fbpx
Madeleine West

October 11, 2022

Half of Sagebrush Ecosystem Has Been Lost, According to Report

Federal agencies announce new strategy for conserving iconic habitat 

A new U.S. Geological Survey report shows that half of the original sagebrush ecosystem has been lost at a rate of approximately 1.3 million acres each year in the last two decades. 

The sagebrush ecosystem is the largest terrestrial biome in the Lower 48 at over 165 million acres spanning 13 Western states. It is home, of course, to the iconic greater sage grouse, a species that has driven unprecedented collaboration between state and federal managers for multiple decades, and yet sage grouse populations continue to decline 

Sagebrush habitat also supports ranching, an important sector of the Western economy, and 350 species besides sage grouse. Many of these—like mule deer, pronghorn, and other grouse species—are important to sportsmen and sportswomen. In fact, the rapid decline of this ecosystem should resonate with anyone seeking hunting opportunities across the West, not just grouse hunters. Here’s just one example of the impact on big game in Southern Oregon.  

The report finds that the decline in sagebrush habitat is both ecosystem- and human-driven. Causes include events like more frequent and intense wildfires, the spread of invasive annual grasses that fill in after fires have passed through, and the encroachment of conifers into the shrub-steppe landscape, which reduces the amount of forage available to support wildlife. But a quarter of the impact on the ecosystem is attributed to urban development, suburban sprawl, and energy extraction—all activities that reduce the quality of habitat.  

Significantly, the report also maps out 33 million acres of remaining high-quality, intact sagebrush habitat, termed “core areas.” And the authors suggest that the highest priority for preventing future declines to the ecosystem, as a whole, is to invest in the conservation and preservation of this remaining 33 million acres.  

Continued efforts to prevent degradation, whether from the spread of invasive weeds or human development, in these core areas will slow habitat declines at a broad scale and should be the top priority. But the report also calls for revamping another 84 million acres termed “growth opportunity areas”—lower quality habitat that the researchers say could be restored to higher functionality through revegetation, conifer removal, spraying of weeds, and other activities to bolster core habitat.  

Investing in these tactics that keep the remaining high-quality habitat intact and functional, and improve marginal habitat to a high quality, will be most effective at reducing the ecosystem’s overall decline.  

These findings are somewhat of a game changer, because up to now, state, federal, and local agencies and nonprofits have targeted restoration of the most degraded lands in the hopes of retaining more sagebrush. But the success rates of restoring low-quality sagebrush vary.  By recommending the maintenance of core habitat first, this report  sets a new standard by which investments can be made in conservation and restoration to make a difference across a large swath of the American West.  

These recommendations come at a critical time: Federal agencies are now deciding how to spend once-in-a-generation investments in infrastructure and climate change solutions, and efforts to maintain sagebrush habitats and support increased biodiversity and resiliency fit the bill. Congress is also debating additional proposals that would support local investment in restoration of sagebrush and grassland habitats, like the North American Grasslands Act.  

The time is now to increase investment in conservation and restoration actions, and the need is great. This report demonstrates how such investments can have a real and meaningful impact on a vast ecosystem that provides for so many species and is such an integral part of Western life.  

Learn more about the impact on sage grouse by watching this excellent Eastmans’ film and taking action using TRCP’s simple advocacy tools. 

2 Responses to “Half of Sagebrush Ecosystem Has Been Lost, According to Report”

  1. Steve Smith

    I continue to read varying reports on sage grouse population. I read recently that the population has stabilized in Wyoming. Why is this? Do State agencies talk to one another? Share best practices?

Do you have any thoughts on this post?

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Comments must be under 1000 characters.

Andrew Earl

October 6, 2022

New Poll Finds Overwhelming Support for Better CWD Management

88% of Americans polled support additional federal investments in chronic wasting disease management and surveillance 

One of the greatest challenges we face in addressing the spread of chronic wasting disease is communicating urgency around such a complex issue that affects people in so many ways. Hunters and non-hunters, the old and the young, and rural folks and city dwellers all have something at stake when it comes to this disease’s impact on wildlife and the outdoors. 

Now, we know a little more about Americans’ breadth of understanding of the CWD threat and how much support there is for solutions. 

In a recent poll of 800 random voters from across the U.S., an overwhelming 94 percent said that the presence of wildlife was important to their quality of life, and 92 percent believe wildlife is important to their state’s economy. It’s no surprise, then, that hunters and non-hunters strongly support action on CWD:  

  • 88 percent support additional federal investment in CWD management at the state level. 
  • 93 percent support increasing the disease detection standards required of captive cervid operations if they are to be accredited as “low-risk” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. 
  • 90 percent support limiting the movement of live, captive deer between facilities to lower the possibility of disease spread—and half of this group said they strongly support such action. 

In total, 96 percent of respondents support their states taking action to curb the spread of CWD across the landscape.  

The poll was conducted on behalf of the TRCP and National Deer Association. Both organizations have been working for years to educate the public about the impacts of chronic wasting disease on deer, give hunters the tools to prevent CWD transmission, and alert lawmakers to the fact that the rampant spread of CWD threatens the future of wild deer and deer hunting in North America. 

Currently, the federal government sends $10 million in funding to state and Tribal agencies for CWD management through cooperative agreements with the USDA each year, and invests $2 million annually in CWD research at the National Wildlife Research Center. Unfortunately, this doesn’t come close to addressing the urgent need on the landscape. The CWD Research and Management Act, if passed by the Senate this year, would increase the overall investment to $70 million annually through fiscal year 2028 and evenly split funding between CWD management and research priorities.  

Increasing these oversubscribed funds is the most immediate way that Congress can impact disease spread on the landscape. But the Biden Administration should also look at these poll findings and realize that it is time to examine and reform the existing Herd Certification Program for captive deer operations. Participation in the voluntary HCP continues to slide, and the disease is being detected more and more often at certified facilities. Without action, the problem’s scope and cost of associated solutions will only increase. 

Learn more about chronic wasting disease and our poll by visiting TRCP’s new online resource for all things CWD 

Michael O'Casey

October 4, 2022

Planning for Big Game Population Success in Southeast Oregon

The single-most important step that can be taken to revitalize herds on the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge 

Over the previous three blogs in this series, I’ve covered the history behind the creation of the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, the role of these public lands in the recovery of bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope populations, and some of the threats facing these species and others across the Great Basin. In this final blog, we’ll dive a bit deeper into policy. 

While it’s not as thrilling or attention-grabbing as a video of a biologist flying in a helicopter to capture bighorn sheep, the rules and guidance that inform the on-the-ground management actions of federal agencies are central to how we achieve our mission to “guarantee all Americans quality places to hunt and fish.” So, hang in there as I provide details about a few policies that guide the work of the world’s first wildlife conservation agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  

Background: 

The earliest roots of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service date back to 1871 with the establishment of the United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries. Since that time, the name has changed many times, but the mission to restore and safeguard fish, wildlife, and their habitats has remained constant. The nation’s first national wildlife refuge was established by President Theodore Roosevelt on Pelican Island, Florida, in 1903. Since that time, the National Wildlife Refuge System has expanded to include 567 refuges on more than 100 million acres across the country. 

Many laws and regulations have been created since the first refuge in 1903, but two acts of Congress in particular form the basis for today’s refuge mandates and management tactics. The first piece of comprehensive legislation was the National Wildlife System Administration Act of 1966. This law formally established the National Wildlife Refuge System, provided new refuge guidance, and—perhaps most importantly—required that activities on any given refuge must be ‘compatible’ with its established purpose. It also identified six priority public uses on national wildlife refuges: hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, photography, interpretation, and environmental education. 

In 1997, Congress passed a significant amendment to the Administration Act, the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act, which further strengthened the underlying philosophy that “wildlife comes first” on refuges. Among its key provisions is a requirement that every national wildlife refuge develop a comprehensive conservation plan and revise it every 15 years.  

Comprehensive conservation plans ensure that each refuge unit is managed to fulfill the purposes for which it was established. They describe the desired future conditions of a refuge and provide long-term guidance and management direction to maximize the quality of fish and wildlife habitat. While the ecological and biological sciences serve as the foundation of each CCP, the process of developing and revising these documents relies on public participation and input from local community members such as business owners, hunters, anglers, wildlife enthusiasts, and more.  

How does a CCP matter to Hart Mountain: 

In 2012, the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge initiated a planning process to revise its CCP, which would have created the opportunity to ensure that the refuge’s management plan incorporated the best-available science and addressed its most pressing challenges. As I’ve detailed in prior blogs, big game populations on the refuge face a number of significant threats that require active management. Climate change, diminished habitat quality, increased recreational use, and mountain lion predation are all factors that affect Hart Mountain’s legacy of conservation success. Unfortunately, the planning process was put on hold in 2016 before a new plan could be completed and as a result the refuge is still being managed under the 1994 CCP, which is now 28 years old and long obsolete. 

The TRCP and its partners appreciate the work of the Fish and Wildlife Service in completing the recently finalized Bighorn Sheep Management Plan for Hart Mountain that aims to reverse a rapidly declining population. Now, the refuge needs a full CCP revision to improve habitat conditions for pronghorn, mule deer, sage grouse, and other species experiencing regional declines. Furthermore, a revised CCP should utilize the best-available science and consider additional opportunities to conserve and enhance the pronghorn antelope migration that was the basis for the creation of the refuge.  

Reinitiating a CCP planning process for Hart Mountain is the single-most important step that can be taken for healthy habitats and robust wildlife populations on these public lands. Big game herds on the refuge offer sportsmen and sportswomen one-of-a-kind hunting opportunities that we can’t afford to lose.    

Take action today for one of the nation’s first big game refuges, the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge.  

Randall Williams

September 28, 2022

TRCP’s Webster Appointed to Hunting and Wildlife Conservation Council

Expert panel to advise key federal agencies on issues important to hunters and anglers

On September 23, in anticipation of National Hunting and Fishing Day, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced 18 members of the Hunting and Wildlife Conservation Council. The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s Vice President of Western Conservation, Joel Webster was appointed as a primary member of the Council for a three-year term. The Council will meet twice annually and function to advise the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture on issues relating to wildlife and habitat conservation.

“I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to contribute to the interests of hunters, anglers, and wildlife habitat by serving on the Hunting and Wildlife Conservation Council,” said Joel Webster, TRCP Vice President of Western Conservation. “From conserving big game migration corridors on BLM and Forest Service lands to expanding hunting and fishing access on National Wildlife Refuges, I’m excited to roll up my sleeves alongside other Council members help our federal agencies create a better future for American sportsmen and sportswomen.”

New Study Shows 40% of Colorado’s Most Important Elk Habitat Is Affected by Recreational Trail Use

Geospatial analysis shows extent of overlap and highlights opportunities for responsible recreation management

Today, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership revealed a new analysis showing that 40 percent of the most important Colorado elk habitat is affected by trail use and proposed sensible management options to facilitate sustainable recreation and enduring conservation of Colorado’s big game animals.

“This analysis is meant to facilitate conversation and provide useful information so that land managers and outdoor recreationists can more effectively conserve iconic big game species like elk, while also enjoying high-quality recreation opportunities,” said Liz Rose, the Colorado field representative for TRCP. “Outdoor recreation is a cornerstone of Colorado’s economy and central to the identity of our state, and this is one of the reasons why science-based management of our natural resources—wildlife among them—is so critical.”

The analysis unveiled today is informed by a growing body of research showing the degree to which different types of recreational trail use displace elk from otherwise suitable habitat. This information, utilized in conjunction with data representing motorized and non-motorized trails from the COTREX database, suggests that more than 8 million acres of Colorado’s most important elk habitats could be considered avoidance areas for elk, given their well-documented flight response to recreationists.

Displaced elk could face population declines, and this means fewer opportunities for hunters and wildlife watchers alike. You can view a summary of this analysis and maps depicting its findings here and read why this data is important to sportsmen and sportswomen here.

To ensure that important habitats remain connected and usable for elk and other big game animals, the TRCP has proposed the following:
• Avoid the highest-priority elk habitats when planning recreation infrastructure, wherever possible.
• Limit motorized and non-motorized road and trail use during certain times of year when elk or other big game animals are present, if avoiding important habitat is not possible.
• Limit the density of motorized and non-motorized roads and trails in important habitats where these time-of-use restrictions aren’t practical.

The TRCP’s analysis comes one year after the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and Colorado Department of Transportation published recommendations for conserving important big game habitats and populations that highlighted the need to improve recreation planning and coordination across jurisdictions. The departments also recommended directing recreational pressure away from the most important big game habitats and maintaining low route densities in high-priority habitats.

Currently, the Colorado Bureau of Land Management is deciding whether to include recreation among those factors considered in the scope of its Big Game Resource Management Plan Amendment, which will guide land-use planning efforts to conserve big game animals like elk on public lands across the state. Sportsmen and sportswomen have been encouraging the BLM to utilize the latest science and consider all relevant factors in this process, including impacts on big game from trail-based recreation. The TRCP recently launched an online advocacy tool that allows Coloradans to message the BLM in support of these priorities

“The challenges that our wildlife face in the future will not necessarily be the same as those they faced 50 or 100 years ago, and the science is clear that trail-based recreation is having an impact in Colorado and across the western United States as record numbers of Americans are enjoying the outdoors,” said Madeleine West, director of TRCP’s Center for Public Lands. “If we can raise awareness about the issue and bring together stakeholders to work toward collaborative solutions, there’s no reason we can’t enjoy the best of both worlds in terms of doing what’s best for wildlife and providing abundant outdoor opportunities, all while growing our outdoor recreation economy.

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.

Learn More
Subscribe

You have Successfully Subscribed!

You have Successfully Subscribed!

You have Successfully Subscribed!

You have Successfully Subscribed!

You have Successfully Subscribed!