Jefferson Washington VA USFS
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This video is the third in a series detailing conservation projects powered by Pennsylvania’s Keystone Recreation, Park & Conservation Fund that benefit hunters and anglers. Since 1993, the Keystone Fund has continued to provide state-level matching dollars for a variety of conservation projects, including land acquisition, river conservation, and trail work. This series is the result of a collaboration between the TRCP and Trout Unlimited where the goal is simply to celebrate conservation success stories that make us all proud to be able to hunt and fish in Pennsylvania. The videos highlight just a few of the projects powered by this critical source of conservation funding. For more information on the Keystone Fund, you can visit: https://keystonefund.org
If you want to see the downstream effects of conserving important headwaters, look no further than the former Klondike Property in Gouldsboro, Pa.—the origin of the Lehigh River, which is one of the largest tributaries to the Delaware. By preserving just 500 acres, including 200 acres of wetlands, conservationists have successfully protected the source of drinking water for 180,000 Pennsylvanians. These acres are also open to the public for hunting and fishing, which boosts the local outdoor recreation economy.
It’s a good lesson about what’s possible with dedicated conservation funding and many willing partners.
The Klondike Property was acquired in 2018 by Wildlands Conservancy and was transferred to the Pennsylvania Game Commission to expand State Game Lands 312, which was also gifted by Wildlands Conservancy and partners in 1991. The incredible opportunity to secure this area for future generations was made possible with $1 million from the Keystone Recreation, Park & Conservation Fund and matching contributions from local stakeholders, private donors, and sportsmen’s groups. This included Hokendauqua Trout Unlimited, three chapters of the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Northampton County Federation of Sportsmen, and the Lehigh Valley Chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society.
A diverse partnership was key, but the match alone wouldn’t have covered the cost. “Without having the state funding it’s very difficult to do the projects that we do to make sure that nature is accessible to all,” says Chris Kocher, president of Wildlands Conservancy.
As locals Holly Sheisley and Nate Fronk share in our latest video, the Klondike acquisition provided the perfect opportunity for Holly to harvest her first goose—a milestone in their relationship and the start to a shared pursuit they will hopefully enjoy for years to come.
“I’ve been hunting for almost ten years now,” says Fronk, chair of the Pennsylvania Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “It’s so cool getting to share with Holly what means so much to me.” Sheisley agrees: “Being with your best friend, those stories that you share, there’s nothing like it.”
“Conserving [these lands] and making sure they’re open to the public is the best way to make sure we have hunting and fishing into the future,” says Fronk. Having dedicated state conservation funding like the Keystone Recreation, Park & Conservation Fund is making this possible across Pennsylvania.
Last month, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada reintroduced the Ruby Mountains Protection Act to Congress. In case you haven’t heard of this bill, your memory of the details is a little fuzzy, or you have questions about it, here’s a quick refresher on why the Rubies need sportsmen and sportswomen to speak up for their protection:
Originally introduced to the United States Senate in February of 2019, the Ruby Mountains Protection Act would prohibit oil and gas leasing in the Ruby Mountains, one of the most important landscapes in Nevada for fish, wildlife, and sportsmen and sportswomen. If passed into law, the bill would not affect other multiple uses in the area, including mining, and it would help ensure that future generations are able to experience the tremendous hunting and fishing opportunities in the Rubies.
The Rubies stretch for nearly 100 miles south of Secret Pass in Elko County, with ten peaks higher than 10,000 feet and considerable snowfall that feeds the Humboldt River and the marshes of the Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge. These rugged, glacier-carved mountains and their cold, clear streams provide a wide variety of fish and wildlife habitat, as well as an abundance of opportunity for hunters and anglers.
The Ruby Mountain mule deer herd is Nevada’s largest and travels along a 100-mile migration route that is the longest in the state. Conserving this corridor is crucial to the health and resiliency of the deer herd. Researchers have shown that energy infrastructure on migration corridors and winter range for mule deer has a direct, measurable impact on the health of a herd, with reduced reproductive rates, poorer animal condition, higher winter mortality, and fewer overall deer. In Wyoming, studies have demonstrated herd populations declining by as much as 36 percent during a period of energy development, and those areas saw a reduction in the number of tags issued to hunters.
Skeptics say that the bill is unnecessary because the Rubies aren’t a particularly promising location for energy production. While it is true that the Forest Service has determined that there is low potential for oil and gas development, speculators have nonetheless filed for leases in the area on multiple occasions in recent years. While some of the lease requests were located in the rough, granite crags where there is little potential, more than 60,000 acres included on the second round of nominations were on the west edge of the Rubies from Harrison Pass to the southern forest boundary. This less rugged area is much more likely to attract exploration and development by speculators. What’s particularly concerning is that this is where the Ruby deer herd migration corridor is most concentrated and in the direct path of proposed leasing.
While past applications to lease have been denied, there is no guarantee that will be the case next time. And energy developers have shown no signs of being deterred by the Forest Service’s determination: Only days after the agency denied authorization for leasing 54,000 acres in Nevada’s Ruby Mountains, energy developers submitted two new requests to open this prized landscape to oil and gas drilling. A private entity filed new Expressions of Interest (EOIs) to lease 88,000 acres for oil and gas development in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. Many of the parcels would affect the same areas previously rejected for leasing. Land management agencies can change priorities and come up with different determinations depending on changes in administration, which is why a more durable solution through the legislative process is needed.
Simply put, no. The bill would not affect any of the multiple uses, recreational or commercial, currently going on in the Rubies. Hunting, fishing, hiking, backpacking, motorized travel on currently open roads would be unaffected by this withdrawal. Grazing, mining, private land access, shooting, backcountry skiing and all other current uses would continue without being affected. This bill wouldn’t change the Ruby Mountains as they are used today—it would ensure they continue to offer all of these opportunities into the future.
Historically, 90 percent of lands managed by BLM have been available for oil and gas leasing, even in places with no or little potential for development. Energy leasing on lands with high potential and low impacts should be where efforts are concentrated. The Rubies are just the opposite: low potential for development with high impacts on wildlife, scenic values, and recreational opportunity.
In 2019, more than a million acres of land in Nevada were offered for lease, yet less than seven percent of that acreage even received a bid. Agencies are currently spending taxpayer dollars offering low potential parcels for sale that nobody wants to buy, and these precious resources could be better spent managing the lands and resources that we all own.
The Ruby Mountains Protection Act has robust support from diverse stakeholders including elected officials at various levels, tribal governments, and different types of public land users.
Sportsmen and sportswomen have been among the most vocal in support of the bill. In 2019, fifteen hunting, fishing, and wildlife conservation organizations formed the Sportsmen for the Rubies, a coalition to raise awareness, both around the state and in Washington, D.C., of the potential threats posed by energy development in the area.
Congress needs to hear from us to get this law passed. Speak up at sportsmenfortherubies.com.
Photo: Loren Chipman via Flickr
Springtime in the West brings many familiar sounds to those spending time in the outdoors, and few can rival the peculiarity and excitement of hearing male sage grouse calling to potential mates as they dance on their breeding grounds. Known as leks, these literal stomping grounds are where biologists can reliably count birds with some degree of consistency to gauge the health of the species.
But fewer and fewer male sage grouse are showing up to leks, and that has scientists, managers, and sportsmen and women deeply concerned.
In fact, the U.S. Geological Survey recently released a grim report on sage grouse populations. Their analysis showed that there are 80 percent fewer males dancing on their leks across the Western landscape than in 1965, and half of that loss has occurred in just the last 17 years. The long-term trend averages out to be about 3 percent fewer birds at leks each year.
While some areas are showing recent increases in bird abundance, about 45 percent of remaining leks are predicted to disappear in the next 20 years and 78 percent could be gone in 56 years—unless conditions change.
I’ve explained in previous blogs that short-term and long-term factors can affect lek counts, which is why year-over-year gains shouldn’t necessarily be celebrated. (Read more about that here.) Strong precipitation for a single season or two may boost sage grouse numbers in a state or region, but the overall downward trend has actually continued and deepened for this iconic game bird.
In a separate announcement in early March, the USGS reported that only 55 percent of the historical extent of sagebrush habitat now remains. Here are five key reasons why:
Studies demonstrate that tillage rates of only about a quarter of a given landscape around leks can cause male grouse to abandon them. Cropland conversion also fragments the landscape more broadly and reduces the suitability of the remaining smaller patches of sagebrush. Cultivated lands no longer in production can take decades to recover and may even be permanently degraded from prior use of herbicides.
This includes activities related to oil and gas and renewables, such as wind and solar. Impacts from development are well documented and remove habitat outright or render some of the remaining habitat nearby unusable to sage grouse due to disturbance around the infrastructure.
More than 20 percent of sagebrush habitat in the Rocky Mountain region has been affected by oil and gas development and mining. We also know that millions of acres of priority sage grouse habitat were leased for oil and gas development during the last administration, and many impacts from existing development were never fully mitigated in recent years.
Across the West, juniper and pinyon pine trees—native species to these landscapes—have expanded dramatically since European settlement and this has consequences for sagebrush and wildlife. Conifer expansion changes the vegetation and can negatively alter wildlife use, water and nutrient cycles, carbon storage, and resistance to invasion from invasive plant species. Removing conifer trees in sagebrush stimulates the growth of forbs and bunchgrasses up to 20 times over. Unfortunately, while conifer removal has occurred across wide swaths of land in the West, the expansion continues to outpace removal, and we continue losing ground to this threat.
Parts of the West are experiencing a 20-year megadrought, a clear sign that our changing climate is altering landscapes and making it more difficult to repair them once they are damaged. Warmer spring temperatures mean drier soil earlier in the season, and that leads to longer periods of hot and dry conditions during summer. In turn, these hotter and drier conditions leave plants with less resistance to wildfire.
These altered fire cycles have had enormous impacts on sage country, where fire season is now 134 percent longer. The enormity of these fires has also increased substantially over the past two decades, according to the USGS report. Since 2000, more that 20 percent of priority habitat management areas for sage grouse within the Great Basin alone have burned, in part due to climate conditions. And the next few decades are predicted to be even worse, further threatening the sagebrush ecosystem without serious investment and intervention.
And then there’s cheatgrass—an insidious non-native annual grass that has expanded across the West and particularly in the arid Great Basin region. This invasive species contributed to altering the normal fire cycle, producing much larger and more intense and frequent wildfires that consume huge expanses of sagebrush. Left unchecked, invasive plants degrade plant communities, wildlife habitat, and migratory corridors and threaten wildlife survival. They also can cause significant negative economic impacts.
Worse yet, like expanding conifers and wildfires, current management programs are addressing less than 10 percent of cheatgrass infestations—far more acres are becoming infected than are being treated, and agencies will continue to struggle to keep pace without robust funding.
The truth is that no one factor is affecting the entire range of the greater sage grouse, but this holistic and long-term picture of loss in sage grouse country points to one sure thing: an immediate need to conserve remaining habitat AND provide greater investments in sagebrush restoration.
There was some good news in the USGS reports: Scientists have developed some amazing new tools to help wildlife managers better detect when sage grouse populations may be in trouble. These “early warning systems” will hopefully improve the ability to address problems faster as conservation plans are being implemented.
The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies has also been developing a broader sagebrush conservation strategy to help guide the collective efforts of local, state, tribal, and federal government agencies and nongovernmental stakeholders across all scales to conserve the sagebrush ecosystem.
Still, just implementing the current conservation plans and mitigating all future impacts may not be enough. With so many millions of acres of sagebrush in degraded conditions, we need massive investments in habitat restoration on top of implementing the conservation plans already in place.
Combating cheatgrass will take years and likely billions of dollars of investment. Removing invading conifers that can overtake sagebrush habitats already has been conducted across the West, but not nearly fast enough or across enough acres.
However, with challenges like these also come opportunities. The Biden Administration has put forth an aggressive climate change agenda and could be sold on restoration efforts in the sagebrush ecosystem that can put people to work while improving carbon storage and the resilience of these habitats to climate change.
This is an opportunity, if we view it as such. We need Congress, federal and state agencies, and the private sector to make the necessary investments in conservation and restoration that will reap many rewards for all stakeholders in the future.
Sportsmen and women have, of course, been on the frontlines of sage grouse conservation for decades, and our dollars—through licenses, habitat stamps, and Pittman-Robertson funds—have and will continue to support sage grouse conservation.
We’ve also sacrificed along the way. Over the past several years, most Western state wildlife agencies have made major adjustments to the harvest of sage grouse. Season closures have been carried out the right way where it has mattered most.
It has been demonstrated time and time again that regulated hunting of sage grouse is not a major threat to overall population status, but these continued downward trends cannot be ignored by state wildlife agencies. Hunters may yet again see more changes to hunting seasons and bag limits, and perhaps closures, in the coming years because of habitat losses.
Our state wildlife agencies must do their jobs and will continually adjust the harvest to ensure that less than 10 percent of the estimated total population of sage grouse are taken each fall. But sportsmen and women must do theirs too.
One fear is that with more hunting restrictions and closures hunters will lose interest in sage grouse and conservation of its ecosystem. However, this is not the time to relax on advocating for strengthening conservation efforts.
Reversing these population and habitat trends was never going to be an easy task – even back when the bird was first proposed for listing as threatened or endangered. Now, the hole to dig out of is even deeper. We still need all hands on deck in sage grouse country, and that includes sportsmen and sportswomen advocating for decisive steps to conserve the sagebrush ecosystem.
Images courtesy of USFWS, Tom Koerner
Today, Governor Mark Gordon signed House Bill 122, Reliable Funding for Hunting and Fishing Access, into law. By increasing the cost of a conservation stamp, the legislation provides funding for willing landowners to open access or create easements that unlock inaccessible federal and state lands. This bill passed through the 2021 legislative session thanks to the support of passionate hunters and anglers and lawmakers who value the strong sporting heritage here in Wyoming.
Representative Cyrus Western of Sheridan, an avid hunter and angler and the primary sponsor of the bill, stressed the collaborative and bipartisan support behind it. “This was a team effort of the highest order,” said Western. “From industry leaders to local hunters and sportsmen groups, there was an authentic and organic push for this legislation by people who hold public access near and dear. Sportsmen and women made their voices heard by coming out to support this bill in big numbers.”
The legislation raises the cost of an annual conservation stamp, which hunters and anglers are required to purchase before going hunting or fishing, by $9 to create a fund for the Wyoming Game and Fish to develop more access agreements to private and landlocked or difficult-to-access federal and state lands. This will help complement Wyoming’s existing Access Yes program with additional opportunities for hunting and fishing.
The recent easement created to access Raymond Mountain near the Wyoming-Idaho border is a perfect example: That agreement provided improved access to 33,000 acres.
Jess Johnson, government affairs director for the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, spent more than a year gauging member support for a bill of this kind. In a survey of the organization’s members, 75 percent said they would support a $5 to $10 fee to improve hunter and angler access in Wyoming. “It’s clear that access is important to people who hunt in Wyoming statewide,” said Johnson. “This bill really was passed through the voice of proactive hunters and anglers.”
“This is the single most important thing done for Wyoming hunter and angler access in more than 20 years,” said Dwayne Meadows, WWF’s executive director.
More than 4 million acres of federal and state lands in Wyoming lack permanent legal public access because they are surrounded by private lands, according to a report by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and onX, which helped spur the legislation.
“Not only is this a great step in addressing the landlocked issue for hunters and anglers, it also provides landowners a voluntary opportunity for additional income to maintain their ranches and livelihoods,” said Nick Dobric, Wyoming representative for the TRCP.
The bill also directs a small portion of funds to making roadways safer for drivers and wildlife, as well as supporting jobs by funding wildlife-friendly highway crossing structures and fish passage projects.
Along with Wyoming Wildlife Federation and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, other sportsmen’s organizations that supported the bill were Mule Deer Foundation, Western Bear Foundation, Wyoming Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Trout Unlimited, Muley Fanatic Foundation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Water for Wildlife Foundation, One Shot Antelope Hunt Club, and Bowhunters of Wyoming.
The sporting community applauds Representative Western, Governor Gordon, and all the elected officials who helped pass HB 122.
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