to plan carefully for the future of these public lands.”
“As a member of the community who also happens to rely on healthy wildlife and dependable hunting seasons to run my business, I’m encouraged by the proposal to maintain certain areas of intact habitat,” says Casey Smith, owner of Straight6Archery. “It’s good for the wildlife we love to pursue and the way people have used this public land for generations.”
The BLM will collect public comments on the draft and host three meetings in Missoula, Phillipsburg, and Lubrecht Forest to open a dialogue with the public on the status of the plan. Based on this feedback, the agency will make revisions and issue an updated resource management plan this spring.
Sportsmen should attend one of the public meetings to learn about the proposed changes, ask questions of BLM staff, and provide feedback to the agency on how you use our public lands. Here are some suggested talking points to take into the meeting:
If you want to know more about how you can make a difference through this public lands planning process, please contact Scott Laird, TRCP’s Montana field representative, at Slaird@trcp.org.
Top photo of the Blackfoot River courtesy of the BLM via flickr.
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.Learn More