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Iconic Western watersheds are at a crossroads. The American West remains in the midst of a “megadrought,” which is contributing to catastrophic wildfires, impacting agricultural operations, and even affecting iconic Western wildlife and our hunting and fishing opportunities.
The Colorado River’s average annual flows have declined by 20 percent since 2000. More than half of that decline has been attributed to warming temperatures, which threaten fish and wildlife species that depend on there being not only enough water in the river but also cool enough water for them to survive.
The trickle-down effect on water-based recreation, such as fishing and boating, is easy to see. This summer, Colorado’s Yampa River was closed to fishing and recreation for more than three months due to low flows and high temperatures. Lower flows are also a concern to communities that depend on the Colorado River for drinking water in seven U.S. states—Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, California, and Nevada—and Mexico. Importantly, the watershed is home to 33 percent of the U.S. Latino population and 30 Native America tribes.
Right now, we all have a chance to influence the future conservation of Western water resources as we look toward a hotter, drier future. If you are someone who depends on America’s “hardest working river” or just a curious TRCP blog reader, here’s what you need to know about the next steps and how to get involved.
The ongoing Colorado Water Plan Update offers an opportunity for hunters and anglers to have our voices heard on how communities will address water resource challenges for the next five years. The existing Colorado Water Plan outlines how to create more resilient, thriving watersheds that support robust agriculture, outdoor recreation opportunities, and vibrant communities. Now, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state agency responsible for developing the Colorado Water Plan, is revising this plan to ensure that it is meeting current and future water needs based on changing circumstances in our state and across the West. Over the next few months, we will share a series of videos, action alerts, and other direct ways for you to engage in the Colorado Water Plan update process.
The full proposed update won’t be available to comment on until July 2022, but conversations are already underway that will influence this plan. In Colorado, water policy and management decisions are largely informed through a grassroots process. In order to facilitate conversations around managing water, Colorado established nine Basin Roundtables, composed of local volunteers who coordinate regional input on important water resource management issues.
The Basin Roundtables represent each of Colorado’s eight major watersheds and the Denver metro area, where the majority of Colorado’s population resides. The feedback they gather may include how to prioritize funding for water projects and maintain compliance with interstate water compacts. This will help update the nine Basin Implementation Plans (BIPs), which are locally driven documents identifying goals and actions to address regional water issues and priorities. BIPs also help to prioritize projects ranging from stream restoration to water infrastructure upgrades.
Weighing in on these grassroots-level plans will help to provide recreational and environmental benefits and build out the scaffolding for the broader Colorado Water Plan. For more information on roundtables and BIPs, check out Water for Colorado’s recent blog post.
While hunters and anglers across the country have a stake in the Colorado Water Plan and how it affects fish and wildlife across the region, it is vital that those of us who live and recreate right here in Colorado participate in this first locally led planning effort. Drafts of the updated Basin Implementation Plans are currently open to public comment through November 15.
We’ve made it easy for hunters and anglers to take action and help ensure that BIPs will sustain healthy river flows for fish and wildlife, encourage water conservation and efficiency, promote diversity and equity in the update process, and reflect other top priorities for sportsmen and sportswomen. Check out our simple advocacy tool to make your voice heard today.
This blog was collaboratively written by Jared Romero, TRCP director of strategic partnerships, and Alex Funk, TRCP director of water resources and senior counsel. Top photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via flickr.
Forage fish like menhaden, river herring, and shad are the foundation of the marine food web. These fish serve as prey for popular sportfish, such as striped bass, speckled trout, and bluefin tuna, as well as iconic species like osprey, bottlenose dolphins, and humpback whales.
Shad and river herring, in particular, used to support some of the largest and most important commercial and recreational fisheries along the Atlantic coast, but habitat loss from dam construction and stock depletion from overfishing have decreased herring and shad landings by 96 percent since 1950. Meanwhile, billions of pounds of menhaden are commercially harvested by a single foreign-owned company to be “reduced” into livestock feed, fish oil, fish meal, fertilizer, and other products.
The TRCP has been engaged in the push for better forage fish management, because these species are essential to coastal ecosystems and economies.
The bipartisan Forage Fish Conservation Act, which was introduced in the House this week, aims to address current gaps in forage fish management by amending and building upon the successes of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which has been instrumental in addressing overfishing and maintaining stocks for anglers to enjoy over the past 50 years.
The new legislation would ensure that federal fisheries managers account for the needs of forage fish and the predator species that depend on them. It would establish management plans for river herring and shad in the Atlantic and address the needs of sportfish and other predator species in existing forage fish management plans. It would also require that managers assess the possible impacts of newly proposed commercial fishing for forage fish, including the effects on other fisheries, anglers, and the marine ecosystem. The bill would require that science-based recommendations are made on forage fish management and provide a national, science-based definition for forage fish, to help clarify future policymaking.
More abundant forage fish populations will boost sportfish and fishing opportunities. The implementation of the Forage Fish Conservation Act would sustain forage fish populations by improving management strategies, so that anglers can enjoy thriving coastal ecosystems and economies for generations to come.
Top photo courtesy of Woozy Fishing (@woozy_fishing)
The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is proud to support the nomination of Martha Williams for Director of Fish and Wildlife Services at the Department of Interior. As the former director of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and current principal deputy director of the USFWS, Williams has showed she understands the important role that states play in fish and wildlife management, as well as the need for the federal government to be a constructive and willing partner with states and Tribes.
“We have worked with Martha Williams for years as she has been committed to conserving our nation’s fish and wildlife resources,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “She is collaborative and will be a strong partner to the hunting and fishing community. She recently oversaw the largest expansion of fishing and hunting on lands and waters managed by the Service, which is a testament to her support for outdoor recreation opportunities. And as a hunter and angler herself, she understands the importance of hunting and fishing as wildlife management tools that also support our uniquely successful model of conservation funding in the U.S.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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