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Between all the mask-wearing, social distancing, and vote counting that Americans did this year, these events made a major impact on our fish, wildlife, and outdoor recreation opportunities
It’s certain that 2020 will be a memorable year for many reasons—the good and the bad. So, in that spirit, here are the conservation highs and lows that we’ll remember when we think back on 2020. Read on for 15 headline-making events, the role that sportsmen and women played in clinching victories or defending against bad ideas, and the consequences for the fish and wildlife habitat that we all rely on.
After years of vocal opposition from anglers and outfitters, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently denied developers a permit for Pebble Mine—thus defending the salmon habitat and unmatched outdoor recreation opportunities of Bristol Bay, Alaska. The Corps said in a statement that the proposed mine project “is contrary to the public interest” and “does not comply with Clean Water Act guidelines.”
Of course, you have already heard a lot about the Great American Outdoors Act, the milestone achievement to top a very productive summer for finding common ground on conservation. Its lasting legacy will be permanent and full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million annually, but hunters and anglers will benefit enormously from its five-year investment of $9.5 billion to chip away at the deferred maintenance backlog on public lands.
Though it didn’t get as much of the limelight, the America’s Conservation Enhancement Act deserves to be right up there with this victory. The ACE Act does for habitat what the Great American Outdoors Act does for access and outdoor recreation opportunity—by securing and reinvigorating conservation programs and funding sources that benefit deer, waterfowl, fish, and all species in the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay watersheds.
On the flip side, major rollbacks were finalized that threaten to dismantle our bedrock conservation laws. This list includes the weakening of Clean Water Act protections for headwater streams and wetlands, a concerning change to what the National Environmental Policy Act requires of federal agencies considering development impacts on fish and wildlife habitat, and the elimination of conservation safeguards on 9.2 million acres of public land in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.
In three groundbreaking reports this year, the TRCP unveiled data on half a million acres of inaccessible public lands across nine states. This was in addition to the 15.8 million acres of landlocked public land in the West that we previously identified through our ongoing partnership with the digital mapping experts at onX. Learn more about the landlocked public lands issue here.
The spring and summer of 2020 marked a decade since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig and subsequent oil spill—the worst environmental disaster in American history. But, today, oil spill penalties have been invested in projects that not only address the direct damage from the tragedy but are reversing the long-term decline of the Gulf region’s coastal ecosystems and water quality. In June, we released a comprehensive report on where things stand ten years after the spill.
There were also changes made to the management of the Conservation Reserve Program that weakened one of the Farm Bill’s most popular conservation programs. Our community outlined what the Biden Administration should do to get enrollment back on track and max out conservation benefits on private land. And we voiced our support for making the program even stronger.
One division of the USDA showed it was a little too cozy with the captive deer industry by funneling at least $1.5 million of the $5 million in chronic wasting disease response funding that Congress specifically appropriated for delivery to state wildlife and agricultural departments. This threatened to undo what should have been a solid win—a renewed commitment of federal funds—and doesn’t address the continued strain placed on state agencies. Hunters responded by demanding transparency from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and oversight from lawmakers.
In August, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted unanimously to improve its management strategy for Atlantic menhaden—the tiny baitfish that supports some of our most popular sportfish, like striped bass—by considering the species’ role in the broader ecosystem. Though the Commission could have made stronger cuts to menhaden harvest numbers when its Atlantic Menhaden Board met again in October, anglers strongly supported the first steps toward implementing a new ecological management system that benefits sportfish and water quality.
Thanks to sportsmen and women, there were other victories for conservation embedded in the work that Congress and the administration is expected to do anyway.
First, the Natural Resource Conservation Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it would invest nearly $49 million in projects to enhance public access for outdoor recreation, including hunting and fishing, on private land across 26 states. To learn more, download TRCP’s definitive report on how these investments, made possible by the farm bill’s Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, benefit you and your access.
Then the Water Resources Development Act—a two-year bill that authorizes water conservation and enhancement projects—passed the House with provisions to help address dangerous algal blooms, combat invasive species, fund Everglades restoration, and smooth the way for more natural infrastructure projects across the country. Complementary language could pass in a Senate spending package any day now.
The data is still coming in on 2020 hunting and fishing license purchases, but it’s safe to say that stay-at-home orders, work-from-home flexibility, and social distancing drove more Americans to recreate in and appreciate the outdoors this year. This has positive ramifications for not only conservation funding but also for advocacy—the more connected people feel to our natural resources, the more likely they are to stand up and fight for them.
We hope that when they do, they’ll find that the TRCP is a resource and conduit to some of the best policy solutions. If you appreciate the work we’ve done for conservation, habitat, and access in 2020, consider donating to support our efforts in 2021 and beyond. There’s no better time to give than right now: Through the end of the year, our friends at SITKA Gear will match your gift, making double the impact for conservation.
Thank you for your support, happy holidays, and we hope you have excellent hunting and fishing in the new year!
In a year marked by hardships, this conservation opportunity gave sportsmen and women reason to celebrate
It should come as no surprise that conserving the seasonal habitats and migration corridors used by big game herds across the West was a top priority for conservationists and state and federal agencies in 2020. With all the news generated by this issue in the past year, it’s worth revisiting some of achievements made possible by dedicated agency staff, outspoken sportsmen and women, and elected officials who follow the science when it comes to fish and wildlife.
Public opinion shows strong support for this important work: according to polls conducted this year by the Pew Charitable Trusts, an overwhelming majority of voters in both Oregon and Nevada—around 90% in many instances—agreed on the need for new conservation measures to safeguard migration corridors. Likewise, these respondents would like to see wildlife highway crossings prioritized as a means of facilitating big game migration and keeping motorists safe.
So too, does this work have the strong support of wildlife professionals. In New Mexico and Colorado, groups of scientists, former agency leaders, and other natural resource experts penned letters to their respective governors thanking them for the progress made already and urging them to show continued leadership on this issue.
Big game migration gained prominent attention across the West when the Department of the Interior issued Secretarial Order 3362 in February of 2018, directing federal agencies within the Department to prioritize habitat quality in Western big game winter range and migration corridors. Since that time, the state and federal government have worked together to conduct research on big game movements and looked to prioritize habitat improvement projects.
In August of this year, the Department released a report on the progress made since the enactment of S.O. 3362. Most impressively, 11 Western states have received $6.4 million from the Department to address state-defined priority research projects and the mapping of elk, mule deer, and pronghorn migrations and habitat use. Additionally, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Partners for Fish and Wildlife programs have provided nearly $10 million, matched with more than $30 million from other partners, for habitat improvement and fencing projects.
Among the most notable of these efforts was the release in November of Ungulate Migrations of the Western United States: Volume 1, a USGS report that maps more than 40 big game migration routes across Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, and Wyoming. These maps will provide critical guidance to state and federal agencies as well as various other stakeholders as they work to conserve these important habitats and the big game herds that depend on them.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Park’s work to conserve and enhance seasonal big game habitats reached a significant milestone late this year with the release of a strategic plan on wildlife movement and migration developed in close consultation with landowner and conservation groups. The document both clarifies how big game migration is already prioritized in the agency’s ongoing management and also identifies areas where this work can be further strengthened. Much of the strategy’s strength comes from its recognition and emphasis on the ways in which private landowners and working lands are central to this conservation opportunity. All things considered, sportsmen and women should be encouraged by the state of Montana’s leadership on this issue and the spirit of collaboration that has guided the agency’s work.
In February of 2020, Governor Mark Gordon signed an executive order prioritizing the conservation of big game migration corridors. The EO followed recommendations from a citizens’ advisory board tasked the previous summer with deliberating various strategies to address the threats to the corridors on which Wyoming’s big game herds depend.
Since that time, sportsmen and women in the Cowboy State have continued to work with the governor, state and federal agencies, and other stakeholders to see Gordon’s order implemented successfully.
In November, Governor Gordon announced the formation of the first local working group for the Platte Valley mule deer corridor in southeast Wyoming. The group had its first meeting in mid-December and the TRCP will be reaching out to Wyoming hunters in the new year to engage in the process.
Oregon has developed an action team on migration made up of around a dozen conservation groups working to advance Secretarial Order 3362 and other priorities in the Beaver State. Over the summer, the team organized an interagency migration meeting to bring together more than 30 participants and discuss strategies for reducing barriers to migration and maintaining big game populations in Oregon.
Oregon’s newest underpass for wildlife crossings, near Gilchrist, on Highway 97 was completed in August of this year. The directional fencing, which relies on private funding, is expected to be installed in spring of 2021 to complete the project. To date, almost $800,000 has been raised out of the $900,000 required. Around $185,000 of that money was funded through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Department of the Interior through S.O. 3362. Another crossing project is in the works as well on Hwy 97 just south of Sunriver and is expected to be completed in 2022.
In 2020, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the state’s sportsmen and women continued to build a strong foundation for the future of migration management in the state.
A year ago, the Department, with financial support from multiple partners, secured conservation easements on the private lands where wildlife crossing structures will be built along Highway 30 in southeast Idaho. The crossing structures are slated to be built in 2025, but the easements are a critical step to maintaining the connectivity for 6,000 mule deer.
In September, IDFG released the latest version of its migration action plan, which lays out the state’s long-term priorities.
Finally, in December of this year, the Army Corps of Engineers collaborated with the Department and considered sportsmen input when deciding not to construct a new mountain bike trail in crucial winter range that supports about 3,700 mule deer near Boise.
Following Governor Jared Polis’ 2019 executive order to prioritize migration corridor conservation, Colorado Parks & Wildlife released a status report in May of 2020 that provides the public with the best-available science regarding Colorado’s migratory big game populations. The report also details ongoing research and identifies areas for further study, as well as makes recommendations to address various threats to big game migration in the state.
In the fall, after a lengthy process to revise its mission, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission approved a slate of new regulations that, among other things, now direct the agency to safeguard migration corridors against negative impacts that might result from drilling and exploration. Operators will be required to consult with Colorado Parks & Wildlife when proposing development within big game migration corridors and will be required to prepare mitigation plans that maintain the functionality of these habitats.
Top photo by Gregory Nickerson and Travis Zaffarano/Wyoming Migration Initiative.
The TRCP commits to seeing hunting, fishing opportunities maintained in BLM’s Central Yukon plan
Today the Bureau of Land Management released a draft resource management plan that—when finalized—will guide future public land management decisions on 13.1 million acres of public lands in central and northern Alaska for the next 15 to 20 years.
“The outcome of this process will have big implications for recreational and subsistence hunters, anglers, and trappers due to the Central Yukon planning area’s enormous acreage and unique qualities,” said Jen Leahy, Alaska field representative with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “From the boreal forests and river valleys of Interior Alaska to the towering Brooks Range and vast tundra of the Arctic, these public lands provide the type of wild, backcountry opportunities that many sportsmen and sportswomen dream of experiencing someday.”
The Central Yukon planning area stretches across approximately 56 million acres, extending from the northern border of Denali National Park and Preserve to the Arctic Ocean. The region’s diverse wildlife habitat supports several caribou herds including the Western Arctic—the largest herd in Alaska and an important food source for many rural communities—plus Dall sheep, brown bears, black bears, muskoxen, moose, and furbearers. The Brooks Range is revered among sportsmen and sportswomen for its remarkable solitude and world-class hunting, trapping, fishing, and wildlife-viewing opportunities.
The release of the draft RMP is a key step in the public process of land-use planning, which helps determine how fish and wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation opportunities, and resource development are balanced in a particular area. The Central Yukon RMP presents five different management approaches and names one option—Alternative C2—as the agency’s preferred alternative.
“The BLM needs to conserve important habitats in the Central Yukon planning area in order for future generations to continue to enjoy our hunting, trapping, and fishing traditions,” said Leahy. “This planning process still has a long way to go before it will be completed, and the TRCP is rolling up our sleeves to engage with our members, local stakeholders, and agency partners to ensure that the final plan reflects our shared conservation goals.”
The 90-day public comment period begins December 11, 2020, and is slated to close March 11, 2021.
Photo: BLM Alaska via Flickr
State officials have developed a strategy to guide migration conservation that relies on collaboration and communication
Over the past year, conservation and landowner groups, and other stakeholders have worked with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to develop a strategy for conserving habitat essential to wildlife migration and movement. Completed in October, the Terrestrial Wildlife Movement and Migration Strategy is a significant milestone in the agency’s work to conserve and enhance habitats that big game animals require during their seasonal migrations.
Sportsmen and women applauded the document as evidence of the shared commitment by state officials, private landowners, conservation professionals, and everyday Montanans who care about the state’s wildlife resources to find common ground and to address cooperatively the challenges faced by various stakeholders.
Big game migration gained prominent attention in Montana when the Department of the Interior issued Secretarial Order 3362, on big game winter range and migration corridors, in November 2018. Since that time, the state and federal government have worked together to conduct research on big game movements and looked to prioritize habitat improvement projects.
The recently completed strategy helps keep the state of Montana in the driver’s seat on the management of resident wildlife within its jurisdictional boundaries. It clarifies how the conservation of seasonal and transitional habitats is integrated into the agency’s existing programs to manage wildlife in the state, with the intended effect of both highlighting the good work already being done by Fish, Wildlife & Parks on this important issue as well as identifying areas where this work can be further strengthened. Among other points of emphasis, the plan highlights ways in which FWP’s organizational structure, scientific research agenda, and existing habitat conservation programs can be tailored to address the management challenges of wildlife migration and movement. At the same time, the document emphasizes the importance of external communications with partners and the general public, working with stakeholders to secure dedicated funding and to advance the overall aims of the strategy, and intergovernmental collaboration with federal agencies, other states, and tribal nations.
Central to the strategy—and much of its strength—comes from the recognition and emphasis of the essential role that private landowners – and working lands – play in this conservation opportunity. Meaningful and substantive engagement with landowners is necessary to ensure that animals such as elk, mule deer, and antelope can move between seasonal habitats. Big game winter range frequently overlaps with working landscapes on private property, and the resulting crop damage and potential for disease transmission to livestock can pose significant challenges to farms and ranches already facing numerous hurdles to success. FWP has committed to work with and respond to the concerns of those directly affected by these issues, and there exists a strong community of conservation-minded landowners in Montana who are eager to work collaboratively with other stakeholders to address these challenges.
As is the case across the country, conservation success stories in Montana have long depended on landowners, conservation groups, and state and federal agencies coming together to achieve shared priorities, particularly when it comes to conserving and improving fish and wildlife habitat. With FWP’s new strategy, a solid roadmap has been established to continue that tradition as big game migration grows in its importance as a top conservation priority. With a change in state leadership coming to Montana in 2021, the TRCP looks forward to working with Governor-elect Greg Gianforte and his staff on this issue and stand committed in the spirit of collaboration that has been driving these efforts to date.
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