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This World Water Week, there seems to be even more at stake for clean water and fish habitat
Today marks the end of World Water Week, a global event created to raise the profile of water resource challenges in every corner of our planet. We’re also nearing the end of a summer that promises to be memorable, if not infamous, for years to come. It’s a good opportunity for all sportsmen and women to stand together on the shore, look toward the horizon, and take stock of where we are in our efforts to improve water resources and fish habitat for future generations.
Here are six water issues we’re watching as the next season unfolds.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced this week that it will not permit the Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska as it is currently proposed. The Corps released its decision finding the project “could have substantial environmental impacts within the unique Bristol Bay watershed.” We’ll be watching to see if the EPA follows suit to stop the Pebble Mine once and for all. There is no safe way to advance this project and preserve the region’s clean water and outdoor recreation economy.
First, we fought tooth and nail to keep the EPA from eliminating Clean Water Act protections for 50 percent of the nation’s stream miles and 40 percent of wetlands, like the prairie potholes of the Upper Midwest. During that debate, proponents of the administration’s new rule governing which waters are covered by the Act argued that the states could use their authority to protect the headwaters and wetlands that the federal government would no longer regulate.
Now, the EPA has quietly changed another Clean Water Act rule that allows states to do just that. What is noteworthy from an administration that usually champions states’ rights is how this rule removes state power—not to mention the blow that it deals to fish and waterfowl habitat. We’ll be monitoring the legal challenges to this rulemaking and will continue to stand with partners to oppose the dismantling of bedrock conservation laws.
In a story that has echoes of the Pebble Mine saga, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been waffling on its commitment to a thorough environmental review of proposed copper-nickel mining upstream of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Last fall, we partnered with Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters in questioning whether Secretary Perdue would fulfill promises made at his Senate confirmation hearing and allow the science to show that this is no place for a mine. We’ll be closely tracking legislation that has been proposed to permanently protect the incredible habitat and outdoor recreation opportunities provided by these public lands.
The Conservation Reserve Program may be one of the Farm Bill’s most popular and well-known conservation initiatives, but troubling changes to how the program is administered has slowed or prevented enrollment—leaving would-be conservation acres on the table. One of the ways that CRP benefits fish and wildlife habitat is by incentivizing landowners to create stream buffers that help keep toxic runoff out of our waterways. The TRCP is actively engaged with the Farm Service Agency to push for updates that will help max out CRP acres and put more conservation on the ground.
Though Pennsylvanians may need to sit in their fair share of traffic to reach the striper blitzes of the Chesapeake Bay, they are critical to lessening the nutrient load that makes its way downstream, threatening fish, wildlife, and water quality in the Bay. The state is way behind on its goal of reducing the amount of nitrogen it releases into Chesapeake waters, and legislators have signaled that they may freeze or redirect conservation funding that is necessary to help make up the difference. We’ll be warning policymakers under mounting pressure to deal with COVID-19 impacts that this is not the time to cut job-creating investments in water quality projects.
The Forest Service is soon expected to issue a final decision on a proposal that would eliminate conservation safeguards for 9.2 million acres of roadless public lands in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest—the largest national forest in the U.S. and the world’s largest remaining temperate rainforest. This rollback would negatively affect waterways that sustain salmon as well as Sitka black-tailed deer, black and brown bear, moose, and Roosevelt elk. We’ll be advocating for keeping the national Roadless Rule in place in Alaska to safeguard undeveloped and intact habitats.
Before smoke filled the sky this wildfire season, an unwanted invader was already crowding out wildlife food sources in sagebrush country—now, it’s burning
With more than 20 major fires and hundreds of smaller ones burning over a million and a half acres in California alone, it’s shaping up to be a long and expensive wildfire season—for people, wildlife, and habitat.
Fire can, of course, be good for forests, grasslands, and sagebrush when it keeps invading conifer trees at bay, adds nutrients to the soil, revitalizes forbs and bunchgrasses, and creates a mosaic of favorable habitat conditions. This assumes a normal ecological cycle of growth and renewal over many years.
But an invasive menace has changed much of the West’s fire cycle, especially across the sagebrush sea, damaging the very habitat that supports more than 350 species of plants and animals, including sage grouse.
That menace is cheatgrass, and it represents one of the greatest threats to this uniquely Western landscape. Here’s why.
While there are many non-native plants that have spread across the country, none rival the destructive impact of cheatgrass.
Though it’s an annual species—meaning that it lives for just one growing season and then dies—cheatgrass produces enormous amounts of seed that remain viable for many years and germinate quickly under the right conditions. Cheatgrass spreads easily by wind but is also carried by a wide range of mammals that get its barbed seeds stuck in their fur. This is also how the seeds travel on a hiker or hunter’s boots and socks!
From there, cheatgrass can quickly and efficiently dominate disturbed areas of bare ground.
Native to parts of Europe, southwestern Asia, and northern Africa, cheatgrass was first discovered here in New York and Pennsylvania in 1861. By the late 1920s, it had spread across the country, finding especially favorable conditions in the fragile, dry shrublands of the Great Basin, Columbia River Basin, and across the Intermountain West.
This is where it has put a stranglehold on native plants important to at-risk sagebrush species, altering ecological processes and changing the way wildlife use their environment.
Cheatgrass can easily overtake a landscape and outcompete native plants, often creating vast monocultures. The grass itself has little to no value as forage or cover for wildlife, but it decimates the forage available to both wildlife and livestock, which can have serious consequences for ranching operations. And without diverse perennial forbs and bunchgrasses—those that live for more than one growing season—there is little to hold the soils together and retain moisture.
But perhaps the most pervasive impact of cheatgrass domination has been its influence on the size, intensity, and natural cycles of wildfire, especially in the sagebrush sea.
While large and sometimes severe wildfires historically burned in sagebrush, they were infrequent and returned only every 60 to 100 years, depending on elevation, soil moisture, and other conditions. Native forbs, grasses, and sagebrush evolved with fire and adapted to this interval between blazes. Up until just a few decades ago, wildfires usually burned less intensively and more sporadically across the landscape, thereby creating more diversity in the age and structure of sagebrush plants while maintaining the bunchgrasses and forbs that are so valuable as cover and forage for wildlife.
But that has largely changed in areas plagued by cheatgrass invasion. Cheatgrass dies just in time for a typical fire season to start and is an extremely flashy fuel—one that can turn a simple lightning strike or discarded cigarette butt into a raging inferno in minutes.
When cheatgrass dominates an area and a fire gets started, it is almost equivalent to spreading gasoline across the surrounding vegetation.
Today’s fires are becoming hotter and more frequent in part because of the dominance of cheatgrass. Hotter fires mean that more sagebrush and other native plants that are not adapted to frequent high-intensity fires will certainly be lost. The soil is damaged, which weakens the system’s ability to regenerate sagebrush and perennial forbs and bunchgrasses.
Worse yet, after a hot fire, the disturbed soils are ripe for re-invasion by—you guessed it—cheatgrass.
Scientists now estimate that fire in cheatgrass-dominated areas can return every five years or less as a result of this broad ecological change. These areas may never return to their native condition and can essentially become biological deserts. And each year, the vicious cycle continues and results in more and more sagebrush and other habitats being dominated by this invasive species.
A bird hunter is never going to pull up to a huge burned area of sagebrush and unload the dogs, but many Western big game hunters know that a few years after a fire sweeps through a landscape, these areas can become prime habitat for elk and mule deer. This is especially true for forests with so much canopy coverage that sunlight couldn’t reach the ground and regenerate vegetation that big game like to eat.
In a normal cycle of fire and regrowth, yes, this balance is restorative. But the new normal of catastrophic blazes and cheatgrass-driven fires can severely alter winter range and other big game habitats.
There is major concern about the impact of fire on the survival of sage grouse, in particular. According to the Bureau of Land Management, more than 15 million acres of sagebrush burned across the West from 2000 to 2018.
While some of those acres may have been restored naturally or with human intervention, many are now part of the perpetual and unrelenting cheatgrass-fire cycle, which does not bode well for deer, pronghorns, elk, or sage grouse.
In our own lives, we know it’s cheaper and easier to take care of ourselves—eat right, stay active, and get preventative screenings—than to wait for a crisis to send us to the emergency room. The same is true of maintaining rangeland health.
Once cheatgrass takes hold of a landscape, it is extremely difficult and expensive to eradicate. The problem may be widespread at this point, but it hasn’t completely taken over all habitats in all places. Reactive measures in these areas should continue, but proactive measures to conserve and restore the resilience of native vegetation are more likely to succeed.
Fortunately, projects to prevent and remove cheatgrass invasion can create jobs at a time when many Americans are out of work. But decision-makers need to invest in these efforts to make a difference.
The cheatgrass-fire cycle is daunting, but cannot be ignored. We need more attention given to this crisis and state and federal resources to combat it. Failure to address this clear and present danger will have consequences for fish and wildlife habitat, soil health, forage diversity, and our Western economies that depend on healthy sagebrush ecosystems.
Failure to act may also mean watching our hunting and fishing opportunities go up in smoke.
Top photo by Nolan E. Preece/USFWS via flickr
After anglers turn up the heat, the Army Corps refuses to permit Alaska mine
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced today that it will not permit the proposed Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska. The Corps released its decision finding the project “could have substantial environmental impacts within the unique Bristol Bay watershed.”
The decision goes on to state the mine “would likely result in significant degradation of the environment and would likely result in significant adverse effects on the aquatic system or human environment.”
“This announcement signals significant progress for preserving the world’s largest sockeye salmon spawning area,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We hope the EPA will follow suit and stop the Pebble Mine once and for all. There is no safe way to advance this project and preserve the region’s thriving fishing and hunting economy. It’s time to put Pebble Mine to bed for good.”
TRCP and the American Sportfishing Association launched a TV ad on Fox News last week urging the president to oppose the Pebble Mine and protect the thousands of jobs that rely on this world-renowned salmon fishery. This follows up on more than two decades of work trying to stop the mine by a diverse coalition of conservationists, anglers, local businesses, and Alaska-Native tribes.
Alaska’s Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan issued statements today hailing the decision and signaling an increase in bipartisan support for stopping the mine.
Photo courtesy: Fly Out Media
The Chesapeake Bay watershed is a lifeline to 18 million people and 3,600 species of animals and plants. Its impact reverberates not just in the immediate Bay, but in the six states (Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia) and District of Columbia, that feed it.
The watershed’s connectivity to major urban environments and working agricultural lands have contributed to massive amounts of pollution flowing into the Bay significantly harming water quality and negatively impacting the fish and wildlife. Every year, a dead zone forms along the mainstem of the Chesapeake Bay, occupying about 40 percent of its area and up to 5 percent of the Bay’s water volume.
A Commitment to Clean-Up
While the states worked for decades to try to clean up the Bay and the waterways that fed it, efforts were coming up short. So in 2010, the federal government stepped in to help create a plan to clean up the Bay by 2025. The Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) established pollution benchmarks that the states would have to meet. In order to achieve those goals, each state developed Watershed Implementation Plans, which have been updated over time. States are currently on Phase 3 of their Watershed Implementation Plans.
Unfortunately, it appears as if Pennsylvania is at risk of falling short. This is deeply troubling since most of the pollutants entering the Bay come from Pennsylvania. For example, the Susquehanna River, which flows from New York through Pennsylvania and into Maryland, provides about half of the water for the Chesapeake Bay. A 2020 preliminary report by Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection found that 30 percent (25,850 stream miles) of Pennsylvania portion of the Susquehanna River is impaired.
To meet its nitrogen reduction goals, Pennsylvania needs to reduce the amount of nitrogen that it releases into the Bay by 34 million pounds, but under its Phase 3 Watershed Implementation plan, it will only be able to cut two-thirds of that pollution.
Barriers to a Better Bay
So, what is preventing Pennsylvania from meeting its goal? Well, in order to meet its pollution reduction benchmark, Pennsylvania would need to invest an additional $257 million a year into its Bay waterways. We think this is a wise investment, given that the Bay filters drinking water for 75 percent of watershed residents.
Unfortunately, Pennsylvania state lawmakers tried to pass legislation that would freeze or redirect funding for some of the state’s most effective conservation programs.
We know that policymakers are under mounting pressure as they deal with coronavirus impacts and the ensuing economic fallout, but now is not the time to cut job-creating investments. The Bay contributes billions of dollars to our economy every year.
So what can hunters and anglers do?
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