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Alexandra Kozak

June 13, 2022

New Interactive Map Shows PA Streams Lacking the Conservation They Deserve

Explore the waterways that qualify for High Quality and Exceptional Value status but have been backlogged at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection

If you’ve been following the TRCP for a while, you’ve likely seen us call for Pennsylvania anglers to take action in support of upgrading conservation safeguards that the PA Fish and Boat Commission can provide to our best trout streams. In this process, the commission opens a public comment period every three months and anglers are outspoken in their support of bestowing Wild Trout and Class A Wild Trout stream status where waterways are eligible.

Similarly, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection develops water quality standards designed to safeguard PA streams, rivers, and lakes and give the highest possible protections to our best waters. The agency designates qualified waters as High Quality or Exceptional Value to protect and maintain clean water where it already exists.

Unfortunately, a lengthy list of PA’s top wild trout streams qualify for the highest conservation safeguards at the DEP, but the agency has failed to implement these protections. And our trout streams have waited long enough.

Explore the map to see which streams in the Delaware River watershed are currently backlogged and pending designation by the DEP.

How Did So Many Streams Get Backlogged for Designation?

Waterways can be recommended for upgraded status by the DEP, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, or the public. After streams are proposed for additional designation, an arduous assessment by the DEP then follows. In fact, the evaluation of High Quality and Exceptional Value streams often represents years, if not decades, of work and detailed water surveys.

Even after this thorough process, though, some streams have not yet been designated. (See streams marked “Qualifies for Conservation” on the map.)

Many waters being considered right now are already recognized as wild trout waters and several are recognized as Class A wild trout waters by PFBC. (See streams marked “Recommended for Conservation” on the map.)

This means that not only do these waters sustain naturally reproducing populations of trout, but several of them are among the best in the state. These waters deserve top conservation safeguards, according to one state agency, but they await assessment and designation by the other. This has resulted in a lengthy backlog and delay in commonsense protections.

Why Is It Important to Clear the Backlog of Stream Designations?

Clearing the backlog is particularly important to our state’s $58 billion outdoor recreation economy right now. These additional protections are critical to helping the state manage and protect fish populations, especially as demands on 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.

TRCP polling shows that 92 percent of sportsmen and sportswomen in Pennsylvania support maintaining and strengthening clean water standards in the state, which is home to some of the best publicly accessible fishing that the East Coast has to offer. Plus, providing additional conservation safeguards to the best wild trout streams supports small businesses like tackle shops and fishing guide services that make up an important part of the robust outdoor recreation industry in Pennsylvania.

Take action now and tell the PA Department of Environmental Protection to clear the backlog and conserve our best waters.

 

Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program.

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Ian Nakayama

June 8, 2022

Important Water Resources Legislation Moves Forward

House passes Water Resources Development Act with Everglades and Western water provisions

The House of Representatives has passed the Water Resources Development Act of 2022 (H.R. 7776) in a 384-37 vote, advancing natural infrastructure solutions, Everglades restoration, and Mississippi River conservation priorities. The bill recently advanced out of committee in the Senate and awaits a floor vote in that chamber.

“The TRCP works hard to ensure that the biennial Water Resources Development Act is not overlooked by sportsmen and sportswomen—or lawmakers—because this legislation is of critical importance to watersheds across the country, including in some of our most iconic hunting and fishing destinations,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “This bill also marks another significant step toward implementing more natural infrastructure approaches, where healthy fish and wildlife habitat help to solve some of our most pressing challenges.”

Numerous provisions in the bipartisan 2022 WRDA are TRCP priorities. These include:

  • Requiring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to evaluate the benefits of using natural infrastructure approaches, such as restoring source watersheds, to enhance the resilience of Western water supplies and infrastructure
  • Clarifying the federal cost-share for ecosystem restoration in the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet
  • Lowering the local cost burdens for the Mississippi River Interbasin Project and the Lower Mississippi River Comprehensive Study
  • Requiring the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works to conduct an assessment of levees to identify opportunities for levee system modifications
  • Expediting a feasibility study for western Everglades ecosystem restoration
  • Establishing a National Low-Head Dam Inventory to provide valuable information that will guide fish passage rehabilitation and improve angler and boater safety

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

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

 

Top photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers via Flickr.

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

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

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