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Madeleine West

May 26, 2022

New Private Land Conservation Effort Will Focus on Wildlife Corridors

USDA announces incentives for voluntary private land conservation in Wyoming’s big game migration corridors and sets the stage for scaling up across the West

Late last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced an innovative effort to conserve movement corridors used by big game animals. Through a new partnership with the state of Wyoming, the USDA will use a diverse set of Farm Bill programs and dedicated funding to support voluntary conservation of private working lands to safeguard migratory big game populations in the Cowboy State.

The announcement was made by Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation Robert Bonnie in Cody, Wyoming, at a celebration of Yellowstone National Park’s 150th anniversary. Describing this initiative as a pilot, the Department seeks to scale up this model of working with states and private landowners across the West, demonstrating the value of voluntary, locally led conservation efforts.

Wyoming was an obvious first choice for such a collaboration, given Governor Mark Gordon’s emphasis on the conservation of big game migratory corridors and other important habitat. This partnership shows a clear alignment in state and federal policy priorities, securing the endorsement of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

The pilot will utilize several USDA programs in a unique collaboration to address conservation priorities for big game habitat, such as land conversion and habitat restoration and enhancement. With this announcement, the USDA has committed an initial $15 million in investment through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Agricultural Conservation Easements Program to provide financial and technical assistance for landowners interested in restoring and protecting working lands from the threats of degradation, fragmentation, and development.

In addition, rental payments will go to producers who enroll in the Grassland Conservation Reserve Program. The Regional Conservation Partnership Program is another program that will be utilized. The Natural Resources Conservation Service will hire a dedicated staff member in Wyoming to help coordinate landowner engagement in these programs, each of which serves a unique need in addressing both habitat restoration and the long-term conservation of valuable migration corridors.

Safeguarding our migratory big game herds requires recognizing the essential role that private landowners—and working lands—play in this conservation opportunity. Meaningful and substantive engagement with landowners is necessary to ensure that elk, mule deer, and antelope can move between seasonal habitats. Sportsmen and sportswomen should applaud the USDA for its work toward these ends and encourage decisionmakers to expand the use of Farm Bill programs to conserve migration corridors across the West.

 

Photo: Wyoming Migration Initiative (Gregory Nickerson) via Flickr

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Michael O'Casey

May 24, 2022

The Sheep That Started It All

The storied past—and uncertain future—of Oregon’s first reintroduced California bighorn herd.

This second installment of a four-part series on the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge is all about the refuge’s California bighorn sheep population. Read on to learn how these public lands became the first site for the reintroduction of this iconic species in Oregon—and the challenges bighorns face there today.

If you climb to the top of 8,017-foot Warner Peak on the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge and look west, down into the cliffs and crags that descend more than 3,000 feet to the valley floor, you will undoubtedly gain a new appreciation for the rugged habitat preferences of one of North America’s most iconic game species: the California bighorn sheep. While the refuge is best known for its namesake population of pronghorns, the long and complex history of bringing bighorns back to Oregon, and managing them, highlights the importance of this high-desert habitat to wildlife.

As any wild sheep enthusiast will tell you, Oregon is home to two native subspecies: California bighorns and Rocky Mountain bighorns. Historically, California bighorns were the most abundant and found throughout the steep, rocky country of southeast Oregon, as well as in the watersheds of the Deschutes and John Day Rivers. Oregon’s Rocky Mountain bighorns occupied the more timbered country of the Blue and Wallowa Mountains in the northeast corner of the state.

Wild sheep were an important food source for Native Americans and then, later, for settlers during the homesteading era. As Oregon’s non-Indigenous population grew, Western emigrants brought with them millions of domestic sheep, resulting in the introduction of new diseases and parasites to wild herds. Overharvest, disease, and habitat loss caused bighorn numbers to rapidly decline during the second half of the 19th century and, by 1915, the last California bighorn was extirpated from Oregon.

Decades later, the first effort to return California bighorn sheep to Oregon took place on the west face of Hart Mountain. In 1954, the Oregon State Game Commission released 20 sheep from Williams Lake, British Columbia, onto the refuge. The reintroduction was incredibly successful and for decades, the Hart Mountain Refuge was used as a source population to establish additional herds throughout southeast Oregon.

Over 600 bighorns relocated from Hart Mountain over the years produced more than 32 herds comprising a statewide population of more than 3,700 animals. Thanks to the success of the original reintroduction on Hart Mountain, the first California bighorn sheep hunting season occurred in 1965, when the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife authorized two hunts with three tags each on Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge.

The refuge’s sheep herd—and the resulting hunting opportunities—continued to grow for decades, peaking in the 1980s with a population of over 400 animals. To give an example, in 1987 the refuge offered four different hunt seasons in two separate areas. Each hunt had at least five tags, for a total of 40 tagholders entering the field that fall. Several over-170-inch, trophy-class California rams were taken over the years, making the refuge one of the best locations in the country to draw a California bighorn tag and pursue one of North America’s most highly sought-after big game species.

That same year, 87 bighorn sheep were translocated off of the refuge to augment additional herds in Southeast Oregon. Unfortunately, this highpoint was short-lived, as bighorn sheep numbers on the refuge began to steadily decline in the late 1990s. In recent years, this decline has accelerated, with the population falling to about 48 animals in 2020. There will be no bighorn sheep hunts on the refuge until the population recovers.

Wildlife biologists and agency staff from USFWS and ODFW have been working to identify the cause of these increasingly concerning declines in hopes of reversing the trend. Research has shown that long-term habitat degradation by invasive weeds and encroaching junipers, as well as climate change and high predation by cougars, are all contributing to Hart Mountain’s declining sheep population.

With these challenges in mind, the USFWS partnered with ODFW to finalize a new Bighorn Sheep Management Plan for the refuge in 2021. The new plan, which includes a combination of habitat management and predator control, was broadly supported by sportsmen groups and reflects the urgency of the situation by calling for several short-term management actions based on the best-available science, plus a longer-term management framework and monitoring strategy.

Thankfully, the new plan has shown signs of promise in the first year of implementation. During the most recent survey, lamb production and recruitment on the refuge improved for the first time in years, and the overall population has increased slightly.

The TRCP and several other hunting-based conservation organizations in Oregon are supportive of the USWFS’s multifaceted approach and believe that the new plan’s successful implementation will provide the best chance of recovery for this iconic and critical population of bighorn sheep. Sportsmen and sportswomen across Oregon are optimistic that a robust herd of California bighorns will once again thrive along the basalt cliffs atop Hart Mountain and, when numbers recover sufficiently, hope to see the return of a hunting season for these iconic species.

Stay tuned for the next blog in this series on the refuge, where I’ll share more details about its unique habitat, ecology, and wildlife recovery challenges.

All photos: USFWS via Flickr

Kristyn Brady

May 20, 2022

Video: Restoring Longleaf Pines with the Conservation Reserve Program

How one farmer uses the Farm Bill’s most popular conservation program to benefit deer, quail, turkeys, and other species across 104 acres in Georgia

Georgia farmer Hal Avery has had 104 acres of his land enrolled in the Farm Bill’s Conservation Reserve Program since 2015, when he began restoring longleaf pine forest and its native understory of warm-season grasses to benefit wildlife and soil and water quality.

Longleaf pine forests are some of the most diverse ecosystems in North America and serve as critical habitat for bobwhite quail, wild turkeys, whitetail deer, and hundreds of other species. They are also naturally resilient to drought, extreme weather, and wildfire, while capable of storing carbon to combat climate change.

Private landowners like Hal have an important role to play in restoration efforts that boost habitat connectivity and climate change defenses one acre at a time. Watch the video to hear his story.

Learn more about the Conservation Reserve Program and other Farm Bill conservation programs here.

 

Top photo by Justin Meissen via flickr

Alexandra Kozak

May 17, 2022

28 Pennsylvania Trout Streams That Deserve a Conservation Status Update

Anglers are campaigning to update the designations of some Pennsylvania waterways to reflect the exceptional status of their wild trout populations and water quality

Four times each year, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission proposes streams to be added to the Wild Trout and Class A lists. Right now, there are 28 wild trout streams proposed for designation19 Wild Trout streams and nine Class A wild trout streams that represent the best of our best waters. Those eligible for protection during this comment period include streams that are well-known to local anglers, such as Wolf Creek in Schuylkill County, Lime Hollow Run in Carbon County, and Stony Run and Spring Run in Luzerne County.

Pennsylvania sportsmen and sportswomen have a chance to influence this process and seal the deal for our best trout streams—here’s why you should take action today.

The Economic Power of Trout Waters

With 86,000 miles of streams and about 4,000 inland lakes, Pennsylvania is home to some of the best publicly accessible fishing that the East Coast has to offer, including phenomenal trout and bass fishing. With opportunities like these, it’s no wonder that 1.2 million Pennsylvanians fished their local waterways in 2020, helping contribute to the state’s $58-billion outdoor recreation economy.

Since 2010, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has worked with sportsmen and local universities to distinguish our best waters through the Unassessed Waters Program. Based on the UWP’s evaluation, stream sections that meet a set of criteria are eligible for certain protections. For example, streams that have abundant populations of wild rainbow, brown, and brook trout can be eligible for Wild Trout Stream or Class A Stream designations. Protecting these streams ensures that the outdoor recreation industry continues to thrive and that future generations can enjoy the same (or better) fishing opportunities.

Tackle shops and fishing guides are among the businesses that make up an important part of the robust outdoor recreation industry in Pennsylvania. And giving special consideration to the best wild trout streams supports these small businesses. “When I worked in the local fly shop, the Class A list provided a great reference to point people in the right direction to find trout water,” says Matthew Marran, a flyfishing guide and former fly shop worker in the Delaware River Basin. “As a guide, I depend on Class A waters to put clients on wild trout with consistency and confidence. And I’m seeing more and more people ask when booking to fish exclusively for wild trout.”

Why Does a Designation Matter?

In these cases, what’s in a name really matters: Wild Trout and Class A streams qualify for additional protections from Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, including the limitation of activities around these streams that would degrade water quality. The Wild Trout Stream title designates a water as a Coldwater Fishery and protects surrounding wetlands from development. Similarly, streams that qualify for the Class A designation get additional recognition as high-quality waters, which restricts in-stream discharges and guards against habitat degradation.

These designations from the PFBC are critical to helping the state manage and protect fish populations, especially as demands on Pennsylvania’s water resources continue to increase. When you consider that roughly 40 percent of streams across the state are NOT suitable for fishing, swimming, and/or drinking water, according to the DEP, it makes sense to safeguard the exceptional waterways that already meet top standards and support outdoor recreation that drives our economy.

Fortunately, sportsmen and sportswomen understand the importance of this process. A TRCP survey found that 92 percent of Pennsylvania sportsmen and women support designating streams when they meet the right criteria.

What You Can Do to Help

Pennsylvania’s hunters and anglers have an important opportunity to conserve more critical streams. If we don’t speak up, these exceptional waterways could easily be degraded and eventually lost to pollution.

Take action now and tell the PA Fish and Boat Commission that you value these protections for clean water and fish habitat.

This blog was originally posted in November 2019 and has been updated for each quarterly public comment period. The current comment period ends on June 13, 2022. Photos by Derek Eberly.

Ian Nakayama

May 12, 2022

Senate Committee Advances Important Water Resources Legislation

What the Water Resources Development Act can do for the Everglades, Gulf coast, and iconic watersheds of the West 

The Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee recently voted unanimously to advance the Water Resources Development Act of 2022, important two-year legislation that authorizes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to carry out flood control, improve waterways, and conduct ecosystem restoration work. Past WRDA bills have also addressed water infrastructure policy and financing.

Why WRDA Matters

The TRCP has long advocated for conservation priorities in the biennial WRDA process because it presents several opportunities to support federal investments in ecosystem restoration and natural infrastructure approaches that benefit fish and wildlife habitat.

Hunters and anglers may not know that the Corps is the primary federal manager of the nation’s water resources and plays a critical role in planning, designing, and implementing water resource projects, while protecting communities from floods and other natural hazards. The Corps’ mission area also includes ecosystem restoration, and it is a driving force behind the implementation of many largescale projects that benefit sportsmen and sportswomen, particularly in the Everglades and Mississippi River Delta.

More recent WRDAs have expanded the Corps’ focus to include implementing natural infrastructure approaches—where healthy habitat can help solve infrastructure challenges, such as restoring floodplains and coastal wetlands to reduce the vulnerability of critical infrastructure and communities to natural disasters. Wetland and riparian restoration projects provide numerous public benefits while boosting the habitat that supports sportfish, waterfowl, and other species.

So, hunters and anglers should take note as WRDA moves through Congress this year. A strong WRDA ensures that the Corps has the authorization to carry out restoration and prioritize natural infrastructure across the country.

What to Watch for in WRDA ‘22

Thanks in large part to the TRCP and our partners’ advocacy efforts, the Senate version of the Water Resources Development Act of 2022 includes several important victories for hunters and anglers as it heads for a floor vote. The bill clarifies the federal cost-share for ecosystem restoration in the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, lowers the local cost burdens for the Mississippi River Interbasin Project and the Lower Mississippi River Comprehensive Study, and would expedite a western Everglades ecosystem restoration study.

Importantly, the legislation also calls for the Corps to conduct a study evaluating the benefits of utilizing natural infrastructure approaches, such as restoring source watersheds to enhance the resilience of Western water supplies, critical water storage, and delivery infrastructure to drought and wildfire. Across the West, drought and fire are reducing the quantity of water available to fish, wildlife, agricultural producers, and residents, and degrading the quality of water as post-fire debris flows downstream.

Emerging evidence indicates that nature-based solutions, such as restoring wetland systems upstream of critical water infrastructure, can help to mitigate these impacts, but additional research and demonstration will be helpful in encouraging greater utilization of nature-based approaches. If WRDA passes with this provision, the Corps would utilize information gained from the study to further integrate nature-based approaches into Western water management in ways that benefit people and the environment.

This year’s WRDA is still only partway through the legislative process, and the TRCP will continue to look for additional opportunities to expand the use of natural infrastructure in the USACE’s work. For example, there could be a reduced cost-share on natural infrastructure projects to ensure that disadvantaged communities can access them. A holistic accounting of the benefits of natural infrastructure would enable these projects to be more competitive with (and ultimately considered over) traditional gray infrastructure.

Learn more about natural infrastructure and what TRCP is doing to advance these solutions.

 

Top photo by Bob Wick / BLM Colorado via Flickr.

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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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