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Alex Funk

October 21, 2021

Five Impacts of Western Drought That Have Nothing to Do with Fish

When rivers and reservoirs drop, there are major consequences for anglers, but the ongoing megadrought could affect your hunting season, as well 

Drought is readily identified as a stressor on freshwater ecosystems—but how often do you think about the impacts of drought on hunting? The recent headlines about the ongoing megadrought that is affecting nearly 92 percent of the western United States probably call to mind the major consequences for fish and anglers, like voluntary fishing closures due to low flows and warm stream temperatures. But hunters must also contend with warmer and drier conditions that disrupt our seasons or deepen the decline of some game species.

Here are five ways that drought could affect your hunting opportunities.

Decreased Duck and Upland Bird Production

According to Field & Stream, widespread drought conditions in the Upper Midwest’s Prairie Pothole region are contributing to reproductive stress, low recruitment, and long-term population decline for waterfowl species. Fewer young ducks can mean fewer opportunities for hunters too, as more wary adults avoid even the best decoy spread in the marsh. In California, there isn’t enough water available for rice fields, which provide critical food and habitat for migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway. When birds pack in to what limited water sources are available, disease outbreaks and other impacts can occur. Drought conditions often trigger emergency haying and grazing rules that affect the quality of grassland cover, leading to fewer birds, as well. Finally, heat stress and limited cover and water may have long lasting effects on upland bird species, including poor nesting cover and high chick mortality.

Disrupted Migration Patterns

Dry conditions associated with drought are contributing to more frequent, longer wildfire seasons in the West, and data from the 2020 wildfire season shows that wildfire smoke appears to be disrupting the flight paths of migratory birds like geese. Birds are flying longer distances and taking more time to reach their final destinations. These longer flights can result in higher energy expenditure and may lead to increased mortality or lower productive rates.

Public Access Limitations

Habitat isn’t the only thing at risk when drought drives more intense wildfires: Our access could also be temporarily closed as public land agencies struggle to respond to fires and keep people safe. In August, the U.S. Forest Service closed California’s national forests—a total of 20 million acres of public land—to mitigate the potential for additional wildfires. Some state-managed public lands were also closed to keep emergency response routes clear and protect public safety. These closures coincided with the beginning of California’s popular deer hunting season.

Less Forage (and Water) for Big Game

Drought is contributing to a wide range of impacts to iconic Western big game species. According to the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, mule deer recruitment is declining due to reduced forage availability and increased heat stress. Drought can even make it harder for bucks to grow full-size antlers. In Arizona, the state’s wildlife agency has been forced to haul wildlife drinking water to a network of catchments, but at a significant financial cost to the agency. In Nevada, hunters recently raised more than $180,000 to support water hauling efforts that sustain the state’s revitalized bighorn sheep populations.

Fewer Hunting Permits

It stands to reason that if habitat and critters are in decline, our hunting opportunities will decrease, too. For example, Utah’s wildlife board approved 5,650 fewer general-season permits for the 2021 deer hunt. The decision was based on a recommendation from state wildlife biologists, who found that ongoing drought is contributing to reduced productivity of critical wildlife ranges, decreased animal survival, and lower statewide population levels of many big game species.

 

So, whether you hunt, fish, or support sportsmen and sportswomen from the sidelines, the ongoing drought and drier, hotter future we’re facing across the West should concern you. Click here to learn more about hunters and anglers who are experiencing the impacts of the Colorado River crisis right now.

Top photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service

3 Responses to “Five Impacts of Western Drought That Have Nothing to Do with Fish”

  1. Kevin Zamora

    great article. my question as a hunter and angler is what are some of the ways that we can support agencies that are allocating water to areas that support the local wildlife. If giving money is a main way of support what are the agencies and how do we give?

  2. Brett Jones

    The guzzlers and water catchments across the west are in poor shape. We need to focus on upgrading/maintaining the ones we have instead of creating more without funds for maintenance. I have seen over a dozen guzzlers in the last two years that are not functioning that could potentially spell disaster for wildlife that gave become reliant on that water source. TRCP has the power to demand these water sources be maintained. Please start an initiative to “fix the guzzler”, and show people how easy it can be to restore life sustaining water to these animals! Thank you

  3. Unless grassroot groups, companies, governments, voters, and others come together to demand that efforts increase to combat climate change, it will get worse before it gets better. Likely, climate change will become globally popular, when people can no longer tolerate its affects and economic loss forces such changes to be made.

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Whit Fosburgh

October 18, 2021

This Is the #1 Threat to Deer Hunting

The movement of live deer is supercharging the spread of chronic wasting disease, and the captive deer industry must be held accountable

It’s a fantastic time of year to be in the woods, and as much as we’d love to just let you enjoy your deer season, without any nagging sense of unease, there is a critical need for hunters to speak out about the rapid spread of chronic wasting disease.

By now, you’ve heard us repeatedly state these facts about CWD: It’s 100-percent fatal in deer, elk, moose, and other cervids. It is now found in 26 U.S. states, and possibly others where they have failed to detect or even test for it. Infected animals can spread the disease through urine and saliva, sometimes for years, before succumbing to its effects. The prions—malformed proteins that cause CWD—can be taken up in plant matter and transported, and hunters can unwittingly spread CWD by transporting the carcass of an infected animal.

But it’s time that we get real about one more thing: The greatest threat to deer hunting is the movement of live deer within and between states by the captive deer industry.

Freak Deer, Profit Motive, and CWD

For those who lack the time, patience, or skills to harvest a deer the old-fashioned way—but who have plenty of money and no qualms about practicing fair chase—captive deer facilities are just the answer. A person can select his or her deer from a menu, and success is guaranteed. Moreover, these facilities can grow deer never found in nature. Genetic manipulation, steroids, supercharged feed, and no challenge from predators can create freaks that true hunters know did not come from the wild but look great on a den or office wall.

When a single deer can be sold for more than $25,000, it is easy to understand why there are 4,000 or more such facilities in the U.S. today. But we can point to at least four examples in the last five months that show the blatant disregard for science by the captive deer industry and the fecklessness of current state and federal regulations.

In northern Minnesota, CWD-positive carcasses from a defunct captive facility were discovered dumped on nearby public land, threatening to introduce the disease to a new part of the state. In Texas, the disease was detected at three facilities outside of Dallas and San Antonio, but only after those facilities shipped deer to more than 260 others across the state.

CWD was then detected in a captive whitetail deer on a hunting preserve in Pennsylvania’s Northern Tier, spreading the disease to a new part of the state and posing a heightened threat to New York’s deer population to the north. Most recently, two CWD-positive captive deer in Wisconsin prompted an investigation into one of the most, if not the most, extensive web of deer shipments from a CWD-positive facility on record—nearly 400 deer were sent to 40 facilities in seven states over the last five years.

CWD was first detected in a captive facility in Colorado in 1967 and since that time has spread to almost every place captive deer facilities exist. Federal and state best practices demand that any facility where a CWD-positive deer is found be depopulated and closed. Science shows that the prions remain in the soil of an infected facility for a decade or more, so just getting rid of infected animals is not sufficient. But the profit motive is so great, it is common for deer breeders to hide infections, or simply not test, and thus spread the disease.

Four Ways to Prevent Captive Deer From Spreading CWD

It is past time for state and federal regulators to step in and prevent the threat of CWD to wild deer, as the captive deer industry either lacks the ability or willingness to police itself. Here’s how:

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture should immediately ban the interstate movement of live deer.
  • Congress needs to help fund surveillance and testing programs in all the states.
  • All captive deer facilities should follow the best management practices put forward by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies in 2018, including double fencing—which helps to eliminate direct transmission from captive to wild deer—and 100-percent testing of all captive deer deaths.
  • All deer breeders should be required to have insurance or post a bond to fund the depopulation and permanent closure of infected facilities, so taxpayers no longer have to foot the bill for a bad actor’s reckless behavior.

Hunters understand that success in the deer woods is not guaranteed. In fact, most of us return emptyhanded from a day in the woods but generally richer for the experience. But we cannot fail when it comes to stopping CWD. Hunters, politicians, and regulators need to step up and do what is necessary for the deer hunting tradition—and the billions of dollars in conservation funding that hunters generate—can continue into the future.

Do Your Part Now

Do what you can this season: Get your deer tested. Check your local regulations on carcass transport and disposal. Consider boning out your deer in the field to avoid transporting the parts of the carcass that would carry CWD. (MeatEater’s Janis Putelis takes you through the process in the video below.) Finally, take action to push the Secretary of Agriculture to take immediate action to stop the spread of CWD from captive deer facilities.

 

Top photo courtesy of the National Deer Association.

Ed Arnett

October 15, 2021

How the Push for Renewable Energy Development Affects Hunting and Fishing

As the Biden Administration moves quickly to expand renewable energy on public lands, sportsmen and women are concerned about the potential impacts

Even if you drive by an oil and gas field or wind farm to reach your favorite hunting or fishing spot, you may not give much thought to how much is at stake for sportsmen and sportswomen when it comes to developing our energy resources, including renewable sources such as wind.

But it’s a critical time to think about the possible impacts, and here’s why.

After the Trump Administration prioritized oil and gas drilling and coal mining on public lands—rescinding many previous policies and making it easier to lease and develop fossil fuels—the energy development pendulum has swung back in the other direction. Now, advancing renewable energy production on public lands has become a top priority as part of the Biden Administration’s response to the climate crisis.

The impacts of climate change—including steady habitat loss—are undeniable and must be addressed. The hunting and fishing community understands that major shifts in energy policy will be necessary to meet the goals set forth by the Biden Administration, including a commitment to generating a whopping 30 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2030 and permitting at least 25 gigawatts of onshore renewable energy by 2025.

But there are many unanswered questions about impacts likely to occur while achieving these goals.

Calculating the Risk to Wildlife

There is no question that renewable energy sources—wind, solar, and geothermal—have an important role to play in helping to solve the climate crisis, but at what cost? We know oil and gas development can suppress mule deer populations, but what about renewables? The impacts on birds and bats are well documented, but less is known about how expanding renewables on public lands will impact habitat and populations of game birds or big game animals. And the few studies that have been conducted indicate mixed results.

Studies on grouse species, like greater sage grouse and prairie chickens, have shown both neutral response and negative impacts from wind turbines. Researchers have expressed caution about placing wind turbines within a mile or so of occupied sage grouse habitat until we fully understand the breadth of impacts on these birds. In Wyoming, pronghorn antelope were displaced by wind turbines during the winter, but the overall impact on the population remains unclear. These researchers noted that more than a decade of animal tracking data in the Cowboy State can help identify places to site wind turbines to be more compatible with big game species.

Because we need more data, the rush to develop and bring renewable energy resources to the market could negatively impact fish and wildlife and result in the loss of access for hunters and anglers.

A poorly located solar project near a pronghorn migration corridor may be just as devastating as a coal mine or natural gas field—we don’t know for sure. Access roads, fencing, and transmission lines associated with renewable projects could all have negative impacts on wildlife, as well. And while one project alone may not have significant effects, at some point a threshold will be reached where impacts will undoubtedly occur for many species. Too many turbines or solar projects in an area will “industrialize” a landscape, perhaps to a point of no return.

Be Smart from the Start

The key to any energy development is avoidance of critical habitats and siting wisely—or being “smart from the start.” This idea is not new. Obama Administration officials coined the phrase and, more than a decade ago, the Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development coalition—led by the TRCP, Trout Unlimited, and the National Wildlife Federation—released a report with a set of ten “smart from the start” principles for developing renewable energy on public lands.

These principles are still valid today in a new and fast-paced renewable energy frontier:

  • Giving hunters and anglers a voice in decision making.
  • Protecting roadless backcountry areas, National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, and local and state public lands.
  • Conserving important fish and wildlife habitat.
  • Consulting with state fish and wildlife officials first.
  • Relying on the latest science.
  • Strengthening the permitting and leasing process.
  • Monitoring impacts to fish, wildlife, and water.
  • Mitigating damage and reclaiming affected land and water.
  • Complying with all relevant environmental laws.
  • Holding industry accountable for development costs, including monitoring and mitigation expenses.

When applied, these principles can help ensure renewable energy development’s compatibility with the needs of fish, wildlife, and hunters and anglers.

There is little doubt that sportsmen and sportswomen are about to see some rapid changes on public lands and more solar, wind, and geothermal projects emerging. As with oil and gas extraction, our community supports the multiple-use mandates on our public lands—and among those uses is energy development. We also demand that these resources be developed wisely and without loss to ever-shrinking fish and wildlife habitats that support our recreational pursuits.

The SFRED coalition members will continue to carry the sporting community voice in land-use planning and policy debates so that all forms of energy are balanced. Our community also knows there must be big policy shifts to tackle the impacts of climate change on the environment. But today’s fish and wildlife cannot be forgotten or sacrificed in the rush to solve the climate crisis.

Visit the Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development website to learn more.

Top photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Randall Williams

October 13, 2021

Behind the Scenes of a New Film Focused on Big Game Migration

First Lite, Maven, and TRCP present “Vacant Space” | Hunting a Mule Deer Migration

Most successful hunters, at least the ones I know, are planners. Outcome-oriented and detail-minded, they channel their passion through checklists and are guided by research. Because so many variables are already involved in the pursuit of wild game, there’s a strong incentive to leave as little to chance as possible.

Even though I’m more likely than not to leave a tag unfilled (and not for lack of trying), I count myself among the planners. For that reason, it was a strange feeling to find myself this past fall sitting alone in my truck at an unfamiliar trailhead, waiting for the arrival of new partners with whom I’d never before hunted, and some of whom I hadn’t yet met.

All had, like me, never been to this area. But thanks to Idaho’s sale of returned general deer licenses, here we were.

The agreed-upon logistics were about as simple as it gets: Hike down the trail a few miles with camp on our backs, and spend a long weekend climbing high each morning, looking for deer. In short, we were winging it.

But even without much of a plan, we had a clear purpose in mind. The idea behind this deer hunt was to bring together different folks working in parallel on issues of mutual interest. We hoped to learn a bit more about each other’s efforts to benefit wildlife and wild places and, in doing so, to identify opportunities for future collaboration between our respective teams.

Kevin is a researcher and educator at the University of Wyoming, where his work focuses on migratory big game animals. Ford (First Lite) and Craig (Maven) are both industry professionals with backgrounds in biology, who are helping to shape the public face of two conservation-minded companies. And in my role for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, I work to educate sportsmen and sportswomen about the issues that matter most for hunters and encourage them to speak up for smart policies. Along for the ride—and a delightful final addition to the team—was videographer Nic Tapia. This was Nic’s first exposure to hunting, and he arrived eager to learn.

The specific topic of conversation was big game migration, which has emerged in recent years as one of the most urgent priorities for wildlife managers across the West. Cutting-edge research enabled by advances in GPS technology has allowed biologists to track animals’ seasonal travels with unprecedented precision. This growing body of data has transformed our understanding of migration not only in a quantitative sense (i.e., more dots on the maps) but in a qualitative sense as well: We now know how susceptible a herd’s overall health is to the disruption of a migratory corridor, particularly if that disruption occurs in a bottleneck or stopover area.

Across the West, development of all kinds is accelerating, and intact landscapes are being subdivided. Meanwhile, the global demand for energy continues to balloon. Without accounting for how our collective footprint could impact migratory big game, the consequences can be significant and long-lasting.

While the science has illuminated the stakes of this issue, the realm of policy is still catching up. State fish and game agencies have made strong headway, to be sure, but migration corridor conservation poses its own unique challenges.

Because the routes used by big game herds to travel between their seasonal ranges span multiple land ownerships and management frameworks, effective policymaking requires close coordination between federal and state agencies at various levels. Landowners and working ranches and agricultural properties play an especially important role in the functioning of these corridors, so substantive public-private collaboration is key. And sportsmen and sportswomen need to speak up so that the officials undertaking this important work receive the funding and institutional support required to keep it up over the long haul.

Early last year, Maven and First Lite decided to combine their respective platforms to bring greater awareness to this issue through a short film. As a biologist working on the front lines of research, as well as training the next generation of wildlife professionals, Kevin was a natural fit for the project. And because of my work in the realm of advocacy, I was lucky enough to join in the fun. In my mind, the opportunity to spend a few days in the field looking for mule deer and picking the brain of one of the world’s preeminent mule deer experts was just too good to pass up.

Given the lack of any structured plan, we let the days following our trailhead meetup unfold in the moment. Frosty mornings slipped away into sunny afternoons. The conversations stretched wide and dove deep.

Along the way, Kevin generously shared with us both his bottomless knowledge of mule deer behavior, as well as the role that hunting plays in both his family and professional life. Ford and Craig brainstormed how their respective brands could help Kevin and his students, and we discussed the challenge of communicating the implications of scientific nuances for policy and hunting opportunity.

In between conversations, our glassing turned up lots of elk, quite a few moose, and—towards the end of the trip—more and more mule deer. Though we remained optimistic, the mature bucks we hoped to find proved elusive; other hunters, not so much.

Our last full day of hunting proved the most exciting. That morning, Kevin and Craig turned up a young fork-horned buck, and Kevin wasted no time in filling his tag. After a painless downhill pack out, they spent the rest of the day relaxing back at the trucks.

Meanwhile, Ford, Nic, and I—unaware of Kevin’s success—huddled on a blustery ridge a few miles away, helping a young hunter who had drawn one of the area’s limited tags for bull elk. Sitting beside the boy’s father, we watched through our glass as he made a quick stalk with his younger brother and cousin, resulting in a shot on a nice 6×6 we’d spotted earlier. Our group then joined them in a heart-wrenching (but ultimately successful) search for a blood trail in the moonlight.

When the three of us stumbled back to the trailhead late that evening, cold beers and a lively recap of the day’s activity were exchanged across the flickering light of the camp stove. With a cooler full of fresh meat, we decided to forgo the dehydrated meals remaining in our food bags. Instead, Kevin made Chislic, a celebratory deer camp tradition from his native South Dakota: bite-sized pieces of fresh venison trim, salted heavily and flash-fried. We all ate our fill and soon called it a night.

The next morning, our group took one final hike up to a nearby glassing point. As darkness retreated from the landscape, snowflakes peppered us from above. With hat brims and hoods pulled low against the wind, we watched a string of deer pick their way through an aspen patch beneath us. Slowly, and then all at once, the trip’s last opportunity to joke and tell stories crowded out any thoughts of our final chance to turn up a second buck.

Later, we each headed off in our respective directions homeward, wishing one another luck with the season’s remaining tags while trading reminders to follow up on plans and ideas cooked up in camp and along the trail. Energized by both the weekend’s conversations and shared sense of purpose, I gave little thought to the empty cooler in my rearview mirror. Instead, my mind wandered across the rich ground we’d covered—both literal and metaphorical—in the days prior. The drive passed quickly with only a short stop halfway through for hotdogs and gasoline.

Support our work to conserve migration corridors with a donation to conservation today, and get a free koozie when you donate $5 or more. Koozies available through First Lite and Maven. Donations will be split between the TRCP and Monteith Shop. 

Head over to the TRCP’s migration site for an overview of the issue, links to additional resources, the latest news, and opportunities to take action.

Photos courtesy of Craig Okraska / Maven. 

 

Randall Williams

September 29, 2021

New Report Details Next Steps for Big Game Habitat Conservation in Colo.

Report outlines strategies and policy recommendations to safeguard migration corridors

In Colorado today, Governor Jared Polis announced the release of a report highlighting the need for new policy to conserve the state’s big game populations and the variety of habitats on which they depend for their survival.

Opportunities to Improve Sensitive Habitat and Movement Route Connectivity for Colorado’s Big Game Species, which was developed by the Colorado Department of Natural Resources in cooperation with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Colorado Department of Transportation, marks yet another step forward on this issue resulting from Governor Polis’s 2019 executive order, Conserving Colorado’s Big Game Winter Range and Migration Corridors.

“This document is the product of two years of leadership by Governor Polis and his agencies to conserve big game migration corridors and seasonal habitats across Colorado,” said Madeleine West, director of the Center for Public Lands for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “It clearly lines out the next steps necessary to conserve our big game populations, acknowledging both the important roles of a broad set of state agencies, as well as those of federal public land management agencies, private landowners, and nongovernmental organizations. We look forward to working collaboratively with all of these stakeholders to implement the report’s recommendations.”

In the report, the governor calls for a comprehensive approach to improving habitat for Colorado’s iconic big game species, such as elk, mule deer, and pronghorn, including the development of a statewide habitat and connectivity plan that would clearly define priority landscapes in the state that support big game and other wildlife species. The report builds upon a 2020 Colorado Parks and Wildlife publication, Status Report: Big Game Winter Range and Migration Corridors, which assessed the challenges and threats facing these important habitats.

Other recommendations in the report include:

  • Development of a statewide conservation and recreation plan that balances the need to expand recreational opportunities with wildlife conservation values, including the conservation of wildlife routes and priority habitats for big game.
    • Encouraging the Colorado General Assembly to create dedicated funding for transportation projects that conserve wildlife populations and protect human health.
  • Support for new staff at CPW and CDOT to continue collaborative work between the two agencies to conserve wildlife corridors and limit wildlife-vehicle collisions.
  • Direction to CDNR and CPW to work with the Bureau of Land Management to initiate a statewide resource management plan amendment to conserve big game migration corridors, as well as a recommendation that the BLM, pending completion of the plan, issue guidance requiring the adoption of best management practices for conserving big game habitats.
  • Direction to CDNR and CPW to convene an interagency task force to explore opportunities to minimize the impacts of renewable energy development on big game habitat.
  • Support for continued investment in state programs like the Colorado Wildlife Habitat Program and Ranching for Wildlife that finance activities on private land that conserve wildlife habitats.

“Healthy, intact habitats, and particularly the corridors that allow for seasonal wildlife migrations, are essential for sustaining our big game herds,” said Jon Holst, Colorado field representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “More than anyone, sportsmen and sportswomen know the value of Colorado’s elk, mule deer, and pronghorn, as well as the spillover effects that benefit all species when the conservation of these landscapes is prioritized.”

The release of the report was timed to coincide with the governor’s proclamation to officially designate September 29 as Wildlife Habitat and Connectivity Day in Colorado.

To read more from the report, click here.

 

Photo: Jeff Wallace via Flickr

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