TRCP Opposes Removing Conservation Safeguards in Tongass National Forest
Dramatic policy shift for the Tongass National Forest would open 9.2 million acres of roadless public lands in Alaska to development
Today the U.S. Forest Service moved one step closer to eliminating conservation safeguards in the Tongass National Forest, despite strong objections from many Alaskans and sportsmen and sportswomen across the nation.
For two decades, the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule has successfully conserved vital wildlife habitat in undeveloped swaths of the Tongass, the world’s largest remaining temperate rainforest. Yet today’s release of a Final Environmental Impact Statement that includes a proposal to exempt the Tongass from the Roadless Rule indicates that the Trump Administration will soon reverse that conservation legacy and put these public lands and habitats at risk.
“Hunters and anglers support a lasting solution for the Tongass. Today’s final proposal is not a reasonable long term plan,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Local communities depend on balanced uses of these public resources. The decision to exempt the Tongass from the Roadless Rule will only lead to more contention and uncertainty over the future of these lands.”
The Forest Service issued its proposed plan for the Tongass last fall, after the White House instructed the Secretary of Agriculture to roll back a 19-year-old management plan that safeguards habitat for important fish and wildlife species. That directive closely followed an off-the-record meeting between President Trump and Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy. These actions effectively foreclosed any opportunity for a compromise solution and forced a majority of stakeholders—locally and nationally—to oppose the agency’s proposal.
The Tongass National Forest encompasses nearly 90 percent of the southeastern panhandle of Alaska. Some of the state’s most productive watersheds for salmon rearing and fishing are located within roadless areas of the forest. Eliminating the Roadless Rule in the Tongass will open 9.2 million acres of undeveloped forests to development, potentially undermining the region’s world-class fisheries and impacting vital habitat for Sitka black-tailed deer, black and brown bears, moose, and even Roosevelt elk. These fish and wildlife resources are an important food source for thousands of local families, hold significant cultural value, and provide outstanding opportunities for recreational hunting, fishing, and wildlife viewing that fuel Southeast Alaska’s vibrant tourism industry.
“Eliminating conservation safeguards for millions of acres of productive salmon and Sitka black-tailed deer habitat does not reflect the values of Alaskans and it disregards feedback from nearly a quarter-million Americans who took time to participate in this process,” said Jen Leahy, Alaska Field Representative with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Unilateral actions like this rarely stand the test of time; nor should they. The TRCP remains committed to working with our hunting and fishing partners, local communities, business leaders, and decision makers to help establish a durable solution for the Tongass that conserves our public lands and supports sustainable economic growth.”
The Forest Service is expected to issue its final decision as early as October.
Veasey, Graves, and Michaelcheck Receive TRCP’s Conservation Awards
MeatEater’s Steven Rinella and TRCP’s Whit Fosburgh co-hosted the annual awards event in an all-digital format on Wednesday evening
Last night at the organization’s virtual Capital Conservation Awards Dinner, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership was proud to honor Representative Marc Veasey (D-Texas), Representative Garret Graves (R-La.), and business leader William J. Michaelcheck for their commitment to bipartisan conservation solutions. MeatEater’s Steven Rinella co-emceed the online event with TRCP’s president and CEO, Whit Fosburgh.
“This year’s honorees share a dedication to commonsense conservation solutions that unite not only decision-makers on both sides of the aisle but also the various factions of the outdoor recreation community,” says Fosburgh. “Whether it’s finding common ground to make federal investments in the health of our wild deer herds, responding to the habitat impacts of sea-level rise and climate change, or rethinking a defunct approach to fisheries management, these champions of conservation have worked for many years to clinch conservation victories and they deserve our thanks as hunters and anglers.”
Michaelcheck, who won the TRCP’s Conservation Achievement Award, is founder and co-chief investment officer of Mariner Investment Group and has been instrumental in the effort to modernize the management of menhaden, a critical bait fish that supports some of the most popular and economically important marine predators.
Congressmen Veasey and Graves were awarded the James D. Range Conservation Award, named after TRCP’s founder.
As House co-chair of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus and member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Veasey has advocated for strong investments in outdoor recreation infrastructure, clean water, and wildlife resources—particularly research and testing for chronic wasting disease in deer.
Rep. Graves serves on both the Committee on Natural Resources and the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, where he champions critical conservation issues related to transportation, infrastructure, fisheries, and coastal restoration. He also managed the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority under Governor Bobby Jindal, helping to oversee Louisiana’s recovery from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
It was the 12th annual dinner but the first-ever all-digital presentation held over YouTube Live. More than 1,200 TRCP supporters viewed the presentation, which featured live remarks and Q&A sessions with the honorees as well as pre-recorded videos from VIPs, including sports stars (and avid outdoorsmen) Bo Jackson and Pete Alonso and Minority Outdoor Alliance Founder Durrell Smith.
The event, which included a silent auction and grand-prize sweepstakes featuring a Michigan turkey hunt with Rinella, raised more than $700,000 to support the TRCP’s mission of guaranteeing all Americans quality places to hunt and fish.
Pre-COVID, the in-person gala has drawn crowds of up to 500 people—including decision-makers, outdoor recreation business leaders, and other champions of conservation—and is known as a can’t-miss conservation event in D.C. Past awardees Sen. Martin Heinrich, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Rep. Mike Simpson, Rep. Rob Wittman, philanthropist Liz Storer, and Bass Pro Shops’ Johnny Morris were also featured via video last night.
The Capital Conservation Awards Dinner was made possible with the support of the following generous sponsors: Coca-Cola, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Shell Oil, Schlumberger, Walton Family Foundation, Yamaha, American Sportfishing Association, Bass Pro Shops, Boone and Crockett Club, L.L. Bean, Matt Cook, FSI, Outdoor Industry Association, Pure Fishing, Range Resources, Tod Sedgwick, Sitka Gear, Vista Outdoor, AFL-CIO, Archery Trade Association, The Baird Group, Browning, Coastal Conservation Association, Everglades Foundation, Costa, Elliotsville Foundation, First Lite, Leupold, Mossy Oak, Natural Resource Results, The Nature Conservancy, Next Era Energy, Outdoor Research, Outtech, Peak Design, Pheasants Forever, PotlatchDeltic, Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation, RV Industry Association, REI Co-Op, RMS, Shimano, Simms Fishing Products, The Trust for Public Land, Weyerhaeuser, YETI, Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Bonefish and Tarpon Trust, Captains for Clean Water, The Conservation Fund, Contender, Fly Fishers International, Forbes-Tate Partners, Land Trust Alliance, , Mystery Ranch, North American Falconers Association, Power-Pole, Ruffed Grouse Society, Stone Glacier, Property and Environment Research Center, Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers, and Allied Workers, Vortex, The Cypress Group, Filson, National Park Foundation, National Wildlife Refuge Association, onX, Sage, The Turner Foundation, Brown-Forman, and New Belgium Brewing.
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.
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 conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations.