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Guest Blogger Patrick Collins

November 22, 2021

Lewis and Clark Were Here: Into the Heart of the American Prairie Reserve

A unique private-land conservation project is restoring fish and wildlife habitat and opening hunting and fishing access—follow along on a four-day backpack adventure into these storied landscapes and isolated public lands beyond

“The whole face of the country was covered with herds of buffalo, elk and antelopes; deer are also abundant . . . the buffalo, elk and antelope are so gentle that we pass near them while feeding without appearing to excite or alarm them, and when we attract their attention they frequently approach us more nearly to discover what we are . . . in these delightful tracts of country.” — Meriwether Lewis, 1804

With images of prairies teeming with wildlife dancing around my cranium, I turned to gaze out of the airplane’s window. Stretched out below as far as I could see was an endless array of irrigated crop circles, crowded together in that extra efficient way that makes America the most productive agricultural power in the world.

The benefits of a strong agricultural sector are obvious, but as our footprint on the landscape grows and grows, and land ownership trends are shifting, where do wildlife and hunters fit in? Agriculture producers and other private landowners are, in fact, an essential part of the collaborative work of conservation, particularly since fish and wildlife do not recognize property boundaries or jurisdictions drawn on a map. And some landowners do more for hunters than improve habitat, though gaining access to private land may look different than in years past, when a knock on the front door and a handshake was the norm.

In Montana, a constellation of successful access programming, private landowner support, and a unique conservation project has given hunters, anglers, and other outdoor enthusiasts some extraordinary opportunities to enjoy the very same landscapes that westward explorers like Lewis and Clark experienced.

Photo by Patrick Collins
Into the Vastness

The purpose of my trip was to travel far off the beaten path across some of these lands and see firsthand a private-land conservation project called the American Prairie Reserve.

One of the best things about the APR is that it’s opening gates to both people and animals. Wildlife corridors are being extended and expanded. People are invited to visit and enjoy it through hiking, hunting, fishing, camping, birding, biking and more. Even better, many of the properties acquired by the APR provide new or improved access to tracts of public lands previously cut off by fences and no trespassing signs.

This is because many APR properties are enrolled in Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ Block Management system, a cooperative, voluntary program that helps private landowners offer free hunting access on their land, which is sometimes adjacent to isolated public lands.

That said, it certainly takes time and commitment to get here. We arrived at last, having overnighted in Billings and driven for several hours to the edge of the American Prairie Reserve’s 14,000-acre Blue Ridge property south of Malta, Montana. Our plan was to identify an end-of-the-road jumping-off point for a four-night backpacking trip to explore this new property and the adjacent public lands, which includes portions of the Burnt Lodge Wilderness Study Area and the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.

The Blue Ridge is the most recent addition to the APR, resembling in some ways a puzzle piece of essential habitat plugged into the expansive surrounding ecosystem, which stretches some 160 miles on either side of the Missouri River from roughly the Fort Peck dam in the east to Coal Banks Landing in the west. This region is comprised of vast tracts of public lands, including the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. While not all of it is easily accessible, the vast majority of both the public lands and the APR additions are open to a wide range of recreational pursuits, including hunting and fishing.

Joining me were two adventurous friends: Luther Propst and Randy Luskey, both wilderness aficionados with extensive outdoor resumes. Luther brought along his dog, Sofie, a rescue Blue Heeler who turned out to be the perfect trail companion.

We were attracted to the Blue Ridge because of its remoteness and its function as a wildlife corridor and home to a resident elk herd, bighorn sheep, mule deer, pronghorns, prairie dogs, and other interesting flora and fauna. But our departure point required navigating a matrix of unpaved back roads that are not always well-marked.

In this wide-open country, the farms and ranches are widely spaced, and we passed only a handful of vehicles after leaving the blacktop, seeing more bison and antelope than people. In fact, besides our party, the APR staff knew of only one other group that had ventured into the Blue Ridge over the past two years.

Ultimately, a combination of maps, Randy’s acumen with the GPS, and deductive reasoning got us to our destination with only a few wrong turns. At last, we pulled off the dirt road at a fenceline and parked on a rise circled by a grove of pine trees, anxious to shoulder our packs and head out. A coyote picked its way across the landscape only 100 yards ahead of us.

Across the rolling prairie we could see the Missouri River to the south and east. In both directions were broad ravines—“coulees” in the local vernacular—cutting down to the river every half mile or so. We picked an interesting-looking one to the southeast and began our descent, easing ourselves into a world of fresh air, welcomed by the scents of pine and sage blended with scattered wildflowers. There was beautiful bird song everywhere.

Photo by Jennifer Strickland/USFWS
Following Game

Initially, it was easy walking through scattered cedars and juniper, and we kicked up mule deer in ones and twos. Soon, however, deep cuts and smaller side ravines hidden by slight folds of terrain and screens of trees blocked our path. What had looked like a nice level track across the bench was, in fact, bisected by narrow, steep-sided, and deep gouges running at right angles to the main coulee. The long prairie grasses hid the terrain’s edges from view until we were almost on top of them, facing a classic dilemma in wilderness navigation: Either we could take things head-on by scrambling down one side and up the other, head uphill and hope the terrain leveled out, or seek level passage closer to the valley bottom.

After some experimentation, we did some combo of trekking along the high ground and wending along the bottoms. Still, the challenge made things fun and interesting. We charted solo routes, claiming small, unspoken victories over each other when our path proved the most efficient.

Well-used game trails both illustrated the health of the local big game herds and also demarcated the most efficient routes across the landscape. While the trails tended to disperse and fade out on more level ground, the resident wildlife seemed to agree on the best ways to traverse the most challenging sections of the terrain, and we followed their lead.

We regularly came across the bones of elk and deer, oddly without the teeth marks of predators, and even more oddly without the gnawing toothmarks of porcupines. Elk and deer scat was abundant, and we speculated that an unidentified pile was a sign of the bighorn sheep we were told spend time here.

Randy, a serious mountaineer, tended to range a bit ahead and christened it “mud-a-neering” as we scrambled up and down the tight spots, kicking footholds in the soft soil typical of the badlands and the breaks. This stuff becomes paradoxically slippery and sticky when wet—the famous gumbo. Luckily, the skies were blue and the rain was a few days away.

A few hours in, we stopped for lunch next to a grove of small junipers. Relaxing in the shade, we noticed that we’d rarely heard or seen any jet planes overhead, adding to the sense of untouched grandeur and isolation that the Lewis and Clark expedition must have encountered when they passed through this area.

Looking at the terrain ahead, we decided to navigate along the valley bottom, which worked out well until it didn’t. We headed for some higher ground, each of us charting our own course and calling out to our comrades to guide us away from the bad terrain and to the good. What appeared to be a straight, relatively flat section of ground turned out to be just that, only cleaved by several deep and steep ravines which were not fun to clamber over. We kicked up more mule deer and then a small group of large, healthy-looking elk with beautiful dark, red-brown coats.

Photo by Patrick Collins
Might As Well Be 1805

As the afternoon faded, we spotted a spacious level area with a scattering of trees and a nice view of the distant Missouri river. Even better, it had a flat, waist-high boulder that made an ideal kitchen table and bar.

I waited as Randy and Luther threw down their packs and put up their tents. I’ve adventured with these guys before, and one is a world-class snorer. I knew I needed to be at least 50 yards away and upwind. On the plus side, the cacophony kept away curious predators.

The next day, we headed out on a loop hike down to the Missouri River to explore along the shores, water up, and circle back up to the other side of our coulee. I knew from reading the Lewis and Clark accounts of their passage through this immediate area that they passed by here in May of 1805. I’m no longer astounded by the sheer volume of wildlife they encountered.

Deer and elk scat was everywhere. Other than a single spent shotgun shell and a well-weathered .30-30 casing, we saw no other signs of humans until we approached the river. There, dozens of geese and ducks took to the sky, making as much noise as possible. Several hundred yards out on the water we spotted three fishing boats working the bays and inlets.

With honking waterfowl swirling overhead, we finally reached the top of the narrow, barren ridge to an expansive, 360-degree view. The perfect lunch stop quickly lost its appeal as the wind kicked up and the skies started to spit cold rain while lightning flashed to the west.

Later on, our path hooked south and west, paralleling the shoreline before heading up one of the adjacent coulees. Navigating up a steep ridge line, we entered a patch of ponderosas that offered three level spots for our three tents, with a nearby clearing that boasted a fantastic view of the Missouri and wild country in every direction.

Even after the sun went down and the world went dark, we couldn’t see a single artificial light on the horizon.

Photo by Patrick Collins
End of the Trail

After hot coffee and a robust breakfast the next morning, we packed up to head up valley and top out. This valley was a little rougher than the one we took coming in, complicated by the fact that we were moving and looking uphill, always a suboptimal perspective for reading the terrain. Randy took the lead and Luther and I trailed behind him.

As we approached the head of the drainage, we hit a pronounced game trail, which led us steeply uphill and then across a bare rock face for about 200 feet. The trail was about 10 inches wide with the rock face to our left and a sheer drop to our right. It was exhilarating to cross. A bit further on, the terrain opened up and we finally hit the rolling prairie where we’d started four days earlier. The several miles back to our starting point went by quickly.

Back at the truck, Luther pulled a cooler from the back. Tucked inside were three cold beers, which we raised in a toast to future adventures in the vastness of the APR and public lands beyond.

One Response to “Lewis and Clark Were Here: Into the Heart of the American Prairie Reserve”

  1. Tom Winstel

    Hello,
    I’ve donated to the American Prairie Reserve as the thought of bringing back remnant Bison to the plains enthralls me. I’d pleased to here sportsmen are invited to the lands to hunt and fish. I enjoyed your article and was wanting for me about the lands surrounding this unique area.

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Randall Williams

November 18, 2021

Senate Committee Advances Two Priority Public Lands Bills

MAPLand Act and Ruby Mountains Protection Act move one step closer to the finish line

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee today passed important legislation that would digitize public land maps and records for outdoor recreation and safeguard an iconic Western landscape from development.

Both the Modernizing Access to our Public Land Act (S.904) and the Ruby Mountains Protection Act (S.609) received markups in the committee hearing.

The MAPLand Act passed with unanimous support. With only a few minor technical modifications, the bill will now be referred to the floor for consideration by the full chamber. The House companion bill (H.R. 3113) similarly cleared its committee markup in July. The Ruby Mountains Protection Act passed out of committee by a vote of 12-8.

“We thank the members of the committee for advancing these bills, which have become top-line priorities for hunters and anglers across the country,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “The MAPLand Act will allow more Americans to get outdoors and share in the public land legacy that belongs to us all, while the Ruby Mountains Protection Act secures some of the best fish and wildlife habitats for future generations of sportsmen and sportswomen. We now encourage lawmakers in both the House and Senate to commit to final passage of these bills that will strengthen our hunting and fishing opportunities.”

Introduced in March 2021 by Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, the Ruby Mountains Protection Act would prohibit oil and gas leasing in the Ruby Mountains, one of the most important landscapes in Nevada for fish, wildlife, and sportsmen and sportswomen. If passed into law, the bill would not affect other important uses of the area, including mining, but it would help ensure that future generations are able to experience the tremendous hunting and fishing opportunities in the Rubies.

Sportsmen and sportswomen have been among the most vocal in support of the bill. In 2019, fifteen hunting, fishing, and wildlife conservation organizations formed the Sportsmen for the Rubies coalition to raise awareness—both around the state and in Washington, D.C.—of the potential threats that energy development poses to this habitat.

Introduced with bipartisan support by Senator Jim Risch of Idaho earlier this year, the MAPLand Act would direct federal land management agencies to consolidate, digitize, and make publicly available all recreational access information in a format that can be used with computer mapping programs and GPS applications.

These records include information about:

  • legal easements and rights-of-way across private land;
  • year-round or seasonal closures of roads and trails, as well as restrictions on vehicle-type;
  • boundaries of areas where special rules or prohibitions apply to hunting and shooting;
  • and areas of public waters that are closed to watercraft or have horsepower restrictions.

Companion legislation awaits consideration before the House Natural Resources Committee. 

“Given fall hunting seasons are ongoing across the nation, public access is on the minds of millions of Americans,” said Fosburgh. “We are encouraged by the MAPLand Act’s progress, and we will continue to voice our support for this commonsense investment that—when passed into law—will help provide outdoor recreation opportunities for all Americans.”

Learn more about the MAPLand Act here.

Learn more about the Sportsmen for the Rubies coalition here.

Ian Nakayama

November 5, 2021

Bipartisan Infrastructure Package Secures Major Conservation Investments

Representatives make the most of this opportunity to fund wildlife crossings, public land access, and natural infrastructure solutions that benefit habitat and American communities

The House of Representatives passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (H.R. 3684) in a 228-206 vote tonight, advancing crucial conservation priorities for all Americans. The bill was passed by the Senate in August and now awaits the president’s signature.

“Making this commitment to our nation’s land, water, and wildlife signals that lawmakers understand the relationship between infrastructure and natural resources,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “The provisions within this comprehensive package are not only worth the investment as we think about the future—many are long overdue. We look forward to President Biden signing and enacting this legislation that makes a strong commitment to conservation.”

Numerous provisions in the $1.2-trillion bipartisan deal are top TRCP priorities, including:

  • $350 million for a first-of-its-kind grant program to construct wildlife-friendly roadway crossings and reconnect fragmented migration corridors.
  • $250 million for the Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Program to improve access to Forest Service public lands and safeguard fish and wildlife habitat from harmful runoff and pollutants caused by roads in disrepair.
  • Reauthorization of the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund, which pays for fisheries conservation, access improvements, and education for anglers and boaters.
  • $1.4 billion for natural infrastructure solutions through the Promoting Resilient Operations for Transformative, Efficient, and Cost-Saving Transportation (PROTECT) Grant Program.
  • $14.65 billion for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund Program, which supports estuary restoration and stormwater management projects.
  • $400 million for WaterSMART grants, with $100 million set aside for natural infrastructure solutions that enhance resilience to drought and wildfires, facilitate water conservation, create new habitat, and improve water quality.
  • Significant investments in programs aimed at enhancing the resiliency of Western watersheds to climate change and drought, including $300 million to implement the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plans, $3.2 billion to modernize aging agricultural infrastructure and generate benefits for fish and wildlife, and $50 million to support ongoing Endangered Species recovery efforts that sustain habitat for native fish.

“The bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by the House tonight has not had the most straightforward path to completion, but the conservation provisions included in this package are a clear victory for American hunters and anglers, and they should be recognized and widely celebrated,” says Steve Kline, TRCP’s chief policy officer. “The impact of these investments will be felt by more than just migratory big game, waterfowl, and sportfish: Improving access, habitat, and water quality while lowering the risks of wildfire, drought, and storm damage will keep communities safer, boost our economy, and expand our hunting and fishing opportunities.”

Andrew Wilkins

August 24, 2021

What Is Budget Reconciliation and How Can This Process Do More for Conservation?

Breaking down the budget process that will make or break the effort to secure once-in-a-generation investments in habitat

As we’ve shared over the past few weeks, the Senate has passed a once-in-a-generation infrastructure package that would provide significant funding for conservation priorities, including wildlife crossings, national forest road repair and maintenance, drought and climate resilience, clean water, and habitat restoration.

But leading lawmakers aren’t planning to advance this legislation without a budget reconciliation bill that invests in conservation and climate-smart measures at the same time. This means that hunters and anglers need to not only push Congress to carry the decade-defining infrastructure package across the finish line, but also urge decision-makers to include robust funding for conservation in this other crucial bill—which, as it stands, leaves out some essential habitat programs.

So, what is reconciliation?

Reconciliation refers to a special, Senate-driven step in the budget-making process that is typically only possible when the same party controls both Congress and the White House.

When the Senate passes an annual budget resolution, it can include instructions to align—or reconcile—spending priorities with a particular objective. These instructions direct changes in spending, revenues, deficits, or the debt limit by specific amounts to pursue a specific policy agenda. In the past, this process has been used by both parties to lower taxes, adjust social safety net programs, and change health care and education law.

This time around, the intention is to significantly increase funding for conservation priorities, which is why hunters and anglers need to weigh in.

Unfortunately, though conservation funding and priorities still enjoy broad support by both Republicans and Democrats, this is not a bipartisan process. But it’s still important for hunters and anglers to speak up and alert the Senate and House Democrats driving this bill to the full scope of opportunities for fish and wildlife conservation success.

Here are five major priorities we’re still pushing for.

Overall Funding for the Department of the Interior

Early reports indicate that draft reconciliation instructions do not include adequate funding for the Department of the Interior. This is troubling, since the original goal of this process is to commit more funding to respond to critical conservation challenges facing our nation, many of which will be tackled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Geological Survey, and Bureau of Reclamation—all agencies that could miss out if Congress doesn’t commit more funding to Interior. Bureau of Land Management lands alone account for nearly half of the nationwide acres experiencing fire or drought, not to mention an overwhelming amount of hunting and fishing opportunities in the western United States.

If Congress is serious about making a historic investment in conservation, lawmakers must ensure that Interior’s topline for funding is increased so that these funds can go to agencies that sportsmen and sportswomen rely on to restore and protect critical public lands and waters.

Wetlands Restoration Funds

Hunters and anglers will benefit from doubling funding for one key program at Interior: the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA), which has successfully restored nearly 30 million acres of waterfowl habitat in the last 30 years. This program has resulted in billions of dollars being invested in wetlands conservation, and the return on investment has been proven. That’s why we’re encouraging budget negotiators to not only increase funding for Interior, but also to make sure that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service receives double the annual funding for this signature conservation program.

Private Land Conservation Efforts

We also request that lawmakers double the conservation investments in the Farm Bill through the reconciliation process. Demand for conservation on 13.8 million acres of private land goes unmet each year because of inadequate funding for the Farm Bill’s most popular and effective conservation programs. That means nearly 40 percent of all applications submitted for Farm Bill conservation programs cannot be enrolled. Congress should use this opportunity to double the reach of these programs and ramp up the on-the-ground technical support provided to farmers, ranchers, and forest-owners as they work to boost fish and wildlife habitat on their lands.

Support for Bedrock Conservation Policy

As I mentioned above, a decade-defining infrastructure package is tied to reconciliation, and once this legislation passes, it will kickstart a boom in necessary infrastructure upgrades and innovative new projects. This is a good thing! But with all of this activity comes a need to make sure that habitat will not be impacted by development. This can only be done through thorough and timely reviews directed by our bedrock conservation laws, which make sure that projects in and around public lands and waters don’t cause undue harm to fish and wildlife.

Reconciliation funding for the Department of the Interior currently overlooks the increased investments needed to build capacity for the deluge of new projects. Without the ability to complete these studies in both a timely and thorough manner, this will slow down the construction of new infrastructure projects and could threaten our lands, waters, and wildlife. Lawmakers should support and invest in the agencies that carefully manage fish and wildlife resources in balance with essential infrastructure projects.

Conserving Water in the Colorado River Basin

Finally, Congress has the chance to help build resiliency in the Colorado River Basin in two ways. First, Congress should fund the ecosystem and water supply projects needed to comply with our treaty with Mexico, with whom we share the river. Second—not just for the Basin but across the West—Congress must boost funding for the U.S. Geological Survey so that they can continue to provide information on river flows and snowpack levels to do the modeling and scientific analysis that will help us develop more sustainable water-use strategies. The USGS is a critical, and often underfunded, conservation agency. It’s important that Congress supports their mission so that they can, in turn, inform important water, wildlife, and habitat restoration efforts.

Hunters and anglers, particularly in key House districts, can make an impact by sharing these urgent asks directly with target lawmakers. Click here to use our simple advocacy tool now.

Kristyn Brady

July 29, 2021

House Votes to Increase Key Conservation Funds that Benefit Waterfowl, Deer, and Sportfish

The chamber passed a “minibus” package of appropriations bills outlining funding for the federal agriculture, energy, water, environment, and public land agencies, including investments in conservation that will affect hunting and fishing in America

In a 219 – 208 floor vote this afternoon, the House passed a “minibus” package of appropriations bills for fiscal year 2022, including those that fund conservation at the federal agencies overseeing agriculture, energy, water, the environment, and public lands.

Experts at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership have scrutinized these funding levels and identified important increases in several areas, including drought resiliency, wetlands conservation, private land conservation, big game herd health, and habitat restoration in the Everglades, Chesapeake Bay, and Upper Mississippi River watershed.

“We’re pleased to see the House supporting robust and increased investment in conservation at a time when public land visitation is up, participation in hunting and fishing is growing, and our natural resources face many challenges, including climate change, drought, development, invasive species, wildfire, and disease,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the TRCP. “We have to create certainty for the federal workers who keep hunters and anglers safe on our public lands and waters and give them the resources to improve habitat and stave off risk—rather than scramble to recover after losses or watch maintenance backlogs grow. This requires investment. We look forward to working with the Senate to secure these funding levels and seize additional opportunities to commit to conservation in fiscal year 2022.”

Some highlights of the appropriations package include:

  • $25 million for the Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART Drought Response Program, which is $10 million more than FY21
  • $350 million for Army Corps construction projects within the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Program—an increase of $100 million over FY21, although less than half of what the TRCP and conservation partners had pushed for to expedite completion of authorized Everglades restoration projects
  • $50 million for North American Wetlands Conservation Act programs, up by $3.5 million
  • A $65-million bump in funding for conservation technical assistance available to private landowners who enhance habitat, bringing total program funding to $894 million
  • A $44-million increase for Bureau of Land Management habitat programs, bringing the total to $233 million
  • $33.5 million for Upper Mississippi River restoration
  • $15 million for Chesapeake Bay watershed restoration at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • $10 million for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to assist state agencies in CWD containment

While the funding measure takes an important step in growing federal investment in several areas important to wildlife, conservation needs continue to outpace funding. Challenges ranging from chronic wasting disease to drought are affecting hunters, anglers, landowners, and fish and wildlife. The TRCP looks forward to working with lawmakers in the Senate to support these critical funding needs for FY22 and years to come.

 

Photo by RimLight Media

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