While these state-specific plans maintain the basic framework of the originals, which were created through years of collaborative effort, there is concern that the new plans do not provide the same safeguards for certain sagebrush habitats. Priority habitat has been reduced and there is more potential for development and mineral extraction within sage grouse habitat in the new plans.
“While perhaps not surprising, these changes are another mixed bag, with some addressing legitimate concerns from the states and others rolling back smart protections for core sage grouse habitat,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Ultimately, we need federal land managers to commit to an approach that produces positive results for sage grouse habitat and populations. And we will continue working with the Forest Service, BLM, Western states, industry, and local partners to ensure that happens.”
The final plans identify and address potential environmental impacts for 19 national forest units with more than 5 million acres of potential greater sage grouse habitat. In this version, the strongest level of habitat protection given in the 2015 plans were weakened for more than 865,000 acres of sagebrush focal areas in Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming, and overall priority habitat management areas were reduced by about 160,000 acres.
General habitat management areas were removed altogether in Utah. While the original no-surface occupancy policy remains—meaning infrastructure for development cannot be built on priority habitat—the revised plans also give the Service and BLM more flexibility to waive these protections if they feel it’s necessary.
Unlike the BLM’s new stance on habitat mitigation, the Forest Service retained its compensatory mitigation requirements to offset the impacts of development in sage grouse habitat. However, for all states except Nevada, the plans shift the bottom-line goal for conservation away from a habitat gain to a no-net-loss standard.
This is really the least the agency can do to retain existing habitat, but it might not keep these birds off the endangered species list in the future, which was the goal when mitigation was included as a fundamental component of the 2015 plans. We can support better alignment with the states’ individual approaches to mitigation, but all habitat impacts must be mitigated and should also account for the future risk of losing the habitat.
The release of these new plans kicks off a 60-day objection period that will end October 1, 2019, and final decisions will be made by the Forest Service in December. At this point, it will be important for all federal agencies to move forward swiftly with implementation of these new plans to conserve sagebrush habitat and begin tracking the effectiveness of conservation measures.
Dr. Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, reminded us of this when the BLM plans were released: “The outcomes for sage grouse and sagebrush conservation and management must be legally defensible. If the agencies do not provide enough regulatory certainty, if there is too much flexibility leading to negative impacts on habitat, or if we find out later that actions were not effective, we will likely end up facing legal challenges deeper than those from the past. At that point, it’s difficult to see a future where sage grouse aren’t reconsidered for listing.”
Senate Committee Passes Highway Bill with Funding for Wildlife Crossings
This is good news for states looking to put in overpasses, underpasses, and culverts where busy roads intersect with fish and wildlife habitat
In a 21-0 vote, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed a bipartisan highway bill with a major priority for sportsmen’s groups and wildlife managers: The legislation would carve out $250 million in dedicated funds over the next five years for wildlife-friendly roadway crossing structures like overpasses, underpasses, and culverts that connect fragmented fish and wildlife habitat.
The TRCP and our partners have been calling for this dedicated funding for months as the clock ticks toward expiration of the 2015 highway bill’s authority at the end of September 2020. More than 40 sportsmen’s groups signed a letter to congressional leadership in April 2019 asking for a competitive grant program with at least $50 million annually be directed toward the planning, design, and construction of wildlife crossing projects.
These innovative enhancements to our roads and highway infrastructure should reduce vehicle collisions with wildlife and integrate habitat connectivity into highway planning, so fish and wildlife are not an afterthought.
In other good news, the Senate’s highway bill includes a title dedicated specifically to climate change for the first time ever. The climate change section creates grant programs encouraging all manner of innovations aimed at reducing carbon emissions from the transportation sector and funding projects meant to enhance the resiliency of our transportation systems during natural disasters.
The latter, which is called the PROTECT grant program, would specifically prioritize the use of natural infrastructure to improve not only the function of roads and bridges, but also overall ecosystem conditions. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-Del.) deserve our thanks and appreciation for these forward thinking and innovative provisions.
A Maintenance Backlog in the Making?
Unfortunately, the highway bill on the move in the Senate misses one major opportunity to improve funding for a program that helps federal agencies maintain passenger roads through public lands. The Federal Lands Transportation Program would provide relatively generous funding for the National Park Service to manage its tens of thousands of miles of roads with $350 million in funding. But with only $26 million for the U.S. Forest Service, the highway bill undercuts an agency that is responsible for hundreds of thousands of miles of passenger roads.
In fact, the Forest Service is perennially overlooked when it comes to FLTP dollars, which contributes to the growing maintenance backlog at the agency. And these are not your off-grid high-clearance roads that are being neglected—many local residents rely on roads through public lands to get to work and school each day.
It’s the House’s Move
The TRCP will raise the issue of this imbalance with House lawmakers as they craft a companion bill, and we’ll continue to emphasize the importance of dedicated funding for wildlife crossings in any highway bill that moves forward.
In case you need convincing, we gathered reporters and partners last week to lay out all the reasons why the five-year highway bill is a golden opportunity to prioritize habitat connectivity and conservation within migration corridors. Here’s what our experts had to say.
Christy Plumer, chief conservation officer, TRCP
We are calling on Congress to pass a 2020 Highway Bill that invests in wildlife, safety, and the future of our nation’s infrastructure system.
The hunting and fishing community is asking for a dedicated funding source in the 2020 Highway Bill for the construction of wildlife crossings in areas that are heavily used by animals. This investment will benefit wildlife and protect motorists.
According to the Highway Loss Data Institute… between 2014 and 2017, drivers filed more than 1 point 8 million animal-strike insurance claims, mostly involving deer.
These claims were made at an average cost of about 3 thousand dollars each, totaling more than 5 point 4 billion dollars in damages paid by the insurance industry in just four years. This doesn’t include the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars spent annually by state wildlife and transportation agencies to deal with wildlife-vehicle collisions, nor the costs of human and wildlife injury of even loss of life.
New technology allows us to see where wildlife activity near highways is greatest and where animals migrate across the landscape. When overlaid with maps of our highway system, wildlife movement data can identify vehicle collision “hotspots” and where roadways fragment critical habitat.
But the risk of vehicle collisions can easily be minimized or even eliminated.
For decades, the Highway Bill has been a tool for building roads and bridges and creating jobs. We aren’t asking for that to change. We are asking for a small portion of the investment in the new 2020 Highway Bill to be used specifically for construction of wildlife-friendly road crossings. Often, these projects are not prioritized by state departments of transportation without the existence of dedicated funding.
Chairman Barrasso and Ranking Member Carper are drafting the Senate version of the 2020 Highway Bill right now, and we urge them to work together in a bipartisan manner to make these smart investments for wildlife and people.
Back in February, TRCP convened 80 officials from 11 state wildlife agencies, 12 state departments of transportation, 3 federal agencies, and several non-profits to discuss solutions to wildlife-vehicle collisions.
The result was a shared understanding that there needs to be more done at a federal level to empower states… so they can prioritize smart crossing projects in high-risk areas.
Since then, we’ve seen support from dozens of conservation groups and thousands of individuals across the country who believe the Highway Bill provides a golden opportunity to invest in wildlife crossings.
We also appreciate the Western Governors’ Association for acknowledging the importance of migration corridors and the threat of wildlife-vehicle collisions. A recent WGA resolution called for funding and provisions in the next Highway Bill to support fish and wildlife crossings and habitat connectivity.
There is strong momentum and support for this. We just need Congress to act.
Miles Moretti, president and CEO, Mule Deer Foundation
MDF has been concerned about the impacts of big game-vehicle collisions for several years. We have worked with several state wildlife agencies on this issue, and we encourage Congress to pass a 2020 Highway Bill that invests in wildlife, safety, and the future of our nation’s infrastructure system.
In February 2018, then-Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, signed a Secretarial Order on migration corridors and big game winter ranges. This provided the spark to State Wildlife Agencies, DOI, and NGOs to start working closer together to understand the migration corridors of mule deer, elk, and pronghorns.
We have all heard of the tremendous migrations of these three species in Wyoming, but every Western state has migratory big game herds. Many of these big game migrations cross a major transportation corridor. The loss can be hundreds of animals each year as they migrate in the fall and again in the spring.
Highway crossing structures are the key to getting these animals across the highways safely, thus reducing the number of animals lost by as much as 90 percent, but also reducing damage to vehicles and human injuries.
The SO provided much needed funds to the state wildlife agencies to monitor these herds and analyze the massive amount of data we are receiving from new GPS radio-collar data. As Christy said, these radio collars allow biologists to monitor migrations and pinpoint where a majority of the animals are crossing highways. Building structures in the correct spot is key to them being successfully used by big game.
There has been proven success at structures that have already been built. Hundreds of crossings by big game animals have been documented. And winter ranges once cut off by highways are now available to these animals.
That’s why we need a dedicated fund that will allow these crossing structures to be built.
Joy Bannon, policy director, Wyoming Wildlife Federation
Recent work by the Wyoming Wildlife and Roadways Initiative Implementation Team, which is a collaborative partnership, has focused on identifying opportunities to reduce the conflict between roads and wildlife. This work, as well as the 16 wildlife crossing structures the WYDOT has already installed, have made Wyoming a national leader in understanding where big game crossing needs are most urgent and in designing and deploying safe crossing infrastructure along our roadways.
Solutions such as crossing structures, activated warning signs, and animal detection systems can produce dramatic reductions in place-based wildlife-vehicle collisions. Here in Wyoming, the 16 wildlife crossing structures near Pinedale, Kemmerer, and Baggs have been examples of success: They have reduced collisions by 80 to 90 percent and created more connected habitat for the animals.
Wyoming has illustrated the success of these investments in reducing collisions without interference to ranching or other private or commercial operations along our roadways. Through a thorough and collaborative process, the Wyoming Wildlife and Roadways Initiative identified 40 priority areas where more investment in crossing infrastructure is needed, with 10 sites highlighted for most immediate action.
Roads are also a major obstacle for animals to cross, hindering their ability to access critical habitat. Through its research using GPS collars on big game animals, the University of Wyoming has demonstrated that certain migrations north and south of Interstate-80 actually STOP where the historical migration corridor meets the highway—thus limiting habitat for pronghorns and mule deer.
Every day there are families on the roads who accidentally hit a deer, turkey, or—in Wyoming, for example—even bison. In fact, 15 percent of all reported vehicle collisions in Wyoming involve big game animals. Every year, more than 6,000 deer, antelope, elk, and moose are hit by vehicles on Wyoming roads. These collisions can be serious or even deadly.
In addition, accident costs are high: Nearly $50 million annually is spent on damages to vehicles, human injury expenses, and loss of wildlife. This doesn’t even count the millions of dollars spent by our state Department Of Transportation, first responders, and other agency taxpayer dollars to address these collisions.
We want to see improvements in roadway safety and through more dedicated funding in the forthcoming transportation and infrastructure bills we can implement these wildlife crossings. We have a solution here, and the fix is based on dollars invested.
This country deserves healthy wildlife populations and safe roadways for our children, parents, and grandparents. We are able to achieve this by improving our nation’s infrastructure system. This is a bipartisan effort but, more importantly, it is an American effort to keep us safe on our roadways.
Sportsmen’s Groups Throw Support Behind Renewable Energy Legislation
Today’s House hearing will consider a measure that our coalition says will help protect wildlife and public lands with thoughtful planning and revenue for conservation
Sporting groups have rallied around a bill that would balance development of renewable energy with fish and wildlife conservation on public lands. The Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act of 2019, reintroduced earlier this month, was debated in a hearing this morning in the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.
The bill sponsored by Reps. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) and Mike Levin (D-Calif.) would:
Establish a forward-looking and efficient management system for wind and solar projects on public lands.
Direct at least 25 percent of royalties to a conservation fund.
Direct another 50 percent to state and local governments where projects are located.
Encourage smart planning and balance between development and protection of fish and wildlife resources.
Royalties directed into the newly established conservation fund could be used to restore fish and wildlife habitat affected by development and maintain access to hunting and fishing opportunities on public lands.
The bipartisan measure is aimed at building the framework for more efficient, responsible development of renewable energy on public lands. By planning ahead and identifying priority areas for wind, solar, and geothermal development, PLREDA encourages smart siting and efficient permitting of projects in places with high potential for energy and low impact on wildlife and habitat. (We outlined how PLREDA would work as it moved through Congress in 2017.)
Hunters and anglers are supportive of the development of renewable energy resources on public lands when it is done in the right places and in a manner that conserves fish and wildlife habitat as outlined in this bill.
“Renewable energy on public lands offers great potential to society, but it must be done right,” said Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited. “This bill does it right. It compensates local communities for the impacts of development and requires smart planning from the start. It creates a restoration and mitigation fund that ensures we take care of the fish, water, and wildlife resources upon which our nation depends. Trout Unlimited is grateful to the co-sponsors for their support of this important legislation.”
“This bill would achieve a rare win-win scenario by thoughtfully balancing renewable energy development and habitat needs, while creating a consistent stream of revenue to fund essential fish and wildlife management projects,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We’re heartened to see momentum behind this legislation, which will create opportunities to enhance sportsmen’s access, clean water resources, and critical habitat for important game species. This bipartisan bill and common-sense approach to conservation funding have TRCP’s full support.”
“Hunters and anglers support multiple uses, including energy development, on public lands with the understanding that fish and wildlife and the interests of sportsmen and women are acknowledged as a top priority,” said John Gale, conservation director for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “PLREDA does this by facilitating clean energy infrastructure, elevating considerations for fish and wildlife habitat and supporting local economies. We thank Reps. Gosar and Levin for their bipartisan leadership on this issue.”
Public lands contain some of the most valuable fish and wildlife habitat in the nation. These lands also provide a great opportunity for well-planned and properly mitigated renewable energy development projects that could contribute to job creation, reduce carbon pollution, and boost the conservation of natural resources for the benefit of this and future generations.
Conservation has been a hot topic with lawmakers in recent weeks. Learn more about a new bill that would invest roughly $1.4 billion in proactive, voluntary conservation efforts to benefit the most vulnerable species.
Bringing Back Florida’s Essential Seagrass and Coral Will Take a Team Effort
These marine resources have taken a major hit, but firm commitments from the state, feds, and researchers could help bring back lost fish habitat
Seagrass beds and coral reefs are two vitally important habitats for a variety of popular sportfish—including tarpon, redfish, snook, speckled trout, bonefish, permit, cobia, snapper, and groupers—as well as the forage fish and crustaceans these predators eat.
Increased salinity levels in Florida Bay, due to a lack of freshwater moving through the Everglades, has combined with poor water quality, hurricanes, and coral diseases to take a significant toll on these critical habitats over the last three decades. In fact, hyper-saline conditions in 2015 led to historic seagrass loss in Florida Bay, and it’s estimated that Florida’s natural coral reefs have experienced as much as a 90-percent loss in some areas.
But with funding and support from sportfishing conservation organizations, proactive steps have been taken at the local, state, and federal level to address the root causes of both seagrass and coral mortality. Here’s how.
National Commitment to the Everglades
Beginning with the authorization of the Central Everglades Planning Project in the 2016 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), and continuing with the authorization of a southern storage reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area, key projects will allow for more clean water to move south into the Everglades and eventually Florida Bay, reducing the need for discharges that damage coastal estuaries.
State Steps Up
In June 2019, the state of Florida and U.S. Department of Transportation announced a combined $100-million commitment to elevating more than six miles of the Tamiami Trail highway (US 41) to allow for water to pass under the road and into Everglades National Park. The announcement was made just as an earlier phase of the project was completed—a $90-million effort that elevated more than three miles of the highway to allow for increased water flow.
In This Together
Commitments to coral restoration have been made, as well. Federal-state partnerships—including the Water Quality Protection Program, administered by the U.S. EPA and Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, and the Florida Keys Water Quality Improvement Program—have aimed to better control wastewater discharges. Scientists with NOAA and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary have worked closely with Florida’s DEP and FWC to identify the causes of coral disease, develop effective responses, and determine how to best restore affected areas.
Florida’s Mote Marine Laboratory has also been studying coral diseases, investing more than $6 million in combined state and federal funds to plant nearly 100,000 corals in affected areas over the last five years.
Florida’s Fishing Future
The Everglades Foundation, American Sportfishing Association, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Captains for Clean Water, National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, and a host of other conservation and sportfishing organizations have pushed for a federal commitment of $200 million each year for the next 10 years to complete vital Everglades restoration and water quality improvement projects across South Florida.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature have allocated more than $400 million to Everglades restoration and water quality improvements.
These combined efforts to address habitat restoration in South Florida will ensure the future of sportfishing in this destination fishery.
This topic was featured at TRCP’s annual Saltwater Media Summit at ICAST on July 11, 2019.
Thank you to our expert panelists: Eric Eikenberg, chief executive officer of the Everglades Foundation; Sarah Fangman, superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary; Eric Sutton, executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission; Noah Valenstein, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
And our sincerest gratitude to our generous sponsors: American Sportfishing Association, Bass Pro Shops, Costa, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, National Marine Manufacturers Association, NOAA, Peak Design, Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation, takemefishing.com, and Yamaha.
“Hunters and anglers need water in the landscape,” said Kassen. “Outdoor recreation infuses $887 billion into the U.S. economy and is especially important for rural America. Fish swim in clean, flowing rivers and streams. Migratory birds feed and rest along the wetlands of our major flyways. Local bird populations nest along riparian corridors. But the TRCP, its partners, and other NGOs recognize that many interests compete for the West’s limited water supplies. Our experience shows that cooperation among diverse interests is the only path leading to durable solutions.”
Kassen testified on the Drought Resiliency and Water Supply Infrastructure Act (S. 1932), a bill that would strengthen the nation’s water supply and improve systems that help us respond to drought. She suggested several modifications to the proposed bill, including changes that would encourage better cooperation with Western state governments and allow more projects to improve natural water-storage systems, such as wetlands and riparian aquifers.
“Natural infrastructure allows the landscape to retain water and then release it for other uses,” said Kassen. “Like built water storage, natural storage makes wet season precipitation or runoff available during the next drier season with high water demand.”
She also called for funding to improve water conservation and efficiency efforts, including bold new programs to reduce water demand or boost voluntary conservation activities that will be critical in the Colorado River Basin and across the West.