Marnee Banks

May 26, 2021

Transportation Bill Makes Groundbreaking Investments in Wildlife Crossings, Climate, and Access

Sportsmen and sportswomen help shape Highway Bill

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has unanimously passed a historic compromise to invest in wildlife crossings, disaster prevention, climate resilience, and public access as part of a major infrastructure package, sending the bill to the full Senate for a vote.

The Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act, commonly called the Highway Bill, invests $350 million over five years in a competitive grant program dedicated to the construction of wildlife crossing structures, including over and under passes. These crossing structures help connect otherwise unavailable habitats that benefit pronghorn antelope, mule deer, and black bears.

“This remarkable agreement will preserve wildlife and human life by reducing vehicle-wildlife collisions,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Our highway system has historically fragmented big game habitat and migration corridors, but this bill recognizes that we can create jobs, maintain modern infrastructure, and improve our natural systems. The bill also builds climate resilience as we grapple with the impacts of weather events and improves public access to hunting, fishing, and other recreational opportunities. We want to thank Chairman Carper and Ranking Member Capito for leading the effort to ensure this transportation bill keeps wildlife habitat connected.”

This investment is the first of its kind in a national wildlife crossings initiative. The TRCP began working on this issue back in February 2019 by hosting a workshop with biologists, planners, and engineers from multiple state and federal agencies to discuss the issue of wildlife-vehicle collisions and how to safeguard migrating wildlife. Since that time, the TRCP has spearheaded the legislative and grassroots effort with many partner organizations and more than 12,000 hunters and anglers who have asked lawmakers to invest in wildlife crossings.

Other important provisions in the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act include:

  • Promoting Resilient Operations for Transformative, Efficient, and Cost-saving Transportation (PROTECT) Grant Program to improve the ability of disaster-prone communities to reduce risk and build resilience to significant weather events.
  • Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Program to storm-proof roads to protect habitat and water quality; reclaim unneeded roads to prevent erosion from damaging streams; replace culverts to restore fish passage; and improve trails on public lands.
  • Federal Lands Transportation Program to repair, maintain, and reconstruct roads on public lands, which are essential for outdoor recreation.
  • Federal Lands Access Program to supplement state and local resources for infrastructure projects that improve public access to adjacent federal lands.

4 Responses to “Transportation Bill Makes Groundbreaking Investments in Wildlife Crossings, Climate, and Access”

  1. Maria Corbit

    I believe these are more than necessary . Roads should start being built above tree lines as the amount of wildlife killed is a catastrophe and a study should be done .

  2. Michele Koskinen

    Re: wildlife under and overpasses -this is WONDERFUL news. I’m hoping that NYS will put some of these in, especially along the Taconic Parkway and the NYS Thruway network.

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Rob Thornberry

May 24, 2021

Cooperative Winter Range Management in Idaho Shows A Path Forward for Migration Conservation

Hunters, ranchers, and land managers partner for the benefit of wildlife and working lands

As snow recedes in the Centennial Mountains along the Idaho-Mountain border and in the high country of Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, big game animals are on the move.

Following the spring green-up that comes with snow’s retreat, roughly 10,000 deer, elk, moose, and pronghorn are leaving the Sand Creek winter range—located roughly 50 miles northeast of my home in Idaho Falls— and heading primarily north and east to the high-country headwaters from Camas Creek east toward Yellowstone’s Boundary Creek and Falls River.

The seasonal movements of these animals are one of the wonders of the West, especially considering the challenges presented by habitat lost to severe wildfire, the proliferation of fences and other barriers, and the near-constant encroachment of more second homes, roads, and major highways. With Idaho’s rapid growth in recent years, keeping this migration route intact will be a major challenge.

Fortunately, a blueprint for success has been developed at the wintertime terminus of this major migration, the Sand Creek desert, which sits between the towns of St. Anthony and Dubois in eastern Idaho’s Fremont and Clark counties. The winter range is a 500,000-acre patchwork of Bureau of Land Management public lands, endowment lands managed by the Idaho Department of Lands, and private property.

Despite the differences in priorities of the various stakeholders, these agencies and landowners have teamed together to conserve the winter range while also allowing the local ranching industry to thrive.

The partnership began in the 1970s when local ranchers applied to have 4,000 acres of big game winter range converted to cultivation for potato farming. The BLM rejected the proposal, but the ensuing dialogue resulted in the Sand Creek Habitat Management Plan, adopted by the BLM, Idaho Department of Lands, and Idaho Department of Fish and Game, which outlined a cooperative management approach to enhance the elk winter habitat in the BLM’s Sands Habitat Management Plan. One of the plan’s main goals was to help a fledgling herd of elk that was first identified in the area in 1947, and, in the late 40s or early 1950, the Fremont County Sportsmen Association also transplanted 12 elk to the area from Yellowstone National Park.

The partnership was tested in the 1980s when local ranchers and the counties asked the BLM to turn the Egin-Hamer Road into a year-round, farm-to-market road. Again, the local landowners lost their request at first, but cooperation won out in the end. In exchange for converting the road into a year-round thoroughfare, all of the interested parties agreed in 1987 to an annual closure for the winter range that limited all human entry from Jan. 1 to May 1, preventing human disturbances to big game animals already stressed by harsh seasonal conditions. It is a model of conservation that came to pass because of cooperation and negotiation.

More than 30 years later, the group of agencies, landowners, and sportsmen that created the wintertime closure are back at the table, working for the best interests of wildlife and the local ranching community. Mobilized by a 2019 wildfire that burned roughly 20 percent of the winter range, conservationists, sportsmen, landowners, state biologists, and federal land managers have joined forces yet again. This time, the priority is to build firebreaks to protect the remaining healthy winter range and design vegetation treatments to restore the overgrown stands of aging sagebrush. The goals of their collaboration are preventing large wildfires, improving wildlife habitat, and providing for a working landscape.

Already this spring, deer, elk, moose, and pronghorn have largely left the Sand Creek Desert, riding the green wave of new forage to the high country of the Centennials and Yellowstone. There they will calve and fawn. They will fatten over the summer and fall until deep snow pushes them back down from the mountains. The winter range will be waiting, protected by meaningful conservation safeguards, and in the good hands of Idahoans who are working together.

Sand Creek is a template for how to manage challenges facing winter ranges and other valuable wildlife habitats. More importantly, it is a model of the type of cooperation that has been at the heart of our country’s greatest conservation successes. That same collaborative spirit will be needed on future BLM and Forest Service planning efforts as we continue our work to ensure the West’s big game herds can move between the seasonal habitats they need to thrive.

 

Randall Williams

February 25, 2021

Montanans Care About Wildlife Migration

New poll shows strong support for wildlife crossings and continued collaboration between stakeholders on this key conservation priority

In Montana, state and federal agencies as well as conservation organizations and landowner groups have been working to identify opportunities for collaboration between landowners, sportsmen and women, scientists, agency officials, and other stakeholders to conserve important habitat and migration routes.

A new survey of 500 registered voters in the Treasure State—commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trusts and conducted by the research firms FM3 and New Bridge Strategy—shows that broad sections of the public strongly support this important work.

The survey found that 88% of Montana respondents favor the adoption of strategies and actions that conserve wildlife migration routes, while 86% also agree with improving coordination between federal land management agencies and local stakeholders to prioritize conservation of migration routes on public lands.

The report also highlighted robust support in Montana for specific actions to ensure the continued functionality of migration routes.

  • 87% endorse providing incentives to private landowners, such as ranchers, who voluntarily agree to conserve migration routes on their land as wildlife habitat.
  • 88% support construction of wildlife crossing structures—such as over- or underpasses—to help animals cross major highways where they intersect with known migration routes.
  • 75% approve a requirement that construction of new housing developments and associated roads and infrastructure avoid wildlife migration routes.

Furthermore, the survey showed that an overwhelming majority of Montanans place a high value on their state’s wildlife resources: 88% of respondents see wildlife as important to their quality of life in Montana, while 83% see wildlife as important to Montana’s economy.

Thankfully, Montana has a strong tradition of 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. In 2020, various stakeholders worked with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to develop a strategy for conserving habitat essential to wildlife migration and movement.

For sportsmen and women, it is encouraging to know that a majority of Montanans share concern about one of the most significant threats to its mule deer, elk, and antelope herds. This widespread support should be motivation for state officials, private landowners, and conservation professionals to continue to find common ground and address cooperatively the challenges faced by various stakeholders.

February 4, 2021

Building on Our Conservation Successes

We can’t move conservation forward if there’s a strict policy of “out with the old, in with the new”

It has become a political ritual for an incoming administration to undo actions from the previous administration. Some of this is natural and appropriate, but if the goal of the Biden Administration is to advance conservation that withstands political whirlwinds, then prudence dictates that we look at every action on its own merits—not simply assume that everything done under the previous administration has to go. It’s worth remembering that the Great American Outdoors Act, the America’s Conservation Enhancement Act, and the Modern Fish Act were all signed into law by President Trump and the permit for the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay was ultimately denied during his time in office.

Here’s a list of actions that the Trump Administration took that we think should be embraced and expanded moving forward.

Migration Corridors

One of the best ways to help big game adapt to a changing climate is to ensure they can move freely across the landscape. So conservationists cheered when the Department of Interior issued Secretarial Order 3362, prioritizing the conservation of big game winter ranges and migration corridors. Since that time, the states and federal government have partnered to research big game movements and improve habitat for mule deer, elk, and pronghorn antelope. In addition, the Department and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation provided more than $15 million to implement the order, funds that were matched by about $30 million in state and private funds. This resulted in on-the-ground projects that range from restoring habitat to improving fencing.

The Order also inspired Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming to adopt their own migration corridor conservation programs, with additional states working to join them.

The Biden Administration should build off the Trump Administration’s efforts by ensuring that Bureau of Land Management and national forest management plans prioritize migratory habitats. Agency-wide conservation policies should also be expanded to include wild sheep and moose, as well as summer range for all big game species. Finally, the administration and Congress should team up to direct funding toward migration research and construction of wildlife crossings, including $500 million as part of a new Highway Bill, which Congress is expected to pass in 2021.

Access

In 2019, Congress passed the John Dingell Conservation Act, which, among other things, made it clear that hunting and fishing is allowed on federal lands unless specifically closed through a transparent public process. A separate provision in the Dingell Act directed the federal land management agencies to identify lands within their holdings that were inaccessible or had restricted access and to develop priority lists for making those lands accessible to the public.

Expanding hunting and fishing access on our public lands is not a new idea. During the last two administrations, access was expanded on national wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries, a recognition that hunting and fishing are, and always have been, important drivers of local economies.

In addition, the Fish and Wildlife Service under President Trump worked to, where appropriate, conform access regulations to those of the state. As any hunter and angler knows, rules and regulations can be confusing at the best of times, so when it is possible to keep the rules the same across jurisdictions, it makes the user experience far more enjoyable.

The Biden Administration, too, can be a leader in expanding and enhancing public access for outdoor recreation. Like hunting and fishing, public lands should be open and available to all Americans, regardless of their background or economic status. Hunting and fishing participation numbers have exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic as people head outdoors for recreation and relief. This trend calls for more access and opportunities, be it for hunting, fishing, hiking, paddling, or the myriad other uses that make up the outdoor recreation economy. Access to our public lands is the base of this economy.

In addition to looking at hunting and fishing opportunities on our accessible public lands, the Biden Administration should aggressively pursue projects that open access to the more than 16 million acres of public lands that are landlocked by private lands.

Land Disposal

In 2019, then-Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed Secretarial Order 3373, which directed the agency to prioritize public access when considering the disposal and exchange of public lands. For the past 40 years, the BLM has been required to identify small tracts of land available for sale or disposal, and prior to the Trump Administration this frequently included public lands that offer important recreational access. The Order changed that, ensuring that small but important tracts would remain in public hands.

This approach to land disposal should be maintained and further implemented by the Biden Administration.

Backcountry Conservation Areas

Bureau of Land Management public lands contain some of the best hunting and fishing in the country, so in 2011, the TRCP—in coordination with other hunting and fishing groups and businesses—proposed a new management tool called Backcountry Conservation Areas (BCAs). We like to think of it is a “keep special places like they are AND make them better” option for land management. For areas with exceptional wildlife habitat, major development would be prohibited, but traditional uses, such as grazing, wouldn’t be affected. And the areas could be improved through habitat-focused restoration and enhancement—a critically important approach for establishing climate resilience and controlling invasive species.

Because of their unique bipartisan appeal—with supporters ranging from state wildlife agencies, county commissioners, and BLM retirees to a tribal council—the Obama Administration adopted the concept of BCAs, and then the management tool was implemented by the Trump Administration.

BCAs should now be embraced by the Biden Administration and included in BLM resource management plans as they are updated. This provides a golden opportunity to protect biodiversity, while simultaneously supporting access to outdoor recreation.

Everglades

The Trump Administration made Everglades restoration a priority, including projects along the Caloosahatchee River in southwest Florida. It is imperative that this work continues. A functioning Everglades is a giant sponge, slowing and cleaning water as it makes its way south. Not only is Everglades restoration critical for water quality and hunting and fishing, it’s important in addressing the impacts of climate change on South Florida.

 

In the TRCP’s nearly 20 years of working on conservation issues, we have seen administrations come and go, and we have watched as the political makeup of Congress has shifted. Despite those changes, we have found conservation to be a unifier—bringing people together, providing a place for consensus, and bridging divides.

We know that the voices of sportsmen and sportswomen are integral in making that happen, so we urge this next administration to keep an open mind. We stand ready to help.

Randall Williams

December 17, 2020

Big Game Migration Success Stories in 2020

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.

Speaking Up

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.

Secretarial Order 3362

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

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.

Wyoming

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.

Photo by Wyoming Migration Initiative.
Oregon

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.

Idaho

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.

Colorado

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.

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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 conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations.

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