Colorado Sportsmen and Women Welcome Governor Polis’s Action for Wildlife
New executive order on migration corridors will help conserve big game herds and protect Colorado’s investment in wildlife
Sportsmen/women organizations today gathered in Idaho Springs to support Governor Jared Polis’ executive order to preserve historic migration corridors and winter ranges, along with family hunting and fishing traditions for future generations.
The order directs state departments to coordinate with federal, state, and local governments, private landowners, sportsmen and women, and others to protect wildlife through conservation of migration corridors. The long-term effort directs state departments to explore scientific mapping, historical information, and partnerships that will streamline habitat protection efforts.
Rapid growth in Colorado has created barriers and obstacles to migration corridors for bighorn sheep, mountain goats, moose, antelope, mule deer, elk, and even trout. The governor’s order allows departments to incorporate planning and public education and to use government resources more efficiently in order to both protect wildlife and prevent wildlife-vehicle traffic collisions in the future. Hunting, fishing, and other wildlife-related recreation opportunities are a large part of our healthy Colorado economy and generate more than $5 billion in annual economic output. Protecting wildlife corridors from development is good for sportsmen and our economy.
Gov. Polis’ executive order will ensure that growth in Colorado is balanced, while preserving our western sporting traditions.
Colorado sportsmen/women groups had high praise for Gov. Polis’ leadership:
“As someone who has hunted across the West, I am deeply appreciative of Governor Polis’ executive order. Protecting migration corridors protects our sporting traditions and the wildlife all Coloradans enjoy. This is a seminal moment in our state’s conservation history that will be celebrated for generations to come,” said Kassi Smith, Artemis Ambassador for Colorado, National Wildlife Federation.
“Trout Unlimited is thrilled to work with a governor so dedicated to protecting fish and wildlife. Gov. Polis’ innovative vision to dedicate funding and create partnerships to develop important wildlife migration routes and protect migration corridors and riparian areas crucial to wildlife health is lauded by sportsmen in Colorado,” said Scott Willoughby, Colorado coordinator for Trout Unlimited’s Sportsman’s Conservation Project.
“The vision and specific directives of this executive order will help spur collaboration between state and federal agencies, private landowners, non-profit organizations and other stakeholders so that Colorado’s irreplaceable big game migration corridors and winter range are maintained,” said Suzanne O’Neill, executive director of the Colorado Wildlife Federation.
“Migration corridors are essential for healthy herds and wildlife habitat. Since 2001, Colorado has lost more than half a million acres of habitat due to development and our growing population. Governor Polis’ executive order has given sportsmen and women a valuable tool to protect migration corridors, and BHA thanks the governor for his leadership on this issue,” said Don Holmstrom, co-chair of the Colorado chapter of the Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.
“Migration corridor conservation is a significant challenge facing our wildlife and hunting heritage, and Governor Polis’ executive order sets Colorado apart as a leader on this issue. Sportsmen and women appreciate the governor’s leadership, and we stand ready to work with state and federal agencies, landowners, and industry to ensure our big game herds can continue to access the seasonal habitats they need to thrive,” said Madeleine West, deputy director of Western lands for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
Four Conservation Priorities That Need Lawmakers’ Attention After Recess
When Congress returns from about a month spent with in-state constituents, the clock will be ticking on these spending bills and conservation policies we need to get across the finish line
You might be picturing lawmakers on a five-week vacation, but the annual August recess is time that senators and representatives spend meeting with their constituents and visiting with leaders in their communities. Ideally, they also find some time to enjoy the outdoors and experience what we all value so much as sportsmen and women.
Of course, we hope they’re thinking about the legislative to-do list for when they return in September, because the timeline grows short for several critical conservation items that must be addressed to benefit fish, wildlife, and habitat. Here’s what we need Congress to move on before the end of the year or, in some cases, within weeks of their return to Capitol Hill.
Settle Up on Spending
A familiar debate awaits when Congress returns to Washington: writing and passing all the required appropriations, or annual spending, bills. Now that both the House and Senate have reached a two-year, bipartisan budget deal they must pass appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2020, which starts on October 1. This means that Congress must find a way to fund the government for the next year before the end of September, or they risk another government shutdown.
The House’s spending measures passed earlier this summer include landmark wins for conservation including strong investments in—and in some cases new funding for—Farm Bill conservation programs, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, chronic wasting disease surveillance and research, and critical infrastructure projects from the Everglades to the Front Range.
The ball is now in the Senate’s court to support conservation in their own appropriations bills and send it all to the president’s desk. What happens if they don’t? The government shuts down while they agree on a deal or lawmakers can give themselves an extension by passing what’s known as a continuing resolution. CRs keep money flowing at previously agreed upon funding levels, but they prevent new funding going to something like CWD research that has never been done before.
State departments of transportation, wildlife biologists, and conservationists have been urging Congress to provide dedicated funding for crossings to restore and improve habitat connectivity within migration corridors and reduce deadly wildlife-vehicle collisions where animals are often found crossing roads.
This also marks the first time that climate change language has been included in a highway bill. As written, the legislation creates a grant program called PROTECT to prioritize natural infrastructure solutions as roads and bridges are being planned, which would help to restore and improve ecosystem conditions around passenger roads.
All in all, senators on the committee have been trailblazers for conservation in the next iteration of the highway bill. Now, it’s on the House to get the job done.
In fact, the House can do even more for conservation in its forthcoming version of the bill by increasing funding for the Federal Lands Transportation Program, which supports the ongoing maintenance of passenger roads through public lands. Carrying on the chronic underfunding of U.S. Forest Service roads through FLTP will contribute to an already colossal deferred maintenance backlog on these important public lands.
Modernize the Pittman-Robertson Act
The TRCP and our conservation partners have been leading the charge to update a vital source of funding for state fish and wildlife agency conservation efforts—the Pittman-Robertson Act. Right now, the fund created from excise taxes on firearms, ammunition, and archery equipment can’t be used to help recruit, retain, and reactivate (R3) hunters.
It’s time for that to change.
Congress has already updated the policy for fishing-related spending to give state agencies the ability to recruit new anglers. And this has likely helped to drive the recent bump in fishing participation and a more than 36-percent increase in spending on fishing equipment, which in turn creates an increase in funding for conservation.
It’s time for Congress to modernize Pittman-Robertson and allow similar outreach campaigns for hunters. Before the recess began, the Senate introduced S. 2092, a companion bill to the House’s H.R. 877. These bipartisan bills, aptly titled the Modernizing the Pittman-Robertson Fund for Tomorrow’s Needs Act, are essential to help fund, preserve, and grow our rich heritage of hunting.
Last Congress, a similar measure passed unanimously out of the House but did not make the end-of-year finish line. Now that the legislation has been introduced in both chambers, passage of this long-overdue legislation is a no-brainer. It’s a bipartisan success story waiting to happen.
Reviving These Fish Bills
From the Gulf to the Great Plains, there’s a lot happening this summer that affects our fisheries and the anglers who enjoy them, including pending legislation that deserves a vote without further delay.
The National Fish Habitat Through Partnerships Act—H.R. 1747 in the House and S. 754 in the Senate—would permanently authorize and provide funding for one of the nation’s best tools to protect and restore fish habitat across the nation. Comprised of 20 individual partnerships that advocate for regionally specific projects, this model has been effective for years but still limps from authorization to authorization, depending on the whims of Congress.
But legislation introduced in both chambers is vote-ready and can end this vicious cycle.
Another easy win would be passing legislation to conserve forage fish, which support all the sportfish we love to pursue. Numerous pressures, including changing ocean conditions and overfishing by commercial interests, have led to a decline in forage fish populations, which could shorten or even end recreational fishing seasons for the predators that rely on these baitfish.
Bipartisan legislation in the House, the Forage Fish Conservation Act (H.R. 2236), aims to ensure that forage fish remain in the marine food web by introducing a variety of commonsense, science-based provisions into existing management plans. These include creating a national, science-based definition for forage fish in federal waters, accounting for predator needs, assessing the impact of commercial fisheries on marine ecosystems before authorization, and requiring that managers consider forage fish when establishing research priorities.
Anglers are dependent on forage fish to keep our fisheries healthy and we are, in turn, depending on Congress to act now on this major conservation priority.
A Challenging Timeline
Numerous conservation-wins-in-waiting are ready for congressional action once lawmakers return to Capitol Hill. Though the most pressing demand for legislators will be drafting and passing appropriations bills that strengthen our nation’s investment in conservation, we need to turn their attention to other measures that preserve wildlife, improve habitat connectivity, and ensure the future of our hunting traditions.
After the spending deadline has passed, the 2020 election will take a lot of the air out of the room, and we need to clinch these victories before that happens.
New Mexicans: Support Hunting and Fishing on Our Public Lands
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 Forest Service is revising its plans for the Carson and the Santa Fe National Forests that will determine the future management of more than 3 million acres of public land in northern New Mexico, including the world-class fisheries of the Rio Grande and Pecos Rivers. 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 a local public meeting in the next few weeks (see schedule below) and share your perspective as a public land user.
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 plans 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.
Suggested Talking Points:
Conservation of Big Game Migration Corridors and Seasonal Habitat: I request that the USFS take steps to ensure the conservation of identified big game migration corridors, winter and summer range. This should include not only conserving corridors that are known but have not been mapped and analyzed by New Mexico Department of Game & Fish, but also in ensuring that the Forest Plan Revision is able to conserve migration corridors that will be mapped in the future.
Public access: Public access is necessary for outdoor recreation. I encourage the USFS to identify opportunities to increase access to public lands that are landlocked or difficult to access because there are few or no access points across private land that enable the public to reach USFS lands.
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.
Top photo by Colorado Department of Transportation.
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CONSERVATION WORKS FOR AMERICA
As our nation rebounds from the COVID pandemic, policymakers are considering significant investments in infrastructure. Hunters and anglers see this as an opportunity to create jobs, restore habitat, and preserve fish and wildlife.