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A short-term funding patch would open some closed gates and put conservation workers back on the job, but there could be long-term consequences for public and private lands
News outlets are reporting that lawmakers have reached a deal to reopen the nine federal departments that have been shut down for more than a month. The temporary funding extension would buy Congress three weeks to come to a long-term agreement.
Over the past few weeks, sportsmen and women have been posting to social media and speaking with reporters about how this historic shutdown has affected hunting and fishing opportunities across the country. During this time, the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and U.S. Forest Service—some of the nation’s most important land management agencies—have been without funding.
Here are some of the access challenges, risks to public lands, and delayed conservation work that made news during the shutdown.
— APT Outdoors (@APTOutdoors) January 19, 2019
Locked Out, Left Home
While some national wildlife refuge employees returned to work to prevent lost hunting opportunities, an estimated 800,000 federal workers were furloughed without pay—this included public-lands firefighters, wildlife biologists, law-enforcement officers, foresters, and maintenance workers.
Understaffing may have contributed to some of the reports we saw of hunters and anglers locked out of public lands. In Idaho, volunteers picked up trash around a popular fishing area within Deer Flat Wildlife Refuge, but the shutdown delayed the repair of an access gate that was damaged on Jan. 1 in a vehicle crash. Normally, the timer-operated gate closes automatically at 5:30 p.m. to discourage vandalism after hours. For now, it remains stuck closed.
Just days before the shutdown, President Trump signed into law a new five-year farm bill, which—despite being nearly two months behind schedule—included some big wins for habitat and public access. Farmers and ranchers had already experienced months of uncertainty while the farm bill debate stretched into overtime, and the shutdown delayed farm bill benefits even further. Politico reports that some farmers may not be able to take advantage of other USDA programs in time for the growing season, either.
Failure to Launch
In mid-December, the EPA and the Army Corps took the next step to replace a 2015 rule that benefited headwater streams and wetlands across the country. We know from a 2018 poll that 4 in 5 sportsmen and women supported this move, but the agencies’ new rule would instead roll back these Clean Water Act protections. Because of the shutdown, however, hunters and anglers have been prevented from voicing their feedback on the new rule, keeping waterfowl and fish habitat in limbo.
Waiting for Numbers
Another unintended consequence of the government shutdown might be delayed research that could help sportsmen and women advocate for better policies. For example, it is likely that some marine fisheries stock assessments will be postponed. And this could influence decision-making if the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission meets to consider important management questions without the latest striped bass stock assessment—which is likely to show that the population is overfished.
Funding Shortfalls Stack Up
Unfortunately, the shutdown is also adding to the growing $18.6 billion maintenance backlog on our public lands. The bulk of that figure is tied to overdue projects in national parks, but more than $7 billion in deferred maintenance work is affecting BLM, Forest Service, and national refuge lands where we hunt and fish.
Quite simply, even if Congress can strike a long-term bargain before this deal expires on Feb. 15, it may take years to make up for the time and funding lost during this shutdown.
With most of the season’s testing done, it’s clear that the rapid spread of CWD continues
It may be caused by a mutated protein, but the spread of chronic wasting disease is on the verge of “going viral.” After it was first identified in 1967, the always-fatal deer disease remained isolated to a core region between Colorado and Wyoming for decades. But starting in the early 2000s, CWD began popping up across the country.
Now, it’s spreading faster than ever before. We counted 12 U.S. states that have made news since the end of the 2018 fall hunting season for either finding the disease in formerly CWD-free zones or for implementing new solutions to keep the epidemic out. And 25 states total have had confirmed cases—that’s nearly twice as many as ten years ago.
Fortunately, many hunters and wildlife managers are taking CWD challenges seriously, but states need support to tackle this disease without delay. Here are seven places where CWD is gaining ground.
CWD First Detected: December 2018
Recently Spread to: Fayette and Hardeman Counties
CWD has been found for the first time in the Volunteer State. The Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission is implementing an emergency action plan after at least 13 cases of chronic wasting disease were discovered in deer as of late December. A special hunting season in three high-risk counties, which border CWD-positive areas discovered recently in Mississippi, is ongoing through the end of January.
CWD First Detected: February 2018
Recently Spread to: Marshall and Pontotoc Counties
Previously confined to the west-central region of the state, CWD surfaced this year in two northern counties of Mississippi. The infected area covers a large portion of the Holly Springs National Forest.
CWD First Detected: Oct 2015
Recently Spread to: Scott County
CWD was first detected in Arkansas three years ago, and it seems that the disease continues to push south. It is likely only a matter of time until neighboring Louisiana is faced with CWD on both its northern border with Arkansas and eastern border with Mississippi.
CWD First Detected: Feb 2010
Recently Spread to: Stone County
A yearling buck harvested on opening weekend of firearm season tested positive for CWD in November 2018, marking fresh territory for the disease in the far southwest corner of Missouri. There were 11 confirmed cases this past hunting season, bringing the state’s all-time total up to 86 deer. Now that CWD is scattered throughout the state, wildlife managers face the especially difficult task of containing the spread.
CWD First Detected: Mar 2010
Recently Spread to: Unit 3A1
The Roughrider State saw CWD break new ground in a northwestern hunting unit, after having been confined to the opposite end of North Dakota for many years. Unfortunately, the expansion is not much of a surprise, according to experts. Neighboring Minnesota and Saskatchewan have CWD-positive zones that are too close for comfort. This will not be an isolated event.
CWD First Detected: Aug 2002
Recently Spread to: Houston County
Just one day after Minnesota announced it would step up its CWD response, a deer tested positive outside the known outbreak zone. The buck was harvested 31 miles from the epicenter of the state’s largest CWD zone (for wild deer) and 25 miles from the closest known CWD case.
First Detected: Jul 1999
Recently Spread to: Valley County and Keya Paha County
The Cornhusker State looks destined to join Wyoming as an area blanketed with CWD. Nebraska added multiple counties to the CWD-positive list this year—around half the state has confirmed cases of the disease.
As Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler is considered for the top job at EPA, hunters and anglers want a clear commitment to clean water and habitat
There is no question that the next chief of the Environmental Protection Agency will have an outsize impact on our clean water resources and hunting and fishing opportunities for years to come. Andrew Wheeler, the acting administrator of the agency and Trump’s nominee for the permanent position, faced tough questions from senators in a confirmation hearing this week—hunters and anglers have a few more.
Hunters and anglers experience the direct and downstream impacts of nutrient runoff, abandoned mines, and wetlands loss firsthand, and we have historically played a central role in the responsible conservation of America’s water, wildlife, and lands. We need to know if Wheeler will commit to including the voices of sportsmen and women in policy decisions.
The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers have proposed a replacement for the Obama-era Clean Water Rule and are giving the public 60 days to comment. Before the 2015 rule was finalized, comments were collected for 200 days. With Clean Water Act protections for wetlands and ephemeral streams—including many headwaters—on the line, we’re asking if Wheeler will extend the comment period so more hunters and anglers can provide feedback.
Right now, there is only one in-person listening session planned for the public to hear from the EPA and Army Corps on the Clean Water Rule. This is such an important part of the democratic process, and in-person interaction helps to put a human face on the concerns of sportsmen and women. Will Wheeler commit to holding more listening sessions so that Americans can tell their stories and understand the true impacts of the rule?
The agencies have proposed eliminating Clean Water Act protections for ephemeral streams and isolated wetlands in the Clean Water Rule replacement. These waters and wetlands provide important habitat for juvenile fish and nesting migratory birds. Perhaps the most critical question is simple: How does Wheeler intend to conserve these habitats that support healthy fish and wildlife populations, hunting and fishing opportunities, and America’s outdoor recreation economy?
Photo by Chesapeake Bay Program
One company that undermines striped bass populations in the Atlantic is paying to put a blue ribbon on its harmful practices
Reduction fishing is the practice of “reducing” huge numbers of fish into oil and meal to be used in other products—primarily feed for other animals, like pets and farmed salmon. Perhaps it’s not a widely known term because reduction fishing is banned in states up and down the east coast, for decades in some places.
In fact, Virginia is the only state that continues to permit the last holdout of the reduction fishing industry in the Atlantic—a single company called Omega Protein, part of the Canadian-owned Cooke Inc.—to continue to fish for menhaden in this way.
The irony of taking forage fish out of the water that would naturally feed most of our ocean predators and grinding it up to feed farmed fish is not lost on anyone. And you don’t have to be a fisherman to understand that when you suck up the fish at the bottom of the food chain, everything else suffers. So, it should be no surprise that removing large quantities of menhaden has had a negative impact on striped bass fishing.
The menhaden reduction fishing industry accounts for 80 percent of the coastwide catch of these important forage fish. At this level of menhaden harvest, the striped bass population has declined by as much as 30 percent. In fact, the latest stock assessment is likely to show that striped bass are overfished.
Despite perpetuating an antiquated practice that reduces biomass of other fish species in the Atlantic, Omega Protein has applied to have the menhaden fishery certified as “sustainable” by the Marine Stewardship Council, a private international institution. This certification is strictly a pay-to-play arrangement, and it could successfully put a blue ribbon on fishing practices that rob anglers of our sportfishing opportunities. MSC does not even know how many predators rely on menhaden for food to determine if the fishery can legitimately be considered sustainable. Nobody does.
Now, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission—the multi-state agency that sets catch limits on menhaden—is working to get to the bottom of this key question, largely because of the recent outcry from sportsmen and women about the impacts of reduction fishing on sportfish populations.
Since November 2017, the ASMFC has had a scientific team working on a model to account for menhaden’s critical role to sportfish like striped bass and the broader ecosystem. And the truth is that no one can certify that the menhaden fishery is “sustainable” until that question is answered.
But it’s likely that MSC will grant the certification, despite publishing in its own report that the health of the striped bass population is directly linked to menhaden. (They also solicited public feedback as part of their determination, which could be overwhelming.)
Instead of certifying that the Atlantic menhaden fishery as sustainable, MSC should be calling on the industry to substantially reduce its catch, so that predators like striped bass don’t take a hit from the removal of 30 percent of their forage base. Further, Congress should put a stop to reduction fishing in the federal waters of the Atlantic, at least until striped bass have recovered.
In the meantime, we’ll do whatever we can to support the fisheries managers at the ASMFC in their efforts to analyze the actual impacts of reduction fishing of menhaden.
Top photo by Stephan Lowy
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