TRCP and 40 Groups Launch Conservationists for Climate Solutions
#OurLandWaterWildlife campaign outlines seven key areas of focus for policymakers
A diverse coalition of 41 groups from across the hunting, fishing, landowner, and conservation communities launched a new website to highlight the impacts of climate change on fish, wildlife, and habitat and promote policy solutions in seven key areas.
Ourlandwaterwildlife.org will be a hub of educational resources, storytelling, and advocacy dedicated to natural solutions that sequester carbon and build habitat resiliency to combat climate change. Many of the coalition’s recommendations are proven strategies for safeguarding the fish and wildlife habitat that supports outdoor recreation opportunities in the United States.
“Our organizations already advocate for and implement land-and water-based solutions to make our rivers, lakes, streams, forests, grasslands, wetlands, and coastal systems more resilient to the impacts of climate change,” the coalition writes in a formal joint statement, which is being used in communications with key lawmakers. “Conservation organizations and state and federal land and wildlife management agencies have been on the cutting edge of ecosystem-based solutions. Together we can expand these programs to have a much greater impact far more quickly.”
The recommendations included in the statement and at ourlandwaterwildlife.org are intended for Congress, the executive branch, agency leadership, states, and other decision-makers developing a national-level approach to addressing climate change.
The seven key areas of focus for the coalition include: Agriculture; Forests, Rangelands, and Grasslands; Oceans; Rivers, Lakes, and Streams; Wetlands; Coastal Resilience; and Adaptation.
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.
Looking ahead at the most pressing policy needs for habitat, access, and the outdoor recreation economy
Push Congress to Put Americans Back to Work Through Conservation
Secure conservation priorities that also support jobs in future COVID-19 economic recovery bills. This includes programs that fund and facilitate improvements to habitat, access, and outdoor recreation infrastructure.
Coordinate with Partners on Climate Change Legislation
Build a coalition and lead the sportsmen’s community on a comprehensive climate change strategy. Influence policy to help build resiliency in coastal and forest habitats, agricultural practices, and water systems.
Advance the MAPLand Act
The data at our fingertips on smartphones and GPS units means nothing if it’s incomplete. This legislation promises to modernize public land records so you don’t miss out on hunting or fishing opportunities that are only marked on a paper map in the back of some dusty filing cabinet.
Ensure Proper Implementation of the Farm Bill
In 2018, we celebrated passage of the five-year bill with increased funding for conservation. Now we must push the administration to deliver on all of the bill’s promises for better habitat, access, and soil health.
Increase Investments in the Fight Against Chronic Wasting Disease
State wildlife agencies that have been scrambling to combat this fatal disease in wild deer, elk, and moose herds need meaningful federal support. The TRCP will continue to push for these resources.
Address Maintenance Backlog on Federal Public Lands
Advance legislation—some that’s already in play—with dedicated funding for deferred maintenance projects that undermine Americans’ experiences on public lands. Keep advocating for robust funding of public land agencies so this backlog does not grow.
Spur Policies That Conserve Migration Corridors and Fund Wildlife Crossings
Build on recent successes to codify conservation policies for previously overlooked seasonal habitats, like big game migration routes and summer and winter ranges. Secure new funding streams for wildlife-friendly highway overpasses and underpasses, which connect fragmented habitats and keep animals off roads.
Mobilize Sportsmen and Women to Take Action for Conservation
Continue the TRCP’s grassroots work to engage hunters and anglers in advocacy and the public process of managing public lands. Educate our audience on what’s at stake, offer meaningful opportunities for them to communicate with decision-makers, and amplify their voices to effect policy change.
Top photo by Tim Donovan at Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Weekend Download: The Climate Change Impacts We Should Be Facing
The Hunting Collective’s Ben O’Brien visits TRCP President and CEO Whit Fosburgh at his home on the Potomac River to talk about the direct effects of climate change on hunting and fishing and the other top challenges facing our community.
Skip right to Whit’s Q&A at 48 minutes in, or enjoy the full episode featuring some of the top female leaders at MeatEater HQ. (Bonus: They decide, based on internet photos, that Whit stacks up in the fashion and style department, where Rinella apparently does not.)
Picky About Pine: These Forests Are Better for Wildlife and Water
Restoring longleaf pine forests improves wildlife habitat and drought resilience in the Southeast
Longleaf pine trees once dominated large swaths of the country’s landscape, covering more than 90 million acres—or roughly the area of Montana—from Virginia to eastern Texas. But this all began to change around the beginning of the 20th century, when longleaf pine was found to be excellent building material for ships and railroads. By the 1920s, most of these trees were gone, and many foresters replaced them with other types of pine that were thought to grow faster and offer a quicker return on investment.
Today, only 3.4 million acres of longleaf forests remain, and much of this is spread sparsely across the Southeast. This poses some serious challenges for game species and communities that are at risk of extreme weather events.
Longleaf Is a Lifeline
With the potential to support roughly 100 types of birds, dozens of species of mammals, and nearly 200 kinds of reptiles and amphibians, longleaf pine forests are some of the most diverse ecosystems in North America. Sportsmen and women know them best as critical habitat for bobwhite quail, wild turkeys, and whitetail deer.
Longleaf, even as a seedling, is highly resistant to wildfire, and its wide-set leaves create a more open forest canopy so more sunlight can reach plant life on the ground. With a little help from strategic prescribed burning, longleaf forests can have incredibly healthy underbrush with native grasses and vegetation that offer food and shelter for wildlife.
But we need longleaf pines for more than just great habitat—they are master adapters that can survive the harshest weather events and a wide range of climates. A study conducted after Hurricane Katrina found that longleaf pine trees were better able to withstand hurricane winds than other types of pine trees. More storm resilience means less costly damage to wildlife habitat and forestry businesses.
As if that wasn’t enough, these trees are also more resilient to drought, can better withstand pests and most diseases, and store carbon more effectively than other pine species. All of this makes longleaf a win for our critters and for communities that face major storms and drought.
We Need Millions More
Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that by 2060 the South will lose up to 67,000 square miles of forest to development and other habitat challenges.
But there is hope. The federal agencies that carry out conservation in America, along with dozens of non-governmental partners—including key TRCP allies, such as the National Wildlife Turkey Federation, The Nature Conservancy, and National Wildlife Federation—have joined forces on the “Million Acre Challenge” to add one million acres of longleaf pine to public lands in the coming years. This would go a long way toward helping the Forest Service complete its goal of putting 8 million total acres of longleaf pine habitat on the landscape by 2025.
Recent passage of the 2018 Farm Bill could help, too. Programs such as the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and the Conservation Stewardship Program help to coordinate landscape-scale conservation projects and reduce the cost for private landowners to restore or enhance their longleaf pine forests. With more than $5 billion in conservation funding to support private land efforts, the Farm Bill is a big win for habitat, but we also need strong funding for the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service to help take on forest restoration.
The TRCP is committed to ensuring that the federal agencies have what they need to maintain and enhance our forests across public and private lands. And a powerhouse habitat-creator and wildfire-defender like longleaf pine is a great way to invest those dollars. It’s a critical down payment on the future of hunting and fishing in the Southeast.