Senate Passes Legislation with Benefits for Fish, Waterfowl, and Deer
The ACE Act breathes new life into successful programs that fund and facilitate habitat restoration and creates an all-new task force to take on a wildlife epidemic
This week, the U.S. Senate passed the America’s Conservation Enhancement Act, which supports investments in wetland and watershed restoration as well as advancements in chronic wasting disease research.
“We applaud our senators for this latest effort to prioritize fish and wildlife habitat improvements and invest in programs that help put Americans back to work in conservation jobs of every kind,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Sportsmen and women are encouraging the House to follow suit and swiftly send the ACE Act to the president’s desk.”
Some states say sage grouse numbers are up, while others have been forced to close popular hunting units—so is it good news or bad news for this iconic gamebird?
As the leaves begin to change, some hunters will experience changes to their opportunities for pursuing sage grouse in parts of the West. Because of lost habitat and fewer birds on the landscape, several states have yet again adjusted their hunting seasons or closed some popular hunting units altogether.
In Colorado, hunters will not be pursuing sage grouse in two of the best units in the state because of lost habitat and fewer birds counted for three consecutive years. Nevada has reduced season lengths considerably across several of its hunt units, closed some due to fire, and offered 40 percent fewer special permits to hunt grouse on the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge.
Idaho, once a major stronghold for sage grouse offering liberal seasons and bag limits, now allows just one bird per day for either a 2- or 7-day season, depending on the unit. Some units have been closed completely. And the Gem State is contemplating moving to a draw system for limited sage grouse licenses, as Oregon and Utah already have.
Oregon recently reduced the number of limited permits available to hunters for the 2020 season. And sage grouse hunting remains closed in parts of Wyoming, the Dakotas, California, and Washington.
At the same time, if you follow such things closely, you would have seen news stories reporting that lek counts—or the number of males seen at breeding grounds that serves as an indication of the overall health of the population—of certain sage grouse populations are up in some places. So, how is a hunter to interpret these reports when facing season closures or changes? Is it good news or bad news for the birds?
Looking at the Long-Term Trend
It’s the difference between looking at a single moment in time, outside the context of weather and habitat conditions, and considering these numbers within the bigger picture.
In fact, 2020 sage grouse lek counts were mostly similar to 2019, with slight decreases and, yes, some gains across the region. Wyoming, which is home to the largest number of sage grouse, reported a 1.5-percent dip in males attending their leks, while Idaho saw their statewide counts increase by 2.5 percent compared to 2019. Montana was a bright spot in the West, having experienced mostly good habitat conditions, and it showed—more males showed up to the leks.
But most sage grouse totals remain well below 2016 levels. In fact, the long-term trend remains negative, indicating that sage grouse have not yet turned the corner and stabilized or started an increase. Since 1965, counts of males at leks continues to show an average 2-percent range-wide decline each year.
Keep in mind that the 2016 lek counts, which we’re using as the high bar here, would mark the lowest high-point of any on record—so, a spike on the chart, but at the bottom of a steep decline. The 63-percent increase recorded that year, the result of timely precipitation levels and good habitat conditions, was compared to the second-lowest count of lekking males EVER from 2013, when habitat was deep in a multiple-year drought.
The increase was great news at the time, and the 2015 and 2016 hunting seasons were rather spectacular. Personally, I was able to finish off my Wyoming 2-day possession limit of four sage grouse in very short order, give my oldest dog his last grouse retrieve, and do it all in habitat the likes of which I hadn’t seen in some time.
Changes to seasons and bag limits are necessary as a response to the habitat conditions and status of the birds this season, but it’s a letdown for many hunters who have memories, like this, of fantastic sage grouse hunting from their past and as recently as five years ago.
But dry conditions have returned once again to much of the West, and all Western states have recorded steep declines in sage grouse numbers, even if they are seeing a small rebound this year. From 2016 to 2019, there were 30 to 60 percent fewer male sage grouse dancing on their breeding grounds across the eleven states.
Managing the Harvest
We should talk a little about how wildlife managers make the call to cut bag limits or alter seasons. It has been many years since hunting was a primary threat to sage grouse populations at the beginning of the 20th century, but state wildlife agencies generally manage these birds cautiously. Here’s why.
A foundational principle of game bird management is that there are usually similar death rates whether they are hunted or not. The technical term used for this scenario is compensatory mortality, which means that regulated harvest of most game birds compensates for otherwise inevitable mortality from other sources.
Sage grouse are a little different though. They live longer, have much higher over-winter survival than most game birds, and can fly long distances to seek better habitat conditions, if necessary. But they also have a relatively low reproductive output compared to other game birds—most will readily re-nest after losing their first clutch of eggs, while sage grouse often do not. As such, harvest is not always compensatory and may add to other sources of mortality.
State wildlife agencies therefore continually adjust season lengths and bag limits to ensure that less than 10 percent of the estimated total population of sage grouse are harvested each fall.
This is a short-term consequence for hunters, but there are long-term challenges to consider.
Habitat Is the Cornerstone
While weather conditions are the usual culprit of dramatic short-term fluctuations affecting sage grouse, long-term increases or declines are driven by changes in the amount and quality of habitat. Unfortunately for grouse—and hunters—prime sagebrush habitat continues to be lost at an alarming rate.
According to recent information compiled by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, wildfire is responsible for the loss of about 1 percent of sage grouse core habitat—the best of the best forage, cover, and nesting areas—each year from 2012 to 2019. This doesn’t even account for habitat lost due to energy development, urbanization, or other factors.
In addition to outright loss, some existing habitat is so degraded that it is no longer suitable for sage grouse, and habitat improvement is underfunded. And there remains a huge backlog of restoration needs across the West.
That lost habitat equals fewer birds, and fewer birds ultimately will mean hunters’ seasons may be cut short or perhaps eliminated—at least temporarily.
The Seasons Ahead
The crystal ball for sage grouse is somewhat murky, but the future is largely in our control. The question is do we want large expanses of healthy sagebrush habitat across the American West? Do we want to see a thriving sagebrush ecosystem that provides benefits to all – hunters, ranchers, hikers, and, yes, even developers?
Will all Western states ultimately be forced to employ a lottery draw system for sage grouse hunting or continue to close certain areas?
The answer will depend on how we choose the conserve the sagebrush ecosystem. We cannot control drought or harsh winters, but we can do something about improving habitat and ecosystem health.
Conservation is a long-term endeavor that requires commitment and funding to ensure problems are resolved, habitat restored, and populations recover to sustainable levels. For sage grouse, this means full implementation of all state and federal plans conservation strategies and continued incentive programs for private landowners. It means coordinated efforts to combat fire and invasive plants. And it means achieving balance with other uses of the land.
The long-term future of sage grouse and our opportunity to continue hunting them rests on habitat. If we can stop the continual loss of habitat and restore healthy conditions in the sagebrush ecosystem, sage grouse and hunters could see a brighter and more sustainable future.
It may have been the summer of COVID, but a lot went down in the world of conservation, too—get caught up
If we were to put together a conservationist’s time capsule for the summer of 2020, it would be absolutely jam-packed with everything from state-level wins and place-based battles to habitat-wide threats and milestone achievements that will benefit future generations of hunters and anglers.
Here is what we’ll remember long after the sun has set on summer 2020.
The Great American Outdoors Act Supercharges LWCF
After a decades-long fight to secure permanent authorization and full funding for our most powerful public land conservation tool, the Land and Water Conservation Fund became a household name. And perhaps the Great American Outdoors Act will be too—this legislation finally maxes out the program at $900 million annually to create outdoor recreation opportunities, unlock public land access, and conserve key habitats. It also invests $1.9 billion annually for the next five years to address the maintenance backlog on National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management lands.
Sportsmen and women—not to mention some high-ranking Trump advisors—called directly on the president to intervene and stop Pebble Mine, which would destroy an estimated 185 miles of streams and 4,000 acres of wetlands in Bristol Bay, the most prolific sockeye salmon fishery on the planet. The Corps decision is good news, but there is still work to do to shut down the mining proposal for good.
300K Acres of Public Lands in the Midwest Are Inaccessible
The Hunting and Fishing Community Rallies Around #ResponsibleRecreation
After the first major spike in COVID-19 cases, as public lands and some hunting and fishing seasons began reopening, the TRCP joined respected conservation leaders at the National Wild Turkey Federation, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, and Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies to launch the #ResponsibleRecreation pledge.
It remains important for Americans to take advantage of our country’s numerous opportunities to recreate on public lands and waters, while maintaining proper social distancing and adhering to other best practices in line with recommendations from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. You can take the pledge here.
Three Threats to Bedrock Conservation Laws
In July, we flagged the EPA’s quiet change to a rule that gave states the right to look out for water quality on federal land within their borders at the permitting phase of new development projects. The agency’s new rule addressed an obscure but important function of the Clean Water Act, which was also rolled back when it comes to protections for headwater streams and wetlands.
Combined with a third threat to bedrock conservation law—proposed changes to the National Environmental Policy Act that would significantly inhibit the ability of federal agencies to measure the impacts of development on habitat—it’s clear that the administration’s newest policies would benefit developers while sportsmen and women lose out.
Menhaden Managers Will Consider the Bigger Picture
In a move supported by anglers, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted unanimously in August to improve its management strategy for Atlantic menhaden, the tiny baitfish that supports some of our most popular sportfish, by considering the species’ role in the broader ecosystem. The Commission worked for more than a decade to develop ecological reference points—indicators like the health of predator populations, including striped bass and bluefish, as well as the amount of alternative prey for these sportfish. Ultimately, these reference points can be used to set quotas that will help ensure enough menhaden are left in the water as forage.
Outdoor Recreation Businesses Call on Congress to Pass MAPLand Act
A cross-section of the $887-billion outdoor recreation economy—from gear manufacturers and media companies to guides, outfitters, and retailers—sent a letter in July urging lawmakers to pass the Modernizing Access to Our Public Land, or MAPLand, Act. Business owners emphasized that their livelihoods depend on sportsmen and women having access to outdoor recreation opportunities on public lands, and the MAPLand Act would push federal agencies to digitize their paper maps and easement records so more people can find places to recreate.
One-Third of Congressional Funding for CWD Is Going to Captive Deer Industry
For years, sportsmen and women have called on lawmakers to take meaningful federal action to control chronic wasting disease among our wild deer, elk, and moose populations. In 2020, Congress responded by appropriating $5 million to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to send directly to state wildlife and agricultural departments tasked with responding to the disease.
Instead, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is funneling $1.5 million of that funding to individual captive deer operations that have had to eliminate CWD-positive animals. These indemnification payments aid businesses that have already been part of the CWD problem and don’t address the continued strain placed on state agencies scrambling to manage the spread of the disease.
The Gulf Coast is Rebounding 10 Years After BP Oil Spill
The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig and the subsequent oil spill in the spring and summer of 2010 was the worst environmental disaster in American history. But in the decade since this tragedy, oil spill penalties have been invested in projects that directly address the damage, improving the outlook for the Gulf of Mexico’s coastal communities and fish and wildlife habitat.
Backcountry Conservation Areas allow the BLM to prioritize public access and habitat management actions, such as restoring riparian areas and streams, controlling invasive species, managing vegetation, improving fish passages, reducing the risk of wildfires, and increasing forage. There are BCAs proposed across the West.
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.
Pebble Mine Poised to Fail?
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.
A Watering Down of the Clean Water Act
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.
What’s Next for the Boundary Waters
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.
This Shrinking Farm Bill Program’s Impact on Stream Buffers
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.
Reducing the Dead Zone in Chesapeake Bay
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.
Safeguarding “America’s Salmon Forest”
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.
This Invasive Species Is Fueling Western Wildfires
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.
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.
Upsetting the Balance of Nature
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 Different Kind of Blaze
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.
An Ounce of Prevention
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.
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.