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Alex Funk

December 7, 2021

The Importance of Healthy Wetlands for Hunting

Inland marshes and riparian areas are obviously beneficial to fish, but hunters should care about these habitats, as well

Wetlands are having a moment. As part of a commitment to conserving ecosystems that serve as critical carbon sinks, the White House recently identified the conservation of terrestrial wetlands as essential to addressing a changing climate.

These inland wetlands, like riparian areas along streams, store and sequester more carbon than coastal wetlands or any other type of terrestrial ecosystem, including forests. Besides their climate benefits, functioning wetlands are also important natural infrastructure solutions, as they enhance watershed resilience to natural disasters, such as drought and wildfire.

As an example, mountain fens in Montana act like sponges, absorbing snow runoff and other precipitation, then slowly releasing water downstream, recharging groundwater systems, and sustaining river flows during the summer, which supports healthy habitat for fish and wildlife important to hunters and anglers. There’s also emerging science that wetland and riparian systems even act as fire breaks, mitigating the severity of wildfire impacts to critical drinking water supplies and fish habitat.

The benefits of wetlands to fish might be the most obvious: Wetlands help keep streams cool, reduces erosion of streambanks which affects instream habitat, and provide critical spawning areas. But these ecosystems are also important to many terrestrial wildlife species that are popular with hunters. Wild turkeys, for example, utilize spring seeps for winter habitat and forage. Wet meadows contain crucial brood-rearing habitat for the greater sage grouse. And whitetail deer are well known to utilize riparian corridors for access to water, cover, and travel routes.

In fact, when it comes to animal migration, studies show that riparian corridors will become even more important for animals seeking refuge from warmer and drier conditions or for connecting fragmented habitats under a changing climate.

Despite the importance of wetlands to society and our hunting and fishing opportunities, many wetland ecosystems in the United States remain at risk from development and natural hazards, such as wildfire and drought. Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency has taken positive steps to restore Clean Water Act protections to wetlands, but previous interpretations of the act have excluded non-floodplain wetlands that are essential to maintaining healthy rivers and streams.

In Georgia, a proposed titanium mine threatens the Okefenokee Swamp, the largest blackwater swamp in North American and a popular hunting destination. In Colorado, a proposed water development project would inundate an extensive system of mountain fens, which support local wildlife.

Collectively, threats like these present an opportunity for hunters and hunting organizations to support federal protections for wetlands systems under the Clean Water Act. In January 2022, the EPA is hosting several public workshops to gather feedback on their proposed rule, which would help to prevent wetlands loss. The TRCP encourages hunters to attend these hearings and offer their support for federal wetland protections—we’ll also give TRCP members plenty of opportunities to weigh in digitally during the multiple rounds of public comment.

In the meantime, we’ll keep working with partners to address these threats to wetland systems. One step will be developing a scientific review of the importance of wetlands to big game species, in particular—we look forward to sharing that with you soon.

 

Top photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service via Flickr.

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Joel Webster

December 3, 2021

Interior Report Recommends Critical Improvements to Public Land Energy Leasing

Commonsense reforms would create efficiencies while benefitting fish and wildlife

Last week, the Department of the Interior released a report on its oil and gas leasing program in response to a February 2021 executive order aimed at addressing the challenges of climate change. The DOI report has been met with heated rhetoric from both sides of the political spectrum, but the TRCP believes that several commonsense recommendations in the report should be implemented to reduce the negative consequences of oil and gas development on public lands.

In light of the reality that Americans rely heavily on fossil fuels to drive our cars and heat our homes, combined with the value of public lands to hunters and anglers, we feel this is a topic we should share with our community. First, we’ll provide some background on why the TRCP has been working for years to help balance responsible energy development with the needs of fish, wildlife, and outdoor recreation. We’ll also explain everything you need to know about practices recommended in the report that would affect your hunting and fishing opportunities.

Why Hunters and Anglers Should Care

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership first became involved in public lands energy leasing and development in 2006, as an overwhelming body of scientific knowledge demonstrated that an energy boom on Bureau of Land Management public lands was significantly affecting mule deer in many areas of the West. In places like the Pinedale Anticline in Wyoming, the severity of these impacts forced state agency officials to reduce hunter tag allocations and shorten season dates.

As a result, the TRCP began to engage with the policies and processes that govern how oil and gas resources are sold by federal agencies to private entities and then developed on public ground. TRCP’s approach has been to propose solutions that reduce the impacts of oil and gas development on fish and wildlife resources, while supporting responsible and necessary development of these resources. The TRCP additionally supports infrastructure investments that build a clean energy economy and transition to reliable renewable energy alternatives, while also ensuring a consistent and affordable supply of energy for all Americans.

The DOI report highlights some practices that align with what the TRCP has been calling for and can be implemented while still allowing responsible energy development to take place. Below are some of the recommendations we support and why.

Recommendation: Stop Leasing Low-Potential Lands

Presently, the vast majority of BLM lands are open to oil and gas leasing. This includes areas that are identified as having low potential for development, because the mineral resources don’t exist. While it may not seem like a big deal to offer areas where the development expectation is low, energy companies often nominate and lease these lands, both because the leasing rates can be practically free at just $2 an acre and because this practice makes it appear as though companies own more resources than they do, thereby making them more attractive to outside investors. For example, 2.7 million acres were proposed for lease in Nevada between 2013 and 2020, and many of these areas have low potential for development.

Even though the bulk of these areas will not see on-the-ground development, their leasing by the agency still has real-world consequences. When important fish and wildlife habitat, like big game winter range or riparian zones, are leased for development, that use-right is often prioritized over other uses, like the conservation of an area deemed important for hunters and anglers. Therefore, the BLM may be reluctant to put in place measures that could benefit fish and wildlife or outdoor recreation once the lease is sold.

Further, while the agency does collect some revenue from the sale of low-potential lands, they are wasting millions of dollars processing lease nominations in places without development potential. Those scarce public resources could be better spent on other management needs, including leasing areas with actual development potential, particularly where impacts to fish and wildlife are fewer. To make efficient use of taxpayer resources and allow the agency to prioritize conservation and recreation in areas with little potential for development, the TRCP believes that such areas should not be available for lease at all.

Recommendation: Charge More for Bonus Bids

“Bonus bids” refer to the $2-an-acre fee that the winning bidder pays for an oil and gas lease if the price is not increased through competitive bidding at auction. At this low minimum rate, energy companies are incentivized to buy up large swaths of minerals on public land, prioritizing lands for energy production over other uses, like wildlife and hunting, even when these companies are unable to or uninterested in developing these areas.

These low rates add to the problem of speculators nominating tens of thousands of acres of low potential lands for lease, as has occurred in Nevada and other Western states. Increasing the minimum bonus bid price would incentivize energy companies to only nominate and purchase lease parcels that are of actual interest for development and would ensure the American public receives a fair rate of return on the sale of minerals.

Recommendation: Increase Rental Rates

Energy companies often purchase large swaths of public minerals and then sit on them, without any short-term intention of developing those resources. While this practice of not using leases might help the company secure investors—by demonstrating a large portfolio of assets—it can also be used to essentially reserve lands for development over decades at a time.

Right now, companies pay a rental rate of just $1.50 per acre per year for the first five years of the lease and $2 per year thereafter until the lease expires or when royalty payments begin to exceed their price. The TRCP supports efforts by the BLM to encourage leaseholders to develop their oil and gas leases, versus sitting on them for as long as possible. We believe a rental rate increase could help address this problem.

Recommendation: Bonding Updates That Restore Habitat

It is estimated that there are tens of thousands of “orphaned” oil and gas wells across the nation, abandoned by energy developers without any cleanup, and the Government Accountability Office estimates that 84 percent of Bureau of Land Management bonds are inadequate to ensure proper remediation of a drilling site when a well has been abandoned. These wells often leak methane into the atmosphere and pollute fish and wildlife habitat. Disturbed sites further serve as a source of invasive noxious weeds, the spread of which greatly diminishes the habitat values of winter range and the sagebrush ecosystem in the West. The TRCP supports an increase in minimum bond amounts that take into account recent changes in technology, the complexity and depth of modern wells, inflation, and the risk of abandonment.

Next Steps for Healthier Public Lands

It doesn’t take a lot of attention to realize that debates over oil and gas development are heated and passionate in America. And while some people are calling for an end to fossil fuel production, that’s not what the DOI leasing report is proposing. The TRCP is hopeful that some of the report’s commonsense provisions are implemented by the BLM and DOI. Even better, we encourage Congress to adopt some of these measures through the Build Back Better legislation. These steps would help to provide more certainty for fish and wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation, while still allowing for responsible energy development on appropriate federal lands.

Alexandra Kozak

December 1, 2021

Two State Bills That PA Hunters and Anglers Should Support to Advance Conservation

The pandemic-fueled renaissance in hunting, fishing, and boating participation can only continue if the state invests in habitat and outdoor recreation access

Pennsylvania’s 1.5 million acres of state game land, 86,000 miles of rivers and streams, and almost 2.5 million acres of state parks and forests have a lot to offer hunters, anglers, and public land users of all kinds. These natural treasures support our economy, create healthy communities, and provide recreation for our families.

To ensure this continued vitality, Governor Wolf and the General Assembly must provide adequate funding for a Growing Greener III program and a Clean Streams Fund using funding already granted to the state as part of national economic recovery efforts.

Here are two state bills that you can support to advance conservation in the Keystone State and what’s at stake where you hunt and fish.

S.B. 525 – Strengthening the Growing Greener Program

Since its creation in 1999, the Growing Greener program has funded hundreds of parks and trail projects and has a long track record of proven success in conserving the state’s fish and wildlife habitat. Right now, new state legislation is being debated that would establish a framework, build on Pennsylvania’s conservation legacy and boosting the outdoor recreation economy by providing the necessary authority for administrative agencies in the Commonwealth to fund vital conservation projects identified since the last time Growing Greener was fully authorized. Approximately $500 million would come from the dollars given to the state from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

Pre-pandemic numbers showed that the outdoor recreation industry helps to drive Pennsylvania’s economy. This was even more true as residents committed to social distancing and other forms of indoor entertainment were closed due to COVID-19.

State fishing license sales have increased by 20 percent, with boat registrations up 40 percent. One-time spikes in participation are impressive enough, but it is extremely important that we continue to support this growing sector of our state’s economy. And this can’t be done without dedicated investments.

Growing Greener III would provide the funding needed to give our economy this boost while conserving natural resources that will increase our quality of life for years to come.

S.B. 832 – Establishing a Clean Streams Fund

A separate state bill would help to safeguard and restore Pennsylvania streams and rivers, while stimulating economic growth in our communities. Our great state is blessed with tens of thousands of miles of unmatched waters, but we are not without water quality challenges.

First, as use of our natural resources increases, so does the need to safeguard fish and wildlife habitat. Many state parks and forests saw 100- to 200-percent bumps in visitation, but parks with large water features saw as much as a 400-percent increase in foot traffic since the pandemic began.

At the same time, almost one-third of Pennsylvania’s surface water does not meet state water quality standards for either fish or humans, putting our health at risk and diminishing our economy. By investing $250 million of Pennsylvania’s share of American Rescue Plan funds, Senate Bill 832 would establish a new fund dedicated solely to water quality—specifically focused on “non-point” sources of pollution, such as agricultural runoff and acid mine drainage, that are spread throughout our state.

The bill—along with its House companion, H.B. 1901—would also create the Agricultural Conservation Assistance Program to help farmers implement conservation practices that keep valuable topsoil in place and reduce potentially harmful material from reaching local waterways. This would have impacts from the Keystone State all the way to the Chesapeake Bay.

This legislation would go a long way toward helping us protect Pennsylvania’s water resources and expand access to outdoor recreation, while shoring up the health of vital industries like tourism and agriculture.

Take Action Now

If you value our state’s coldwater fisheries, big game and bird habitat, and widespread public access to outdoor recreation that supports local jobs, do NOT wait. Act now and urge decision-makers to support S.B. 525 and S.B. 832 today.

 

Top photo courtesy of the Pennsylvania Game Commission via Flickr.

Three Important Forest Health Bills We’re Watching

This legislation could boost habitat, climate resilience, and rural economies—here’s what you need to know

With the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law in November, a significant commitment was made to our nation’s land, water, and wildlife.

The bill’s $8-billion investment in our forests, in particular, will support federal, state, Tribal, and private forest restoration efforts, while making these landscapes more resilient to wildfire, drought, pests, and diseases—the spread of which is now fueled by climate change.

New data confirm that climate-driven events are a part of our daily lives and threaten our hunting and fishing opportunities, but there are solutions all around us in the land, coasts, and trees that also support fish and wildlife. In fact, U.S. forests and forest products currently capture and store nearly 15 percent of our annual carbon emissions.

With the right policies, our nation’s forests can do even more. Here are three forestry bills we’re following closely that you should know about.

America’s Revegetation and Carbon Sequestration Act

America’s Revegetation and Carbon Sequestration Act would establish a national revegetation program to weave together fragmented landscapes and improve habitat connectivity. The legislation would prioritize ecological- and landscape-appropriate revegetation, incentivize forest management for enhanced carbon sequestration, and support targeted research to better connect between forest and rangeland planning and carbon storage. Additional provisions would create improvements in the entire forestry pipeline, from nursery inventory and capacity to market creation for low-value forest products.

We’re particularly interested in the abandoned mine land revegetation pilot program created in the bill, which offers a unique opportunity to rehabilitate regional landscapes and economies by creating new jobs. The program would provide financial assistance to establish native trees, shrubs, or grasses on federal, state, Tribal, and privately mined lands. These lands are often overrun with non-native, invasive vegetation and shrubs that have little benefit to wildlife and fail to add capacity in terms of carbon storage.

Expert forestry witnesses recently testified in support of the act during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources hearing. The bill will need a committee markup before moving to the floor for passage.

National Prescribed Fire Act

We believe the science-backed approach of active forest management—including prescribed fire, paired with mechanical treatments—is crucial to reduce the risks of catastrophic wildfire and restore ecosystems. Forest systems that are not actively managed are at greater risk for not only wildfire but also pests and disease.

But forest management is needed at a greater pace and scale than agencies can handle right now. The National Prescribed Fire Act would provide dedicated funding for prescribed fire projects and establish a workforce-development program and prescribed fire training center to help agency staff get equipped. The bill also recognizes the science and wisdom of long-standing practices by indigenous communities to yield balanced, diverse landscapes and improved native wildlife habitat.

Expert forestry witnesses recently testified in support of the act during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources hearing. The bill will need a committee markup before moving to the floor for passage.

Rural Forest Markets Act

Introduced earlier this year in both chambers, the Rural Forest Markets Act recognizes our farmers and foresters as important land stewards by providing them with loan guarantees and incentivizing climate-smart practices. Access to funding will remove barriers for rural farmers and foresters to participate in carbon markets, providing new income sources and related forestry jobs. The sustainable forest management that this bill promotes will give a boost to the timber market while providing habitat and climate solutions. The next step for this bill is a hearing and mark-up in either the Senate or House agriculture committees.

 

To be the first to hear about opportunities to support legislation that improves habitat while strengthening our country’s climate resilience, sign up for our emails.

 

Top photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service.

November 19, 2021

House Passes Reconciliation Package That Would Benefit Fish, Wildlife, and Habitat Connectivity

The Build Back Better Act would secure funding for top conservation priorities, including habitat improvements across public and private land

Washington, D.C. — This morning, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Build Back Better Act (H.R. 5376) in a 220-213 vote, advancing conservation provisions that would have an impact on hunting and fishing opportunities across the country. The $1.75-trillion budget reconciliation package now heads to the Senate for further debate.

“These transformational investments in public and private land, climate resilience, and habitat connectivity would provide direct benefits not only to at-risk landscapes but also to our economy—with specific impacts on outdoor recreation businesses and family farms, ranches, and forests,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Americans can and should debate the merits of congressional spending, but the return on investment from conservation has been proven time and again. And this bill recognizes the critical role of private landowners in addressing climate change through practices that also benefit fish and wildlife and water quality. We look forward to working with both chambers to ensure that fish and wildlife benefit from once-in-a-generation investments in our natural resources, rural economies, and climate resilience.”

Here are the areas where sportsmen and sportswomen would benefit from this important legislation, should it be passed into law.

Public Lands

Build Back Better would provide $10 million for mapping, restoring, and conserving wildlife corridors. Improving these seasonal habitats would directly benefit big game species, while boosting biodiversity and resilience in degraded ecosystems. There is also $100 million for the protection and restoration of grassland habitats to be distributed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through grants, contracts, and cooperative agreements.

Private Lands

In its current form, the bill would provide more than $27 billion for Farm Bill conservation programs—effectively doubling the conservation title of the Farm Bill and making the biggest investment in private lands conservation since the Dust Bowl. Authorized through Fiscal Year 2026, the bill greatly increases the capacity of USDA technical service providers to work alongside landowners to conserve habitat and improve soil health and water quality.

Climate

If passed, the bill would be the largest climate-related spending bill in U.S. history. It includes $12 billion to launch a Civilian Climate Corps and an additional $30 billion for projects that the Corps would undertake related to wildfire resiliency and restoration. The bill would also provide $9.5 billion for coastal and Great Lakes restoration and resilience. These funds will be used for the conservation, restoration, and protection of coastal and marine habitats and resources, including fisheries, to enable coastal communities to prepare for extreme storms and other changing climate conditions.

The over $25 billion the package would invest in forestry programs further underscores the importance of natural climate change solutions and aligns with many of TRCP’s priorities. These include funding for better forest management, wildfire prevention and restoration, legacy roads and trails, and state and private forestry conservation.

Marine Fisheries

Beyond conserving migration corridors, the bill would further prioritize habitat connectivity by investing $400 million in the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund, which helps to restore Pacific salmon and steelhead habitat necessary for their seasonal migration. And an additional $200 million would go toward data collection, management, and ecosystem-based assessments in support of federal marine fisheries. Finally, $250 million would help to repair, replace, and upgrade federal hatchery infrastructure.

 

The TRCP has tracked the budget reconciliation process since this summer and urged American hunters and anglers to push for the inclusion of many of these conservation provisions. Combined with the impact of conservation investments from the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, final passage of the Build Back Better Act would set us on a course to make once-in-a-generation improvements to habitat and hunting and fishing opportunities.

 

Top photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service

HOW YOU CAN HELP

CONSERVATION WORKS FOR AMERICA

As our nation rebounds from the COVID pandemic, policymakers are considering significant investments in infrastructure. Hunters and anglers see this as an opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations.

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