Congress Advances Legislation to Make Infrastructure Work for Fish and Wildlife
In the past two days, committees in both chambers have passed bills to expedite Everglades restoration and advance natural solutions to America’s infrastructure challenges
Congress took major steps this week to advance legislation that includes some benefits for water quality and fish and wildlife habitat across the country.
This afternoon, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed its “Water Resources Development Act” (H.R. 8) with provisions on boosting natural infrastructure and addressing harmful algal blooms, which can shut down fishing access. On Tuesday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously passed the “America’s Water Infrastructure Act” (S. 2800), which would help prioritize natural and nature-based solutions to infrastructure challenges, like frequent flooding, and expedite habitat restoration in the Everglades and Lower Mississippi River Basin.
“Both bills would help create opportunities to reduce flood and storm damages in American communities using natural infrastructure, which improves water quality and fish and wildlife habitat at the same time,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Nature-based infrastructure projects, like restoring wetlands and dunes, can be more cost effective than traditional infrastructure in the long-term, so what’s good for habitat is also good for taxpayers.”
If finalized, this legislation would expedite efforts to restore natural water flows through the Everglades and into Florida Bay, which is critical to the health of the fishery and outdoor recreation economy in this bucket-list fishing destination. “Recreational fishing supports more than 26,000 jobs throughout South Florida,” says Eric Eikenberg, CEO of The Everglades Foundation. “We are pleased that Congress has shown more urgency in making major advances on the largest ecosystem restoration project in our nation’s history.”
Both bills would also authorize a feasibility study of several key habitat restoration projects in the Lower Mississippi River Basin, which supports as many as 91 species of freshwater fish. “Although this region has some of the richest soil and greatest water resources in North America, it is home to some of the most impoverished communities in the nation with poverty rates over 35 percent,” says James L. Cummins, executive director of Wildlife Mississippi and vice president of the Boone and Crockett Club. “This feasibility study will greatly aid us in developing sound conservation solutions and outdoor recreation opportunities that make economic sense for the people who live and work in this very special place.”
Congress aims to pass water resources development legislation every two years to authorize the Army Corps of Engineers to carry out proposed water-related projects. The full House and Senate still need to vote on these two bills and conference them together before sending final legislation to the president’s desk.
Zinke Could Lead on Conserving Vital Big Game Habitat by Deferring Energy Leases
Neither sportsmen nor scientists want to see more energy development within a renowned mule deer migration corridor, and Secretary Zinke has shown a commitment to conserving this kind of overlooked habitat—what now?
Earlier this year, scientists and the general public marveled at the record-breaking journey of an individual mule deer, Doe #255, which returned to its winter range in southwest Wyoming after summering to the west of Yellowstone National Park and some 240 miles away near Island Park, Idaho. The story made headlines across the country, drawing attention to the seasonal migration of thousands of mule deer between the low-elevation Red Desert and the high alpine country of the Hoback Basin, south of Jackson, Wyoming.
Each spring and fall, these animals travel more than 150 miles through the Red Desert-to-Hoback corridor. Along the way, they pass through public and private lands, crossing fences, roads, deep snowdrifts, housing developments, and rivers as they complete the second-longest land migration in North America.
For many, Zinke’s initiative is a clear model of federal policy being shaped by the best-available science.
The Secretary’s commitment to conserving big-game habitat faces its first big test in Wyoming. Unfortunately, the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed 2018 third and fourth quarter lease sale includes a number of parcels located within the Red-Desert-to-Hoback corridor. The leasing of these lands for energy development would risk the degradation of this vital habitat and reduce the amount of usable winter range for mule deer. This could potentially result in further population decline in a herd that has already suffered from habitat loss due to energy development.
Despite popular myth, mule deer do not habituate to energy development, which disrupts their use of seasonal ranges, and long-term studies show that it can be harmful to herds. In all likelihood, sportsmen and women would see an associated reduction of hunting opportunities in numerous areas.
Hunters Take Action
Sportsmen’s groups have been leading the charge on this critical issue. In early May, we joined the Muley Fanatic Foundation, Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation, Wyoming Wildlife Federation, and others by sending a joint letter to Secretary Zinke as well as other state and federal decision makers. Our coalition asked that the BLM defer the leasing of those parcels within the migration corridor until the impending completion of the BLM Rock Springs Resource Management Plan and the implementation of Secretarial Order 3362.
The Red Desert to Hoback corridor, the letter concludes, “represent[s] ‘ground zero’ for conserving these vital habitats for big game.” And, given the importance of Wyoming’s wildlife and its hunting traditions, deferring the lease of these parcels until the new guidelines are implemented is the right thing to do.
Opening this migration corridor to new energy exploration would likely result in more conflict over the issue and also pose a threat to the migration itself. What’s more, the parcels under consideration amount to a small fraction of the nearly one million acres proposed for leasing.
Sportsmen and women need to make our voices heard and ask that the BLM’s decision reflects our concerns for the future of fish and wildlife habitat. Secretary Zinke has shown his desire to safeguard hunting’s future, and deferring the lease of this vital mule deer habitat would be a powerful way of doing just that.
Experts Respond to the Top Seven Gripes We See from Chronic Wasting Disease Skeptics
There is a lot of misinformation out there, so we had three experts clarify exactly what will and won’t help stop the spread of CWD
Since the TRCP first began advocating for real and meaningful steps from national decision makers to control Chronic Wasting Disease, we’ve noticed that this emerging epidemic seems to be the new climate change. While the topic has become unnecessarily politicized in many online forums, some common misconceptions could be keeping many hunters from taking urgent action.
Many of us get reliable information from our friends and social networks about where to go hunting and fishing, what gear to buy, and what techniques to try. But on an issue that is this important to the future of deer hunting in America, we’d rather have hunters hear directly from the experts. So we brought together three of them to tell us honestly if any of these CWD-deniers have a point.
Here’s how they responded—calling on science, field experience, and just good sense—to the most common gripes we see from skeptics.
Gripe #1: “Chronic Wasting Disease has been naturally occurring as long as there have been deer—it is not new and the threat is no more imminent today than it was decades ago.”
RICHARDS: While it is challenging to prove either way, there is little evidence to support the idea that CWD has existed as long as deer have. The CWD distribution pattern observed in several geographic regions suggests disease was introduced in a modern timeframe, became established, and subsequently spread in a radial and progressive fashion. In several areas where the disease has been documented the longest and where prevalence is highest, population impacts have now been documented. If CWD had “been around forever,” it seems likely that these impacts would have been documented in the historical record.
THOMAS: CWD was first identified in the United States in 1967 in Colorado—so, no, it’s not exactly new. But it’s clear that the threat of CWD is growing at a faster rate each year. It has gradually spread around the Western states and into Canada, and in 2002, it was found east of the Mississippi River for the first time in Wisconsin. Mississippi recently became the 25th state to find the disease. Not only is the disease spreading across the United States—through the legal transport of live deer and elk and the natural movements of wild deer—it is also putting down deeper roots in affected areas. In one county in Wisconsin, more than 50 percent of adult bucks tested came up positive for the disease, and that rate has climbed faster each year that testing has been done.
CORNICELLI: It’s also important to note that state wildlife agencies have a moral and legal obligation to manage wildlife populations for the long-term. So, whether or not you believe that this threat is “imminent today”—which I do—it’s my job to focus on the future of these species. This concept is often difficult for hunters and many others to understand, because in today’s society we live so much in the present.
Gripe #2: “I’m not worried about CWD, because the disease has never been found in humans.”
THOMAS: It’s true that a link between CWD in deer and illness in humans who consume deer has not been proven. However, because similar diseases, such as mad cow disease, have made the jump from cattle to humans, both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control urge caution. A recent review of 23 different studies of CWD potential in humans concluded that “future discovery of CWD transmission to humans cannot be entirely ruled out on the basis of current studies, particularly in light of possible decades-long incubation periods for CWD prions in humans.” That’s why the QDMA urges hunters who kill deer in CWD zones to have each deer tested for the disease and wait for test results before consuming the venison.
CORNICELLI: Why take the risk? I am astonished at the low number of deer tested in Wisconsin counties with the highest concentration of CWD. It indicates that hunters are perfectly comfortable feeding infected venison to their families. Perhaps because at this point in time we aren’t seeing human disease, people don’t think it will ever be an issue. However, I follow the CDC guidelines, and so do most of the people I associate with.
Gripe #3: “I’m not worried about possibly consuming venison from a CWD-positive deer, because I don’t eat my meat rare.”
RICHARDS: Disease-associated prion proteins are very resistant to breakdown by heat. As such, cooking venison from a CWD-positive deer, regardless of how “well done” it is, will not appreciably deactivate prions.
THOMAS: One study found that prions are still viable after being incinerated at 1,562 degrees Fahrenheit. “Well done” won’t even scare ‘em.
CORNICELLI: Perhaps Hank Shaw can write a book on CWD-venison recipes? “Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion: The complete guide to cooking venison ash.”
Gripe #4: “We should just allow the natural predators of deer and elk to take care of the CWD problem.”
THOMAS: CWD incubates in whitetails for an estimated minimum of 16 months and an average of two years before the deer become “clinical.” This is when they begin to show symptoms and would be more susceptible to predators in their weakened state. Higher predator numbers would not control CWD, because adult deer are infectious to other deer throughout the entire incubation period.
Gripe #5: “Can’t we just shut down all the deer farms? Problem solved.”
RICHARDS: Even without the captive cervid industry, CWD will likely continue to grow and spread—it is now well-established among some wild cervid populations. Reducing or eliminating human-assisted movement of CWD, on the other hand, has been identified as a key preventative measure.
CORNICELLI: Even if we agreed it was the right decision, it would be difficult. The captive cervid industry is well-connected politically and has been very effective at promoting their importance to the world economy. Conversely, hunters do a poor job organizing and can sometimes seem more interested in their short-term benefits—antler point restrictions, season timing, and bag limits—rather than the long-term viability of deer populations. This is how deer farming, a small industry at $17 million a year in Minnesota, can overwhelm something as economically important as statewide deer hunting, worth $500 million a year in Minnesota.
Then there are hunters who buy into the captive cervid industry propaganda, saying, “This is not a big deal, we can use genetic manipulation to solve this problem, and captive cervid testing is 100 percent accurate.” None of this is remotely true.
Gripe #6: “You are exaggerating the scope of the CWD problem and fearmongering to raise money.”
THOMAS: Perhaps the most dangerous thing about CWD is how slowly it eats its way through a deer population. It does not create stacks of dead deer that are visible to hunters. In fact, many hunters in CWD zones never see sick deer. While CWD is always fatal to any deer that gets it, they may not show symptoms or appear sick for up to two years. Meanwhile, they are spreading it to other deer and depositing prions in the environment through their saliva, feces, and urine. So the situation may not appear alarming, even inside CWD zones.
The alarming part is what will happen to these deer populations over the next 10 years, 20 years, and beyond. There is no vaccine or cure for CWD, it is 100 percent fatal, and we still don’t know how to eradicate it from areas where it has been established. These are the facts—not exaggeration—and this is a recipe for a slow-moving disaster. Action must be taken now to prevent the further spread of CWD and to focus research on finding solutions.
Gripe #7: “CWD is such a huge problem, there’s nothing that any of us can do at this point.”
CORNICELLI: I don’t share that fatalistic view, and I think there’s still a lot we can do—although I admit that in several places (parts of Wisconsin), the horse has not only left the barn, it died some time ago. As an agency manager for more than 25 years, I would be negligent in my responsibilities, as would my colleagues, if we threw up our hands and gave up. But wildlife management authority is not created equal in every state. Some states have the regulatory authority they need to find solutions, but often state legislatures are unwilling to take the necessary steps to do what the state wildlife agency believes to be right.
THOMAS: Yes, there is, and hunters can contribute. When you travel out of state to hunt, find out if you’ll be hunting in a CWD zone, learn the local regulations about transporting parts of your deer carcass. If you learn of someone planning to illegally transport live deer, report them to law enforcement.
Prevention is the only effective method for dealing with CWD, and hunters in unaffected areas must become engaged in the prevention effort. If you don’t have CWD in your woods, you don’t want it.
The Farm Bill Program That Helps Landowners Think Bigger than Food Plots
With tools provided by the Farm Bill, cover crops are helping to boost habitat for our favorite critters, while improving soil health
It’s pretty obvious that with 60 percent of land in the lower 48 states under private ownership and 45 percent of that land devoted to some form of agriculture, farmers and ranchers can have an outsize impact on fish and wildlife habitat. That’s why we spend years—from the day the ink is dry on one five-year Farm Bill and all through its tenure—advocating for and finding consensus on critical policies to boost conservation on private land in the next round of legislation.
In the coming weeks, the House of Representatives is expected to vote on the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018-otherwise known as the farm bill. While this particular version of the bill is not likely to be signed into law, it is worth taking a look at some of the major changes the bill would make to the conservation programs on private land.
For one, the proposed House bill would double the current size of the Environmental Quality Incentive Program to $3 billion by dissolving the Conservation Stewardship Program and diverting most of the funding and features to EQIP. Of the many features of EQIP, one of the most popular is its incentives for landowners and farmers to incorporate cover crops into their planting rotation.
Cover Crops Improve Soil Health
We all know that food plots help provide food and cover to our favorite game, but cover crops are different—they are legumes, grasses, grains, and root vegetables that are typically planted after row crops like corn and soybeans are harvested. Like food plots on a much larger scale, the benefits of cover crops to soil, water, and wildlife are significant. Some benefits are obvious to farmers: If cover crops are not planted, a field might be left bare for up to seven months while waiting for the next row crop planting. And, as our nation learned during the days of the Dust Bowl, that bare soil is vulnerable to erosion caused by wind, rain, and snowmelt.
Losing healthy soil, even incrementally, is bad for business, like losing pennies on every dollar. And the problem worsens—both for landowners and for fish and wildlife habitat—when more than just soil runs off the farm in a rainstorm. Large amounts of nitrogen fertilizer end up in our rivers, lakes, and streams, causing catastrophic algal blooms that can keep you from being able to fish.
The Critter Connection
The planting of cover crops can not only improve the farm field and our favorite lakes and streams, they can also serve as prime habitat for a variety of our favorite critters. With farmers’ interest in cover crops on the rise, an increase in EQIP funding in the next Farm Bill could mean great things for species we care about as sportsmen and women. Here are four standout cover crops and how they benefit fish and wildlife.
Walleyes, Bass, and Everything in Between
Algal blooms caused by nutrient pollution can put a damper on summertime fishing by limiting access and shortening seasons. From the Gulf of Mexico to Utah Lake, the Ohio River, and Vermont’s Lake Carmi, fish and anglers would benefit from the increased use of cover crops—like clover, radishes, winter wheat, and rye—that slow the incremental loss of nutrient-rich topsoil.
As our friends at QDMA can attest, radishes can make great food plots for whitetails. Deer are attracted to them during the fall and especially during late season when other foods are typically scarce. During the winter months, the large tap root can provide much needed energy to those post-rut bucks. The tap root also serves as a natural tiller as it drills down and breaks up compacted soil, reducing the need for a field to be heavily tilled before the primary crop is planted.
In the spring, clover and alfalfa are great sources of protein for wild turkeys, and they attract some of the bird’s favorite insects to help draw gobblers out of the hardwoods. In the late season, turkeys will appreciate the hearty meal provided by grains like winter wheat, that also help prevent soil erosion between planting seasons.
For pheasants and quail, various cover crops like clovers, rye, and brassicas can provide some nesting and brood-rearing habitat so long as they are not tilled or sprayed during the nesting/brood rearing season. Cover crops that mature in late summer and early fall as the commodity crop is growing, will also provide both forage and bugs into fall after the crop is harvested.
But we’re still looking to Congress and the Department of the Interior to work through some serious conservation goals we’ve been eyeing since January. Here are the six New Year’s resolutions we hoped to see them make to improve hunting, fishing, and habitat, and updates on where these issues stand today.
Fix Our Forests
A looming budget deadline offered a great opportunity to finally fix the way we pay for catastrophic wildfires—and reform forest management to help prevent fires in the first place. We thought lawmakers should pass a comprehensive fire funding fix in the budget deal to stop taking funds from forest restoration programs like prescribed burning and removal of invasive species and diseased trees.
Status: Done! Congress came through for sportsmen and all who rely on access to Forest Service lands in passing a comprehensive fix for fire borrowing in the fiscal year 2018 spending bill in March. We were thrilled and relieved to see bipartisan support for many other provisions that will benefit fish and wildlife habitat, clean water, sportsmen’s access, and the outdoor recreation economy, but the fire funding fix is a truly defining achievement, which will ensure that the Forest Service can get back to the business of maintaining healthy habitat and excellent facilities.
Bulk Up Water Quality Efforts in the Farm Bill
Looking ahead to the new Farm Bill, we hoped it would be one that would strengthen and maintain funding for USDA conservation programs. The work done with these funds keeps tons of pollutants out of rivers and expands water conservation on farms, which improves river flows to support healthy fisheries, strong outdoor recreation businesses, and flourishing rural communities.
Status: Possible. In the coming weeks, the House of Representatives is expected to vote on the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018—otherwise known as the Farm Bill. This particular version of the bill is pretty contentious and not likely to be signed into law, but it proposes doubling the scope of the Environmental Quality Incentive Program to $3 billion. Of the many features of EQIP, one of the most popular is the incentive for landowners and farmers to incorporate cover crops into their planting rotation, and this practice has some benefit for improving soil health and slowing the progress of polluted farm runoff.
Invest in Access on Private Land
With legislation as massive and far-reaching as the Farm Bill, we knew there would also be a unique opportunity to boost hunting and fishing access in areas where there are few, if any, public lands. If Congress could reauthorize and expand the popular Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program—the U.S. Department of Agriculture program that incentivizes landowners to open their property for public hunting and fishing access—the improved opportunities for hunters and anglers would create a draw in some rural communities that desperately need an economic boost.
Status: Signs look pretty good. There was bipartisan support for a standalone bill introduced in the House in February to reauthorize and enhance VPA-HIP. And though the House version of the Farm Bill did not include quite as much new funding for the program as we wanted, lawmakers have proposed a decent bump.
Defend the Clean Water Act
We were insistent that Congress should not make it easier for the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers eliminate a rule that more clearly defined the protections of the Clean Water Act. Americans overwhelmingly support protecting headwater streams and wetlands, which are critical to fish and waterfowl populations. Trimming down on regulation doesn’t have to mean leaving these foundational waters and rapidly disappearing wetlands vulnerable to pollution or destruction.
Status: Still trending in the wrong direction. The two-step repeal process has been ongoing since last year, despite broad public support for the 2015 Clean Water Rule’s benefits to fish and wildlife habitat. But Congress did not use legislative riders to waive any procedures or give the greenlight to move forward more quickly, which is a quiet win.
Image courtesy of Amanda Nalley/Florida Fish and Wildlife.
Modernize Marine Fisheries Management
For five years, the leading advocates of recreational fishing and conservation worked with policy makers to improve federal recreational fishing management by modernizing data collection and allowing more involvement from state agencies and anglers. These essential changes were included in legislation that passed the House Natural Resources Committee in December 2017 and headed to the House floor. As of the first of the year, the Senate had an opportunity to improve upon this legislation and ensure that the vital contributions—cultural, economic, and conservation efforts—of the recreational saltwater fishing industry are finally recognized in federal law and policy.
Status: Closer than ever before. At the end of February, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation overwhelmingly approved the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017, otherwise known as the Modern Fish Act. This legislation calls for critically important updates to the oversight of federal fisheries, by adding more tools to the management toolbox, improving data collection techniques, and examining some fishery allocations that are based on decades-old decisions. If passed into law, the Modern Fish Act would bring to fruition five years’ worth of input from the recreational fishing community and increase the level of trust between America’s 11 million saltwater anglers and federal fisheries managers.
Champion Conservation and Access Equally
Some of the best news of 2017 came out of the Department of the Interior, when Secretary Zinke asked agency leaders to identify and prioritize opening new hunting and fishing access to previously landlocked public lands and national wildlife refuges. While this is to be celebrated, we were anxious to see the DOI define a “conservation vision” for valuable habitats and hunting and fishing areas in 2018, to work in tandem with the vision that they have already established for expanding sportsmen’s access. This would include clear measures to recognize and conserve wildlife migration corridors, avoid or minimize impacts to habitat from development, plan locally to safeguard our best hunting and fishing areas, and allow conservation plans for greater sage grouse work as intended.
Status: TBD. In February, Zinke issued a Secretarial Order directing agencies to work toward better conservation of critical big game habitat, including migration corridors, stopover habitat, and seasonal ranges. And we’re hearing every assurance that the DOI will begin to make a broader pivot toward conservation now that they are satisfied with the direction we’re going on energy development. But the BLM is launching an amendment process for greater sage-grouse conservation plans that were settled in 2015—changes could affect 98 land-use plans for about 67 million acres across the West.
We originally posted “Six New Year’s Resolutions We Wish Congress and DOI Would Make” on January 5, 2018.
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.