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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.
In a new poll of 800 random voters from across the U.S., an overwhelming majority support better management of chronic wasting disease through additional federal investments.
Across hunters and non-hunters, 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.
When it comes to CWD, the always-fatal neurodegenerative wildlife disease that affects members of the deer family, 88 percent of Americans polled support additional federal investment in CWD management at the state level. In total, 96 percent of respondents support their states taking action to curb the spread of CWD across the landscape.
The poll was conducted by New Bridge Strategy on behalf of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership 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.
“This important survey confirmed what we suspected about people’s concern about the importance of managing chronic wasting disease with 96% indicating it is extremely important,” says Torin Miller, director of policy at the NDA. “The need to support our state and federal wildlife agencies with the resources they need to make a tangible impact on slowing the spread of this 100% fatal disease couldn’t be clearer, and we’re calling on decision makers at all levels to take action.”
Currently, the federal government sends $10 million in annual funding to state and Tribal agencies for CWD management through cooperative agreements with the USDA 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 federal investment to $70 million annually through fiscal year 2028 and evenly split this funding between CWD management and research priorities.
“Increasing these oversubscribed funds is the most immediate way that Congress can impact CWD’s spread on the landscape,” says Andrew Earl, TRCP’s director of government relations. “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.”
The new poll showed extremely strong support for holding the captive deer industry accountable: 93 percent of Americans 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, and 90 percent support limiting the movement of live, captive deer between facilities to lower the possibility of disease spread.
Learn more about chronic wasting disease and the poll by visiting TRCP’s new online resource for all things CWD.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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