EPA’s Clean Water Rollback Will Double Down on Water Quality Challenges in the Everglades
Just as federal investments in largescale restoration efforts are being made, the EPA’s proposal would undermine water quality in one of America’s top fishing destinations
It’s bad enough that the EPA has proposed a rule that will leave more than 50 percent of wetlands and 18 percent of stream miles nationwide without Clean Water Act protection, making fish and wildlife habitat more vulnerable. But the rule could also worsen existing conservation crises in places like the Everglades.
In fact, the EPA’s proposed rule could leave at least 4 million acres of wetlands throughout the Everglades without clean water protections. And in Florida’s Panhandle region, an additional 800,000 acres of wetlands lack direct surface connection to other waters and would therefore lose out.
Florida has already lost more wetland acreage than any other state in the lower 48—nearly half of what it had historically. Now, this rule would make it easier to drain, develop, or pollute wetlands
These wetlands not only provide critical waterfowl habitat and flood protection, but they also filter out harmful pollutants. Phosphorus levels in Lake Okeechobee are already more than three times the recommended limit, and if wetlands aren’t filtering the flow of harmful nutrients into the Everglades and surrounding waters, this could mean more toxic algal blooms, red tide, fishkills, and beach closures that negatively affect recreational fishing opportunities.
Further, if landowners are no longer required to protect wetlands on private lands, then they won’t apply for Farm Bill or Fish and Wildlife Service programs that help preserve wetlands at the top of the Everglades watershed. This important marshy area north of Lake Okeechobee acts as a sponge and slowly releases water into the lake, through the Everglades, and eventually out into Florida Bay. Eroding protection for these wetlands could exacerbate existing problems with increased salinity levels and seagrass die-offs.
It’s no time to weaken clean water standards in Florida—the Department of Environmental Protection reports poor water quality for 28 percent of the state’s river and stream miles and 25 percent of total lake acreage.
TRCP’s Chief Conservation Officer Testifies Before Congress on Ways to Support Fish and Wildlife
We took advantage of this exclusive opportunity to advocate for investments in conservation that support hunters, anglers, and the outdoor recreation economy
Christy Plumer, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s chief conservation officer, told House lawmakers today that America’s conservation legacy is under attack, and Congress must take action to conserve the nation’s fish and wildlife.
Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife, Plumer noted that in the 1970s, conservation spending made up more than 2 percent of the federal budget, and today it accounts for only about one percent.
“For more than three decades, budgets for agencies that manage our public lands have been squeezed and shrunk,” said Plumer. “Recreation facilities across the country are being closed or lie in disrepair. The expansion of human development across the landscape— including our cities and towns but also our highway infrastructure and energy development are leading to significant challenges in fish and wildlife management.”
She described these challenges being exacerbated by climate change.
“Sportsmen and women are on the frontlines and seeing the changes in fish and wildlife populations and our natural systems due to climate change,” said Plumer. “This includes shifting migratory patterns and mating seasons. We recognize something needs to be done and want to be part of the solution.”
Plumer noted that generations of conservation-minded leaders have created a public-lands network that is unparalleled supporting the ability of all Americans to hunt and fish, regardless of class or economic status.
“It is a system that benefits everyone, from the sportsman and woman to the hiker and those who simply want to drink clean water or experience wide open spaces,” said Plumer.
She relayed the following recommendations to Congress:
Pass the Modernizing the Pittman-Robertson Fund for Tomorrow’s Needs Act to clarify that this important sportsmen-sourced conservation fund can be used by state fish and wildlife agencies for outreach, communication, and education related to the recruitment, retention, and reactivation of hunters and recreational shooters.
Reauthorize the North American Wetlands Conservation Act to provide grants that protect, restore, and manage wetlands and associated habitats for migratory birds and other wildlife.
Pass the National Fish Habitat Conservation Through Partnerships Act to support a voluntary fish habitat conservation program driven by federal, state, and local agencies as well as conservation and sportsmen’s organizations, private landowners, and businesses. These partnerships have created more than 700 successful conservation projects in 50 states, benefitting fish habitat and anglers throughout the country.
Pass the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act to invest in high-priority habitat, stronger fish and wildlife populations, and a more robust outdoor recreation economy. Right now, 12,000 species in America need conservation action. If these species become threatened or endangered, sportsmen and women will lose out. This bill empowers on-the-ground wildlife experts to implement science-based conservation plans that will preserve these species into the future.
Protect migration corridors from development.
Use the Highway Bill to advance conservation efforts related to America’s roads and highway infrastructure. This could include securing new funding for migration crossings and aquatic connectivity and bringing funding for the Natural Wildlife Refuge System, BLM public lands, and U.S. Forest System up to levels on par with the National Park System. There is potential in the Highway Bill to strengthen coastal resilience by investing in natural and nature-based barriers to flooding and storm surge and streamline permitting as outlined in the FAST Act.
Address the spread of chronic wasting disease by investing more in research, testing, and state wildlife agency resources through the appropriations process.
A Meeting of the Minds on Migrating Wildlife and Highway Collisions
A TRCP-led workshop brings biologists, planners, and engineers together to resolve a massive obstacle to big game migration—our roads and highways
With a spectacular sunset hanging over the Nebraska prairie, I loaded my chocolate labs into the truck at the end of a great afternoon of sharptail grouse hunting. It had been the perfect rest stop to break up a long drive, while also yielding some exercise, a limit of birds, and another memory in the field. But it was time to get moving.
Pulling off a deeply rutted dirt road onto pavement, I accelerated to the speed limit—or thereabouts— set my cruise control, and settled in.
And then it happened. Before I could pump the brakes, flash the lights, or honk the horn, I was on top of a small herd of mule deer with only enough time to grab the steering wheel tight and brace for the inevitable impact. Once the vehicle slowed to a stop, I spun the truck around and returned to where my vehicle had struck one of the does.
I’ve walked up on many big game animals taken while hunting, usually with a strong mix of emotions, and always grateful. But as I approached the dead deer on the side of the highway, I only felt regret for what seemed like a useless loss of life.
An All Too Frequent and Costly Scenario
I suspect nearly every sportsman or woman has a story—or several—about collisions and near misses with wildlife on roads and highways. According to the Highway Loss Data Institute, drivers filed more than 1.8 million animal-strike claims, mostly involving deer, at an average cost of about $3,000 each between 2014 and 2017. That’s a more than $5.4-billion cost to insurance companies alone in just four years.
These accidents also cost state transportation and wildlife agencies dearly in time, resources, and other expenses. Rural states like South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming, which have high rates of vehicle-wildlife collisions, spend upwards of tens of millions of dollars annually responding to wildlife-vehicle collisions.
But this issue goes beyond safety hazards, loss of human and animal life, property damage, and other economic costs.
Can Deer Even Cross the Road?
Roads and highways are pervasive features across landscapes where they never used to be. By their very nature, they break up habitat into fragments and have the potential to severely disrupt animal migrations. The numerous interstate highways that cross our nation north to south and east to west present major obstacles for animals trying to move from one area to another to reach seasonal habitat and winter range.
Maps overlaid with GPS-collar data show quite clearly how abruptly migrations halt in cases where animals reach an interstate highway. Data from several studies compiled by the Wyoming Migration Initiative indicates that I-80 in southern Wyoming serves as a significant barrier to movement for pronghorn antelope, mule deer, and elk. Likewise in Arizona, biologists have identified a 31-mile segment of I-17 as a hotspot for collisions and a movement barrier for migrating elk.
Fortunately, there are solutions in the form of structural crossings that allow animals to move either over or under the highway, and ample scientific evidence illustrates their effectiveness. More than 20 years ago, the Canadian government installed six overpasses and 38 underpasses along the Trans-Canada Highway, long recognized as a barrier for big game and other wildlife. Now, it’s considered an international conservation success story—these efforts reduced vehicle-wildlife collisions by 80 percent.
Many states across the U.S. have enjoyed similar results from installing over- and underpasses along major highways. Wyoming’s Trapper’s Point on Highway 191 and Highway 9 in Colorado are good examples of how effective this approach can be. Still, there are many places where wildlife-vehicle collisions and barriers to movement remain a problem for human safety and the conservation of our big game herds.
Bridging the Gap
When former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke signed an Order to improve habitat quality in big game winter range and migration corridors—a policy lauded by sportsmen and women—the Department asked the 11 Western states covered by the policy to submit their top three to five priority project sites for mule deer, elk, or pronghorns to be worked into collaborative action plans. Significantly, highway crossings ranked among the top priorities for every state. Some even called out multiple roadways—all five of Idaho’s priority projects involved highways and issues with animal movement and collisions.
That’s why DOI asked the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership to organize a gathering of experts and decision-makers to discuss how we can get more wildlife crossings where they are most needed.
More than 80 participants from 11 state wildlife agencies, 12 state departments of transportation, three federal agencies, and several NGOs and foundations gathered in Salt Lake City in late January. We discussed the differences in how wildlife agencies and DOTs operate, lessons learned from past efforts, assessed what policies currently exist, and identified partnership, funding and policy needs to address the issue.
Collaboration Will Be Key
While Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana had held similar workshops at the state level, never before had professionals from multiple states gathered together to discuss highways and big game migration and collisions to learn from one another’s successes and failures. And this collaborative aspect was key for the success of the event. We wanted to foster connections across state agencies and among stakeholders, identify best practices and key points of leverage for action, and advance the states’ priorities under the Secretarial Order on migration.
It became clear that engineers with state DOTs—the talented people who build and maintain roads, bridges, and other structures to allow the movement of vehicles safely and efficiently from point A to B—and biologists need to work better together. Monte Aldridge from the Utah DOT summed up this lesson very simply, advising wildlife managers to “get to know an engineer.”
Another takeaway was that wildlife and personnel from a state DOT and wildlife agency personnel need to communicate early and often, with an eye towards solutions that allow all parties to achieve their goals. In the past, by the time wildlife professionals engaged in the planning process and identified the need for an under- or overpass, it might have been too late.
And, of course, all participants recognized that there is never enough money to go around. Ideas were exchanged about how NGOs, foundations, private landowners, and other entities can partner with federal agencies to help state wildlife agencies and DOTs successfully fund and maintain wildlife highway projects.
The Worst Thing We Can Do Is Nothing
Utah DOT Executive Director Carlos Braceras gave voice to the spirit of the workshop by quoting Theodore Roosevelt and telling the crowd that “the best thing we can do is the right thing, the second-best thing we can do is the wrong thing, and the worst thing we can do is nothing.” He encouraged the group to share not only their successes but also their challenges, pitfalls, and mistakes so that others can learn from them.
The work ahead is really where the proverbial rubber will hit the road, not only for the state-identified priority projects, but also for the many areas across the country where wildlife and transportation conflicts need attention. This workshop was one step toward helping to ensure our wildlife conservation and transportation needs can be integrated, and the lessons learned should help with the larger efforts down the road.
Among other things, this gathering illustrated the role that the sporting community must continue to play as a partner with our state and federal agencies and other stakeholders to address wildlife-transportation conflicts. The solutions, while expensive and not easily planned or installed on a whim, are well-studied and proven. But we need to encourage the support and political will of agency leads and decision-makers to help keep the momentum rolling.
Top photo: Gregory Nickerson/Wyoming Migration Initiative
Q&A: Meet a Texan Who Is Helping to Open New Public Lands on the Gulf Coast
Callie Easterly’s work at The Conservation Fund is helping to expand hunting and fishing access on a national wildlife refuge by more than 12,000 acres—read the latest Q&A in our Women Conservationist Wednesday series
We love talking to women in the conservation workforce who are very clearly forces of nature themselves. Callie Easterly, a native Texan and the senior major gifts officer at The Conservation Fund, is no exception.
Forget for just a moment that she runs an incredible hunting lodge for the organization, hosting small parties of waterfowl hunters to showcase the benefits of wetland restoration projects. Now consider that in the span of eight years she went from receptionist to executive director of a nonprofit focused on getting inner city kids outdoors and in touch with their food. That’s before she helped build a sustainable grazing program on conserved lands in the unique Gulf coastal grasslands of Texas.
But back to that hunting lodge. It’s on the 12,376-acre Sabine Ranch, which will soon be added to McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge as public land open to hunting, fishing, hiking and birdwatching. And Callie helped raise the more than $30 million needed to piece the original ranch back together and convey the land to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Her story is so compelling, it’s no wonder she can convince people to open their wallets for conservation. She shares a little bit of that story with us here.
TRCP: How were you introduced to the outdoors?
CALLIE EASTERLY: I grew up in a small town outside Houston with a lot of rice farms, and I started hunting deer with my dad on the Thanksgiving holidays. Our local grocery store offered these individual meat lockers to store your venison, and we basically lived off what we harvested. I shot my first deer when I was 9 years old and totally got the bug.
For a while, I lived in Seattle and did more fishing, but when I came back to Texas and met my husband—he’s an avid outdoorsman—I really got back into hunting. And I was able to marry it with my lifelong interest in gardening and knowing exactly where my food comes from.
TRCP: And what led you to work in conservation?
EASTERLY: It started out as kind of a fluke. I was working with adults with disabilities and interpreting sign language, and I loved being able to help people communicate, but I really felt like I was missing out on sharing this growing passion I had for gardening and food security. I didn’t know exactly how I was going to do it, but I quit my job and ended up working as a receptionist for a Houston nonprofit called Urban Harvest, which builds gardens at inner city schools and takes kids into the outdoor classroom to learn about nutrition.
After only a few weeks, their fundraising person quit and they needed someone to write a grant application—so I tried it. We got the grant and things just took off from there. By the end of my eight years there, I had become executive director and was meeting a lot of inspiring people in the food movement.
Eventually, I wanted to do more with sustainable agriculture, and I got the opportunity to go back to my roots—literally my hometown of Katy, Texas—and work for the Katy Prairie Conservancy. One of the preserves is a working cattle ranch, where I was able to build a program that uses cattle as a land management tool for the benefit of other wildlife and water quality. And when I got the call from The Conservation Fund, I’d been consulting for a number of organizations on how to harness those Gulf oil spill recovery dollars to improve wildlife habitat and shellfish populations. So, it’s been a slow growth into my role at Sabine Ranch today.
TRCP: So, why take people hunting to get them support the project?
EASTERLY: I think it helps to highlight hunting and conservation as a nice marriage of ideals. Actually bringing guests out into this fantastic waterfowl habitat to do something they enjoy helps them understand what we’re doing and why expanding the refuge is such a big win for Texas.
The habitat is unbelievable. The ranch is a key part of the largest contiguous marsh system in Texas, which buffers inland communities from saltwater intrusion and sends freshwater flows to the rest of the refuge. When The Conservation Fund purchased the land, it had been managed to almost pristine condition by the previous owner, and here’s how we could tell: Just three weeks after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, this land was bone dry. The wetlands were working exactly like they are supposed to, filtering stormwater and pushing it out to the Gulf cleaner than it was before.
I believe every problem in the world can be solved with education, and taking people on an epic hunt rarely fails to make people feel like we’re all in this together. The hunt itself is really fun, but it’s also a palatable introduction to conservation for many people.
TRCP: How do you think we can do a better job, as conservationists?
EASTERLY: We need to tell better stories. We need to broaden our target audience and, as nonprofits, be more accepting of smaller gifts—we’ll meet more potential champions in the process. I talk to young people and see what resonates with them. I might practice a pitch with a friend who doesn’t hunt and just watch for the moment they raise their eyebrows.
For a long time, the environmental movement has meant “no, no, no.” That “no” has alienated a lot of folks. We have to say “yes” sometimes. Cities have to grow, so we explain why some places should be conserved. You illustrate how the health of habitat and wildlife is connected to the health of cities. We paved over some prairies and now there are no geese; there’s no hunting. Houston didn’t grow up, it grew out—we paved over wetlands and now we’re flooding. You explain that it’s hard to go back.
TRCP: So many women are taking up hunting in adulthood because of their interest in knowing where their food comes from. How can a beginner find the confidence to get outside on her own and just go for it?
EASTERLY: I’ve felt that lack of confidence, too—you have to give yourself over to it and allow yourself to make mistakes. You’ll miss. You’ll use the wrong fly. It’s trial and error. The moments you improvise because you forgot some gear or fall in and get soaking wet are going to be the most memorable anyway.
I don’t know how we tell ourselves it’s OK to fail. All I know is that sometimes you’re in the marsh getting eaten alive by bugs, and you’re calling and calling and nothing comes in. It’s not your spread, there’s just no ducks. It won’t be the most epic experience every time.
So, focus on the camaraderie of being up before dawn, passing a thermos of coffee around, being cold and sleepy together, telling stories, and watching the sun rise with friends. You can’t force the perfect hunt. In the morning, when you’re excited about the mere possibility of what the day may hold—make that feeling endless.
Deal to Reopen Government Could End These Access and Funding Headaches
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.
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.
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.