Randall Williams

March 30, 2021

New Report Highlights Even Steeper Decline of Greater Sage Grouse Populations

Conservationists call for renewed commitment to habitat restoration and other key priorities

Today, the U.S. Geological Survey released a report that raises serious questions about the future of the greater sage grouse and its ecosystem.

Report findings showed an overall 80-percent decline in sage grouse populations in the western United States since 1965, with an average annual rate of loss estimated at 3 percent, a full percentage point higher than in previously available data prepared for the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

“The fact that sage grouse populations are trending even further in the wrong direction should be taken very seriously by hunters, conservationists, wildlife managers, and all citizens of the American West,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “There is no question that this deeper range-wide loss of birds is indicative of the continued loss and degradation of habitat, and stakeholders at every level need to regroup fast to determine a path forward that creates lasting conservation impacts for these iconic game birds.”

In a separate report released on March 9, the USGS found that sagebrush habitat is being lost at an alarming rate due to mining and energy development, conversion to cropland, invasive grasses, and altered wildfire cycles. Since 2000, more than 20 percent of priority sage grouse habitat within the Great Basin alone has burned.

“Sagebrush ecosystems are experiencing declines that were unimaginable just 20 years ago due to cheatgrass invasion, fire, and other human disturbances,” said Ted Koch, executive director of the North American Grouse Partnership. “We know what it takes to stem the loss, now all we need is to regain the partnerships and the collective will to do it.”

Conservation efforts also will undoubtedly need to go beyond the current management plans to address rapidly changing and degrading habitats in the West.

“Restoring degraded habitat is now more important than ever for reversing trends in habitat loss in the sagebrush ecosystem,” said Joel Pedersen, president and CEO for the Mule Deer Foundation. “The Mule Deer Foundation will continue to ensure that funding for habitat restoration and enhancement is a top priority across the West and that projects get implemented on the ground to benefit sage grouse, mule deer, and other species.”

Conservation on private lands has played a vital role in sagebrush recovery since the inception of the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Sage Grouse Initiative in 2010. Continuing to engage landowners and incentivize conservation in sagebrush country will be critical into the future.

“Private landowner conservation efforts were critical to the success of getting the 2015 not-warranted decision for sage grouse,” said Howard Vincent, President and CEO of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. “We need continued investments in the Sage Grouse Initiative and other private land incentive programs to ensure the long-term health of the sagebrush ecosystem and its occupants, including people that live and work there.”

While deeply concerned, the hunting and fishing community believes that with adequate funding, cooperation, and conservation plan implementation – coupled with massive investments in restoration – that a future listing of sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act can be avoided. But time is running out.

“These new study findings are sounding an alarm that cannot be ignored,” said Dr. Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Clearly the threats to sage grouse and their habitat are not being adequately addressed in a manner that sustains the species over the long-term. There’s still time to assess the situation and reverse these trends, but it is getting more difficult for the Fish and Wildlife Service to defend and maintain their 2015 not-warranted finding for sage grouse.”

 

Image courtesy of Jennifer Hall/USFWS.

10 Responses to “New Report Highlights Even Steeper Decline of Greater Sage Grouse Populations”

  1. Garrett Skelton

    Whatever it takes for the hunting and conservation community needs to band together and help this bird thrive once again through a concerted effort however that looks and feels! These are one of if not my favorite birds to hunt because of the habitat they are found in, the desert and sage brush steppe is nothing short of fascinating and inherently real.

  2. Besides the Sage Grouse reduction, according to an article written by Elizabeth Pennisi (9/2019), three billion North American birds have been removed since 1970. It seems most Americans are too busy to notice!

  3. Extractive industry has has decades of opportunities to cooperate with wildlife and federal land managers. The voluntary cooperative agreement to prevent ESA listing of the sage grouse was gutted by the previous administration. Time for the EPA and ESA to save the species and its habitat.

  4. Gene Odato

    Blame is always thrown at resource extraction companies. I want to see the specifics. How many acres were affected by mining, gas exploration, noxious weeds, ranching, fires. I know there will be overlap but i want to see the map and acres. The article forgot to blame global warming in addition to everything else.

  5. PAUL NOBLE

    Well, this is a nail in the coffin for the Greater Sage Grouse. An ESA listing is almost a certainty now. I am fortunate to have been able to hunt them years ago in NE California. It was quite an adventure.

  6. Earl Johnson

    I have enjoyed hunting sage grouse for twenty years, but have not killed one for five. Is it possible that ravens &/or crows have also contributed to this increased decline in sage grouse??? Perhaps hunters could help this problem, unfortunately palatability reduces incentive !!

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Guest Blogger Fred Ferguson

March 24, 2021

Vista Outdoor: Follow Outdoor Industry Model for Climate Leadership, Progress

This is a guest blog from Fred Ferguson, Vice President of Public Affairs and Communications for Anoka-based outdoor gear maker Vista Outdoor Inc.

The solutions for a stronger, more resilient climate are a uniting force. Conservation, stewardship, and efficiencies are ideals that each political party can and should support. But for far too long, the national debate on climate has been coopted by preconceived notions of yesteryear and driven by the ideological extremes of both sides.

Policymakers in Washington, D.C. must come together to chart a new and better path. Relitigating old debates or rehashing the same outdated climate playbook will not cut it.

Americans have migrated back to nature in record numbers during the pandemic. Moving forward these families, enthusiasts and voters look for more from policymakers on climate. They expect elected leadership to unite and work for common solutions on this pressing issue.

The hunting and outdoor recreation industries have led the way in creating some of the nation’s most effective environmental laws, from the establishment of national forests and wildlife refuges to the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act. Leaders today should embrace these new outdoor trends and again turn to the outdoor industry as a model for advancing climate solutions.

Organizations like the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Outdoor Industry Association are leading coalitions who believe that bipartisan climate solutions are governmental, business and societal imperatives. We are proud members of each organization and are supporting these industry-wide initiatives.

Outdoor recreation organizations and companies are uniquely positioned in that we sit in the crossroads of different industries, consumer groups and political interests. Yet despite our wide-ranging consumer interests, we agree that the climate is changing and that we can do something about it.

The hunting and outdoor industries have testified before Congress on the need for individuals, businesses and governments to work together to address climate and its changes. Moving ahead, we look forward to working with President Biden and his team, including Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. Her leadership in bringing together this coalition is needed and will serve our country well.

My company, Vista Outdoor, recently endorsed the Conservationists for Climate Solutions Policy Statement (Climate Statement). The Climate Statement is a first-of-its-kind framework that offers a comprehensive climate plan based in proven, bipartisan land and water management strategies. The Climate Statement outlines detailed solutions for policymakers in the areas of Agriculture, Forests, Rangelands, and Grasslands, Oceans, Rivers, Lakes, and Streams, Wetlands, Coastal Resilience and Adaptation.

The Climate Statement is endorsed by 41 outdoor associations. These associations, much like Vista Outdoor, cover the full range of outdoor interests, from the Trust for Public Land to the National Deer Alliance and Pheasants Forever. The geographic and political diversity of their membership demonstrates the power of pragmatic solutions and outlines a path forward for bipartisanship in Congress.

The Climate Statement is also good policy. Improved management of land, water and our natural resources can support national carbon sequestration and emissions reduction targets. These natural sequestration improvements are significant. A recent study found that the United States could mitigate 20% of its carbon emissions through natural solutions, which is equivalent to removing emissions from all cars and trucks on U.S. roads today.

Congress must take note of these bipartisan and expansive coalitions. Interest in the outdoors is surging and it’s imperative that our elected leaders respond and look to the outdoors as the path forward.

 

Fred Ferguson serves as Vice President of Public Affairs and Communications for Vista Outdoor Inc. (NYSE: VSTO) and its 34 consumer brands. In this capacity, Ferguson supports the investor relations portfolio and directly manages corporate communications, government relations and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) reporting. Ferguson’s duties support corporate strategy and objectives while also bolstering brand-level planning and execution. Ferguson began with Vista Outdoor Inc. in 2017 following a career in the United States House of Representatives where he served as Chief of Staff to a senior Member of Congress.

Melinda Kassen

March 18, 2021

Filling the Gap Left by Harmful Clean Water Rollback

Colorado will attempt to safeguard its 10,000 miles of streams left unprotected by the Clean Water Act

Over the last two decades, federal water policy has swung like a pendulum as courts and the White House try to interpret, expand, or shrink protections for streams, wetlands, and rivers. Hunters and anglers know that clean water is the foundation of our outdoor activities. Unfortunately, we are continuously defending bedrock conservation laws to preserve habitat for fish and wildlife.

Take, for example, the Navigable Waters Protection (NWP) Rule, which was issued by the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers last year. It removes Clean Water Act protections from more than 18 percent of the nation’s streams and as much as 50 percent of remaining wetlands. This has serious consequences for fish and wildlife but, despite vocal opposition, the rule went into effect everywhere but Colorado—until now.

(If you want to read more on why Colorado was an outlier, here is an in-depth legal blog that explains it.)

Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals issued an order allowing the implementation of the Navigable Waters Protection Rule to proceed in Colorado. This is troubling in many ways as you’ll see in the maps below.

Based on a recent peer-reviewed model, Trout Unlimited estimates that 25 percent of the state’s stream miles would be stripped of protections against the dumping of dredged and fill materials. This includes 10,510 miles of precipitation-dependent streams, which supply public drinking water to Colorado residents. These waters also support world-class hunting, fishing, hiking, and camping opportunities.

Map of Colorado

The Nature Conservancy did a similar analysis of wetlands and found that 22 percent would be unprotected as a result of the Rule going into effect.

E&E News reports that more than 70 percent of U.S. waterways reviewed under the NWP Rule could be permanently damaged, according to Army Corps of Engineers data.

Stripped of federal protections under the new rule, these streams and wetlands in the Centennial State are at risk of being polluted and damaged by the construction of roads, bridges, shopping malls, housing developments, dams, and water diversions. That’s why the state water quality protection agency has begun an effort to find a solution.

A new state permit program would allow the Colorado Water Quality Control Division to oversee activities that discharge materials into streams and wetlands, while putting safeguards in place to ensure these activities don’t jeopardize Colorado’s clean water. This program would rely mostly on the “general” permits that most construction projects routinely obtain. Only a small number of projects would need a more rigorous individual permit. The program’s purpose would be to keep the level of protection that has existed for the preceding 40+ years.  By addressing the regulatory gap that the NWP Rule creates, Colorado also can protect its waters against shifting policies in Washington, D.C.

The TRCP is actively participating in a stakeholder process in support of Colorado’s efforts. We also will support the Biden Administration’s efforts to rewrite the NWP Rule and return to a system where seasonal streams and wetlands get the Clean Water Act protections they deserve. Until this happens, hunters and anglers will be there defending our most valuable resource to ensure future generations have access to quality habitat and better days on the water.

[If you want to see a timeline of how clean water policy was developed, click HERE.]

 

Photo by BLM-Colorado

 

As Congress Pivots to Infrastructure, Gulf Restoration Should be Top of Mind

Conservation works for America and coastal communities

Tides are shifting in our nation’s capital. Now that COVID recovery legislation has cleared Congress, policymakers are shifting their attention to a massive infrastructure package. This is welcome news for folks in Louisiana, where 158,000 people are unemployed and looking for ways to get back to work.

Conservationists are also eyeing this moment. If Congress can put aside partisanship, we believe an infusion of cash into the Gulf can put people back to work, create habitat for fish and wildlife, increase coastal resiliency, combat climate change, and build more equitable communities.

There are three specific legislative opportunities that hunters and anglers should be talking to their elected leaders about:

Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC)

This pre-disaster mitigation program is administered by FEMA to provide resources to states, local communities, tribes, and territories with the goal of reducing risk from natural disasters. In 2020, there was $500 million available through this program to support communities as they prepare for future catastrophic events. We are asking Congress to set aside 15 percent of future BRIC funds for natural infrastructure projects, which will help create habitat and combat the impacts of climate change.

North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA)

This U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant program invests in local projects to restore wetlands. Over the past two decades, these funds have supported over 3,000 projects impacting 30 million acres. One of these projects is located near Buras, Louisiana where Ducks Unlimited has partnered with local conservation leaders and used NAWCA funds to build wetlands in areas affected by numerous hurricanes over the last 15 years. The incredibly successful project has built more than 2,500 acres of wetland in areas that were open water less than a decade ago, improving fisheries and duck hunting and increasing community resiliency.

When wetlands are improved, communities experience better flood control, erosion prevention, and air quality, plus more sequestered carbon. We are asking Congress to fully fund this program so waterfowl and migratory birds can thrive and people can find work restoring this important habitat.

National Coastal Resilience Fund

This program is used to restore wetlands, marshes, river systems, dunes, beaches, barrier islands, floodplains, and oyster and coral reefs. Funded by Congress and private entities, it is administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to expand natural features in coastal communities. By fully funding this program, contractors and engineers can get back to work restoring these landscapes and creating habitat for fish and wildlife.

A New Day for the Delta

By prioritizing these items, our leaders can make a real impact in a state that has been hammered by COVID and natural disasters. In the last 12 months, construction employment has declined 13 percent in the Bayou State, opening the door for significant investment to help turn the page on a dark year. But, one area where jobs continue to expand is in coastal restoration work as penalties from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon continue to be directed toward construction of large-scale barrier islands, marsh restoration projects, and the engineering and design (and soon construction) of sediment diversions.

The Mississippi River Delta has lost over 2,000 square miles of land since the 1930s and continues to lose a football field of wetlands every 100 minutes. Investments in restoring this critical fish and wildlife habitat not only improve fishing and hunting opportunities across the Gulf and throughout the Mississippi River Basin, but also means high-paying jobs for coastal residents.

We believe with the right focus, we can improve the land, water, and fish and wildlife resources that sustain our communities.

 

To learn more about the Conservation Works for America campaign, click here.

Chris Macaluso

March 9, 2021

A More Diverse Bite Delights Along Restored Marshes

As restoration projects in South Louisiana continue, it’s not unusual for anglers to catch bass, trout, and redfish in the same area on consecutive casts with the same bait

All anglers will admit they have a favorite fish to pursue. Speckled trout has always topped my list.

A decade or so ago, I would leave the dock in my favorite waters near Lake Pontchartrain, near New Orleans, to catch only trout. If I couldn’t catch trout the way I wanted to catch them, I’d return to the dock disappointed.

There is plenty to be said for dialing in a particular species, figuring out how to catch them in any conditions, at any time of year. But it can be just as satisfying to tie on a spinnerbait or pitch a soft plastic, pick a pretty stretch of marsh, and see what bites.

Not being picky paid off for me and my longtime buddy, outdoor journalist Todd Masson, on a clear, cold day in mid-January. Water temperatures hovered in the low to mid 40s and a hard north wind had pulled the plug on the marsh, dropping water levels more than two feet. All told, the chances of catching even a handful of speckled trout in those conditions were slim, even though trout fishing had been very good all fall and winter.

Fortunately, we had an option that promised to be far more rewarding than pounding on cold, beat-up wintertime water for notoriously temperature-fickle trout—largemouth bass.

Over the last decade, the bass population has been climbing in the areas around Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), the ill-fated federal navigation channel that funneled storm surge into New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, damaging hundreds of thousands of acres of freshwater and brackish marsh and swamp. As marsh restoration and efforts to limit saltwater have progressed, the same marshes that were good places to catch redfish and speckled trout in the fall and early spring 15 years ago are now teeming with largemouth bass.

Persistent spring flooding of the Mississippi and Pearl rivers over the last decade has boosted both submerged vegetation and a more diverse forage base. Bass are eating traditional saltwater prey like shrimp and crabs. Redfish and speckled trout are eating freshwater prey like bluegill, crawfish, and shad.

Now, catching bass, trout, and redfish in the same area, on consecutive casts, and with the same bait is not unusual.

Bass fishing in these marshes can only be described as incredible. Good days produce 30 to 40 bass for a couple of anglers. Great days this past fall pushed that number past 50 fish, despite the constant surges of saltwater from the five tropical storms and hurricanes that hit Louisiana last year. These aren’t tournament-winning fish. A three-pounder is a big bass here. But what they lack in size they make up for in tenacity and numbers.

Lower salinities have, at times, moved speckled trout and redfish out of areas they once dominated, but it hasn’t eliminated them from the area’s marshes and lakes. Masson and I fished with two good friends last November and caught 30 fat speckled trout, a handful of redfish, black drum, and flounder not more than a few miles from our January bass fishing spot. In early December, another buddy and I caught 30 speckled trout in a couple of hours jigging a deep ledge in the MRGO, before moving a half mile to a narrow, grass-lined bayou to catch more than 30 bass.

I took my son and my dad at Christmas and landed a nearly 30-pound flathead catfish that hit a small soft-plastic swim bait on the same deep ledge where I’d caught trout just weeks earlier. The trout bite was slow that day, but we caught 15 bass and smiled all the way home. In July, the same area had offered my friend’s 11-year-old son the opportunity to catch his first redfish. The youngster battled an angry eight-pounder less than five minutes after I dropped the trolling motor at our first stop. We caught 14 more redfish, a handful of bass and a couple sheepshead before putting the boat back on the trailer around noon.

Largemouth bass, catfish, and white bass are becoming part of the accepted—and expected—bounty of the area. Local anglers are no longer scowling and saying, “All I caught were those damned green fish today.” Now, they smile and say, “We caught 25 bass today, a dozen trout, and even a few freshwater catfish.”

Duck hunters in Louisiana are following a similar path. As marshes, unfortunately, become open water, the opportunity to hunt mallards, pintails, and gray ducks (gadwalls) has been replaced by shots at dos gris (scaup), redheads, canvasbacks, and ringnecks. Shooting some divers for the grill and the gumbo pot is much more fun than complaining that the puddle ducks aren’t here.

There isn’t an area I have fished in South Louisiana that’s the same as it was 20 years ago. We’ve lost 2,000 square miles of coastal wetlands in a century. Most of those changes have meant less habitat and fewer opportunities to catch fish. Change is the only constant in this highly dynamic place.

More change is coming. As diversions from the Mississippi River are constructed to rebuild those vanishing wetlands and marsh creation projects further limit saltwater intrusion, there will certainly be seasonal changes to our fisheries. More habitat will mean more opportunity for hunters and anglers.

But in the short term, and while diversions are operating, some brackish species like speckled trout will move. It’s a return to the natural cycle that built our coast before levees prevented annual floods from spilling over the river’s banks. The fish, both freshwater and saltwater species, that inhabit this delta are equipped to deal with it. They wouldn’t live here otherwise.

Undoubtedly, some sportsmen and women will shake their heads and complain, focusing on the short-term impacts of freshwater and sediment rather than the long-term benefits of growing wetlands and expanding habitat.

I think I’ll tie on a spinnerbait, pitch a soft plastic, pick a pretty stretch of marsh, and see what bites.

Fish the marsh with Chris and Marsh Man Masson in the video below!

 

HOW YOU CAN HELP

CONSERVATION WORKS FOR AMERICA

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 jobs, restore habitat, and preserve fish and wildlife.

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