Four Major Threats to Restored Big Game Populations in the Northern Great Basin
This third installment of a four-part series on the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge gives a big-picture look at the basic ecology of the region and identifies some of the management challenges the refuge faces today. Read on to learn what is limiting the health of big game populations within these unique public lands.
Thousands of petroglyphs scattered across the black basalt rim-rock convey the importance that the Hart Mountain region has long held as a place for wildlife and hunters. The drawings, some of them from more than 6,500 years ago, show how the Northern Paiute fished, hunted, and lived along the shore of the Warner Lakes, at the base of the mountain, and moved higher to hunt pronghorn and big game during the summer.
Later, in the 1920s, biologists recognized the region as the potential cornerstone of an ambitious plan to re-establish abundant herds of pronghorn antelope. This was reliant on the area’s unique ecology.
The Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge lies in the heart of the Northern Basin and Range ecoregion and is part of the greater sagebrush steppe ecosystem, which occupies more than 150 million acres in 11 Western states. The Cascade Mountains create a rain shadow that anchors sagebrush, bunchgrass, and forbs as the dominant vegetation. Elevations are high, between 4,500 and 8,017 feet at the top of highest point on the refuge, Warner Mountain. This high-elevation, semi-arid climate creates a region known for extremes.
The refuge acts as an elevational island, which sets the vegetation apart from the lower and drier surrounding Bureau of Land Management lands. At its highest elevations, Hart Mountain accumulates considerably more winter snowpack and acts as a sponge that trickles out water throughout a lifeline of streams and wet meadows during the summer growing season. Snowmelt facilitates abundant growth of aspens, mountain mahogany, bitterbrush, chokecherry, and even ponderosa pine stands, which provide key summer range, forage, and cover for countless species.
Years ago, many groups—including the National Audubon Society and Boone and Crockett Club—worked together to advocate for hundreds of thousands of acres of this high-value habitat to be set aside for wildlife and managed as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Today, more than 800,000 acres on the Hart-Sheldon Refuge complex are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with a one-of-a-kind mission to manage for wildlife above all other uses.
But this land of extremes also presents significant challenges for wildlife managers. Over the past two decades, populations of mule deer, bighorn sheep, and sage grouse have been declining both on the refuge and across the region. There are many reasons for this, but a few causes stand out as particularly concerning to the health of big game in the sagebrush steppe ecosystem—here are four.
Climate change is taking a toll on wildlife habitat across the West, and the Northern Great Basin is seeing some of the most drastic impacts. The spread of invasive annual grasses, such as medusahead, ventenata, and cheatgrass, diminish native plant communities, reduce the forage available to wildlife and livestock and—perhaps most concerning—alter the historic fire regimes that once helped to maintain the sagebrush steppe. Invasive annuals dry out much quicker during the growing season and create finer fuels that ignite quickly, compared to native perennial bunch grasses. Once invasive annual grasses gain a toehold, they tend to increase the frequency, intensity, and spread of fires, which can damage or replace critical sagebrush and bunchgrass that is more adapted to infrequent, patchy fires.
Rangeland ecologists are also seeing increasingly prolonged and persistent drought cycles in the Intermountain West. These droughts are tough on mule deer, bighorn sheep, and all other wildlife, because they shorten the growing season and decrease the availability of key nutrients needed to sustain pregnant does and ewes through the long winters.
In much of its range, western juniper has increased tenfold in the past 130 years. And rapid expansion of encroaching juniper forests is exacerbated by all of the conditions mentioned above. Warming temperatures, increased CO2 in the atmosphere, changing fire regimes, and historic overgrazing have all helped junipers spread, and their long, deep taproots steal from the limited water available to native plants during a drought. Additionally, these juniper forests can create places where predators have a much better advantage over prey species like sage grouse, mule deer, and bighorn sheep, upending the balance in the food chain.
Wildlife managers need additional resources to fight these effects of climate change.
Recreational Changes and Increased Public Use
One lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic was that our public lands are a treasured resource, and people are enjoying them in ever-growing numbers and a myriad of ways. Trail runners, mountain bikers, OHV users, equestrians, wildlife watchers, and hunters increasingly compete for a limited amount of space that also serves as habitat for wildlife. The public use of the refuge—and all public lands in the West—has increased drastically since the turn of the 21st century. Hunting seasons and tag allotment on the refuge are tightly regulated to limit the level of habitat disturbance, but more people are using the refuge for hiking, biking, and wildlife watching than in recent history. Right now, these activities come with less regulation aimed at limiting impacts to big game.
Last year, Oregon signed into law House Bill 2021, which requires the state to transition to 100-percent clean energy by 2040. While this is needed to combat the effects of climate change, there are growing pressures to site renewable energy projects on landscapes within the Great Basin, where solar and wind energy potential is high. Future renewable energy projects will need to be carefully planned to ensure that they limit and/or mitigate for any impacts to important wildlife habitat, including winter range, stopover areas, and migration corridors. The lands within the refuge are off-limits to energy development, but adjacent habitat could be considered for development under existing BLM management plans, thus affecting the refuge’s big game.
Wild Horses and Burros
Despite the legal classification as “wild” on federal land, free-roaming horses and burros are non-native, feral livestock that do not have any natural predators and can create significant detrimental impacts to native ecosystems within sagebrush steppe habitat. Currently, there are an estimated 86,000 wild horses and burros on BLM and national forest lands, which exceeds the agencies’ Appropriate Management Levels by more than 300 percent. The quality of habitat for wildlife in many places within the West is declining as a result.
These impacts are elevated by a changing climate. Native species like bighorns, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope are being negatively affected as they compete for limited forage and water resources.
Similar to the threat from energy development, the Hart and Sheldon refuges themselves are protected—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has utilized its wildlife-first mandate to remove all wild horses and burros from both refuges in recent years—but neighboring BLM lands continue to suffer. This affects the bigger picture for game species in the region and underscores the importance of preserving the wildlife-focused management of these important refuge lands.
All photos by Sage Brown. Find him on Instagram @sagebrown.
Stay tuned for the final blog in this series, where I’ll outline some ways the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can improve wildlife habitat on the refuge by revising its Comprehensive Conservation Plan, which was created in 1994 and is long obsolete.
Eight Conservation Priorities Congress Needs to Tackle by the End of the Year
When the House and Senate are back in session early next month, lawmakers will have a lengthy to-do list ahead of election season and the end of the 117th Congress in December. Here’s what they should do for hunters and anglers.
Invest in Conservation Through Annual Appropriations Bills
Atop the to-do list for Congress is continuing to fund the government prior to the end of this fiscal year on September 30. While the House has passed a slate of appropriations measures, the Senate has not held hearings on any funding legislation for the year ahead. This, combined with election-year politics, means that Congress will likely negotiate a continuing resolution, a short-term extension of current funding levels into early December.
Earlier this spring, our major ask was Senate introduction of the Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act, which had moved quickly through the House in fall 2021. Now that the bill has been introduced and championed in the Senate, lawmakers should move quickly to advance this legislation by year’s end. We’re headed into an exciting deer season that could be overshadowed by the threat of CWD in some parts of the country—particularly in states like Alabama, North Carolina, and Louisiana, where cases were confirmed for the first time earlier this year. If passed, the bill would provide $35 million annually to state agencies for CWD suppression and an additional $35 million for research into the disease and management techniques. It also directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture to carry out a public review of its Herd Certification Program, which is the federal standard by which states accredit captive cervid operations as “low-risk” for CWD spread. This step is critical to hold captive deer facilities accountable for CWD outbreaks.
Advance Grasslands Conservation Solutions
We’d also like to broad support in the Senate on the recently introduced North American Grasslands Conservation Act, which would help kickstart the voluntary protection and restoration of grasslands and sagebrush shrub-steppe ecosystems by private landowners. There’s urgency right now to maintain these systems for agriculture, wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration, and future generations of hunters and anglers, while supporting ranchers, farmers, Tribal Nations, and rural communities. And since the Grasslands Act is modeled off the very successful North American Wetlands Conservation Act, which is well-known among waterfowl hunters, sportsmen and sportswomen will be important voices in this debate. We’re continuing to work with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to build momentum around the bill.
Modernize Forage Fish Management
To build off the success of the Magnuson-Stevens Act—which has been instrumental in addressing overfishing and maintaining fish stocks over the past 50 years—anglers need Congress to debate and advance the Forage Fish Conservation Act. The new legislation would ensure that federal fisheries managers account for the needs of forage fish and the predator species that depend on them. It would establish management plans for river herring and shad in the Atlantic and address the needs of sportfish and other predator species in existing forage fish management plans. It would also require that managers assess the possible impacts of newly proposed commercial fishing for forage fish, including the effects on other fisheries, anglers, and the marine ecosystem. Since its introduction in October 2021, there has been little action on the bill. Anglers can speak up for this solution right now by clicking here.
Fund Proactive Conservation of At-Risk Species and Habitat
The conservation community is still awaiting final passage of the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, which would be a win for particularly at-risk habitat and species, including ruffed grouse, greater sage grouse, coho salmon, and sockeye salmon. After House passage this summer, we need the Senate to act next to carry this legislation, which would make generational investments in fish and wildlife restoration, over the finish line.
Expedite Natural Infrastructure Projects That Improve Habitat
As part of the month-long negotiations around the Democrat’s reconciliation package, passed earlier this summer, Senator Manchin secured a commitment from Majority Leader Schumer that the Senate would vote on a suite of permitting reforms. Senator Manchin released a list of his priorities in that discussion soon after.
A permitting reform package could be attached to a moving legislative vehicle—most likely a forthcoming short-term funding bill. Generally, Republicans are very supportive of measures to expedite permitting processes and would likely use the opportunity to advance reforms to increase the pace and scale of forest management in the West. Similarly, there are many Democrats that see permitting reform as an opportunity to advance the deployment of renewable energy. However, don’t count everyone to fall in line. Some members have pushed for any permitting legislation to go through regular order and vowed to oppose the proposal if it fails to achieve environmental justice goals. This could create a difficult intraparty headache that Democrats will be eager to avoid ahead of November’s midterm elections.
It’s possible that like an omnibus spending package, a vote on a full permitting reform proposal waits until the lame duck session. The TRCP and partners across the conservation community are closely tracking these negotiations for possible threats, and opportunities, for conservation.
Pass a Water Resources Development Act with Habitat Benefits
WRDA is a biennial piece of legislation that authorizes water infrastructure and management projects that ensure flood control, maintain navigable waterways, and promote ecosystem restoration.
The TRCP worked with partner groups to shape the House and Senate 2022 WRDA bills to ensure they account for the needs of aquatic ecosystems and continue to improve the state of our natural infrastructure. Our team worked closely with Western lawmakers to include a provision in both bills for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study the benefits of utilizing natural infrastructure approaches for headwater restoration to achieve drought and fire resilience downstream. Beyond that, TRPC has been actively reminding decision-makers of the importance of investing in the health of the Everglades—one of the largest wetlands systems in the world, which is vital to South Florida’s water supply.
The House and Senate passed their respective 2022 WRDA reauthorization bills earlier this year. Staff from committees in the House and Senate are in the process of reconciling differences between the two versions of the legislation and could send a final bill to the president’s desk in September. .
Conserve Public Lands in the National Defense Authorization Act
The NDAA is our nation’s annual military spending bill, but it has often been a vehicle for conservation policy. The House of Representatives passed their version of the legislation in mid-July, which includes a handful of conservation victories like the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act and Grand Canyon Protection Act. The Senate has yet to consider their own measure before the full chamber.
TRCP and the broader conservation community are closely tracking the NDAA and working with lawmakers toward inclusion of the bills into a final negotiated package. Like WRDA, the NDAA follows a similar conference process to align the House and Senate-passed bills.
The conservation community has a lot to celebrate from the 117th Congress, but we’re far from done. Sign up for our weekly Roosevelt Report to stay on top of these conservation issues as Congress closes out the year.
Southwest Montana’s High Divide region and the Big Hole and Beaverhead Valleys provide excellent fish and wildlife habitat and a wealth of dispersed recreation opportunities. Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to fly over this spectacular landscape with EcoFlight, a Colorado-based non-profit that utilizes small aircraft to help educate and advocate for the conservation of wild lands and wildlife habitat. Accompanied by TRCP’s Western communications manager, Randall Williams, and two of our colleagues from Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy, we flew along the Montana-Idaho border and across the southern end of these important watersheds.
Although the weather forecast looked ominous, we had ideal conditions for our morning flight over some of Montana’s most storied landscapes. The world-class hunting for elk, mule deer, antelope, and upland birds found in this area is no secret, and neither is the outstanding fishing. Hiking, camping, and wildlife viewing are also popular activities. These opportunities not only enrich the quality of life enjoyed by Montanans and allow for memorable days afield with friends and family, but they are also critical to businesses in local communities: A recent report found that hunting and fishing in Beaverhead County generates over $167 million each year and creates more than 1,400 jobs.
But Southwest Montana’s public lands are facing challenges, many of which were evident from the air. We could see, for example, the changes on the landscape from wildfire, development, and drought. We also took in the huge expanse of wild country that provides critical winter and summer ranges and migration corridors for elk, mule deer, antelope, and world-class cold-water fisheries—these areas could come under threat, as well, if sportsmen and sportswomen don’t speak up.
Many of the public lands in this area are managed by the Dillon Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management, which is conducting a 15-year re-evaluation of its 2006 Resource Management Plan. These plans guide management priorities for agency decisionmakers and can shape how our public lands are managed for decades at a time. Required by BLM planning regulations, periodic evaluations offer a chance to review the current plan and determine if there is any new data or updated science that would be of significance, or if there have been impactful changes in the relevant management plans of other federal agencies, Tribes, or state or local governments.
Since the Dillon plan was written in 2006, significant changes in federal and state policies have occurred, and there is a vast amount of new information related to wildlife migration and winter range. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has also identified multiple big game migrations that connect important seasonal habitats in this region and the agency considers these habitats a priority.
As our birds-eye view made clear, there have also been significant changes to the landscape and its habitats in the past 15 years. We can’t wait another decade and a half to update public land planning and implement solutions.
Sportsmen and sportswomen know the incredible fish and wildlife values found across Southwest Montana. My opportunity to view this region from the air helped to reinforce just how vast this country is. We all need to speak up by encouraging the BLM Dillon Field Office to update the current RMP. A modernized plan should incorporate new big game migration science and identify the threats to wildlife movement and habitat connectivity in the area, as well as opportunities for meaningful habitat restoration that could benefit both wildlife and public land grazers. Only then can the plan adequately safeguard our hunting and fishing opportunities.
47 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 47 wild trout streams proposed for designation—46 Wild Trout streams and one Class A wild trout stream 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 Furnace Creek in Berks County and tributaries to Crooked Creek in Wayne County and Farmsworth Branch in Warren 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.
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 September 12, 2022. Photos by Derek Eberly.
In honor of TRCP’s 20th anniversary, here are some of our proudest moments as an organization and the biggest victories our team has helped to advance on behalf of hunters and anglers
The TRCP Is Founded to Fill a Serious Need 2002
After starting the modern conservation movement more than 100 years earlier, hunters and anglers had lost much of our relevance in federal policy by the early 2000s. Our community had so successfully committed to bringing back individual species—like ducks, whitetail deer, wild turkeys, elk, pronghorn antelope, native trout, and more—that we became fractured and lost sight of the broader issues of conservation.
This became apparent to James D. Range, a lifelong sportsman and longtime senior Republican staff member in the Senate, who had played a critical role in advancing some of the nation’s most important natural resources legislation, including the Clean Water Act. He knew that our community—if we banded together—could again be a powerful voice for conservation. And in 2002, he created the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership to present a united front to decision-makers on the issues that matter to all hunters and anglers.
Roadless Rules Help Conserve Backcountry Habitat
Since the TRCP’s inception, we have advanced policies that conserve large blocks of intact habitat, including roadless areas on our national forests, to maximize hunting and fishing opportunities. Roadless area conservation was one of TRCP’s founding issues, and between 2002 and 2012, the TRCP helped to successfully conserve 58.5 million acres of habitat on public lands in 38 states.
Led by TRCP staff on the ground, sportsmen and sportswomen were a consistent, engaged, and reasonable presence throughout multi-year rulemaking processes in Idaho and Colorado. In 2008, we successfully advocated for strong conservation of backcountry habitat in a final rule for Idaho’s 9.3 million acres of roadless areas. Then, in 2012, recommendations from our community were incorporated into a final Colorado roadless rule that safeguarded 4.2 million acres of backcountry for future generations.
Finally, in October 2012, the Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the nationwide 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, resolving the issue nationally in a way that conserved these valued habitats and sporting destinations, while providing commonsense flexibility for habitat restoration. These efforts have helped fish and wildlife managers to maximize public hunting and fishing opportunities and safeguard vital habitat for the foreseeable future.
TRCP Defends Wetlands and the Clean Water Act
On Earth Day in 2004, President George W. Bush laid out a strategy to move beyond the “no net loss” policy for wetlands that his father established in 1989. This commitment to increasing wetlands acreage annually was one of TRCP’s signature issues at the time, but this early victory did not mean we could rest on our laurels.
In fact, just two years later, there was talk of the George W. Bush Administration weakening Clean Water Act protections for wetlands. Given his role in helping to write the nation’s bedrock law on clean water, TRCP’s co-founder Jim Range was understandably moved to act. He led a delegation to Texas and drove around Bush’s ranch with the president, ultimately convincing him to abandon plans to weaken the Clean Water Act.
In the 2010s, the TRCP was a key voice in advocating for Clean Water Act protections for both wetlands and headwater streams, after a series of Supreme Court cases and subsequent federal agency actions made it unclear which bodies of water the Act protects. In 2015, after an extensive public process and based on a massive study of hundreds of scientific articles about water quality, the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers adopted a rule to clarify federal jurisdiction over the “waters of the United States.” Though it was ultimately reversed, the rule was a major victory for hunters and anglers: It would have helped conserve the roughly 60 percent of streams and 20 million acres of wetlands that were at risk of being polluted or destroyed because of jurisdictional confusion.
TRCP Today: Our water resources team has expanded to support conservation solutions in the Delaware, Colorado, and Rio Grande river basins, and we continue to advocate for headwaters, wetlands, and prairie potholes. In June 2021, the EPA and Corps announced that they would reconsider which waters and wetlands should be protected under the Clean Water Act—again. Sportsmen and sportswomen are important stakeholders in this public process that could secure protections for critical fish and waterfowl habitat.
Farm Bill Conservation Expands 2008-present
Since his time on Capitol Hill, Jim Range had envisioned a brighter future for habitat and hunting and fishing access in rural America, where public land opportunities are scarce. Under his leadership, the TRCP championed “open fields,” a farm bill initiative that would incentivize private landowners to offer access to the public for hunting and fishing, ideally in concert with habitat improvements. What became the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program was established in the 2008 Farm Bill and built up in the two farm bills since. It is the only federal program dedicated to creating public access on private lands and a major victory for the TRCP. Unfortunately, Range never got to see “open fields” benefit sportsmen and sportswomen or expand to $49 million in projects across 26 states—he lost his battle with kidney cancer in early 2009 at the age of 63.
Though this loss was heartbreaking, TRCP’s focus on private land conservation never wavered. We pushed for a Conservation Reserve Program Grasslands initiative to help conserve working grasslands and prevent conversion and habitat fragmentation. We championed the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) program, another CRP initiative, that has provided habitat for sharptail grouse, sage grouse, woodcock, bobwhite quail, pheasants, a wide variety of waterfowl, black bears, mule deer, elk, salmon, steelhead trout, and many other species across 36 states.
Hunters and Anglers Stop Public Land Grab
Despite the importance of America’s 640 million acres of public land to our hunting and fishing opportunities and our country’s unique outdoor legacy, special interests intensified their efforts to sell off or transfer them to the states in 2015. In response, the TRCP launched sportsmensaccess.org—the home base for hunters and anglers opposed to public land transfer with the latest news on threats to public access. More than 150 sporting groups and businesses joined the coalition and more than 50,000 individual hunters and anglers sent messages to their lawmakers to oppose public land sale and seizure. At the state level, TRCP field representatives across the West helped to beat back all but six of 37 bills advocating for the disposal of federal public lands, driving thousands of hunters and anglers to rally at state capitols and town hall meetings under the slogans #KeepItPublic and #PublicLandsProud.
One congressman, however, was a little slow to get the message. In February 2017, sportsmen and sportswomen flooded the inbox of former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) with letters, tweets, and Facebook messages about his unpopular and dangerous public land sale bill, H.R. 621. In a matter of weeks, more than 10,000 TRCP members contacted their own lawmakers, as well. Shortly after, Chaffetz dropped the legislation, which would have enabled the sale of 3.3 million acres of public lands to pay down the national debt, and he made his mea culpa to hunters and anglers on Instagram under a photo of him wearing a camo coat and holding his dog. Chaffetz retired from Congress that June.
TRCP Today: Presidents Trump and Biden made it clear that this idea would not gain traction on their watch, but the push to sell off public lands hasn’t gone away completely. The tug-of-war between Americans who are proud to have public lands as their birthright and those who seek to undermine these lands for short-term profits has never been tied to one individual bill, state, or lawmaker—it’s a longstanding ideological battle that puts conservation, access, and our hunting and fishing opportunities on the line.
Anglers Demand Better Federal Fisheries Management
After watching federal fisheries management focus almost exclusively on the commercial sector for years, the TRCP embarked on a new effort to improve fish stocks and seasons and urge decision-makers to recognize the value of anglers in this conversation. In 2013, we convened a coalition of groups and industry leaders to lay out a vision for better management of recreational fishing in federal waters. The result was a report outlining six recommendations for conserving marine recreational fisheries, championed by Johnny Morris of Bass Pro Shops and Scott Deal of Maverick Boats.
What became commonly referred to as the Morris-Deal Report—as well as TRCP-led workshops with fisheries managers, biologists, economists, and conservation groups—laid the groundwork for federal legislation that would bring marine fisheries management into the 21st century. In 2015, NOAA released its first-ever policy recognizing the value of recreational fishing, based on our recommendations, and TRCP staff was invited to testify in support of the Modern Fish Act in 2017. A year later, the bill was signed into law.
First Migration Corridor Conservation Policies Are Created 2015-present
The TRCP field team has worked diligently over the years to raise awareness with local decision-makers about the lack of conservation policies for big game migration corridors and seasonal habitats that, thanks to advances in GPS collars and wildlife research, we can now use to help direct habitat restoration and improvement and prevent incompatible development. These efforts made a big leap forward in February 2018, when then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke signed Secretarial Order 3362, which directed agencies to give more attention to habitats where mule deer, elk, pronghorn antelope, and other species migrate, rest, and spend the winter months.
Since that time, the states and federal government have partnered to research big game movements and improve habitat for mule deer, elk, and pronghorn antelope. In addition, the Department and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation provided more than $15 million to implement the order, funds that were matched by about $30 million in state and private funds. This resulted in on-the-ground projects that range from restoring habitat to improving fencing. The order has inspired Colorado, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, and Idaho to adopt their own migration corridor conservation programs, with additional states working to join them.
The TRCP continued to differentiate itself in the next great quest for public lands and outdoor recreation access. In 2018, as authorization for the iconic Land and Water Conservation Fund was nearing expiration, other groups created countdown clocks and posted increasingly urgent messages about the need for permanent authorization of this critical resource. While standing with our community to secure the future of the LWCF, we also went to work to quantify a widespread access problem that was tailor-made for LWCF to fix—inaccessible public lands. The TRCP partnered with the digital mapping company onX to identify 9.52 million acres of federal public lands in the West that are “landlocked” by private land with no permanent legal access.
Our first Unlocking Public Lands Report made national headlines just as the conversation around LWCF was heating up, and we were able to offer sound reasoning, based on data, for full funding at $900 million annually, with a minimum of three percent held aside to improve existing public land access, and a plan to take short-term approvals of this critical tool off the congressional to-do list by making authorization permanent. This was accomplished in 2020 through the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act and the Great American Outdoors Act (see below.)
Between 2018 and 2020, we expanded our work with onX to identify a total of 16.43 million acres of inaccessible public lands across 22 states. The company helped us provide land trusts and federal decision-makers with data about the scale and scope of public land access barriers in their area. We also began collaborating with the BLM and Forest Service to modernize their data to reflect existing road easements that provide the public with permanent, legal access across private lands.
It was at this point we discovered that many of the easement records were only kept in paper files at the back of dusty filing cabinets—at the time, the Forest Service and BLM had an estimated 50,000 recorded easements that were not available to the public in geospatial form. The average hunter or angler wouldn’t have known about these public access areas unless they’d walked into a field office to ask, and the agencies would have had trouble prioritizing future easements and land acquisition if this data was not all in one place.
TRCP Today: This year, at the urging of thousands of TRCP members, Congress passed the MAPLand Act—with unanimous support in the Senate—and President Joe Biden signed it into law on April 29. TRCP is presently working with members of Congress to fully fund MAPLand implementation, which includes digitizing and making publicly available information about public access, within a four-year period.
These bipartisan victories reflect the efforts of the entire hunting, fishing, and conservation community—no one group can take the credit. Where TRCP played an important role was in convening partners at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to forecast how hunters and anglers could advocate for conservation and outdoor recreation jobs, while improving habitat and public lands that were seeing an uptick in visitation during lockdowns. The result was our Conservation Works for America campaign, which outlined recommendations that were taken up in the IIJA and other major funding vehicles. It’s just the kind of victory Jim Range knew was possible if our community could work together.
Thank you for being here and supporting the TRCP, whether you discovered us this year or 20 years ago! We cannot do what we do for fish, wildlife, and hunting and fishing opportunities without the efforts of individual sportsmen and sportswomen who are committed to healthy habitats and safeguarding outdoor recreation access for the next generation. YOU are our inspiration.
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.