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Alexandra Kozak

February 11, 2022

Support Bills to Boost Healthy Habitat and Cleaner Streams in Pennsylvania

H.B. 1901 and S.B. 832 would support conservation from the Keystone State to the Chesapeake Bay 

Many of TRCP’s members hunt, fish, camp, and enjoy Pennsylvania’s abundant natural resources every year, and we want future generations to have these opportunities, as well. But there are changes occurring in the waters we wade and forests and fields we scout. Agricultural runoff and abandoned mines pollute nearly 30 percent—more than 25,000 miles—of our rivers and streams and degrade hundreds of thousands of acres of land, robbing sportsmen and sportswomen of access to quality places to hunt and fish.

To support habitat and access while boosting our economy, Governor Wolf and the General Assembly should provide adequate funding for a Growing Greener III program—which has a long track record of proven success in conserving the state’s fish and wildlife habitat—and a Clean Streams Fund using resources already granted to the state as part of national economic recovery efforts.

That is why TRCP was so pleased to see Wolf’s announcement last week about a plan to prioritize federal American Rescue Plan Act funding for conservation, recreation, and preservation. This announcement, along with accompanying legislation in each chamber of the General Assembly, would provide the funding needed to create jobs while conserving natural resources that increase our quality of life.

Specifically, S.B. 832 and H.B. 1901 would create a funding source known as 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. Polluted runoff is not just an issue for anglers seeking clean water and abundant fisheries. Restoring the health of agricultural land to reduce runoff will boost farm businesses and provide meadow and woodlot habitats for just about all the game species we pursue—from ducks to whitetail deer.

We’ve already seen increased hunting opportunities and more abundant wildlife after completion of just a portion of the state’s plan to send fewer nutrients downstream to the Chesapeake Bay by 2025, also known as Pennsylvania’s Phase 3 Watershed Implementation Plan. It includes several new initiatives and accelerated strategies that will benefit anglers, hunters, and anyone who enjoys the outdoors or cares about clean water. The governor’s plan, combined with the legislation discussed above, would hasten these efforts to restore Pennsylvania’s impaired waters across the Commonwealth.

S.B. 832 and H.B. 1901 would go a long way toward helping us conserve Pennsylvania’s water resources and expand access to outdoor recreation, while shoring up the health of vital industries like tourism and agriculture. 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. 832 and H.B. 1901 today.

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Top photo courtesy of Joanna Gilkeson / USFWS via Flickr.

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Coming to Grips with the Impacts of Ida

Gulf coast anglers have a firsthand perspective on the habitat destruction caused by yet another massive storm 

Veteran Lafitte speckled trout and redfish guide Maurice d’Aquin took a break from cutting sheetrock and clearing debris from his house in early August 2021 to have a look at what Hurricane Ida had done to some of his favorite fishing spots.

What he found stunned and upset him almost as much as the three feet of mud left by Ida he was trying to shovel and till in his yard.

“I went to a shoreline on the west end of Little Lake, a spot where I had caught nice redfish all spring and summer and it was completely gone,” d’Aquin said. “I went to the exact mark on my GPS where I was casting to redfish along a shoreline and had to go across about 700 yards of open water before my trolling motor even touched mud.”

What d’Aquin has found by boat across the upper reaches of Barataria Bay, especially on the western and northern stretches of Little Lake, has been confirmed with both aerial surveys by Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and satellite images gathered by the United States Geological Survey. Hurricane Ida’s 150 mile per hour-plus winds scoured and decimated Louisiana’s coastal marshes in ways not seen since Hurricane Katrina removed an estimated 200 square miles in 2005.

The Extent of the Damage

Early indications are 106 square miles of marshes washed away or were displaced by Ida’s savage winds and 10-foot storm surge. The destruction spreads across areas of Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parish east of the Mississippi River all the way west through Terrebonne Parish.

The Barataria Basin bore the brunt of Ida’s fury. Marshes west and south of Empire in lower Plaquemines and Jefferson Parish that never recovered from Katrina were decimated again by Ida, taking what little was left in areas closer to the Gulf of Mexico and damaging recently restored barrier islands. It’s the extensive damage in the northern reaches of the Barataria system, however, that has coastal wetlands experts and fisheries biologists most concerned.

“The whole Barataria Basin is only about 700 square miles, so to lose about 100 of those in one event like Hurricane Ida is significant and stunning,” said Brian Lezina, Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority’s Chief of Planning. “There’s a chance some of it will come back. The marsh can heal itself in time if the resources are there and vegetation regrows. But we won’t know how much will recover for a few years.”

Lezina said much of the marsh damage was in areas where organic materials and lighter silt make up the soils. Some of it was flotant, which is marsh that roots in decaying vegetation floating above the organic soils beneath. Ida scattered the uprooted marshes and light, organic mud, filling in nearby canals and fouling Lake Salvador and Cataouatche and shoving mud and grass into and under houses from upper Plaquemines Parish west into Jefferson and Lafourche. Organic soil marshes and flotant are much more susceptible to wave action and erosion than marshes east of the Mississippi River and those closer to the mouth of the Atchafalaya River, which receive annual sediment deposits of heavier clays and sand. They also lack the ability to repair themselves in the same way as areas that get sediment replenished annually by the rivers.

Resources to repair the marsh are often hard to come by in areas far removed from the river and the sediments it carries. Lezina said the CPRA and federal partners are evaluating the best options to try to repair some of the damage. He’s optimistic some regeneration will occur through a combination of natural processes and dredging projects.

“You have the Davis Pond Diversion nearby and the Intracoastal Canal that both can carry some water and sediment into the badly-damaged areas,” he said. “The sediments are being reworked all the time by waves and current. If the submerged vegetation grows back in shallow areas, it can help capture some of that sediment. And we’re looking closely at what resources can be directed into the area to help recapture some of the sediment.”

This satellite image courtesy of the USGS shows the damage to the little lake area in the wake of Hurricane Ida

A Fishery Transformed

Chris Schieble, a marine fisheries biologist with Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, said the exact long-term effects of the dramatic marsh losses from Ida on fisheries production are hard to predict. However, as more organic soils and marsh “edge” are lost to storms, daily wave action and sinking of the land below the water line called “subsidence” that is eating away at the Barataria and other basins across Louisiana, fisheries production is certain to decline.

“It’s the organic materials and rotting vegetation called detritus that feeds the food chain in areas that don’t get a lot of sediment and freshwater input from the Mississippi River,” Schieble said. “Areas where the fresh and saltwater mix more east of the river and near the Atchafalaya River, the food chain starts with phytoplankton. But in organic soils, the ones that look like coffee grounds, it’s the nutrient leeching out of the soil that makes up the base, feeds the forage fish, and ultimately the predators like speckled trout and redfish.”

In the short term, marsh loss from storms can cause an increase in fisheries production and lead to more catches of speckled trout and redfish as fish orient to newly created and exposed edge habitats, shallow flats and washouts where tidal flows concentrate baitfish.

D’Aquin said he’s seen that firsthand in areas damaged by Ida.

“The storm opened up some new cuts along the shoreline in Lake Salvador where water is flowing in from the Intracoastal Waterway,” he said. “We caught a lot of redfish in the early fall in those washouts.”

In the long-term, however, the profound loss of marsh and organic materials will inevitably lead to a decline in fisheries production as nutrient levels drop and vital nursery grounds for juvenile shrimp, crabs, mullet, and other forage is lost. Lezina and Schieble both said the Barataria Basin and other areas hardest hit by wetland loss over the last century will reach a tipping point where the benefits of new edge habitat created by storms will be outweighed by the habitat and nutrient loss and the conversion to open water.

“We may already be at that tipping point in the Barataria Basin,” Schieble said. “If you look at the time of year when Ida hit, it’s a time where we would be seeing redfish larvae recruit into the marsh and white shrimp developing in those marshes. The redfish might have been displaced or not recruited into that marsh at all. Ida’s path and destruction couldn’t have been worse for our recreational and commercial fisheries. Productivity and access have taken a big hit.”

Anglers Adapt, Look to the Future

The extreme changes in habitat have also altered where anglers and guides have had to focus their efforts since the storm. Many guides and recreational fishermen have also noted a change in the size and number of fish they’ve been catching.

Captain Joe DiMarco has been fishing east and west of the Mississippi River out of Buras for more than three decades. He said the habitat loss and the fishing on the east side of the river is far different than what he’s seeing west of the river after Ida.

“The east side didn’t take nearly the beating we are seeing to the west where a lot of the smaller cane islands and humps where we caught trout last year are now gone,” DiMarco said. “We see some damage on the east side on the edge of Black Bay, but nothing like on the west. The storm seems to have pushed in a lot of big redfish too. Seems like we are catching many more 27- to 35-inch redfish way up in the marsh than we are 16- to 27-inch fish.”

D’Aquin said he’s having to relearn to fish his home waters around Lafitte in the same way he did after Katrina 16 years ago.

“Canals where we caught speckled trout during the winter are almost completely filled in and islands and peninsulas where we were catching trout and reds in the past are gone,” he said. “Just like after Katrina, we are seeing fish that are stressed and we are having to make adjustments. The fish and the marsh suffered just like the communities hit by the storm. But just like the communities are coming back slowly so are the fish. Each day gets a little bit better.”

Guest Author Spencer Shaver

February 3, 2022

The Threat to Habitat in the Boundary Waters Has Been Minimized—Now What?

Why the Biden Administration’s decision to conserve the Boundary Waters watershed is huge win for public lands and what comes next for America’s most visited wilderness 

The Department of Interior’s recent decision to cancel two hardrock mineral leases on public lands upstream of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was widely supported by hunters and anglers. It was also in line with an agency process supported by our community. But this is just the first step toward permanent protection of these essential resources. Here’s what you need to know about what comes next.

First, a quick review of what’s at stake: The Boundary Waters, the most visited Wilderness Area in the country, is made up of more than 1,100 lakes and 2,000 designated overnight campsites all connected by rivers, streams, and portage trails along Minnesota’s northern border. The 1.1-million-acre Wilderness Area lies within the Superior National Forest, the largest contiguous forest in the eastern region of the United States.

The waters within hold high quality habitat for walleyes, smallmouth bass, northern pike, and lake trout. In the face of a changing climate, the area offers some of the clearest, coldest, and deepest waters in all of the boreal forest open to the public for fishing, camping, and hunting. Ruffed grouse, whitetail deer, moose, and migratory birds also frequent the lakes and rivers in and around the BWCAW, an area directly adjacent to Canada’s 1.2-million-acre Quetico Provincial Park and in the same watershed as Minnesota’s 220,000-acre Voyageurs National Park.

Last week, the Biden Administration decided to mitigate some of the threats to these resources by canceling two federal mineral leases upstream of the Boundary Waters. This rectified a process that would have endangered habitat and outdoor recreation access downstream. The action was in keeping with the science-based, public-facing approach we have advocated for since 2018, when the TRCP and its partners called on federal agencies and decision-makers for a “stop and study” approach to this new type of mining in the region.

But future leases could be considered unless Congress passes legislation to permanently protect the Boundary Waters. Further, there is still a need for more evaluation of the environmental impacts of hardrock mining, especially if we hope to put this idea—and the risks to fish and wildlife—to rest for good.

This is why federal agencies are currently completing a study that could put a moratorium on any new hardrock leasing in 225,378 acres of the surrounding watershed of the BWCAW, putting that acreage off-limits, as well. While the study is underway, the Bureau of Land Management has initiated a two-year segregation of new federal mineral leases within the proposed withdrawal area.

Importantly, during a 90-day comment period concluded on January 19, 2022, sportsmen and sportswomen overwhelmingly urged federal agencies to take action to protect the watershed of the BWCAW. Thousands of business owners, hunters, anglers, and countless others in the outdoor community spoke in favor of the withdrawal because tourism and jobs in the local outdoor-recreation-based economy depend on the Boundary Waters.

There will be other opportunities for the public to weigh in as the study progresses, and at the conclusion we hope to see federal agencies commit to a 20-year moratorium of new hardrock mineral leasing in that area of the Superior National Forest. The Boundary Waters is a unique landscape and critical part of the American Wilderness system that is deserving of permanent protection from water pollution and impacts to habitat and access downstream. Federal agencies have the discretion to set the study area aside from new leasing for up to 20 years after gathering public input and scientific data that inform such a decision.

In the end, the Boundary Waters can only be permanently protected from this type of mining by H.R. 2794, the Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Prevention Act. After the current moratorium ends and federal agencies enact a longer-term mineral withdrawal order, an act of Congress must be signed into law to permanently declare the area off-limits from future hardrock mineral leasing. This would permanently reinforce the decision by federal agencies to set the 225,000-acre area of the Superior National Forest aside from this kind of leasing for up to a 20-year period.

The legislation has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Representative Betty McCollum (D-Minn.). Federal agencies have begun to right past agency decisions to renew hardrock mining leases in the watershed, and it is up to elected officials to seal the deal and secure this critical habitat and bucket-list paddling, fishing, and hunting destination for future generations.

Learn more and sign up for updates on this issue at SportsmenBWCA.org.

Spencer Shaver is the conservation director for Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters . He is a lifelong hunter and fisherman, a graduate of the University of Minnesota’s environmental science, policy, and management program, and has guided Boundary Waters canoe trips since 2014.

 

Photos by Hansi Johnson. Follow him @hansski43 on Instagram.

John Cornell

February 2, 2022

Conservation Opportunities Outlined in New Mexico’s Migration Action Plan

Now is the time for sportsmen and sportswomen to step up and ensure this work moves forward

In 2019, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law the Wildlife Corridors Act, a first-of-its-kind piece of state legislation. The law mandated that New Mexico’s agencies develop monitoring protocols, analyze economic benefits, identify movement barriers, and create maps to better conserve migratory habitats used by big game animals like elk, mule deer, and pronghorn.

Following the Wildlife Corridors Act’s directive, the New Mexico Department of Transportation and the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish just released the Wildlife Corridors Action Plan. Among other things, the plan highlights 10 wildlife-vehicle collision hotspots, five of which were identified using collision data and five of which were identified using ecological data such as GPS, telemetry, and linkage modeling. In addition, the plan provides project recommendations and cost-benefit analysis for each project.

Across New Mexico over the course of one year, there are roughly 1,200 wildlife-vehicle collisions costing nearly $20 million in total, a figure that does not incorporate the economic impact of loss of work, school, or productivity resulting from these accidents. Roadways also contribute to habitat fragmentation, disrupting migratory movements and impeding access to the important seasonal habitats on which wildlife rely for their survival.

The Wildlife Corridors Action Plan takes a significant step to address these issues by identifying those sites where wildlife-vehicle collisions are most likely to occur and where potential future projects could most effectively mitigate and reduce these incidents. The plan does not, however, fund these projects or delineate a timetable for their completion. With $350 million of federal infrastructure funding available over the next 5 years and the state enjoying a revenue surplus, New Mexico is well-positioned to compete for and leverage state and federal funding to complete this work.

With such an opportunity on the table, it is critical that New Mexico sportsmen and sportswomen step up and get involved. Right now, NMGF and NMDOT are accepting public comments on the Wildlife Corridors Action Plan until March 12, 2022. It is important that members of our community share their local knowledge and experiences with planners. It is equally important to ensure that the plan uses ecological data and corridor models to enhance, restore, and conserve connectivity on these landscapes beyond collision hotspots.

Beyond commenting on the plan, sportsmen and sportswomen need to contact our state legislators and the governor’s office and communicate the importance of funding these projects. Safe passage for our wildlife is a significant investment: projects such as these range in cost from $17 to $45 million each and take years to plan and build. Research shows, however, that these highly effective infrastructure investments save millions in costs through accidents averted and lives saved.

There can be no better investment than in the safety of our roads and our treasured wildlife.

For more information on the Wildlife Corridors Action Plan, visit https://wildlifeactionplan.nmdotprojects.org/.

Comments on the plan can be submitted between January 12, 2022, and March 12, 2022 via:

  •  Email: wildlife.corridors@state.nm.us
  • Phone: (505) 470-3656)
  • Mail: Draft Wildlife Action Plan (Attn: Matthew Haverland), 1120 Cerrillos Rd, Rm 206, P.O. Box 1149, Santa Fe, NM 87505

January 27, 2022

Interior Cancels Hardrock Mining Leases in the Boundary Waters

A broad coalition of groups commended the administration’s action to ensure long-term protections for this bucket-list paddling, fishing, and hunting destination

Hunters and anglers are applauding the Department of the Interior’s decision to cancel two federal hardrock mineral leases located in the Superior National Forest within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness watershed, citing the importance of sustaining the Boundary Waters’ recreational, economic, and fish and wildlife values.

Sportsmen and sportswomen also commended federal agencies’ reinterpretation of the legal “m-opinion” that underpinned several previous agency decisions to allow for sulfide-ore copper mining permits and leases to be granted within the watershed. Thousands of members of organized hunting, fishing, and conservation groups support this decision, which is an important step in the effort to permanently protect the Boundary Waters watershed from the negative impacts of hardrock mining.

Over 250,000 people recently commented in a federally led process to set aside the over 225,000 acres in the Superior National Forest from destructive hardrock mining, with the public input overwhelmingly in favor of the area’s long-term conservation. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is America’s most-visited wilderness area, which supports a regional economy highly dependent on access to public lands.

“Today’s announcement by the Biden administration is the right decision for the Boundary Waters and for the outdoor community that has worked so hard to protect it for future generations,” says Lukas Leaf, executive director of Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters. “Spending time outdoors is what rejuvenates and energizes us. The importance of preserving places like the Boundary Waters that provide that experience is immeasurable. We appreciate these steps taken by federal land management agencies that lay out the correct process by which we can protect our priceless public lands and waters. Now we must build on this momentum and achieve permanent protection for the BWCA.”

“We applaud the administration’s decision to cancel the hardrock mineral leases upstream of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “The Superior National Forest was originally set aside by President Theodore Roosevelt to conserve this remarkable landscape, and today’s announcement renews the opportunity to permanently safeguard the Boundary Waters as a renowned canoeing, fishing, and hunting destination.”

Downstream of the mining leases are sensitive populations of native lake trout that are significant not only to anglers, but also as part of Minnesota’s natural heritage, says John Lenczewski, executive director of Minnesota Trout Unlimited. “Today’s decision is an important step to help ensure that populations of these unique fish remain healthy long into the future,” he says.

Local hunters and anglers have been vocal in their opposition to the leases for years. “We have worked hard to press decision-makers to ensure we keep these waters clean and safe,” says Matt Lee, chair of Minnesota Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “I would like to thank all of our members—who have reached out to the last three administrations—with the goal of ensuring that these lands and waters are protected for future generations. We look forward to our continued work with the administration and congressional leaders to implement permanent conservation measures for the Boundary Waters.”

Other leaders in the hunting and angling community also reacted positively to the announcement:

“With memories of my family’s trip to the Boundary Waters this summer still fresh in my mind, I had the great pleasure of telling my kids today that an imminent threat no longer exists,” says BHA President and CEO Land Tawney. “We join a thunderous applause in thanking the administration for rescinding the leases that never should have been issued in the first place – and we look forward to continuing to work with Congress to assure the long-term protection of the Boundary Waters watershed.”

“The reasons to safeguard the magnificent Boundary Waters, America’s most popular wilderness area, are as crystal clear as the pristine waters of the Rainy River Watershed,” says Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “The Boundary Waters are a natural treasure that is simply too important to risk – and the costs for people and wildlife too steep. The Biden administration’s decision will safeguard essential habitat for hundreds of wildlife species and protect thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars of economic benefits that depend upon the Boundary Waters’ world-class camping, hiking, paddling, fishing, and hunting.”

Securing permanent protections for the Boundary Waters was on TRCP’s list of top priorities for the Biden Administration. Learn more about this issue on our blog.

Top photo courtesy of Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters

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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