Latino Hunters – Tim Donovan
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As common flood protection structures, earthen levees line American rivers and streams. Levees constructed in response to historic river flooding—where property damage soared and life loss steadily increased—have been relied upon for generations.
But these manmade barriers also work against our natural environment. Connectivity of a river to its floodplain is critical for the exchange of flows with the river, which deposit and transport sediment through the watershed and support the sustainability of fish and wildlife populations. Levee construction across our major river systems has interrupted and prevented this natural and beneficial ecological function of floodplains.
Over time, Congress acknowledged the adverse impacts of human development that depletes habitat by passing the National Environmental Policy Act in 1970 and the Endangered Species Act in 1973, among other legislation. But levees are still used today. Fortunately, there is a way to make communities more resilient from flooding and reconnect habitat that relies on life-giving sediment and river flows.
Numerous levees have performed and continue to perform as they were originally intended. Just ask someone from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. For that matter, just ask me. After 34 years of service with the Corps, I’ve seen the good and the bad associated with levees.
On the one hand, levees have prevented devastating flooding from occurring in large cities and small towns—protecting critical facilities (like hospitals, fire and ambulance stations, utility distribution services, government buildings, and military bases) as well as acres upon acres of productive farmland.
However, many of these levees were designed before we began experiencing the apparent effects of climate change, which could pose higher risks now and in the future.
A levee’s height and width will not change once it has been constructed. No matter how much you water it, that levee will not grow. The design conditions are static, with levee performance being based upon the hydrology and hydraulics from when the levee was originally designed. Unfortunately, the climate is dynamic and, as we have witnessed over the past decade, the intensity and frequency of severe weather is increasing along with the failure of vulnerable levees—most recently within the lower Missouri River Basin.
When a levee fails, the results can be catastrophic to people, buildings, infrastructure, livestock, and cropland. Setting levees back far enough to allow the river more room to convey flood waters, while protecting all landward assets, could solve multiple problems.
The photo on the left below illustrates the devastation to the land after a levee breach occurred along the Missouri River during the 2011 flood. The photo on the right illustrates the levee setback that was implemented after the flood, improving flood conveyance, reducing the depth of inevitable floods, and increasing the resiliency of the levee.
Further, the land located riverward of the levee has been enrolled into conservation easements, reconnecting a large portion of the historic floodplain and allowing for that critical exchange of flow between the river and the floodplain.
Diversification of flood flows through reconnection of the historic floodplain to the river is the greatest environmental benefit associated with a levee setback like this one. As shown in the images below, fish and wildlife are flourishing within the conservation easements, because they mimic natural ponds and wetlands. The positive trade-off of transitioning some productive cropland to conservation easements by realigning the levee is that fewer levee failures will occur, the setback levee is more resilient to flooding, and the environment has an opportunity to recover.
The cost of setting a levee back from the river can be millions of dollars. The cost of not setting back certain levees, especially those that continue to encounter flood damage, may be costlier in terms of damage to buildings, infrastructure, livestock, cropland, and the environment. While funding from the federal government flows with fewer restrictions to states and local governments after a disaster, it would be beneficial for states and federal agencies to identify vulnerable levees now—prior to flooding.
We must acknowledge that our needs have changed since levees were first designed and constructed. Continuing to rebuild after every damaging flood, rather than implement forward-thinking solutions, like levee setbacks, all but guarantees that fish and wildlife habitat will continue to suffer.
Randall Behm is retired from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after 34 years as a professional engineer. As a consultant, he now works nationally on the implementation of nonstructural flood mitigation measures and advocates for the setback of perennially damaged levees to improve flood-risk management and environmental benefits.
In recent months, chronic wasting disease outbreaks at multiple captive deer operations have put wild deer at risk for infection. Last week, the TRCP was joined by the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, National Deer Association, and National Wildlife Federation in calling on U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to take immediate action to curb the spread of CWD, especially considering its impact on the nation’s $40-billion annual deer hunting economy.
The following three events, which have forced states to undertake immediate and costly actions to address potential contaminations in the wild, are compelling motivation:
In May, the Texas Department of Parks & Wildlife Department took on a full epidemiological investigation to track the spread of CWD from three endemic breeding operations that shipped deer to more than 260 sites across the state. Despite the agency’s diligent efforts to combat the spread of CWD, tracking and testing so many animals once they have been shipped is extremely difficult, particularly since, according to reports, breeders have refused to test some of the suspected deer. As a result, the potential for unchecked transmission to wild herds remains.
Later that month, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture announced a CWD detection at a hunting facility in the northwestern part of the state—the first along the New York-Penn. border and outside of existing CWD management zones. The state is working hard to trace the deer’s origins but cannot say at this time if additional quarantines at any of the state’s 760 deer farms or hunting preserves will be necessary. While the detection will result in the establishment of a new disease management zone, the movement of deer between facilities has not been halted while the investigation moves forward.
Finally, on June 1, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources imposed a two-month ban on the movement of deer after 13 tested positive at a captive facility in the north woods—hundreds of miles from the state’s endemic CWD area. Biologists have determined that the deer were transported from an endemic facility in the southeastern corner of the state. Most shockingly, it became apparent during the investigation that the facility owner had been dumping infected deer carcasses on nearby public lands for several years. The dead deer had since been scavenged and spread across several acres. In response to the detection, the state approved $100,000 in emergency funding, and Governor Tim Walz has endorsed transferring oversight of the state’s captive whitetail deer from the state’s Board of Animal Health to the Department of Natural Resources.
The need for federal leadership and coordination on this crisis is highlighted by the fact that even a state like Texas, which has tough rules on CWD and an extremely capable wildlife management agency, has been unable to prevent the spread of the disease.
In a letter to Secretary Vilsack, our five groups representing millions of hunters, conservationists, and outdoor enthusiasts strongly urged two immediate courses of action:
First, we called on the USDA to implement a moratorium on the interstate movement of all live deer, as recommended by the Hunting and Shooting Sports Conservation Council as recently as last year. CWD has now been found in 26 states and on the borders of several more. We need to protect those states that have not yet detected the disease.
Second, we urged the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior to convene an emergency meeting of the CWD interagency task force that was authorized by Congress in 2020 to develop an immediate federal response to contain CWD. This should include a third-party, independent review of the USDA Herd Certification Program, expedited research into the transmission pathways of CWD, recommend strategies for reducing the spread of CWD, and direct assistance for state surveillance, monitoring, and testing for the disease.
If you support these steps to safeguard wild deer and deer hunting as we know it, take action now. Send your message to Secretary Vilsack using our simple advocacy tool.
Top photo by Jessica Bolser/USFWS
Lancaster County farmer Roger Rohrer waded through swaying switchgrass on a hillside overlooking his fourth-generation poultry and crop farm. Two whitetail does jumped up and porpoised into nearby woods. Nearby, he showed a visitor a 20-year-old wooded buffer with tall grass underneath that traced a small but clear meandering stream with no name.
Planting steep fields in warm-season grass cover and placing vegetative filters along a stream prevents soil and fertilizer on adjacent fields from running off and ending up in Chesapeake Bay, a threat that contributes to algae blooms and smothers key underwater grasses.
To Rohrer and his sons—all hunters—these changes not only bring the satisfaction of doing the right thing for the environment. Their hunting opportunities and wildlife sightings have boomed. Instead of driving to deer camp upstate, they now shoot trophy bucks each year on the farm. The whitetails use the riparian buffers as travel lanes and the grassy fields as bedding areas.
For the first time, turkeys are around, gobbling from nearby forest ridges. They use the grasses as nesting areas and to hide from predators. Ducks have appeared on the stream.
“Everything you do to enhance wildlife is also good for water quality,” says Rohrer, who has become something of an activist in pushing to restore riparian forests. For Rohrer and Pennsylvania sportsmen, there are many side benefits of the state’s massive commitment—almost $5 billion so far—to reduce nutrients and soil from running into the Bay.
Pennsylvania’s latest blueprint to try to reach its promised nutrient and soil reductions by the 2025 deadline is known as Watershed Implementation Plan Phase III, or WIP III. It includes a number of new initiatives and accelerated strategies that will benefit anglers, hunters, and anyone who uses the outdoors or cares about clean water.
For example, the new plan puts a premium on land conservation practices that enhance fish habitat or create other ecosystem benefits. And buffers will be favored if they bring contiguous stretches of waterways together to better support fish populations.
In setting a goal of 83,000 acres of new forested buffers along streams, WIP III specifically mentions how creating shade along streams may help buffer sensitive native brook trout, the state fish, from the warming effects of climate change. And, as Rohrer found out, the strips serve as travel corridors for game.
Ryan Davis used to work with Pheasants Forever in western Pennsylvania. He was so impressed at how streamside buffers attracted pheasants and other wildlife that he became a full-time advocate for riparian buffers and forest restoration with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. Though pheasants are becoming an uncommon game bird on the Pennsylvania landscape, Davis has seen concentrations of ringnecks in buffers.
“These kinds of scruffy, brushy habitats are essential for pheasants to survive over the winter,” he says.
A long-lasting scourge from past land abuses, acid mine drainage is next to agriculture in polluting streams in Pennsylvania. But cleanup projects under the Bay restoration have restored more than 55 miles of streams from 2010 to 2018, in many cases allowing native fish and insects to move back in.
“Many streams that were once heavily polluted are now places where residents gather to swim, fish, boat and play,” says one section of the implementation plan.
Land conservation is another key strategy of the plan. “That protects existing habitats and hunting grounds from conversion to other land uses,” notes Wesley Robinson of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
The WIP’s call for more conservation of forest land is just as important for sportsmen and sportswomen as it is for the Bay. These local hunters and anglers are called “among our best stewards of the environment” by Michelle Price-Fay, acting director of the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program Office.
The rallying cry from Pennsylvania officials in recent years has shifted from save-the-bay to touting the benefits of making local streams clear for Pennsylvanians’ sake, where better water quality in the Bay is an added benefit.
Of nearly 49,000 miles of Pennsylvania streams in the Bay drainage—about half the state—more than 15,000 miles remain polluted or impaired in official terms.
“Failing to restore Pennsylvania’s impaired waters will mean that our drinking water sources, outdoor recreation, wildlife, and public health and safety will remain impacted,” the WIP III states.
The plan draws on a number of federal partners that have land in the state. For example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a goal in WIP III to restore, enhance, and preserve wetland habitat to support 100,000 black ducks baywide. In Pennsylvania, that would focus on 54,000 acres of wetlands in the Elk River watershed in the southeastern part of the state. The Corps also seeks an 8-percent increase in brook trout water in headwater streams.
The biggest target of WIP III is agriculture, which is next to forest cover as the biggest land use in the state. A closer bond between sportsmen and farmers “represents a huge opportunity for habitat restoration for game species,” suggests Lamonte Garber of the Pennsylvania-based Stroud Water Research Center. “Strengthening ties between conservation-minded farmers and sportsmen can only help improve Pennsylvania’s sporting resources.”
Ad Crable lives in Lancaster, PA, writes an outdoors column for LNP newspaper, and covers Pennsylvania environmental issues for the Chesapeake Bay Journal.
Top photo by Derek Eberly
With its Amish farms and quaint architecture, Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County is a tourist destination where people hope for a glimpse of the past. With its urban sprawl, disappearing farmland, and impaired waterways, it now offers, rather more tellingly, a good look at the future.
That future just got a good deal brighter. Let’s set the stage.
Lancaster County is home to some 550,000 souls, roughly double the population of 80 years ago. The increase in population has brought in quite a few sportsmen and sportswomen, but also all of the environmental threats that go with urbanization and industrial and transportation development. This has coincided almost precisely with the age of chemical agriculture, with pesticides, herbicides, and liberal application of fertilizers having become the norm.
The result? More than half of the county’s 1,400 miles of stream are listed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency as impaired. Taken together, we may have more hunters and anglers but ever fewer places to hunt and fish in a seemingly inexorable trend.
There’s every reason to hope that the trend is about to be reversed. Lancaster Water Partners has received $7.4 million from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to commence what may become a massive cleanup.
The goal is to take 350 miles of Lancaster County streams, or close to half of the area’s degraded waters, off the EPA’s impaired list by 2030. That’s an ambitious agenda for such a sum, but the key element is collaboration.
Some government agencies and nonprofits are important partners, but the most impact may be had by the farmers in stream catchments areas. By cooperating in the program and voluntarily improving their management practices, the farmers can reduce the sediment and nutrient loads that landed the streams on the impaired list in the first place.
Education and public awareness, therefore, are also part of the goal of the project. Sponsors hope for 75 percent of the county’s adult population to be aware of the work, and to support it, by the time this phase is complete.
One important partner, the Chesapeake Conservancy, has used advanced geographic information system techniques to create maps that will serve as a starting point for determining stream needs and the best candidates for restoration. So far, 19 catchments have been identified in the Conestoga, Chiques, Pequa, and Octoraro watersheds.
This strategic approach is the result of years of planning. Now, we need to make sure there’s robust and dedicated funding moving quickly where it’s needed to get shovel-ready projects started and people back to work.
There is likely to be a considerable lesson here. Lancaster County is by no means the only place with impaired streams, and agriculture is not the only culprit. From acid rain to abandoned mine tailings and industrial waste, all manner of pollutants have degraded waterways across the country. Lancaster’s program is setting an example that can spread—and quickly.
David Terrell is retired from the U.S. Geological Survey and living in Elizabethtown, PA. His background includes print journalism and staff work in the U.S. Senate.
Top photo by Derek Eberly
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