April 20, 2022

The Amazing Capture-and-Collar Field Work That Drives Conservation

A firsthand look at the science that informs smart conservation policy (and allows for powerful, up-close encounters with the West’s iconic big game animals)

Anglers know that there’s a certain magic, when releasing a lively fish, in seeing the flick of its tail propel it back into a “wild” state, as if you’d momentarily held lightning in a bottle. That feeling is magnified many-fold, one might imagine, when letting go of an adult mule deer and watching her trot off toward the horizon on a blue-sky day in sagebrush country.

Needless to say, when faced with the opportunity to do just that by participating in the type of scientific research that informs our work at TRCP, I didn’t have to give it much thought before accepting the invitation. Here’s what I learned from a weekend of capturing and collaring mule deer and bighorn sheep with the University of Wyoming’s Monteith Shop.

(Check out the four-minute feature below and then scroll down to read the story and view additional video shorts from this project.)


One Data Point at a Time

Across the West, there’s no issue to which fresh-from-the-field data is more relevant than the challenge of safeguarding big game migration corridors and seasonal ranges. As development of all kinds sweeps across the Western landscape, transforming and fragmenting habitats at an alarming rate, unprecedented advances in the study of migratory big game animals help inform solutions to ensure these herds can access the food and cover they need throughout the year. And central to our understanding of these issues is on-the-ground, boots-in-the-mud wildlife science.

This is part of the reason I’ve long been intrigued by the work of my friend Kevin Monteith, a professor at the University of Wyoming, and was thrilled to join his team last month for a few days of working with collared bighorn sheep and mule deer.

Kevin’s team—a mixture of Master’s and doctoral students, postdoctoral fellows, and research scientists—had already been in the field for 10 days by the time I met up with them at a Wyoming Department of Game and Fish parking lot in Jackson. Each December and March, the researchers at the Monteith Shop spend three weeks capturing and collecting data from collared big game animals, timing the work to shed light on how winter has affected their physical condition. Then, in mid-May, they capture and collar that year’s offspring, gathering the first of what will be a lifetime of information provided by the study of these animals. On top of those three key periods, various other field work occupies researchers from the Monteith Shop for the rest of the summer and throughout the year.


How It All Adds Up

Some of these different tracking projects have been ongoing since 2013, helping to illuminate the connections between the health and behavior of these animals and the changing landscapes on which they live. The data collected in the field amounts to a highly detailed portrait of these individual animals at a particular moment in time, and when repeated at regular intervals over a long period, it begins to tell the stories of their lives. As the years pass, the data begins to stretch across generations and the collective wealth of information illustrates population-level dynamics.

This is exactly the type of research that tells us, for example, what happens to herd numbers or fawn recruitment in the years following industrial development in a migration corridor or the fragmentation of winter habitat by a new highway.

As sportsmen and sportswomen who care about, observe, and encounter animals like mule deer and elk, it’s easy to take for granted that we know what we do about the bigger picture in terms of what will keep these populations healthy for future generations. To be sure, the most basic pieces of that puzzle are obvious—they need food, water, security, etc. But evidence showing, for example, that a specific change on the landscape will have a particular effect of a certain magnitude on a big game herd allows us to make well-informed, responsible decisions about how to manage our public lands for multiple uses over the long term.


The Main Event

At the day’s outset, a helicopter-based crew, which travels across the country performing this highly specialized work, tracks down the animals using the frequencies emitted by their collars. Individually, these animals are netted, then hobbled and blindfolded, before being transported to Kevin’s team, who set up staging areas in different locations throughout the day to minimize the distance traveled by each animal.

Once they arrive via helicopter, each individual animal undergoes a series of tests. Members of the team weigh each animal and measure their length, girth, and lower leg (metatarsus), while others collect blood, hair, and fecal samples. Portable ultrasound machines allow the researchers to gauge the amount of body fat remaining after a long winter, and to check each animal for pregnancy. For each pregnancy identified, the number of fetuses, as well as the width of their orbital sockets (a key indicator for their stage of development) are noted. The bighorn sheep, which are particularly susceptible to respiratory pneumonia, receive an extra test: nasal and tonsil swabs to test for infection.

Throughout the process, the animals are handled with care and their temperatures are monitored as a way of ensuring that they are not experiencing excessive physiological stress. Each animal also receives a mild pain reliever and fever reducer as a precaution. Behaviors such as vocalizations and kicks observed in the course of the process are all recorded for future reference.

After collecting all of these data, the team checks—and, when needed, replaces—the tracking collars, then marks each animal with livestock paint so that they will not be inadvertently recaptured as the day’s work continues. One finished, we release the deer at each processing site, watching as they spring forth onto the sagebrush-covered landscape, while the sheep are loaded back onto the helicopter to be released where each specific individual had been captured.


The Takeaway

Perhaps the most remarkable part of my experience was watching the Monteith Shop team at work. With every load of animals from the helicopter, they leapt into action unprompted, moving with a care and a seriousness of purpose that never wavered throughout the process. Moments of downtime allowed plenty of laughs and smiles among the group, but a shared sense of responsibility for the welfare of each individual deer and sheep—as well as a shared understanding of each data point’s importance—meant that the whole operation hummed along methodically, efficiently, and deliberately.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve typed the phrase “the latest research tells us,” or some variation thereof, during my tenure with TRCP. That should come as no surprise: Smart conservation policy is grounded in science and derives much of its credibility from dispassionate, empirical data. But even the most objective and matter-of-fact fieldwork does little to dull the wonder of experiencing an up-close interaction with a bighorn sheep or mule deer.

Participating in the hands-on work of the Monteith Shop put into stark relief the strange familiarity, intimacy, and mystery that surrounds each encounter with the West’s big game animals and fuels my fascination with them. In that sense, it was a welcome reminder of why we do what we do at TRCP and instilled in me a greater appreciation for the tireless efforts and dedication of so many others who make our work possible.

For more information about the Monteith Shop, visit monteithshop.org or follow on Instagram (@monteithshop) and Facebook.
To voice your support for migration corridor conservation, sign our petition to decisionmakers here.
Images and footage by @maxsbenz

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BLM’s June Oil and Gas Lease Sale to Bring Commonsense Reforms

New provisions and guidelines for public land energy leasing will conserve habitat, improve transparency, and benefit taxpayers

In November of 2021, the Department of the Interior released a report on public land oil and gas leasing that included specific recommendations for ensuring more responsible development of these critical resources. The TRCP published a blog supporting several of the report’s recommendations that would create new efficiencies in the process while also conserving quality fish and wildlife habitat.

Last week, the Bureau of Land Management, the agency responsible for the leasing and development of federally owned mineral resources, announced its intent to complete the first oil and gas lease sale of the Biden Administration. Scheduled for June 2022, the upcoming sale will include several important changes to the federal leasing program.

Among other changes, the BLM will:

  • Ensure public participation and Tribal consultation in the leasing process. Given the public and Tribal resources at stake, it only makes sense for Tribes and the public to have a voice in the process, and the BLM announced steps to facilitate this involvement.
  • Avoid leasing in lands with low potential for development. It makes no sense to lease public lands and important wildlife habitats in places where there is little actual chance that economically viable development will take place. Moving forward, the BLM will avoid leasing in these low-potential areas and focus leasing in places where viable energy resources are known to exist.
  • Concentrate leasing near existing development. Leases sold in areas with existing oil and gas infrastructure are more likely to be developed, and they are also likely to be sited in locations where impacts from development have already occurred. Leasing near existing development is a common-sense measure that will help avoid the fragmentation of important habitats where development does not exist.
  • Increase the royalty rate to 18.75% for leases sold. Increasing the royalty rate from 12.5%—a rate that was set in 1920—brings the federal price in line with state and private rates. This market-adjusted royalty will improve the rate of return to taxpayers.

It is important to note that these actions by the BLM and Interior Department will not have any short-term effect on the price of gasoline. There should be no doubt that TRCP supports affordable energy for American consumers—particularly the oil and gas we rely on to power our cars and heat our homes—while also working to increase the availability of renewable energy resources as the U.S. transitions to a more climate-friendly economy. TRCP fully recognizes that the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and associated sanctions against Russia have created pain at the pump, with many consumers paying well over $4 per gallon of regular gas. But the availability of public land oil and gas leases, simply put, has no short-term bearing on the supply-and-demand curve of our energy sector.

The Interior Department’s own documents indicate that 13.9 million acres of federal minerals already under lease—more than half of the 26 million total federal acres presently leased—have not yet been developed by energy companies. Energy producers could develop these existing leases for many years into the future before the availability of public land oil and gas resources becomes an issue, and no existing policies prevent energy companies from developing their current holdings.

And while the recent BLM announcement is taking heat from both sides of the political aisle, the TRCP believes these changes are both balanced and necessary and we have advocated for them for many years. Leasing oil and gas resources in a way that involves the public, reduces impacts to sensitive habitats, and generates a fair rate of return for American taxpayers is common sense. We now hope the administration will take an equally thoughtful approach to expanding renewable energy resources in a way that takes into account these same considerations and conserves our best fish and wildlife habitat and public resources.


Top photo: USFWS via Flickr

April 11, 2022

The Public Lands that Rebuilt the Great Basin’s Pronghorn Herds

Today’s population of pronghorn antelope is one of the greatest wildlife restoration success stories in our nation’s history. Over the next few months, the TRCP will publish a series of blogs that highlight the history and importance of the first and only set of national wildlife refuges that were specifically created to save the pronghorn in the 1930s: the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in south-central Oregon and the nearby Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in northwestern Nevada.

On the northern edge of the Great Basin lies a high-elevation, fault-block mountain that’s home to some of the healthiest remaining sagebrush steppe habitat in the nation. This expansive and relatively unfragmented ecosystem provides habitat for more than 300 species, from pygmy rabbits to iconic big game species like bighorn sheep, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope. Recently, researchers discovered that one of the longest pronghorn migration paths in North America traverses this landscape.

This place is known as the Greater Hart-Sheldon region, and it is wild, remote, and beautiful country.

Today, much of the public land in this area is managed for wildlife habitat and wildlife-related recreation activities via two of the largest U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuges in the Lower 48: the 575,000-acre Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge and the 278,000-acre Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge. While today the region provides hunters with outstanding opportunities to pursue some of the West’s most sought-after big game, 100 years ago one of its most iconic species was on the brink of collapse. And it was then that conservationists and hunters stepped in to establish these refuges as a way of conserving and connecting key summer and winter range habitats to help save the fleet-footed pronghorn antelope.

A Species on the Brink

As the fastest land animal in North America, capable of speeds up to 60 miles an hour, pronghorns thrived in the Great Basin and across the Great Plains for more than a million years. In the early 1800s, these speedy mammals numbered in the tens of millions. But as railroads and waves of homesteaders transformed the Western landscape, pronghorn numbers began to rapidly decline.

Settlers hunted them for food and agricultural production invaded the best of the prairie and range habitat. In turn, pronghorn were pushed onto the unsuitable arid lands avoided by homesteaders. Market, subsistence, and sport hunting combined with rapid settlement and habitat loss spelled impending doom for this one-of-a-kind species. By the turn of the century, pronghorn populations were reduced to fewer than 15,000 animals across their native range.

In 1920, a biologist with the U.S. Biological Survey named E.R. Sans saw his first pronghorn in northwest Nevada. The experience was so remarkable that it left Sans—who knew full well the imperiled state of the species—with an inspired vision to create the first national wildlife refuges for pronghorn. At that time, what would later officially become the National Wildlife Refuge System was less than two decades old. President Theodore Roosevelt established the first national wildlife refuge at Pelican Island on Florida’s Indian River in 1903, and set aside another 55 refuges and preserves during his time in office. In the following years, other public lands received special protections to save iconic American wildlife, such as waterfowl at the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge along the Oregon-California border (1908) and elk at the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming (1912).

Sans worked with other concerned conservationists to enact legislation in Nevada that would authorize the governor to establish game range refuges. This resulted in, among others, the creation of a 400,000-acre refuge for pronghorn in Northern Washoe County in 1923. Four years later, Sans organized a tour of a 30,000-acre ranch just south of the Oregon border that he hoped might be acquired as the centerpiece headquarters for a larger pronghorn refuge that would eventually span across northern Nevada and south-central Oregon.

Among the members of the tour group was the president of the Audubon Society, T. Gilbert Pearson, who was so impressed with the idea that he secured $10,000 to purchase the land. Sans then contacted the Boone and Crockett Club, which agreed to match the sum and suggested that the new refuge be named after Charles Sheldon, an active and influential member of the club and an avid sportsman. In 1931, three years after the initial the purchase of the Last Chance Ranch, President Herbert Hoover established via executive order what was then known as the Charles Sheldon Wild Life Refuge.

Less than five years later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt expanded on the initial refuge by originally creating one contiguous refuge across Oregon and Nevada, known as the Hart Mountain Game Range, that encompassed more than 835,000 acres in Oregon alone. This order was soon replaced through two separate Executive Orders in 1936 that established the Charles Sheldon Antelope Range, which encompassed more than 500,000 acres along the Oregon-Nevada border, as well as the Hart Mountain Game Range, comprised of another 250,000 acres in Oregon. These game ranges were established for the purpose of “the conservation and development of natural wildlife resources [primarily pronghorn] and for the protection and improvement of public grazing lands and natural forage resources.”

During the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps helped construct roads, dikes, and various other infrastructure on the Hart Sheldon NWR. Shown here is Camp Sheldon, a CCC encampment built in 1938 on the McGee Ranch in Virgin Valley.
An Unprecedented Recovery

Within the decade, observers marveled at the speed with which pronghorn populations had already rebounded. In 1938, Time Magazine highlighted the critical role played by the Greater Hart-Sheldon landscape:

The pronghorn’s amazing recovery is due mostly to State laws forbidding antelope hunting and to the creation by States and by the Federal Government of antelope refuges and ranges. Most important single refuge, because it contains the pronghorns’ fawning grounds, is the region around Oregon’s Hart Mountain. There mounted patrolmen travel over 276,000 acres of sagebrush inspecting the range, watch out for predatory animals and poachers.

That year, Time noted, Oregon’s pronghorn population neared 20,000 animals, a remarkable recovery from the estimated figure of 2,000 in 1911. The pronghorn’s rebound was dramatic enough that the state game commission decided to open a five-day hunting season—Oregon’s first in nearly thirty years—outside of the refuge. So plentiful were the herds that farmers were suffering crop damage from an animal that faced the brink of extinction only a few decades earlier.

The foresight of these historic conservation efforts from the 1920s and 30s proved to be a huge success story, and today pronghorn numbers are estimated to be stable at around 1 million animals across their range. More than 3,000 animals spend their summers and winters on the Hart and Sheldon Wildlife Refuges, which offer some of the most sought-after opportunities in the entire West to pursue the speed goat.

Each year, thousands of residents and non-residents alike apply for a chance to hunt the refuge; in 2021, more than 3,395 residents vied for the 41 available rifle buck tags. The popularity of these opportunities is attributable not only to the potential for the hunt of a lifetime on such a wild and remote landscape, but also to the powerful history of this place and its connection to the incredible recovery of the pronghorn.

In the next blog, I’ll continue the story of species recovery on this landscape with the reintroduction of California bighorn sheep on the refuge in the 1950s and how this effort has expanded today’s Oregon-California bighorn sheep population into more than 30 distinct herds throughout Southeast Oregon.
Credit: Jim Davis


Top Photo: University of Wyoming, American Heritage Center

Connecting Black Farmers with Opportunities to Benefit from Farm Bill Conservation

Meet The KKAC Organization, an Arkansas non-profit with a mission to educate minority youths about the value of agriculture and help Black landowners to grow thriving businesses that can be passed down for generations


In the course of our efforts to educate the hunting and fishing public about the significance of private land conservation and advocate for strong Farm Bill conservation programs, we have been introduced to some inspirational and hardworking groups making a big difference for fish and wildlife habitat. One of those groups is The KKAC Organization, based near the Arkansas-Mississippi border.

Founded by the Peers—a multi-generational farming family—The KKAC Organization began with a purpose of educating minority youth about agricultural production and business. But it quickly expanded to help farmers, ranchers, and landowners with estate planning, land management, and opportunities to take advantage of Farm Bill programs operated out of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

KKAC saw a serious need in local communities, and their work has quickly made a difference for Black landowners, young people, and the hunters and anglers who are enjoying better habitat in two states that are primarily made up of private land. Here is their story. —Andrew Earl, TRCP Director of Government Relations


Our research indicates that around 1915, African Americans owned between 20 million and 30 million acres of land, or about 14 percent of the farmland in the country. Today, African Americans own around 1.5 percent of the production agricultural land in this country.

Many acres were lost due to discriminatory practices, and just bad public policy. Black landowners historically had limited access to loans and other resources at the USDA, where their applications were given less consideration. A Black producer could apply at the beginning of the year and not get the application funded until May or June. In the case that a Black producer’s loan was approved, they were required to have supervised credit—a joint accountholder or co-signer to OK anything purchased. In summary, the USDA refused to approve the loan in most cases, and the process was hostile for those Black agricultural producers who did receive a loan.

But approximately 30 percent of our land was lost due to our community’s failure to make wills and trusts to pass the land to the next generation.

In 2015, The KKAC Organization was initially founded to assist with agricultural production education for minority youth who did not understand the basic principles of growing crops. Still, we quickly expanded to address land retention and wealth-building issues for Black farmers.

Understanding the value of the land and agricultural production is essential to keeping these businesses going—this is why we want to educate as many young people as possible. We want our kids to understand the exciting dynamics of farming. They need to know that if you are a farmer, you are a business manager and need to know the basics of chemistry. If you own livestock, you need to know the basics of biology and the marketing process. If you own several acres of land, you might be considered “well-off.”

Eventually, we saw that as minority agricultural producers grew older, they felt that selling the land was the only option for financial benefit. But there are other options.

The Farm Bill’s Agriculture Conservation Easement Program allows landowners to receive near fair market value for land accepted into the program and still pass their land on to heirs, allowing land ownership to stay in the Black community. Many of these ACEP landowners also lease land to duck hunters, creating outdoor recreation access, or request permission from NRCS to sell trees once they mature. This also allows landowners to receive financial benefits from carbon credits.

Unfortunately, many landowners in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi still need to be educated about ACEP, woodland management, or other conservation efforts that could be financially beneficial. A large portion of the minority community does not understand that proper woodland management is as profitable as row crop production, if the wooded acres are properly managed. And these practices also help us conserve natural resources. That’s why we work hard to educate minority farmers on practices such as cover cropping, nutrient management, and land leveling. We believe that if farmers know their options, their farms can be more profitable and create wildlife habitat.

Progress can be slow, even for those landowners who understand the program benefits. In Arkansas, we helped more than 25 landowners apply for ACEP projects over three years, and unfortunately not a single one got funded. We recently secured Regional Conservation Partnership Program funding as an organization, so now we can be certain that at least 80 percent of the applicants will be funded through KKAC. We did not track all of our applicants in Mississippi, but we do believe that it is significantly more than our Arkansas count. Our organization is currently in the process of going back to obtain the number of Mississippi applicants that were driven by our outreach efforts over the past two to three years.

Over the next 50 years, KKAC hopes to have convinced the majority of our communities of the crucial importance of proper estate planning. We want The KKAC Organization and the new Heirs’ Property Clearinghouse—what we hope will become known as a reliable tool for clearing up issues with inherited property—to stop the loss of Black-owned land and ensure that the land that we own is being managed wisely.


Learn more about The KKAC Organization and follow their progress at kkac.org. Top photo by USDA/Lance Cheung.

April 7, 2022

Interior Reaffirms Commitment to Big Game Seasonal Habitats

Secretary Haaland announces new actions to conserve and enhance wildlife migration corridors in partnership with states and Tribes

Today, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership celebrated a U.S. Department of the Interior event announcing a suite of developments and commitments centered on wildlife migration and connectivity.

Secretary Deb Haaland participated in a live-streamed panel discussion on wildlife movement corridors and habitat connectivity, highlighting steps that the Biden Administration is taking to continue implementation of Secretarial Order 3362—signed in 2018 by then-Secretary Ryan Zinke—as well as plans to expand this work to include additional species and geographies.

“Migration corridors and other seasonal habitats are critical to maintaining wildlife abundance and public hunting opportunities in the West,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We appreciate Secretary Haaland’s leadership on this issue, and today’s announcement further demonstrates that wildlife migration conservation is an issue that spans political boundaries and is something that all Americans can agree on.”

In addition to the panel discussion, several announcements from the event promise a continuing commitment and further progress on the issue of wildlife migration, including:

  • The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation announced a new round of grant funding for its Improving Habitat Quality in Western Big Game Migration Corridors and Habitat Connectivity program.
  • The U.S. Geological Survey is set to release the second volume of the ungulate migration atlas, an online and print publication that includes maps and detailed descriptions of numerous migration corridors across the West.
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society, a national organization that provides its more than 200 member Tribes with assistance and support in the conservation and management of their fish and wildlife resources.

Wildlife migration corridor conservation was highlighted in the May 2021 report, Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful. In August of that year, the Department of the Interior, Department of Agriculture, and state of Wyoming announced new cooperative efforts to partner in the conservation and enhancement of wildlife migration corridors, which marked the Biden Administration’s first agency efforts to address the issue.

“As landscapes across the West green up with the arrival of spring weather, the seasonal movements of elk, mule deer, and pronghorns are on full display, which brings into focus the very significant challenges these animals face in reaching the habitats they need to survive,” continued Fosburgh. “Hunters and conservationists recognize both the importance of Interior’s leadership on this issue as well as the need for continued cooperation by the administration, states, Tribes, and private landowners, all of whom have critical roles to play in conservation.”


Photo: Bill Sincavage (@jakeysforkphoto)



Theodore Roosevelt’s experiences hunting and fishing certainly fueled his passion for conservation, but it seems that a passion for coffee may have powered his mornings. In fact, Roosevelt’s son once said that his father’s coffee cup was “more in the nature of a bathtub.” TRCP has partnered with Afuera Coffee Co. to bring together his two loves: a strong morning brew and a dedication to conservation. With your purchase, you’ll not only enjoy waking up to the rich aroma of this bolder roast—you’ll be supporting the important work of preserving hunting and fishing opportunities for all.

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