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The Conservation Reserve Program is one of the most effective and impactful Farm Bill conservation programs ever implemented, and recently introduced legislation has the potential to make it even better. Proposed by Senators Thune (R-S.D.) and Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the bipartisan Conservation Reserve Program Improvement Act would add landowner incentives that have the potential to boost CRP acreage and improve wildlife habitat and water quality, leading directly to more and better opportunities for hunters and anglers.
Unlike other important U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation programs, the CRP did not get a recent boost in funding.
Legislation that is introduced before the massive Farm Bill, like the CRP Improvement Act, helps hunters and anglers push for the programs that mean the most to us just as debate is heating up. Here’s what you need to know about this bill.
Introduced as part of the 1985 Farm Bill, the CRP pays farmers to retire highly erodible farmland from production. Its original goals were to reduce soil erosion and support farm income, but it quickly became clear that the CRP was just as valuable for wildlife and fisheries as it was for farmers. By returning marginal cropland to grasslands, wetlands, and forests, the CRP created millions of acres of wildlife habitat while also filtering water, sequestering carbon, and preserving biodiversity.
Despite this success, reduced rental rates, complicated application processes, and a lack of cost share flexibility has caused some landowners to avoid applying. Conservation-minded groups have worked for years to add commonsense flexibility and improved incentives to the program in ways that don’t compromise its conservation benefits. Now, the CRP Improvement Act could make some of this happen.
The new legislation continues the trend of added flexibility, targeted application, and improved outcomes in the CRP. Specifically, the CRP Improvement Act would:
The CRP Improvement Act is a great example of bipartisan legislation that builds on the success of Farm Bill conservation programs. It is being proposed at an excellent time, just as all parties gear up for the 2023 Farm Bill. There are a couple of things hunters and anglers should keep in mind, both in this bill and in upcoming Farm Bill discussions.
Adding flexibility, production value, and management incentives to the CRP is a great way to gain support from farmers and ranchers, but we have to ensure that it doesn’t reduce the CRP’s conservation value. For this bill to be successful, any haying, livestock grazing, or associated infrastructure needs to be well-planned and targeted toward conservation outcomes. The same must be true for future Farm Bill proposals.
Other tweaks to the CRP—like increased funding, more competitive rental rates, and a better application ranking process—are still needed. But this bill is a clear demonstration that across-the-aisle partnerships on commonsense legislation are still possible. We need to promote this kind of cooperation, and we should keep a close eye on upcoming proposals that would modify the Farm Bill conservation title—for better or worse. Hunters and anglers need to show a united front in support of quality habitat nationwide and supporting the CRP Improvement Act is a good start.
Photo by @NickMKE on Flickr.
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 165 million acres across 13 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.
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.
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.
The Minority Outdoor Alliance is proud to announce the recipients of its Inclusion and Unity Awards, recently presented at its 2nd Annual MOA Fest: Rue Mapp, CEO and founder of Outdoor Afro (Trailblazer Honoree); Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership; Howard Vincent, CEO of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever; Becky Humphries, CEO of the National Wild Turkey Federation; and Kris Rockwell, trustee of the S. Kent Rockwell Foundation.
Fosburgh’s award was accepted on his behalf at the event by TRCP’s director of strategic partnerships, Jared Romero.
MOA co-founders Durrell and Ashley Smith created the Inclusion and Unity Awards to recognize and honor leaders who are bold in making culture change a personal and organizational priority.
“As a society, we are navigating uncharted waters as we create a more diverse, more equitable, and more inclusive world,” says Ashley Smith, an attorney and the Minority Outdoor Alliance’s CEO. “This massive culture change will only work if it is modeled and implemented by emotionally intelligent leaders who champion the cause as not only a moral imperative but also as an essential skill set to solve the challenges of our times. It is fantastic that there is so much conversation regarding culture change, but we must begin to steer the ship from vision to action, and the leaders that we honored with these awards take up the responsibility to drive change through action and encourage their organizations to do the same.”
In the annual one-of-a-kind celebration, the Minority Outdoor Alliance welcomed all sportsmen and women to expose the joys of the sporting life to those unfamiliar with its activities. With over 3,200 acres of rolling hills, oak forests, and native grasses, ORVIS® Pursell Farms served as an incomparable venue for the weekend-long August event. Activities included a sporting clays competition, archery lessons presented by the Alabama Department of Natural Resources, wild game cooking demonstrations, fly fishing and casting clinics presented by Orvis instructors, law enforcement presentations by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resource, a scholarship presentation of $10,000 in partnership with the S. Kent Rockwell Foundation, and much more.
The Minority Outdoor Alliance’s goal is to expand the narrative of the outdoors through education, engagement, and media. The organization also strives to form a multicultural community of lifelong outdoor enthusiasts, professionals, and conservationists. By engaging in policy work, facilitating signature DEI workshops across the nation, telling stories with authentic voices, and creating pipelines for minority advancement, the Minority Outdoor Alliance intends to expand representation in the outdoors.
Smith believes that the two most important issues of our zeitgeist are DEI and conservation. “We are living in one of the most momentous times in history,” she says. “It is no coincidence that conversations regarding DEI and conserving natural resources are at the forefront of collective conversation. At this point, we must release the energy of our past and step into a future where there is an appreciation of the worth of all living beings and an appreciation of the worth of our natural world. The Minority Outdoor Alliance is a service to the world that my husband and I love to provide, because it is a solution that enables us to unite members of different communities for the cause of conservation. It is imperative that every single human being understands the urgency of caring for our natural resources and that we all learn to work together to conserve as much of the natural world as we can so that it is here for our posterity.”
The Title Sponsor for MOA Fest 2022 was Eukanuba. The festival was also supported by Georgia Power, the Orvis Company, the S. Kent Rockwell Foundation, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Pheasants Forever, REI, Beretta, the National Wildlife Turkey Federation, YETI, Georgia River Network, and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. The Minority Outdoor Alliance is grateful to all of its sponsors who share the vision of creating a more inclusive outdoor community.
Forty-six Montana landowners who provide public access to hunters through the state’s Block Management Access program are receiving new Stihl chainsaws and $200 Visa Check Cards as well as handwritten thank-you notes in an effort organized by MeatEater and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
The recipients of these thank-you packages were randomly selected from across all seven of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ regions. Funding to support the effort was raised last year by TRCP and MeatEater through the Montana Farm and Ranch Access Appreciation Sweepstakes.
“Block Management Access is one of the most important programs for hunters in our state—both resident and non-resident alike—and we wanted enrollees to know how much the everyday Montana sportsman and sportswoman appreciates their generosity,” said Ryan Callaghan, director of conservation for MeatEater. “Delivering these gift packages and thank-you notes in person allowed us to shake hands, share stories, and learn more about the experiences of ranchers and other landowners who offer access to the public. Those types of face-to-face conversations have historically been a key part of the relationship between the hunting and landowner communities in our state.”
The entire statewide Block Management program provides approximately 600,000 hunter days each year on around 7 million acres of private land. Whether these properties are enrolled in Type 1 (reservations required) or Type 2 (self-administered access) Block Management, they provide outstanding opportunities for the general public to pursue a variety of species, particularly in areas where public land access may be limited.
Participation in the program by private landowners is entirely voluntary and determined on an annual basis. While landowners are compensated by the state primarily through per-hunter-day impact payments, those amounts are capped and far less than the rates that could be charged if a property owner decided to instead lease access to an individual or outfitter.
“The success of Montana’s Block Management Program relies on landowners across the state who provide excellent opportunities for hunters. We know access improves when landowners feel respected and appreciated for the access they provide. I’m grateful to the many hunters who stepped up through this campaign to show their appreciation to the block management cooperators,” said FWP Director Hank Worsech.
“Access is foremost among the challenges that face hunters across the country, and voluntary programs that open private property to sportsmen and sportswomen are critically important,” said Joel Webster, vice president of Western conservation for the TRCP. “Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ Block Management Access provides high quality opportunities all across our state, and we thought this would be a meaningful way to show how much the program means to the public and how much we appreciate the willingness of landowners to participate in it.”
Interviews with select landowners who received thank-you packages can be heard on Episode 171 of the “Cal’s Week in Review” podcast.
Theodore Roosevelt’s experiences hunting and fishing certainly fueled his passion for conservation, but it seems that a passion for coffee may have powered his mornings. In fact, Roosevelt’s son once said that his father’s coffee cup was “more in the nature of a bathtub.” TRCP has partnered with Afuera Coffee Co. to bring together his two loves: a strong morning brew and a dedication to conservation. With your purchase, you’ll not only enjoy waking up to the rich aroma of this bolder roast—you’ll be supporting the important work of preserving hunting and fishing opportunities for all.Learn More