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Rep. Wittman introduces first House legislation since 2009 to authorize the popular National Fish Habitat Conservation Program
Yesterday, Congressman Rob Wittman introduced legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives to advance the conservation of our nation’s fish habitat and improve fish populations and angler opportunity. The National Fish Habitat Conservation Through Partnerships Act (H.R. 6660) represents a long overdue next step for fisheries resources and builds upon years of work by the sportmen’s community.
“We’re grateful for Rep. Wittman’s leadership in working to advance this vital bill to authorize the National Fish Habitat Partnership, which was created during the Bush administration to foster partnerships that improve conditions for fish species and enhance recreational fishing opportunities,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “The most successful conservation work of our day is done collaboratively, with local input, and with the most efficient use of federal funds. The Fish Habitat Partnership model checks all of these boxes to the benefit of anglers across the country.”
The National Fish Habitat Action Plan was first established in 2005 by state fish and wildlife agencies and their federal, conservation, and private sector partners, and since that time, 20 Fish Habitat Partnerships have been formed to guide federal grant funding matched by state, local, and private dollars and to incentivize locally driven, community-based fish habitat conservation.
Wittman’s bill is also an example of good governing: It guarantees that a maximum amount of program-designated federal dollars will be directed toward collaborative on-the-ground projects to improve sportsmen’s fishing access, restore water conditions, and ensure abundant fish populations. To date, more than 600 successful conservation projects have been carried out through Fish Habitat Partnerships across the country.
The TRCP strongly supports H.R. 6660, and encourages expeditious review and approval of this important legislation by the House Natural Resources Committee. The TRCP also supports the Senate companion bill, S. 1436, and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s recent inclusion of this priority within the HELP for Wildlife Act (S. 1514.)
Top photo courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Program via flickr
As deer hunters, we will inevitably have to change our habits to prevent the spread of CWD—how much are you willing to give up so we don’t have to give up on hunting altogether?
We know by now that chronic wasting disease has infected deer species in 25 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. It is always fatal, spreads rampantly, which, unfortunately, demands that hunters make at least some sacrifices if we hope to curb the epidemic and save deer hunting as we know it.
CWD has most recently made a pass through the upper-Midwest states where I live and hunt. That makes this disease not only detrimental at a population scale, but also deeply personal for me. I don’t believe that hunters are more averse to change than the average group of people, but we’ve often been asked to change our ways for the good of the herd or landscape.
The good news is that we’ll be at the forefront of the effort to control this destructive disease. The bad news is we’ll also have to be at the forefront of change, no matter how uncomfortable.
How much should we be willing to sacrifice? If you ask me, quite a bit.
I have been hunting in Michigan since I was five years old, at which point I convinced my dad to build us a deer blind and take me along with him. Back in those days, we started “hunting” with a camera, a Stanley thermos of hot chocolate, and, on his part, a whole lot of patience for a squirmy kid. Since then I have upgraded to a 12-gauge slug gun and Folgers, but we still sit on that same stone pile every November. Three generations of Boohers hunt together on an old family farm in the southwest part of the state every year.
Most of the other hunters that I know have a similar story.
I’ll be honest, there are better places to hunt. And we might look for one if our only goal was a deer with 130+ inches of antler. Don’t get me wrong—harvesting a trophy buck would be nice, but it’s not essential, and truthfully it hasn’t happened in quite a few years on this property. But we take the time of work and school, make the drive from Wisconsin, and pony up for out-of-state licenses just to carry on a tradition that is at least four generations old.
My time afield is about more than just deer and deer hunting. It’s about spending quality time outside with my family, knowing where my food comes from, and intentionally taking time to be away from the rest of our busy lives.
The deer are just a part of it, but these experiences wouldn’t happen without them.
One of my biggest fears is the permanent loss of wild deer herds and, therefore, my inability to share my family’s traditions with another generation of whitetail hunters. So it’s worth it to me to make broad, individual sacrifices today to ensure the preservation of this resource for the future.
In the words of the famed conservationist and forester Gifford Pinchot, it is our responsibility to practice “foresighted utilization, preservation, and renewal of forests, waters, lands, and minerals for the greatest good of the greatest number for the longest time.” That is what we as hunters must do with regard to elk, moose, caribou, whitetails, and mule deer.
Of course, this is not a new concept, especially in the field of wildlife conservation. This sentiment dates back many years before the famed North American conservationists of Theodore Roosevelt’s tenure. The story of hunters acting as conservationists in North America is long and detailed, and it must inspire our future actions.
Since the late 19th century, we as hunters have stepped up to change our policies and practices for the betterment of the wildlife resources that we so enjoy. Examples of sportsmen and women willing to do this work are abundant among TRCP’s partners: If waterfowlers had not banded together to form Ducks Unlimited during the dust bowl, we likely would not have been able to have duck seasons today. The same could be said of the National Wild Turkey Federation’s efforts to reintroduce and propagate a game bird that was once extirpated from much of the Eastern United States. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation did the same for elk.
Unfortunately, today we are faced with a familiar, yet overwhelming challenge—to save our wildlife in order to sustain our traditions. For the sake of the habitats that we know and love, and the generations of hunters that are to come after us, we must actively change our habits. And with respect to CWD, that means a few things:
These include the brain, eyes, spinal cord, lymph nodes, tonsils and spleen. Yes, this might impact your ability to bring your trophy home to your favorite local taxidermist or processor. However, there are ways to support the businesses near your home and slow the spread of CWD. The easiest way to do this is to hunt near your home, but that is not an option for everyone. If you hunt out-of-state or in another part of your state, consider doing more of your own processing in the field or having at least a portion of it done wherever you’re hunting.
Plan to add a few more knives, a bone saw, and a big cooler to your list of hunting gear so that you can bone-out your kill on-site.
Many states with CWD, like Michigan and Wisconsin, and some without, like Tennessee and North Carolina, are starting to restrict the importation of whole carcasses from other parts of the country. However, most allow deboned meat and finished taxidermy products to be brought in. States have banned these body parts to prevent the spread of prions, while also allowing hunters to bring home some of their trophy for the freezer or the wall. These policies require some more planning and effort on our part, but are very important in minimizing the spread of this disease. Be sure to check out the regulations in the state where you live before you head out this fall.
Every corner bar where I live has peanuts on the counter, almost without exception. I hardly ever think twice before grabbing a handful, that is, until the person next to me starts hacking and coughing, or worse, sneezes into the bowl. How about you? Would you partake if the person next to you is sick? How about if you knew that a quarter of the people in the county are ill?
Is this all that different from deer feeding on a salt lick or a pile of corn? In Dane County, Wisconsin, where I live, upwards of 25 percent of the whitetails are estimated to be infected with CWD. The only difference: as far as we know, they can’t tell who is sick and who isn’t.
Feeders are a great way to bring a lot of deer to your stand and can make for a much easier hunt, but they are also a key vector in the spread of disease. Concentrating animals (or people, for that matter) will make any disease spread more rapidly, but this is especially true of chronic wasting disease.
Unlike a large food plot or a stand of mast-bearing trees, mineral blocks and piles of corn bring deer to very, very specific locations. These lures force deer to eat off of the same exact spot as other deer. With a disease that is spread through saliva, like CWD, these places become huge transmission vectors.
In addition to increasing harvest limits in disease management areas, most states are changing some of the baiting rules that hunters must follow in the field. This includes restricting the use of urine-based lures, feed piles, and mineral blocks. While these bans often mean more time in the field, they are critical to slowing the spread of CWD. Each of these attractants can facilitate the spread of the disease by congregating deer in a specific area. As more cervids gather in these areas, there is a higher likelihood of an infected individual being present and transferring prions to other individuals or shedding them in the soil or water nearby.
Some hunters, and you can likely name a few, are reacting to policy changes and appeals for testing— implemented by state wildlife agencies to control the spread of CWD and improve our hunting—by railing against the effectiveness of wildlife managers. But these organizations are responsible for, and have a vested interest in, maintaining healthy and productive populations of game species.
As a hunter and someone who is studying to be a certified wildlife biologist, I feel that it is our responsibility to provide them with as much information as they might need to effectively and efficiently achieve these goals.
I get it. It’s a pain. It might take a little extra time and another $5.00 in gas to get to a check station, when all you really want to do is go home, eat some chili, and take a shower. Please, this season, before you go home and put your feet up by the fire, take your deer to a local check station to have someone from your state wildlife agency take the lymph nodes from the deer.
These small glands in the neck are easy to remove and they will not take your trophy antlers. The technicians at these stations are also trained to do these tests without damaging the cape of your deer, and often they will provide extra services like aging or green antler measuring at the same time.
Despite warnings from the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, some people still choose to eat venison from untested deer in infected areas. Even if you are comfortable doing so, it is critical for state wildlife agencies to have as much information as possible about the deer in your area.
In the grand scheme of things, these steps seem like a relatively small price to pay for the future of deer hunting and the chance to sit in a blind with my future kids or nieces and nephews.
I will be making a few changes this November. Will you join me?
To restore a stream on the Arkansas Delta, conservationists faced down dead-zone-creating nutrient runoff, pernicious beaver activity, erosion, and many other challenges—here’s how wetland easements played a role in their success
Arkansas’ famed Delta region has historically been home to the largest continuous system of wetlands in North America and now serves as critical seasonal habitat within the Mississippi Flyway. Hunters kill more mallards in Arkansas than in any other state, and only Louisiana has a greater overall annual waterfowl harvest. What’s more, the Delta’s lowland rivers and lakes draw anglers in pursuit of bass, crappie, and catfish.
Hunting and fishing are woven into the fabric of life in this region, and money generated by sportsmen and women is crucial to the well-being of wildlife populations throughout the state. But the Delta also has a long agricultural history that has resulted in the serious degradation of some of its best habitat, requiring the committed work of conservationists to restore its waterways and wetlands, thus preserving the wealth of hunting and fishing opportunities found in the region.
Last year saw the completion of a five-year effort to support the area’s biodiversity, improve wildlife habitat, enhance water quality, and encourage the restoration of native vegetation by way of the Dark Corner Stream Restoration Project. Its success and many resulting benefits are thanks to the collaborative work of The Nature Conservancy, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, and the Natural Resource Conservation Services, with technical assistance from Cache River National Wildlife Refuge and Natural State Streams.
Now, this project could offer a model for similarly degraded waterways and wetlands throughout the region and across the country.
Otherwise known as the Mississippi Alluvial Plain, one of Arkansas’ six eco-regions, the Delta is defined and shaped by the flow of its rivers: the Mississippi, Arkansas, White, Cache, and St. Francis. The deep layers of soil, gravel, and clay deposited by these waterways make it one of the most productive regions in the world for large-scale agriculture.
As a result, the land has been largely cleared of native vegetation and drained for cultivation, leading to the widespread loss and degradation of wildlife habitat, while agricultural runoff contains fertilizers, sediment, herbicides, pesticides, and livestock waste. Water testing has typically revealed high concentrations of total suspended and dissolved solids, phosphorus, nitrogen, sulfates, biological oxygen demand, chlorophyll a, and fecal coliform.
Furthermore, the drainage canals and ditches widely used in the region separate rivers and their adjoining habitats from the rest of the natural hydrologic system and accelerate the transport of excess nutrients and sedimentation downstream. The effects of this pollution reach down to the Gulf of Mexico, seasonally creating a low-oxygen “dead zone” that renders thousands of square miles uninhabitable by most marine life. On a more local scale, the entrenched, heavily channelized nature of Delta streams results in turbid water conditions unsuitable for wildlife or human use.
Among the many waterways historically affected by these changes was Dark Corner Creek, a small feeder stream in the Bayou DeView watershed, which, in turn, is a major tributary of the Delta’s Cache River. Historically, the stream drained an area of approximately 7,000 acres, but extensive channelization through ditches created for agricultural use in the 1940s reduced the drainage area to 3,384 acres. Much of the Dark Corner watershed lies on Benson Creek Natural Area, part of a system of 73 such public lands across the state—many of which are open to hunting and fishing—managed by the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission.
In 2012, The Nature Conservancy identified the Benson Creek Natural Area as an ideal candidate for restoration according to a process that utilizes a number of scientific lenses to replicate as closely as possible the natural flow regime of the original watershed.
Because the property is subject to a perpetual Wetland Reserve Easement, the Natural Resources Conservation Service provided funding using a program dubbed “no easement left behind.” First implemented in the mid-1990s, these wetland easements provide economic benefits to landowners in perpetuity, with the cost covered by NRCS.
Currently the Arkansas Delta contains more than 250,000 acres of these wetland reserve easements with 4,000 to 6,000 additional acres enrolled each year. Other states also reap the benefits of this program, providing contiguous habitat totaling more than 700,000 acres across Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. In years past, these hydric soil landscapes of the Mississippi Alluvial Valley provided fair production for the local farmers, but recent changes in the frequency of spring flooding have made them very difficult to farm. This program allows landowners to choose an alternate use for their properties and even future income through leasing and guided duck hunts.
With funding in place, TNC secured the services of a private specialized contractor, Natural State Streams, whose team specializes in all aspects of stream restoration including erosion control, stream bank stabilization, and native riparian planting and establishment. Personnel from the nearby Cache River National Wildlife Refuge provided technical assistance, additional funding, and equipment.
Using a stream in western Tennessee with similar soils and habitats to use as a reference, the team determined the appropriate width, depth, and sinuosity (or degree of meander) that would allow the stream to function as it did prior to alteration, and they drew up plans for a new channel according to these findings.
The construction phase of the project brought many challenges. Due to heavy spring rains and a network of downstream beaver dams, the wetland proved difficult to drain for long enough to allow the work to get underway. As quickly as levees could be breached, beavers would rebuild the dams, necessitating their vigilant monitoring and removal throughout the process.
Before water could be diverted into the newly constructed stream, precautions against erosion were needed. Jute matting, a biodegradable material made of woven vegetable fibers, installed in the channel and along its banks offered temporary protection until newly grown vegetation, including live stakes of black willow planted during the project, could anchor the soil. Cutting these stakes from on-site trees ensured better rates of survival. Finally, the removal of a culvert immediately downstream allowed as much unrestricted flow through the system as possible.
Since the project’s completion in October of last year, water-quality samples collected twice a month have evidenced its effect on the ecosystem. The data already indicates a reduction in turbidity as the natural hydrology of the restored system filters nutrients and traps particulate matter, and further decreases are projected as vegetation in the floodplain takes hold. There has also been some reduction in nitrogen at the site, although it may take years for it to decline to historic levels.
A variety of aquatic species now utilize the newly constructed stream habitat. ANHC staff have documented fish species including largemouth bass, bluegill, spotted gar, and banded pygmy sunfish, as well as a variety of invertebrates and amphibians. Grasses, sedges, and broadleaf plants are flourishing at the site and will ultimately provide much-needed food for wintering waterfowl. Prior to construction of the new stream channel, the site consisted largely of a monoculture of American lotus, which has little nutritive value for waterfowl.
While restoration of a small creek in eastern Arkansas may seem like a small piece of a very large and complex puzzle with far-reaching consequences, it clearly epitomizes the conservation adage “think globally, act locally.” It is the hope of all the contributing partners that the Dark Corner Stream Restoration Project can serve as an example for future efforts throughout the region to tackle some of our most serious challenges when it comes to wildlife, habitat, and waterways.
Top photo courtesy: Mike Wintroath/Arkansas Game and Fish Commission
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.
In the last two years, policymakers have committed to significant investments in conservation, infrastructure, and reversing climate change. Hunters and anglers continue to be vocal about the opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations. Support solutions now.Learn More