Levee Setback White Paper FINAL June 30 2021
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Leading conservation groups and industry brands release report with recommendations for the future of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service-managed public lands
A new report from 32 hunting- and fishing-related conservation organizations and businesses celebrates the successes of the National Wildlife Refuge System in supporting species conservation and outdoor recreation, and outlines twelve key principles that should guide its management and future proposals for its expansion. This comes as hunters and anglers are enjoying new opportunities on national wildlife refuges, and as the administration continues to define its conservation priorities.
“President Theodore Roosevelt, who more than anyone recognized the inextricable connection between conservation and hunting, established the first National Wildlife Refuge in 1903 at Pelican Island,” said Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute. “Continuing in that proud tradition, I was privileged to serve as the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during the 100th anniversary of the refuge system and throughout my tenure worked to encourage hunting and fishing programs on these lands, for which Roosevelt cared so deeply. In opening our refuges to more Americans and planning for expanded opportunities throughout the system, the Fish and Wildlife Service continues to carry out an important mission that is essential to the future of hunting and fishing—as well as that of conservation—in this country.”
According to the report, “strategic and locally supported expansion of the National Wildlife Refuge System would help to provide all Americans with increased access to nature regardless of their income or background, to conserve biodiversity, and to sustain fish and wildlife habitat connectivity.”
“Sportsmen and sportswomen have been the National Wildlife Refuge System’s earliest advocates, most outspoken supporters, and most generous contributors, which helps explain why our community has such a strong investment in building on the system’s proven framework,” said Christy Plumer, chief policy officer for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service defines the future of the refuge system—including the potential expansion of refuges—we see an opportunity to ensure that the system continues to benefit numerous species as well as public fishing and hunting.”
Recent events make the report’s release particularly timely. In 2019 and 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service increased hunting and fishing opportunities on a combined 4 million acres within the refuge system, and the agency recently proposed expanded opportunities on an additional 2.1 million acres. Then, in March 2021, several federal agencies released “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful,” which outlines a ten-year roadmap for conserving at least 30 percent of lands and waters by 2030. Specifically mentioned is a recommendation to work “with States, local communities, and others to explore where there is support to enhance the National Wildlife Refuge System.”
“Not only does the National Wildlife Refuge System conserve irreplaceable habitat for trout and salmon, these public lands also offer world class angling opportunities. Strengthening the refuge system is crucial to help make fish and wildlife populations more resilient to the effects of climate change,” said Corey Fisher, public lands policy director with Trout Unlimited. “This report provides constructive guideposts for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to enhance the refuge system for future generations, and this needs to be coupled with a commitment from Congress to ensure that the agency has the resources and funding necessary to steward wildlife refuges across the nation.”
At the report’s core are recommendations in the form of twelve tenets that, if followed, would help generate broad support from the hunting and fishing community for proposed new or expanded refuges. These principles address concerns ranging from public access and sporting opportunities to state fish and wildlife management authority, as well as funding and administrative priorities.
“Durable land conservation requires open dialogue, strong partnerships, and an interest in finding common ground,” said John Gale, conservation director for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “Hunters and anglers are proven collaborators, and there is a need for our community to remain at the table to help shape a future for the National Wildlife Refuge System that we and others can call a success.”
The report includes feature profiles of four refuges within the system that offer diverse opportunities for hunters and anglers and explains some of the history and characteristics that make these landscapes unique. The voices of local sportsmen and sportswomen help to explain the value of each refuge to nearby communities in places ranging from rural southwest Wyoming to the urban spaces of greater Detroit, Michigan, and Toledo, Ohio.
“Among all of our public lands, national wildlife refuges play an important role in providing Americans access to the outdoors, and include outstanding deer habitats throughout the country,” said Nick Pinizzotto, president and CEO of the National Deer Association. “Sportsmen and sportswomen have a profound appreciation for the opportunities provided by the refuge system and there can be no doubt that the hunting community will speak up to ensure this legacy lives on for future generations.”
See the full list of policy recommendations and read the report at TRCP.org/refuges.
In the midst of the pandemic last fall, the TRCP was forced to take its signature in-person fundraising gala and host the whole thing online. Steven Rinella, a TRCP Board Member, served as co-emcee and graciously offered to be part of our first-ever nationwide sweepstakes, as well. Hundreds of sportsmen and sportswomen entered for a chance to join a turkey hunt in Michigan with the MeatEater crew, including Rinella and Janis Putelis, but only one could win: Austin Snow of Colorado Springs, Colo. Here’s his story.
I didn’t grow up hunting, but when I decided to give it a try, my childhood friend Kevin suggested that I purchase the two-volume “Complete Guide to Hunting, Butchering, and Cooking Wild Game,” by Steven Rinella. Over the next five years, these two books were invaluable to me as I became obsessed with learning how to hunt big and small game. In that time, I learned more and more about MeatEater and Rinella: the hunter, writer, entrepreneur, cook, entertainer, and conservationist.
Needless to say, I’m a fan. I’d been looking for a conservation organization to support, so the chance to donate to a good cause while putting in for a once-in-a-lifetime hunt with Steve was impossible to resist.
After a few weeks of not giving my entry a second thought, I received an email saying I had won and that I could bring two guests on what promised to be a memorable experience. It was only fitting that Kevin join us, after introducing me to MeatEater, and I asked my brother Jake, as well.
Months later, we were picked up at the airport in Michigan by the world-record turkey caller Guy Zuck. Along with his wife and son, Guy takes care of the property we’d be hunting, and in our time there, I saw him do everything from taking care of boats and guns to processing and cooking harvested animals. He’s also happy to help people improve their turkey calling skills.
Upon arrival, we received a tour and then patterned the shotguns we would be using. TRCP Board member Matt Cook, our gracious host, welcomed us with a few hilarious stories from the ranch—some involving the MeatEater gang—to help prepare us for the days ahead.
A short while later, Steve and the rest of the crew walk through the door. Over a meal of walleye fish tacos, we discussed our plan of attack for the morning and decided who would hunt with whom. Jake was paired with Janis, Kevin with Cal, and Steve and Seth would hunt with me.
I’d barely slept when 4:30 AM came around. After a few crow calls before sunrise, we heard some gobblers off in the distance and picked a spot to set up. Steve and I posted up on the same tree so he could talk me through the experience of my first turkey hunt. Seth was on a tree just behind us to capture some footage.
After about an hour of calling and a few interactions with some hens, the tom we’d been hearing got louder and louder. Anticipating a shot opportunity, Steve was offering some last-minute guidance when all of a sudden the biggest turkey I’ve ever seen in my life came charging in, full strut. I freaked out and rushed my shot, resulting in a clean miss, but the giant bird doubled back and gave me the very rare chance for a follow up. The second shot got him down and I approached shaking from the cold and the adrenaline.
That was that. Not many people can say their first turkey was called in by Seth “the Flip-Flop Flesher” Morris and Steven Rinella.
After filling my tag, I set decoys as we worked to get Seth a bird that evening. All along the way the MeatEater crew gave me pointers, teaching me the difference between the sign from males and females, as well as some of the physical differences between jakes and toms.
The next morning, I had the sincere pleasure of sitting in a blind with Guy Zuck. Although the birds were stubborn, I could easily tell that Guy was on a different level when it comes to turkey calling. If Steve and Seth have master’s degrees in turkey calling, Guy has a Ph.D. in clucks, yelps, and purrs—PLUS a master’s in turkey behavioral psychology.
Later in the day, Steve and I sat still watching about eight hens graze a field until sunset, while deer worked their way out of the woods. It was another beautiful, cold Michigan evening with a symphony of birds all around us.
I spent the last morning with Steve in a blind. I must say, Steve’s all business out there in the woods, but if you find yourself hunting with a stranger in close quarters, he’s the most down-to-earth guy you could ask for.
Not long into the afternoon, Jake got a bird—his first, as well. They’d roosted some birds the evening before and relocated them that morning. At some point, Jake drifted off for a quick nap, only to catch a glimpse of a bird right when he awoke. Janis grabbed the tom’s attention with a few calls, and he came straight into Jake’s shooting lane on his way towards the decoys. When all was said and done, Jake had a 24-pound bird—his first—and Janis was just as excited as he was.
Later, Seth joined my brother and Janis just in time to see “the Latvian Eagle” pop a nice-size jake for himself.
I wanted to give Steve some time to hunt for himself on the last evening, so Guy and his son took our trio out fishing on the lake. We caught close to 20 bluegills, one yellow perch, and saw a couple of massive beavers, calling it a day just after sunset.
I can’t believe I’m lucky enough to have hunted with sportsmen of this caliber. I can easily say the MeatEater crew put on a master class. Plus, between Cal’s Coues deer chili, some elk meat marinara sauce over spaghetti, and Janis’s turkey schnitzel, we ate like kings. It was such a great first turkey hunt that I awkwardly gave Steve a man-hug before we all parted ways for the airport.
I’m truly grateful to the TRCP, MeatEater, Matt Cook, and his whole crew for making it happen. I know that it was just the first of many spring gobbler hunts for me and my family. I am now a lifelong turkey hunter.
The next opportunity to win a hunt with the MeatEater crew will be announced in August. In the meantime, enter to win some great gear and prizes while celebrating the private landowners who provide public access for hunting and fishing through Montana’s Block Management Program.
Washington, D.C. — In a 221-201 floor vote today, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the INVEST in America Act, a five-year highway bill with much-needed funding for fish and wildlife habitat connectivity, climate resilience, and road and trail maintenance across public lands.
The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is particularly encouraged to see the advancement of a new $100-million-per-year grant program that would help states construct more wildlife-friendly road crossing structures, including over- and underpasses, that benefit migrating big game and many other species. An amendment was also successfully passed to establish a new grant program to fund and support culvert restoration projects, which will help restore essential anadromous fish passages across the nation.
“It’s the right time to invest in America’s transportation infrastructure and jobs, and it’s highly appropriate that we look out for fish and wildlife habitat as we make largescale improvements,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “This may be our best chance to knit together fragmented migration corridors and fish habitat, especially now that we know more about the way animals use seasonal habitats and exactly how development affects their movement patterns. The science and technology have advanced, but we can’t create solutions without the dedicated funding provided in this bill, which would create the first national wildlife crossings initiative of its kind and help prioritize culvert restoration across the country.”
The bill also includes an amendment that authorizes the Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Program through 2030 and requires the U.S. Forest Service to develop a national strategy for using the program—which would have a direct impact on public land access and hunting and fishing opportunities on Forest Service lands. The Forest Service also gets a share of the $555 million per year included in INVEST for the Federal Land Transportation Program, but the TRCP and partners will continue to push for more balance here.
Importantly, INVEST would also:
The Senate surface transportation bill includes the culvert provisions but only $350 million over five years for wildlife crossings. It also includes a climate resilience program that is not in the House bill. The two versions will need to be reconciled before the president can sign off and advance the much-needed conservation provisions mentioned above.
Top image courtesy of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
Once again, the pendulum is swinging back toward protection of our nation’s streams, rivers, and wetlands – and thus the fish, waterfowl, and other wildlife that rely on these waters.
On June 10, the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers announced that they would reconsider which waters and wetlands should be protected under the Clean Water Act, which is now 49 years old. The definitional rule, referred to as “Waters of the U.S.” (WOTUS), describes which discharges to our nation’s waters and wetlands need permits and, therefore, protective conditions.
Discharges potentially needing permits are both from “point sources,” like wastewater treatment plants and factories, and from development activities, like the construction of dams, diversion structures, roads, bridges, or tracts of houses.
The rule the agencies have committed to repeal and replace was issued in April 2020. It shrunk the wetlands protected by Clean Water Act programs by millions of acres, and the number of stream miles by as much as half. (The agencies do not have precise figures for the rule’s impact.) While there had previously been changes to the range of waters and wetlands that the law governs, those changes were never previously more than a few percentage points. The agencies have now conceded in legal challenges to the 2020 rule that there were over 330 construction projects poised to proceed without permits, i.e., without any mitigation for water quality required.
The potential impact to critical fish and wildlife habitat is frightening. Maybe it is because of our interconnectedness with rivers and streams that, according to a 2018 poll commissioned by the TRCP, 92 percent of hunters and anglers were in favor of strengthening federal clean water protections. That makes us possibly the most supportive demographic in the country.
Last month, my colleague Andrew Earl wrote about the failure of the USDA to protect wetlands in the prairie potholes region of the Upper Midwest—the nation’s “duck factory.” These same wetlands sometimes qualify for protection from being filled with construction dirt under the Clean Water Act, but they were entirely excluded from protection under the 2020 WOTUS rule.
Now more than ever, as migratory birds face the loss of habitat due to climate change, all of our government’s agencies should be working to conserve wetlands using every arrow in the quiver.
The administration has promised a robust stakeholder process to develop a new definition of WOTUS, one that the TRCP hopes would be durable enough to withstand the swings of the political pendulum. That process will take time. The administration has already asked the courts reviewing challenges to the 2020 rule to pause their considerations so that the agencies can make changes.
The next step for the agencies must be to repeal the 2020 rule outright and reinstate the coverage that the George W. Bush administration put into place in 2008, following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on WOTUS. That will at least restore wider coverage and perhaps forestall some of the hundreds of habitat-damaging projects that might otherwise proceed.
The current administration must do this repeal as quickly as possible, in part because any “jurisdictional determination” the Corps makes until the rule is repealed would last for five years. That means a project may proceed without a permit without being revisited for half a decade, even if there’s a replacement rule put into place in 2024.
The TRCP appreciates that the agencies want to get a new rule right, so that it can withstand judicial review, and that doing so will take some time. But they cannot be too cautious with the repeal. Without it, too many destructive projects may proceed, and the loss of wetlands and streams is not something easily reversed.
Continue following the TRCP to be the first to know about opportunities to engage in the effort to restore Clean Water Act protections to headwaters and wetlands.
Top photo courtesy of USDA NRCS Montana via Flickr.
Theodore Roosevelt’s experiences hunting and fishing certainly fueled his passion for conservation, but it seems that a passion for coffee may have powered his mornings. In fact, Roosevelt’s son once said that his father’s coffee cup was “more in the nature of a bathtub.” TRCP has partnered with Afuera Coffee Co. to bring together his two loves: a strong morning brew and a dedication to conservation. With your purchase, you’ll not only enjoy waking up to the rich aroma of this bolder roast—you’ll be supporting the important work of preserving hunting and fishing opportunities for all.Learn More