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With public-land agencies weakening their stance on habitat mitigation, sportsmen and women may see unnecessary loss of habitat and opportunity
We accept that energy development is a necessary activity that, quite literally, powers our lives. But the conversation about where it should occur becomes more complicated when there could be a risk to fish and wildlife resources that power our hunting and fishing opportunities.
For years, there has been a kind of regulatory backstop to ensure that unnecessary impacts to habitat are avoided or compensated for. This is called mitigation, and the Department of the Interior just made changes that would weaken this foundational conservation tool.
If you’re familiar with our favorite metaphor for how mitigation works, the DOI just spilled your beer and walked away without a second thought.
Here’s what we mean: Imagine I spill half your beer. Would you feel better about this loss if I bought you half a drink? How about if I soaked up your spilled beer with a napkin and squeezed it back into your glass? Truly mitigating the impact I had on your evening would, at the very least, mean buying you a new drink and possibly even the next round.
Now, imagine that the precious resource lost was not your favorite IPA, but fish and wildlife habitat. Mitigation calls for a hierarchy of steps to avoid, minimize, or compensate for habitat damage by providing for conservation on site or elsewhere.
But in recent weeks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rescinded its compensatory and Service-wide mitigation policies, and the Bureau of Land Management issued instructions to its offices that essentially halt the agency’s use of compensatory mitigation on BLM public lands.
Quite simply, from this point forward, if a development project can’t avoid damage to habitat on public land through early planning, or minimize its impacts during construction, then there will be no requirement to compensate for those damages. On the ground, this means loss of habitat or its quality—plain and simple.
Spilled beer can’t be un-spilled, just like some habitat can’t be unspoiled. But, now, the BLM won’t hold developers accountable to even try to make up for the hunting and fishing opportunities they may have cost you on your public lands. We can never hope for a net positive, or net zero, for fish and wildlife if this is the way that DOI does its math. We will always be losing ground where impacts occur and are not mitigated.
Conservationists have long viewed compensatory mitigation as a common sense approach to balancing development with fish, wildlife, and habitat values. It is a fundamental component of land-use management, habitat conservation, and recovery of endangered or threatened populations.
These decisions to scale back on mitigation are not only harmful for listed species, but also for species that are most at risk of being listed in the future.
In states like Colorado and Nevada, which rely heavily on mitigation for impacts to the sagebrush ecosystem for their conservation strategies, these policy changes also undermine collaborative work to restore sage grouse populations and habitat across the West.
At the center of DOI’s argument for these changes is that the department and its agencies have no legal authority to require mitigation. That may be true in a purely legal context, but the BLM most certainly has the authority and ample discretion to require developers to avoid, minimize, and even compensate for habitat impacts under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the National Environmental Protection Act (better known as NEPA), and other statutes governing federal land management and development on these lands.
Application of the full mitigation hierarchy is critical for the BLM to achieve its multiple-use and land health standards mandated by federal policy and statute. And if the agency would like to avoid pushing developers for compensation after damage occurs, there’s a real incentive to do better up-front planning to avoid impacts in the first place—which is what we all want.
Taking away the last line of defense for fish and wildlife only creates a wildly uneven playing field: Inevitably there will still be developers who want to do the right thing and mitigate for damages, but the door will be open for bad actors to simply ignore the costs of doing business on our public lands.
The DOI has stated that the policy changes won’t affect state mitigation policies, but most states do not require mitigation. Perhaps it’s time for state legislatures and Congress to consider codifying legal requirements for mitigation, as political swings and varying interpretations of policy and law have clearly taken us many steps backward in balancing our management of public lands and energy development.
Ultimately, we are disappointed to see DOI take steps to weaken a fundamental management tool and potentially create huge setbacks for conservation of a species like sage grouse and the quality of our public land experiences as hunters and anglers. These decisions do not reflect balance nor adherence to bedrock conservation laws, like NEPA and FLPMA, which protect habitat and guide us toward a careful balance.
The TRCP will continue working with our partners and a wide range of stakeholders—including conservation and sportsmen’s groups but also landowners and businesses—to speak up for habitat mitigation, especially in this new era of expanded development on public lands.
And you can help. Visit sportsmenscountry.org to send a message to lawmakers that they need to do more than keep our public lands public—they need to support policies that keep our public lands well-managed for all the ways we use them. Show them we are paying attention.
Photos courtesy of Tom Koerner/USFWS.
Find out what we mean when we say that this policy fight gives us “sage-à vu”
We’ve said it before, but when it comes to conservation policy, sometimes the most meaningful victories are celebrated when something doesn’t happen.
America’s sportsmen and women enjoyed that kind of win this week, as we defeated an attempt to nullify collaborative, landscape-scale conservation efforts for sagebrush species across the West. Without the strong, united voice of our community, we might have seen a crowning achievement of habitat conservation severely diminished under dubious pretenses.
The story should sound familiar—the same bad idea has been put down in multiple sessions of Congress—but that doesn’t make the intention any less threatening: In the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which sets annual policy priorities and funding levels for America’s military forces, some lawmakers included a legislative rider preventing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from listing the greater sage grouse and lesser prairie chicken as endangered species for at least 10 years.
The House and Senate passed separate versions of the NDAA earlier in the summer, setting up a conference committee to iron out the differences between the two bills—including the sage grouse language.
Perennial proponents of the rider cite military readiness as a deciding factor and point to sagebrush habitat on Department of Defense lands. Conservationists argue that this is a smokescreen for legislating wildlife management in a must-pass bill and ultimately undermines the epic collaborative effort to conserve sagebrush habitat across 11 Western states.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ultimately decided not to list the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act in 2015, largely based on cooperative efforts to amend 98 land-management plans across the sagebrush steppe. These plans reflect the importance of managing lands to conserve quality habitat for all sagebrush species, rather than setting arbitrary population targets just for these birds.
Preventing any consideration of a future listing in the next 10 years would do little to hold stakeholders accountable for conservation promises.
Each of the amended plans placed limitations on certain activities, like energy development, grazing, and outdoor recreation, in some areas. But listing the sage grouse as endangered or threatened would have imposed far more restrictions with greater impact on rural economies.
Rather than taking steps to fully implement these plans and prevent a future listing, Congressman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and others have simply tried to take listing off the table and undermine scientific and collaborative efforts through poor legislating of wildlife management.
Supporters of the provision, led once again by Rep. Bishop, claimed that adhering to the revised land-management plans would harm military readiness. The Pentagon, meanwhile, couldn’t seem to pick a side.
Last Wednesday, news circulated that the Pentagon opposed the anti-sage-grouse provision in the NDAA because it was “not necessary to protect military testing and training.” The next day, however, the Pentagon reversed course, and said it did in fact support the provision. Flip-flopping is certainly common in Washington, but a complete 180 overnight raised some eyebrows.
In previous years, the conservation community relied on the steadfast leadership of Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who insisted on limiting the NDAA to topics “germane” to the military. This left Rep. Bishop’s anti-sage-grouse language on the cutting room floor after three previous attempts. Unfortunately, Sen. McCain’s health concerns prevented him from managing this year’s NDAA, raising doubts as to who would champion efforts to keep the provision out.
Thankfully, after months of public outcry from sportsmen and women and much behind-the-scenes debate, the conference committee released its final report—and it does not contain the anti-sage-grouse rider.
Conservation and wildlife advocates can celebrate today, but the fight is hardly over.
Within the next week, Congress will likely pass the NDAA without any more grouse-y shenanigans, but there are other legislative opportunities for such mischief. The BLM and U.S. Forest Service are currently revising the sage-grouse conservation plans agreed upon in 2015, and many scientists say that changes to the plans could undermine protections for the bird. The final outcome must focus on conservation, not hitting a target number of birds, otherwise we’re in for a serious dose of what we’re calling “sage-à vu”—revisiting an endangered or threatened species listing for sage grouse.
But more is at stake than just sage grouse in these comprehensive conservation plans. The sagebrush ecosystem is home to more than 350 different species of plants and animals, including such iconic species as mule deer, pronghorns, and elk—all of which are important to American sportsmen and women.
If lawmakers are successful at legislatively preventing a future listing decision or gutting conservation plans that took years to craft, stakeholders throughout the West, such as ranchers, landowners, sportsmen, and wildlife managers, might not feel the incentive to preserve quality habitat throughout the ecosystem. This could lead to habitat degradation and fragmentation for each of these species that, in aggregate, contribute to the rich sporting heritage of the American West.
This week helped prove, once again, that when America’s sportsmen and women unite, we usually win. Over the years, thousands of TRCP members have raised their voices in support of conserving quality habitat in sagebrush country, particularly. You have made an investment of time and effort that we are continually trying to defend. And we understand that many Americans’ livelihoods are tied up in the eventual outcome for the West’s most iconic game bird.
So, yes! We did it. But we’ll have to do it again.
This is YOUR chance to play a role in how our public lands are managed and ensure that sportsmen and women have a say about the places where we love to hunt and fish
The Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest encompasses over 2.8 million acres in seventeen different Montana counties—from the Snowies and the Highwoods to the Upper Blackfoot and the Rocky Mountain Front. These landscapes provide some of the finest hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation opportunities in central and western Montana, as well as important habitat for big game, upland birds, and wild trout.
Currently, the U.S. Forest Service is revising the plan that will determine the future management of these lands. The Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest’s Draft Forest Plan and Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) was released in June with a 90-day public comment period, and sportsmen and women must get involved to ensure that the best habitats are conserved and public access for hunting and fishing is maintained.
Please attend one of eleven local public meetings in the next few weeks (see schedule below). These events will offer updates on the planning process, allow the public to share their ideas and opinions on the draft plan, and explain ways for interested citizens to stay involved.
The best way to see that our priorities are included in the plan is to have a presence and provide input at these meetings. Meeting dates, locations, and times, as well as suggested talking points are listed below.
Thank you for taking the time to support our public lands.
|Stanford||July 23, 2018||11am – 1pm||Stanford City Hall, 102 Central Ave|
|Lewistown||July 23, 2018||5 – 7pm||BLM Office, 920 NE Main St.|
|Harlowton||July 24, 2018||11am – 1pm||Harlowton Library, 13 Central Ave N.|
|White Sulphur Springs||July 24, 2018||5 – 7pm||WSS High School Cafeteria, 15 First Ave SE|
|Helena||July 25, 2018||5 – 7pm||Radisson Hotel, 2301 Colonial Dr.|
|Boulder||July 26, 2018||11am – 1pm||Boulder Fairgrounds Volunteer Hall, 21 Whitetail Rd.|
|Townsend||July 26, 2018||5 – 7pm||Townsend Library, 201 N. Spruce St.|
|Lincoln||July 30, 2018||5 – 7pm||Lincoln Community Hall, 404 Main St.|
|Choteau||August 1, 2018||5 – 7pm||Stage Stop Inn, 1005 Main Ave. N.|
|Great Falls||August 2, 2018||5 – 7pm||Civic Center, 2 Park Dr. S.|
|Browning||TBD||TBD||Check back for updates|
Photo courtesy of USFS Northern Region
No matter where you call home, these are the conservation issues you need to know about right now—get caught up in less than 60 minutes
TRCP’s visionary founder Jim Range recognized that conservation won’t work well if we only fight for what we see outside our own windows every day. It can’t be about Western lands and Eastern lands when it comes to America’s public lands. We can’t afford to stand on opposite sides of a dividing line between saltwater and freshwater fishing or big game and small game hunting.
In short, we can’t win on generation-defining conservation battles if we’re not working together.
On a recent episode of the East to West Hunting Podcast, our president and CEO Whit Fosburgh urges sportsmen and women across the country to recognize our greatest challenges and unite to take action. From conservation programs in the Farm Bill, the looming expiration of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and a fresh legislative attack on ownership of America’s public lands to invasive species, forage fish management, and the future of deer hunting, there is so much opportunity to find common ground.
Give it a listen below!
Learn more about the East to West Hunting Podcast here.
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