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Randall Williams

December 14, 2021

New Digital Mapping Tool Offers Look at Disturbances to Mule Deer Migration

Agencies and the public have a clearer view of the challenges facing Wyoming’s herds

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the University of Wyoming released a web map today that highlights current levels of human disturbance in Wyoming’s three designated mule deer migration corridors, including the 150-mile Red Desert to Hoback corridor.

The web map was developed by University of Wyoming’s Geographic Information Science Center in collaboration with TRCP to serve as a resource for both wildlife and land-use managers, as well as the interested public. It incorporates the best available data on migration and disturbance to inform future decision-making when conservation opportunities arise or development is proposed in migration corridors.

“We would like to see this web map utilized as a resource for future decisions as it provides a unique piece of information about the current level of disturbance in these corridors,” said Nick Dobric, the Wyoming field manager for the TRCP. “The mule deer in the Sublette herd, for example, that migrate and winter in the Rock Springs area have been struggling since the early 2000s and are currently 34 percent below their population objective, resulting in the loss of hunting opportunity with shorter seasons and reduced tags. This web map highlights parts of the corridor that could benefit from habitat restoration and where future development could have a big impact on the health of our herds, such as in stopover areas.”

Using the township and range grid system, the web map provides disturbance calculations at three different scales and provides a feature to customize the analysis boundary. The information displayed utilizes publicly available data, including the disturbance layer developed by the state of Wyoming for sage-grouse conservation. Research has consistently demonstrated that anthropogenic disturbances impact mule deer, pronghorn antelope, and other big-game species. One study, conducted in 2020, indicates that migrating mule deer have a disturbance threshold of approximately 3 percent of a landscape’s surface area, dependent upon the size and configuration of development, as well as specific vegetation and migration habitats.

“Wyoming is fortunate to have robust wildlife populations and hunting opportunities, in large part because of our still functioning migration corridors,” said Joy Bannon, Policy Director for Wyoming Wildlife Federation. “Development is essential for our state, but it needs to be thoughtfully planned. As the web map shows, disturbance is relatively limited in most parts of the corridor and with smart planning in the future – it can stay relatively the same so that we can continue to enjoy our incredible wildlife.”

Wyoming has been at the forefront of migration corridor research and conservation for decades. In the 1960s, Frank and John Craighead developed the first maps of elk migrating in and out of Yellowstone National Park. In recent years, the development of GPS technology has revolutionized the field as researchers are now able to document movements in unprecedented detail. The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission adopted a migration corridor strategy in 2016 in part due to the growing body of knowledge regarding migratory animals’ behavior and habitat needs. Likewise, Governor Gordon issued an executive order in 2020 to conserve migration corridors while balancing multiple-uses and protecting private property rights. This web map is an additional piece of information for managers and the public to utilize.

Wyoming takes well-deserved pride in its role as a leader in researching and conserving the migration corridors used by our big game herds,” said Josh Coursey, CEO of Muley Fanatic Foundation. “Governor Gordon’s executive order, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission’s migration strategy, and cooperative efforts between the state and federal agencies like the BLM, all demonstrate a recognition of the importance of this issue, and it is our hope that the web mapping tool will prove useful to those efforts and guide further action moving forward.”

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Jaclyn Higgins

December 9, 2021

Preliminary Study Shows Extent of Menhaden’s Role in Gulf Ecosystem

Results could help support a new management model that considers the needs of sportfish

Researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the University of Miami, and the University of Florida recently completed a study which modeled the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico with a focus on Gulf menhaden. The model was developed to evaluate the varying effects of different harvest policies on marine species to support ecosystem-based fisheries management in the Gulf.

The study can be used to inform stakeholders and policymakers of the trade-offs between different management actions, while considering predator-prey interactions, fishing pressures, and environmental variables. The authors were primarily interested in evaluating the effects of menhaden harvest on predators like speckled trout, redfish, mackerel, and many other fish that anglers like to catch.

Hundreds of diet studies and dozens of coastal species were included in the study’s Gulf-wide food web, which modeled predator-prey interactions from 1980 to 2016. Menhaden, called pogies in the Gulf, were found to support the diets of 32 predator groups. When categorized by age class, the main predators of juvenile menhaden were redfish, speckled trout, and seabirds. Menhaden over one year of age were mainly preyed upon by reds, trout, and king and Spanish mackerel, as well as apex predators like blacktip sharks, gag grouper, dolphins, and coastal piscivores—including jacks, tuna, and mahi mahi.

It is interesting to note that menhaden accounted for about 85 percent of all forage fish biomass in this model, but that number is probably smaller in reality. Because other forage fish in the Gulf—like sardines, anchovies, and mullet—are not as well-studied as the menhaden, more data is needed to determine the role of all forage species in the ecosystem. Certainly, other forage species contribute to the diets of predators like snapper and grouper, so more data would be useful for future assessments of those species.

Commercial and recreational fishery statistics were added to the model to evaluate historical fishing pressure and compare potential scenarios with different harvest strategies. Notably, the Gulf menhaden reduction fishery was responsible for 48.1 percent of all commercial catch (in weight) from 1980 to 2016. When looking at scenarios where menhaden fishing pressure differed, the data showed the current amount of pressure in the Gulf cuts king mackerel biomass in half compared to where there is zero menhaden fishing. Other species are reduced, as well, including the extremely popular speckled trout and redfish.

Based on this study, Gulf menhaden support about 40 percent of the diets of both Spanish and king mackerel and about 20 percent of the diet for speckled trout. This information could be integral to the development of an ecosystem-based management plan for the Gulf menhaden fishery, considering the needs of such predators.

During the entire period, there was a 30-percent increase in fishery landings (commercial and recreational) across the Gulf. Although certain gamefish—like yellowfin tuna and swordfish—showed increased biomass estimates, large oceanic sharks, other tunas, Spanish and king mackerel, and reef piscivores decreased in biomass.

While the authors of the study noted there are still data gaps regarding predator diets throughout the Gulf, this is the most up-to-date and comprehensive diet model available. Based on the latest stock assessment published in 2019, king mackerel are not considered overfished, nor are they experiencing overfishing, but it is clear from this study that Gulf menhaden and king mackerel are connected. The next stock assessment for Spanish mackerel is scheduled to be published in 2023, which will hopefully close some of the data gaps.

With further study, it may be found that the health of king or Spanish mackerel stocks can serve as indicators of ecosystem impacts in the Gulf, like striped bass are in the Atlantic. The TRCP and its partners will be working diligently to gain more information on the role of menhaden in the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem and how redfish, speckled trout, tarpon, jacks, and grouper are affected by the industrial menhaden fishery that currently has no catch limit and very little state and federal oversight.

Learn more about our efforts to conserve menhaden in the Gulf and Atlantic.

Kristyn Brady

December 8, 2021

House Passes Legislation to Boost CWD Management and Research

Swift passage of this bipartisan bill reflects the critical need for more resources to study and stop the spread of chronic wasting disease

In a 393-33 vote this evening, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Chronic Wasting Disease Management and Research Act, which would expand the federal government’s role in the fight to control a fatal wildlife disease that threatens the future of deer hunting in America. The bill was introduced by Representatives Ron Kind (D-Wis.) and Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) in October 2021 and was quickly passed out of committee.

“This swift bipartisan passage of the Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act reflects the incredible need for resources to study and stop the spread of the disease on behalf of our wild deer herds and hunting opportunities,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “This legislation has the federal government stepping up its responsibility for addressing CWD, giving state agency staff more support, focusing the scope of much-needed research, and educating the full spectrum of stakeholders—from hunters to the captive cervid industry—so that we are all accountable for advancing CWD solutions.”

The legislation calls for an annual $70-million investment through fiscal year 2028 on an even split of CWD management and research priorities. It also includes authorization for federal, state, and Tribal agencies to develop educational materials to inform the public on CWD and directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture to review its Herd Certification Program, which accredits captive operations as “low-risk” for CWD contamination but has proven inadequate to stem the spread of the disease.

$35 million per year for research would focus on:
  • Methods to effectively detect CWD in live and harvested deer and the surrounding environment
  • Best practices for reducing CWD occurrence through sustainable harvest of deer and other cervids
  • Factors contributing to spread of the disease locally, such as animal movement and scavenging
$35 million per year for management, including surveillance and testing, would prioritize:
  • Areas with the highest incidence of CWD
  • Areas responding to new outbreaks of CWD
  • Areas without CWD that show the greatest risk of CWD emerging
  • Jurisdictions demonstrating the greatest financial commitment to managing, monitoring, surveying, and researching CWD
  • Efforts to develop comprehensive policies and programs focused on CWD management

As a next step, the TRCP and its partners are working with lawmakers to secure the introduction of a companion bill in the Senate.

Learn more about chronic wasting disease and what’s at stake for hunters here.

 

Feature image courtesy of the National Deer Association

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.

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.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

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