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June 30, 2022

Three Ways Congress Can Respond to Drought Through Habitat Enhancement

As hotter, drier conditions challenge water resources in the West, lawmakers have opportunities to invest in resilience 

As Congress marches toward a hotly contested 2022 midterm election, with the potential for a new political landscape in 2023, much of the American West is experiencing a historic multi-year drought. Lawmakers have taken notice, and recent hearings in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources and Agriculture committees have highlighted the serious drought-related challenges to fish and wildlife habitat. While D.C. remains gridlocked on a host of issues, Congress also has some immediate opportunities to deliver on water and conservation policies that invest in habitat, access, forest health, and drought resilience.

Here’s what the TRCP and our partner groups are prioritizing on Capitol Hill in the next six months.

Investments in Agricultural Conservation and Forest Management

The House-passed Build Back Better reconciliation package, which included $27.1 billion for climate-smart agricultural practices and an additional $27.1 billion for forest management and watershed restoration, has been on the back burner since last year. Over the past month, some reports suggest Senate Democrats may consider a slimmed down version of the package.

Even a skinny version of the original proposal, should it include funding for conservation and forestry, would provide a significant boost to the existing suite of farm bill conservation programs that are perennially oversubscribed and build on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s investments in forest management and habitat restoration. The TRCP is pushing for investments that would improve habitat and resilience to drought and wildfire at a landscape level. These efforts are not only climate-smart but would also pay dividends by avoiding the cost of species recovery and disaster response down the road.

Advancing Water Conservation and Drought Resilience Legislation in Committee

Over the past several weeks, Congress has held multiple hearings on short- and long-term solutions to addressing drought in Western watersheds. At one of those hearings, on June 14, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton made a groundbreaking announcement: To mitigate the impacts of drought on the Colorado River Basin, states must develop a plan by mid-August to conserve 2 to 4 million acre-feet of water on an annual basis—or collectively more Colorado River water than what is currently allocated for the entire state of Arizona.

The scale of this challenge is immense and will require that Congress support immediate investments to assist states, Tribes, and other water users in reducing overall demand, while prioritizing multi-purpose conservation approaches that benefit the fish and wildlife habitat that is important to hunters and anglers. TRCP, for its part, is working with key members of the House and Senate as they consider advancing a package of Western water measures with a particular focus on legislation that can help achieve this scale of water conservation, prioritizes long-term resilience, and restores riparian areas and wetlands that provide natural water storage and fish and wildlife habitat.

Sending the Water Resources Development Act to the President’s Desk

The Water Resources Development Act, which authorizes and advances U.S. Army Corps of Engineers water projects, is typically considered and passed by Congress every two years. The TRCP and many of our partner organizations keep an eye on this legislation, because it has real implications for fish and wildlife habitat and aquatic ecosystem restoration. The House of Representatives passed its version of the 2022 WRDA bill earlier this year and, while the full Senate has yet to consider WRDA, the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously approved its version of WRDA in early May.

 

Although the House and Senate versions are slightly different, both include a provision developed by TRCP staff that directs the Corps to study the benefits of natural infrastructure for enhancing the resilience of the agency’s reservoir operations to drought and wildfire, while benefiting fish and wildlife. Once the Senate acts on WRDA, it will be important for both sides to resolve their differences and send a final bill to the president’s desk, so that important ecosystem restoration projects continue or, in the case of the new natural infrastructure study, get underway.

3 Responses to “Three Ways Congress Can Respond to Drought Through Habitat Enhancement”

  1. Bill Crumrine

    Being an outdoor writer myself, (Texas Outback Magazine) belonging to the Texas OUtdoor Writers Association and the Outdoor Writers Association of America, I am a big believer in water shed management. to me if the water shed is taken care of and protected our lakes, ponds, rivers, and stream will continue to survive the droughts, wildfires, and other natural diseasters. Building reservoirs and other such large or small water entitites, over or above water sheds will lead to more difficult and unsolvable problems in the future. Be very careful of building or alternating the water shed just leads to more problems in the future.

  2. Wayne C Brunton

    The old fashioned term I would like to suggest here is public private partnerships. Depending on the locale and the willingness of public and private partners to participate in funding funding projects progress of various kinds could be made benefiting domestic, agricultural, commercial and/or industrial requirements as necessary. Unfortunately this will be an extremely difficult balancing act in many drought stricken areas. Desalination technology be a necessity in California, for example, and I believe some success has achieved in capturing moisture out of the water vapor in the air in Africa. I’m sure research into other techniques is being, can be or is being done.

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Guest Author Mike Avery

June 27, 2022

Limits on Industrial Menhaden Fishing in Virginia Would Boost Economy

Youngkin should end reduction fishing for menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay to support coastal communities, enhance recreational fishing, and create jobs

[This opinion piece was originally published in the The Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press.]

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin is working hard to improve Virginia’s economy. By establishing an Amazon fulfillment center in Augusta County, which will create 500 new jobs, and a Walgreens micro-fulfillment center in Hanover County, which will create 249 new jobs, it’s clear that Youngkin is pro-business.

As a Republican governor focused on building up the commonwealth, the Chesapeake Bay is most likely high on Youngkin’s list of priorities.

The bay has been a breadbasket in our region for hundreds of years, producing vital food and resources, as well as supporting thriving coastal ecosystems. Now it’s time to focus economic growth on the Northern Neck, by revitalizing industries that have fallen to the wayside in favor of industrialized fishing, which has been pillaging our bay for decades.

In Reedville, within Northumberland County, internationally owned Omega Protein operates a largescale “reduction” fishing operation for Atlantic menhaden. Each year, more than 100 million pounds of Atlantic menhaden are being removed from bay waters and “reduced” to fish meal and oil for pet food and salmon feed. However, Atlantic menhaden play a vital role in coastal ecosystems by serving as the base of the food chain, supporting the diets of striped bass, bluefish, humpback whales, and osprey, to name a few.

Between 2009 and 2016, the value of the striped bass fishery, once the most economically valuable recreational fishery in Virginia, dropped by more than 50 percent from $382 million to $166 million. The decline in the striped bass population, which uses the Chesapeake Bay as its primary nursery grounds, can be traced back to the menhaden reduction fishery.

According to the latest ecosystem modeling, the health of the striped bass population is directly tied to menhaden fishing in the Atlantic. As menhaden reduction fishing increases, relative striped bass biomass decreases. In other words, because striped bass are so dependent on Atlantic menhaden, reduction fishing is estimated to contribute to about a 30-percent decline in the striped bass population coastwide.

Saltwater recreational fishing in Virginia is enjoyed by 600,000 anglers annually, contributing $465 million to the commonwealth’s economy and supporting more than 6,500 jobs. The opportunities created by these fisheries are the lifeblood of our coastal communities, as more than 90 percent of the sportfishing and boating industry is made up of small businesses.

Virginia’s menhaden resources belong to all citizens of the commonwealth and not to one company whose profits are funneled back to an international corporation and its other international subsidiaries. By allowing this company to take the resource from our bay at a lower cost, Virginia in effect is subsidizing this operation. And since the menhaden fishing season only runs eight months out of the year, it’s up to Omega’s employees to find a new job to cover that gap or apply for unemployment during the off-season.

It’s time that Youngkin becomes the first Virginia governor to boost our Northern Neck economy, just as he did in Augusta and Hanover counties, by ending menhaden reduction fishing in the Chesapeake Bay, and by establishing good-paying jobs for Virginia citizens.

The detrimental impact of menhaden reduction fishing on the marine environment is so pronounced that it is outlawed in every state along the East Coast except Virginia. Let’s get with the times and produce some real economic change in the commonwealth by prioritizing the livelihoods of our hardworking citizens rather than prioritizing the bank accounts of foreign companies.

Please join the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association and other organizations by signing our petition to Gov. Youngkin to move the industrial harvest of menhaden out of the Chesapeake Bay by taking action right here.

Mike Avery, of Hampton, is the chairman of the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association. Top photo by Steve Droter/Chesapeake Bay Program.

June 24, 2022

Agencies Announce Critical Next Step for the Boundary Waters

U.S. Forest Service says this kind of development would jeopardize the nation’s most popular wilderness

The conservation community is applauding a proposal from federal agencies that would protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Northeast Minnesota. A long-awaited assessment from the U.S. Forest Service shows that copper-nickel mining poses a major risk to habitat, and the draft environmental assessment proposes a 20-year ban on copper-nickel mining on federal lands in the watershed.

The proposed moratorium from the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management would prohibit the development of any mineral leases on approximately 225,054 acres of Superior National Forest lands within the watershed of the Boundary Waters for up to 20 years.

“This EA validates what is obvious to any person devoted to this incredible water wilderness where we hunt and fish: The risk of copper-nickel mining to the purest waters remaining in the Lower 48 is flatly unacceptable,” says Lukas Leaf, executive director of Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters. “This type of mining is not compatible with the BWCA watershed, and it’s clear that there’s solid scientific footing to implement the proposed 20-year mineral withdrawal.”

Another mineral withdrawal had been proposed during the Obama administration, but the Trump administration reversed it shortly after. Last year, the Biden administration reinitiated the study for two years. Earlier this year, the Department of the Interior also decided to cancel two federal hardrock mineral leases located in the Superior National Forest within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness watershed, citing the importance of sustaining the Boundary Waters’ recreational, economic, and fish and wildlife values.

As part of the draft environmental assessment, a 30-day public comment period will open on June 28—stay tuned to the TRCP for updates on this step, which will require hunters and anglers to take action.

“We’ll be encouraging sportsmen and sportswomen to participate fully in this latest opportunity to speak out against the risk of mining in one-of-a-kind habitat and a bucket-list hunting, fishing, and paddling destination,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Our community has been working diligently for years to get to this step, with a thorough assessment of the threats to the region from proposed development and clear support for conservation from our federal agencies. It speaks to the power of hunter and angler voices that we’ve come this far, and we appreciate the administration’s commitment to ensuring that future generations of Americans will be able to experience the Boundary Waters as we know them today.”

Following agency review of comments, the EA will be finalized and handed to the Bureau of Land Management, which will summarize and deliver it to the desk of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland for a decision.

The new draft EA would extend protections for 20 years, but only Congress can implement a permanent ban. Rep. Betty McCollum, who was recently awarded TRCP’s James D. Range Conservation Award, has championed such protections for the BWCA via the Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Prevention Act. If passed, H.R. 2794 would permanently protect 234,328 acres of federal lands and waters within the Superior National Forest from sulfide-ore copper mining. It has the support of local, regional, and national advocacy groups in favor of permanently protecting these critical resources.

To learn more, visit sportsmenbwca.org.

Randall Williams

June 23, 2022

USDA Announcement Stands to Enhance Habitat Connectivity and Restoration

Hunters and anglers call for continued emphasis on migration and watersheds

Sportsmen and sportswomen today applauded a USDA announcement regarding new guidance for the Forest Service’s management of public lands across the country. Secretarial Memorandum 1077-044, signed by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, directs the agency to prioritize actions that will build climate resilience and enhance carbon stewardship on national forests and grasslands.

“We appreciate the Secretary’s direction on wildlife connectivity and migration corridor conservation, as well as the renewed focus on watershed health and restoration—this begins to address longstanding challenges facing our national forests and grasslands,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Sportsmen and sportswomen look forward to working with the Forest Service to implement this memo and to see wildlife migration corridor conservation fully integrated into forest management planning and collaborative efforts with other agencies and landowners.”

Among other things, the memo directs the USFS to:

  • Develop a decision support tool to identify climate change vulnerabilities and management opportunities.
  • Develop recommendations to strengthen cross-boundary watershed restoration and protection through programs such as the Watershed Condition Framework and Water Source Protection Program.
  • Update the fireshed risk map included in the Confronting the Wildfire Crisis Strategy and Implementation Plan to include risks to watersheds and habitat and ecological connectivity for important wildlife and at-risk species.
  • Develop policy recommendations on several fronts, including for wildlife migration, watershed restoration, and carbon optimization on national forest lands.
  • Incentivize wood product innovation.
  • Integrate access and recreation opportunities into wildfire risk reduction and restoration projects.
  • Increase climate-informed forestry practices and develop guidance for the safe use of prescribed fire.

The TRCP plans to engage with our partners and USDA to expand and implement the SO’s directives that are aligned with our mission and relevant to the future of hunting and fishing.

Read more about the TRCP’s goals related to wildlife corridors here.

 

 

Top photo courtesy of USFS / Scott Dickson via Flickr.

Guest Author Seth Kantner

June 22, 2022

Hunting a Changing Land

Changes to migration patterns and permafrost in Alaska create uncertainty for one hunter who relies on the land for food, in this first installment of a new series about the real-life impacts of climate change on hunting and fishing

It’s gray, foggy, and cold—the third day of a mid-May snowstorm that makes it feel like October in Northwest Alaska. Patches of tundra that recently melted are turning white again, and wet snowflakes slide down my windows.

As of last night, I’m out of caribou meat and anxious to hunt. Instead, I’m in my sod house working on another necessary task: supporting my walls. With the melting of the permafrost in recent years, the hill under my home has been shifting.

Jacks and secondary posts dug into the hill at the front of the sod house to keep it from shifting as the ground thaws and sluffs

Outside, the wind gusts, while in here I feel like a beaver, impatient for the spring thaw, with woodchips and dirt littering my floor, but also with axes, auger bits, chisels, and trowels heaped on my kitchen counter. Mice rustle in the moss-insulated walls, a kettle sings on the woodstove, and boots and gloves hang drying. My dad’s old .270 is on a peg by the door and other guns lean against the workbench in the corner.

Additional inside posts, cross-bracing, and cables keep the structure from shifting

Every few minutes, I step out to scan the river ice for caribou. I’d like one for meals and to dry. But it’s hard to predict the migration anymore; this land has changed so much. Migratory waterfowl are slow to show this spring, and there are fewer songbirds each year. The ice is still solid, 600 yards wide and stretching miles upriver and down. My nearest neighbors are in the village of Ambler, 25 miles east.

From this ridge, I can see across a quarter-million acres of rolling tundra, river valleys, and timber—north into the Brooks Range, south to the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, and beyond. I’ve hunted and trapped here all my life, on foot, and by kayak, dog team, and snowmobile. As a kid, we wore furs, slept on caribou hides, and ate some of nearly everything that moved—moose, bears, ducks, loons, muskrats, beavers, porcupines, otters, and all the rest.

A lot has changed rapidly in the intervening decades—the weather, vegetation, ice, and especially the movement of animals. I like to think I know this land like family, but each year it is harder to recognize.

Traveling mid-May on the snow-covered tundra in the night, searching for migrating caribou herds

In the afternoon, I make coffee and sit on my bearskin couch to mull over my progress. I need scrap angle iron and to peel more logs. Suddenly, I hear an animal sound, distinct and linked to a lifetime of meals and memories.

Geese are flying overhead. Calling! I lunge for my shotgun.

Outside, I peer into the snow-filled sky. From the north come their fading cries: Luck, luck. Luck-a-luck. The call of white-fronted geese electrifies my blood. It carries me back 50 years to childhood.

The air is foggy, but I think, or hope, the birds will land at a nearby beaver pond. It’s hard to be sure—lakes and swamps have altered as the climate has warmed. Everywhere, there are new trees, grasslands, and brush. Sloughs don’t drain the way they used to, the ice is unsafe in new places, and the tundra disappears beneath intimidating thickets of dwarf birch, willows, and alders.

Quickly, I check the stove and rummage for ammo. I pull on snowpants, boots, a white windbreaker, hat, and gloves and strap on a machete, binoculars, and two guns—my grandpa’s double-barrel and an old scoped .22. Out behind the woodpile, I encounter deep holes, where a moose attempted to use my trail. I grin down into the depths, listen, and lace on snowshoes.

Dropping off the hill, I pass my family’s first tiny sod igloo, where I was born. It’s falling in as the soil slumps. It was always part of the hill, built low in the ground for warmth, originally with only a tunnel entrance.

I move fast across the tundra, panting as I sink into drifts and weave around new masses of tall alders. I spot the fresh tracks of two wolves. Spruces tower over me. Not long ago this was windswept tundra, and my brother Kole and best friend Alvin would snowshoe straight north after geese. Now, I navigate through thickets, and I have to jog east to avoid a lake of slush held back by mud that was released when a ravine caved in—all effects of the permafrost melting.

As I top a birch knoll, I hear Canadas honking. Tense and excited, I stop to listen. Suddenly I realize my ears hear one thing, while my eyes are watching something else: A line of caribou is crossing the ice on the pond below me.

I turn toward the geese, smiling, and thinking of Alvin. As kids we loved nothing more than hunting together. I miss him. Three years ago in May he drowned in open current where the river used to freeze, and he was swept under the ice.

My binos are wet, but the snow and wind has lessened. I spot two white-fronts and five Canadas. I only have eyes for the white-fronts. They will be fatter, easier to pluck, with lighter meat and better flavor. I slide a stained game bag over my guns, hunch over, and become a caribou.

Pregnant females (with hard antlers) cross the thawing ice of the Kobuk River as they lead bands of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd hundreds of miles north for a mass birthing the first week of June

There are trust issues, of course. The geese are suspicious and holler and walk onto snow. I keep my gaze down. Behind a spruce tree, I slip off my snowshoes, shoulder out of my guns, and peer through a shockingly large clump of Labrador tea.

My shotgun safety jams and won’t slide forward to fire. This has happened before. But I can’t recall how I fixed it. I lower the gun, raise my .22. It’s actually fine, I prefer attempting a headshot over the risk of wounding birds, anyway.

The glass of the ancient little scope is foggy and gray. I smile, watching a Canada stumble as it sinks in the snow. I judge the distance at 60 yards. The geese honk louder and get ready to fly. I aim behind a white forehead and squeeze. The goose pitches forward, flops, and then lies still. The snow absorbs the crack of the little rifle, and the birds give me time to reload and drop its mate.

I can’t believe my luck, as I plunge through soft snow, racing across grass and pocked black ice. The birds lie a few yards apart, beautiful and familiar, yet so foreign after a long winter. A long year, actually—white-fronts no longer pass through in the fall. The freeze-up comes a month late now, rainy and messy, and the birds have changed flyways.

The author pot-roasting a white-fronted goose

I pluck the female first. It’s heavy and fat. The male has a bent leg—obviously shot and re-healed—and along the outer wing, I spot a black pellet under the skin. In past years, I’ve noted geese are more wary, less likely to come to my old homemade plywood decoys, and one in five carry wounds, pellets, or both. It makes me wonder about the struggles these traveling birds experience.

For a moment, I imagine a dark future where there are no annual migrations of wild geese, songbirds, or caribou. I can’t help worrying about my food.

At home, I singe and gut the birds. I save everything except the shot heads: hearts, gizzards, necks, wings, and feet, and go put the perfect female in my cold storage in the ground, to give to an elder in the village. The male goes directly into the Dutch oven, where it sizzles on the stove as I wash up and turn back to propping up my shifting home.

 

The harvest method and spring hunting season described in this story are in accordance with the 2022 federal regulations for the subsistence harvest of migratory waterfowl in the Northwest Arctic Region of Alaska. Click here to learn more about subsistence hunting in rural Alaska and the unique federal law that ensures the continuation of this unique way of life.

Seth Kantner is a commercial fisherman, wildlife photographer, wilderness guide, and author of the bestselling novel, “Ordinary Wolves,” and other books. His writing and photographs have appeared in national newspapers, anthologies, and magazines, including Smithsonian, the New York Times, Alaska, and Outside. His most recent nonfiction book, “A Thousand Trails Home: Living With Caribou,” was released in October 2021. He lives in Northwest Alaska. Learn more at sethkantner.com or follow Seth on Facebook.

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