Hunters See Opportunity to Conserve Big Game Migrations in SW Montana
An updated management plan for the BLM’s Dillon Field Office could safeguard some of the Treasure State’s finest hunting opportunities
The Bureau of Land Management’s Dillon Field Office is comprised of more than 900,000 acres of public lands within Beaverhead and Madison Counties in southwest Montana. These wide-open spaces provide excellent fish and wildlife habitat and a wealth of dispersed recreation opportunities. The Dillon Field Office encompasses seven Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks big game hunting districts (HDs 302, 303, 321, 322, 329, 331, and 340) that are well-known to sportsmen and sportswomen for to their world-class hunting opportunities for elk, mule deer, antelope, and upland birds. Hiking, fishing, camping, and wildlife viewing are also popular activities, and these public lands were also the site for a recent bighorn sheep reintroduction. A recent report found that hunting and angling in Beaverhead County generates over $167 million each year and creates more than 1,400 jobs.
The Dillon Field Office is conducting a 15-year evaluation of its 2006 Resource Management Plan and has agreed to welcome public input as a part of the process. Resource management plans are intended to guide the agency’s management priorities for public lands in a particular area for 15-20 years. The BLM is required by its own rules to conduct intermittent reviews of individual plans to determine if there is any new data or updated science that would be of significance to the current plan and/or if there have been significant changes in related plans of other federal agencies, state and local governments, or Tribes.
In the case of the Dillon Field Office’s 2006 Resource Management Plan, these criteria certainly apply. There have been significant changes to the landscape and its habitats since the last evaluation, and TRCP believes the plan should be updated to reflect new scientific information, particularly on big game migration and the threats that could impede these critical wildlife movements, as well as potential opportunities to improve them. In addition, the plan has not been revised to reflect guidance provided by Department of the Interior’s Secretarial Order 3362 to prioritize the conservation and improvement of big game winter range and migration corridors. Likewise, since the plan’s last review, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks adopted a strategy for conserving wildlife migration, which should inform the BLM’s management of these public lands.
Because the BLM has decided to open its review to public comment, Sportsmen and sportswomen now have an opportunity to speak up and request that the BLM Dillon Field Office update the current RMP to conserve and restore these habitats using the latest science. Across the West, collar data and other migration-related research has been used by land management agencies to guide strategically sited habitat restoration projects and fence improvements to facilitate wildlife movement, while also ensuring that development is sited away from vital habitats. Without incorporating the latest data and migration science, the Dillon Field Office’s current plan is obsolete and could result in missed opportunities to restore and conserve habitat in one of the highest-value landscapes in the nation.
For the reasons stated above, it is important that sportsmen and sportswomen provide input and request that the BLM Dillon Field Office update the current RMP to safeguard big game migration corridors using the latest science. The hunting and fishing opportunities found on these public lands are too important to rely on an outdated land-use plan for their conservation.
Here’s how we’d grade the implementation of each private land conservation program included in the last five-year bill—and what can be done better next time
The 2018 Farm Bill seems fated to be remembered as one defined by COVID-19 and the greater political universe. The bill took several steps to regain ground for conservation following agency-wide sequestration, but trade disputes and the onset of a global pandemic changed the reality facing American agricultural producers and strained resources at the USDA, right as implementation of the five-year bill hit its stride.
However, the Natural Resource Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency plowed ahead, with many of the federal employees responsible for Farm Bill conservation programs working from kitchen counters and dining room tables. Two years later, business as usual seems right on the horizon—and so is the next Farm Bill.
To secure the best possible value for hunters, anglers, landowners, and fish and wildlife in the 2023 bill, we need to know what worked and what didn’t. Below is a quick line-by-line report card on the USDA’s implementation of private land conservation programs since passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, plus what we’d like to push for in the next bill.
Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program: A+
In March 2020, the USDA awarded $48 million in funding to state and tribal governments from the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program. Later in the year, the TRCP released a report highlighting the innovative ways that states are putting this money to use. States like Michigan, Illinois, and Colorado have used funds to work with landowners to open tens of thousands of huntable acres to the public. Other states have expanded mentorship programs and built websites and mapping tools to make access easier to find. In total, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies has estimated a return on investment of $5.20 for every $1 in funding to the program.
The swift distribution of VPA-HIP funds and clear benefits should be a sign to the hunting and fishing community to press for further investment in the VPA-HIP when the Farm Bill is reauthorized in 2023.
Conservation Reserve Program: B
Since 2018, the TRCP and our partners have been vocal about the impact that administrative changes had on enrollment in the sporting community’s favorite conservation program: the Conservation Reserve Program. Decisions to eliminate cost-shares and practice incentives and reduce soil rental rates accelerated the CRP’s waning enrollment from 36 million acres in 2007 to 20 million acres in 2020. Fortunately, in 2021, the USDA seized on recommendations from our community to boost enrollment—reinstating incentives and improving the financial reasoning for signing up. Landowners responded, with over 58,000 new contracts and 5.3 million acres enrolled in the program.
There is a General CRP sign-up ongoing through March 11 and a CRP Grasslands sign-up from April 4 to May 13, 2022—so enrollment numbers should continue to climb. But the TRCP and our partners continue to work with USDA officials and lawmakers to identify program improvements ahead of the 2023 Farm Bill.
Environmental Quality Incentives Program: B
Here’s how we arrived at this decent-but-not-stellar grade. First, the positives: EQIP, the most popular working lands conservation program, was significantly expanded in 2018 and has become a central tool in the Biden Administration’s toolkit for addressing agricultural land climate emissions. Increasingly, the NRCS is pursuing innovative ways to draw interest into the most popular working lands program—like a recent announcement that EQIP would offer a Conservation Incentive Contract option, created in 2018, nationwide in 2022. This focuses EQIP practices on specific resource concerns in high-priority conservation areas and provides annual payments over a five-year contract period. These contracts serve to help landowners transition from individual EQIP practices to the whole-farm conservation approach offered by the Conservation Stewardship Program. The agency also recently announced the availability of $38 million for cover cropping demonstration projects in 11 states, advancing the deployment of climate-smart adoption.
The 2018 Farm Bill also expanded eligibility under EQIP programming to water management entities (i.e., irrigation districts) that provide water to farmers and ranchers in the West. Expanded eligibility under EQIP will be a helpful tool in achieving large-scale water efficiency and conservation improvements, which enhance river flows for fish and wildlife. Here’s where things can improve: Based on reports from partners, NRCS state and local staff have received little guidance on how to update EQIP procedures to accommodate new eligible entities and have limited capacity to market the program to eligible users. TRCP is encouraging USDA leadership to provide additional resources to NRCS state and local offices to properly administer and market these new opportunities.
There also continues to be concern in the Colorado River Basin that certain efficiency practices adopted by these entities aren’t translating to water savings benefiting fish and wildlife, despite requirements that efficiency savings not be directed toward activities that increase overall water use. The conservation community continues to work with the NRCS and champions in Congress to ensure that EQIP dollars are achieving the program’s conservation goals.
Climate-Smart Agriculture: A
Among President Biden’s earliest actions in office was an Executive Order directing federal agencies to develop climate mitigation strategies, with a goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. The USDA later released a request for information on how new and existing funding and authorities can be used to encourage the voluntary adoption of climate-smart agricultural practices. This process, which the TRCP and partners took part in, yielded important feedback on the need for everything from improved data quantification and management and the development of climate-smart commodities to better landowner outreach and flexibility. Following the feedback process, the USDA released a 90-day progress report in May 2021.
In February 2022, the agency announced $1 billion for climate-smart commodity pilot projects over a period of five years. The program will support partner-led efforts to bring climate-smart commodities to market, supporting carbon quantification, reporting and verification of climate benefits. These partnership projects will serve as proof-of-concept for the future of climate-smart commodity development. These incentives keep lands from being converted and advance the conservation and restoration of ecosystems like wetlands, grasslands, and forests—all of which is critical to securing huntable habitats for generations to come.
Conservation Compliance: D
In April 2021, the Government Accountability Office released a report detailing ineffective enforcement of Conservation Compliance. Also known as Swampbuster, this accountability effort has been in place since 1985 and prohibits those who drain temporary, seasonal wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region from taking part in farm bill programs. The watchdog agency found that USDA wetland specialists were only reporting a fraction of the compliance violations they witnessed. Potential violations are only reported if met during an active inspection. So, wetland drainage violations in sight of roads, property lines, and visible in aerial imagery go unreported. In total, the agency reported less than five violations on 417,000 tracts of land between 2014 and 2018.
Since the report was published, the USDA acknowledged failings and agreed to implement a handful of the report’s recommendations. The TRCP, its partners, and greater conservation community continue working to address this decades-old problem.
Regional Conservation Partnership Program: C
As the premier public-private conservation program, the RCPP lends federal resources to locally led conservation projects to carry out conservation on a landscape scale. It was created in the 2014 Farm Bill and expanded in 2018.
In 2021, the NRCS announced $330 million in RCPP funding awards to 85 projects across the U.S. While notable, partner stakeholder groups continue to report that innovative projects, and those with the greatest conservation impacts, often do not move beyond the application stage because of inflexibility in USDA selection criteria. These and other concerns about burdensome contracting authorities are creating an environment where landowners, conservation groups, and private companies hesitate to take part. This must be improved.
Overall Grade for Implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill: B
The USDA and its implementing agencies have the unenviable task of managing the various, and often competing, facets of American agriculture. Particularly in recent years, market fluctuations, global health, and the swing of the political pendulum have all played a role in shaping how farm bill conservation dollars touch the ground. Considering the drawbacks of the 2014 bill, the 2018 Farm Bill remains a significant achievement, and given all that has gone on in the time since, we give the USDA more than a passing grade in its efforts.
In the 18 months between now and expiration of the 2018 bill, the TRCP and our partners will continue to closely track how these important programs touch down on the landscape. In the year ahead, we will begin the process of drafting legislation for inclusion in the bill’s reauthorization. In doing so, we will rely on our dedicated audience of sportsmen and sportswomen to make their voices heard in support of a strong conservation title in 2023.
How one national wildlife refuge created invaluable opportunities for hunters and anglers in the Pacific Northwest
Easily accessible from Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia, the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in Washington state draws more than 200,000 visitors each year, including about 10,000 students. Its proximity to one of the Northwest’s largest urban hubs allows the refuge to provide abundant wildlife viewing opportunities to a wide range of people.
Among them each year are hundreds of sportsmen and sportswomen who come to the refuge to hunt geese, duck, and scaup during the fall and winter hunting seasons. In 2019, the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge was among the 77 refuges and 15 hatcheries within the system wherein the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expanded hunting and fishing opportunities in what was—at that point—the single-largest increase of its kind in the refuge system’s history, adding 1.4 million acres of expanded access.
In many ways, the refuge demonstrates the importance of hunting to the National Wildlife Refuge System, the critical role that refuges play in offering public access to people from all walks of life, and the power of collaborative conservation work between a variety of stakeholders to benefit fish and wildlife.
Establishing the Refuge
The Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge encompasses more than 4,500 acres around the delta of the Nisqually River, where glacial meltwater from the slopes of Mount Rainier flows into the southern end of Puget Sound. In this estuarine environment, saltwater and freshwater marshes, grasslands, mudflats, and forests provide habitat for salmon species and forage fish; waterfowl, songbirds, raptors, and shorebirds; and mammals like beavers, coyotes, deer, otters, and minks.
The Nisqually River Delta’s ability to support robust fish and wildlife populations was not always certain. In 1914, prior to the refuge’s establishment, a Seattle attorney named Alson Brown purchased more than 2,000 acres of land in the area and built a long dike to transform the estuary into farmable fields. Later, from the 1940s through the 1960s, the Ports of Tacoma and Olympia proposed dredging the site for a new, deep-water port to accommodate the larger and heavier ships developed for maritime trade.
Events during the 1970s resulted in a different future for the Nisqually River Delta. In 1974, the persistent efforts of the Nisqually Indian Tribe, the state of Washington, landowners, and local environmental advocates led the Department of the Interior to purchase 1,295 acres of the delta for the purpose of establishing a national wildlife refuge. That same year, a federal district court ruled in the case of United States v. Washington: what is now known as the Boldt Decision reaffirmed the treaty rights of Washington tribes and established tribes as co-managers of salmon and other fisheries with the state. Now, as co-managers, the Nisqually Indian Tribe started to look closely at the Nisqually watershed and the salmon habitat in the river.
In 1996, the Nisqually River flood overran Alson Brown’s old dikes, inundating some areas of the refuge. In turn, the refuge sought funding to assess the feasibility of removing the dikes and restoring the delta. The dikes ran in a loop that served as a hard border around the outer parts of the refuge, inhibiting both the natural meandering of McAllister Creek and the Nisqually River as well as the exchange of water between the creek, the river, and Puget Sound. The removal of these impediments and the completions of some additional landscape modifications would reconnect historic floodplains and open up prime habitat for salmon, waterfowl, and other wildlife.
Restoring the Delta
In 2007, a group of partners that included the Nisqually Indian Tribe, the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, and Ducks Unlimited launched the Nisqually estuary restoration project, the largest estuarine habitat restoration project in the Pacific Northwest.
The project secured public and private funds, including more than $1.8 million from the Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration fund—co-administered by the Puget Sound Partnership and the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office—pooled together by different watershed groups that contributed to the project; federal salmon project funding; and private funding raised by Ducks Unlimited.
Over the course of two years, from 2008 to 2010, the Nisqually estuary restoration project removed six miles of dikes and roads to restore more than 750 acres. Afterwards, aerial photos showed a thousand branching channels and sloughs running through the tidal marsh across the refuge, providing important habitat for Chinook salmon, steelhead, and bull trout, as well as a variety of other fish and wildlife.
The expansion of the tidal marshland also affected the number and type of birds that visited or inhabited the refuge, and the composition of waterfowl at the refuge has changed—there are more wigeon and estuarine waterfowl now than before. This development, in addition to the post-restoration decision to allow hunting on refuge lands adjacent to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife hunting areas, has created a large stretch of accessible and productive hunting land at the refuge.
Opportunity for All
Prior to the 2019-2020 hunting season, the refuge expanded the area where hunting is permitted, opening more than 1,100 acres of waters and tideland for waterfowl hunting. The refuge is open to hunting for more than 100 days per season, stretching from mid-October to the beginning of February.
Cody Raffensberger and Tyler Klump, two hunters who came out to Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on the opening day of the 2021 waterfowl season, said hunting at the refuge appeals to them for different reasons. Raffensberger, who has hunted at Nisqually 15 times over the last three years, said he appreciates the accessibility of the refuge and the convenience of the boat launch at Luhr’s Landing. “There’s a good number of birds here, and the population stays year-round,” Raffensberger said.
It was Klump’s first time hunting at Nisqually, and he said he enjoyed the experience. “The places I normally go, they’re a lot more compact, with pre-built lines and things like that, and usually a lot more crowded,” he said. “Here, you can kind of get out on your own and check out better areas. This was the best day of duck hunting I’ve had.”
Greg Sullivan, another hunter who came out to Nisqually on the opening day of the 2021 waterfowl season, explained that he likes the hunting at the refuge because it offers more than just mallards, snow geese, and teal ducks. “I love that, no matter what, every time I come here, I’m going to see something interesting even if it’s not something that I’m going to hunt,” he said. “For example, there’s a group of at least six eagles in this area that’s always really cool to see. There’s a lot of marine wildlife and a good variety of waterfowl—that’s all interesting.”
These types of experiences and observations reveal some of the unique values of the refuge system, which provides all Americans with quality experiences in the field and on the water, conserves biodiversity, and sustains habitat connectivity for fish and wildlife. Looking ahead to the future of the system, sportsmen and sportswomen can point to the establishment and restoration of the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually River Wildlife Refuge as an example of a collaborative, locally supported effort where hunters and anglers came together with other stakeholders in what can only be described as a conservation success story.
Kevin Hyde is the communications specialist for the Puget Sound Partnership, the Washington state agency that leads the region’s collective effort to restore and protect Puget Sound. He enjoys hiking and camping throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Six Ways to Help Farmers, Foresters, and Ranchers Combat Climate Change
We were proud to support a broad coalition effort to identify priority policies for improving private land habitat and capture more carbon
The TRCP has long been a vocal advocate for farmers, foresters, and ranchers who are strong partners in conservation. This commitment is most recently shown through our membership in the Bipartisan Policy Council Farm and Forest Carbon Solutions Task Force, a group of organizations working together to develop policy proposals that enhance climate-smart agriculture and forestry practices. We’re proud to support the resulting recommendations that recognize and incentivize actions by private landowners to invest in the productivity of their land, while delivering better wildlife habitat, more hunting and fishing access, greater resilience to the effects of climate change, and increased carbon stored in soils, forests, and wood products.
The task force recommendations cover a range of actions across six broad policy objectives. Here are some of the highlights.
Start With What’s Already Working
The task force recommended expanding existing Farm Bill programs that already deliver climate benefits and offer pathways to new market opportunities for farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners. To do this, Congress should double funding for USDA conservation programs. Conservation practices have been proven to improve habitat while also storing and sequestering more carbon. The TRCP supports boosting funding to deliver increased carbon sequestration and soil health, rather than borrowing from existing funding that supports much-needed wildlife and water quality. Learn more about Farm Bill conservation programs and take action in support of doubling investments in private land habitat.
Give Landowners More On-the-Ground Support
With new opportunities for landowners to implement natural climate solutions, there’s also a need to expand technical assistance to support them and address related workforce needs. The USDA should recruit private-sector partners to work with their Extension offices and provide training on climate-smart practices. Farmers, ranchers, and foresters can play a pivotal role in addressing climate change, but most don’t know how or where to start. When they do look for help, it’s usually within their own community or from trusted representatives, including agricultural retailers, cooperatives, seed and feed companies, other landowners, procurement foresters, and nonprofits. Many of the TRCP’s partners regularly serve in this capacity with existing networks and should be leveraged to expand access to and engagement with USDA programs.
At the same time, the administration should strengthen USDA’s data and technology capacity to allow farmers, foresters, ranchers, and other landowners to more easily estimate the impact of adopting climate-smart practices on their land. Providing clarity and supporting their decision-making would maximize the benefits—including better habitat—of natural climate solutions.
Strengthen Carbon Markets
The task force also recommends that Congress pass the Growing Climate Solutions Act and the Rural Forest Markets Act, which would reduce barriers to entry for voluntary carbon markets, improve market integrity, and create jobs. Together, these bills establish trusted and credible third-party verifiers and technical service providers and offer guaranteed federal loans to voluntarily manage land that generates carbon credits while improving habitat and air and water quality.
USDA should use the Commodity Credit Corporation, which provides U.S. producers with financial assistance, to support piloting of climate-smart practices. By lowering the transaction cost for landowners and leveraging carbon markets, this initiative can promote innovation and test new tools. Priority should be given to projects and practices that provide other co-benefits, such as improvement in habitat, access, or air and water quality.
Tie Conservation to More Successful Farming
To help overcome barriers to the broad adoption of natural climate solutions, the USDA should conduct a comprehensive study to compare the impacts of conservation practices on crop yields and insurance payouts under the Federal Crop Insurance Program from yield losses attributed to drought, flooding, and other extreme weather events. We believe the findings from this study would confirm that conservation practices reduce losses and offer co-benefits in terms of carbon sequestration and emission reductions. The study would also help underscore the need for an improved crop insurance program that incentivizes reducing climate risk.
Support Forest, Grassland, and Sagebrush Restoration
There is also a need to enhance resilience to wildfire, drought, insects, disease, and invasive species on a landscape scale through reforestation, but we’ll need a doubling of the current output from tree nurseries to meet the demand. The task force is asking Congress to pass legislation to modernize and expand public and private seed collections and tree nurseries to support the scale-up of natural climate solutions like reforestation.
Congress should also establish and fund the North American Grasslands Conservation Act, a major initiative for the TRCP that is modeled after the highly successful North American Wetlands Conservation Act. The new bill would provide landowners with voluntary, flexible economic incentives and opportunities to help improve and conserve grasslands and sagebrush habitat while promoting carbon storage and sequestration.
Reduce Costs and Challenges
Finally, we stand behind the task force’s recommendation that decision-makers should foster innovation in the agriculture and forestry sectors to make natural climate solutions cheaper and easier to implement and to address measurement and monitoring challenges. Congress should provide increased funding across USDA research programs to enhance collaboration with other federal agencies, universities, and the private sector and improve the development of new technologies for landowners interested in implementing nature-based solutions. This work would build on existing innovation programs and accelerate scaling of successful approaches.
If implemented, these recommendations would provide a multitude of benefits for wildlife habitat, clean water, and the outdoor recreation economy, while spurring investment in rural communities and empowering farmers, foresters, ranchers, and other landowners to contribute to climate resilience.
For more information about the climate-smart policies backed by the hunting and fishing community, check out ourlandwaterwildlife.org.
Top photo courtesy of USDA NRCS Montana via Flickr.
A Record $1.5 Billion is Going to Conservation—Thanks to YOU
A portion of your gear, firearm, license, and boat fuel purchases helped to generate more funding than ever for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to distribute for state work on conservation and outdoor recreation access
Hunters and anglers often engage in conservation through our words and actions, speaking up for sound policies and volunteering to plant native grasses, pick up trash, or band birds. But we also contribute financially to conservation through excise taxes on our hunting, shooting, and fishing equipment, including ammo and boat fuel.
You might know this funding source as the combined result of the Pittman-Robertson Act, or Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, which created an excise tax on firearms, ammunition, and archery equipment in 1937, and the Dingell-Johnson Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act, which created a similar tax on fishing tackle, boat equipment, and boat fuel in 1950.
The hunting and shooting side of our community brought in over $1.1 billion for conservation in the past year, while the fishing and boating side generated almost $400 million. Together, this shatters the previous high mark of $808 million distributed for conservation in 2015.
To date, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has distributed more than $25.5 billion in Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program apportionments for state conservation and recreation projects, according to a Department of the Interior press release. The recipient state wildlife agencies have matched these funds with approximately $8.5 billion, primarily from hunting and fishing license revenues.
In the final days of 2019, Congress passed a package of its annual appropriations bills that implemented an important change to the Pittman-Robertson Act: Hunting and shooting equipment excise taxes can now be used to help recruit, retain, and reactivate new hunters and recreational shooters, a provision that was made in Dingell-Johnson and that successfully helped to grow the ranks of fishing participation in recent years.
The TRCP and our partners pushed for this change and, at the time of the bill’s passage, we called it “a landmark achievement” for the 116th Congress.
Top photo by New York State Department of Environmental Conservation via flickr
HOW YOU CAN HELP
CONSERVATION WORKS FOR AMERICA
In the last two years, policymakers have committed to significant investments in conservation, infrastructure, and reversing climate change. Hunters and anglers continue to be vocal about the opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations. Support solutions now.