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Today, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership praised a bill—HB 877—sponsored by Representative Katie Zolnikov of Billings currently under consideration in the Montana legislature. This legislation would establish a Wildlife Accommodations and Crossings Fund of $1 million to match federal dollars for the construction of fencing and crossings on Montana roadways to reduce vehicle collisions with wildlife. The bill passed out of the House Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Committee with a bipartisan 13-6 vote on Tuesday, March 28th. HB 887 is expected to be considered by the full House later this week.
“Montana has one of the highest rates of wildlife-vehicle collisions in the nation, and that’s something we need to change,” said Scott Laird, Montana field representative with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “The TRCP greatly appreciates Representative Zolnikov’s leadership to propose and advance legislation that will help reduce vehicle and wildlife accidents on Montana roadways.”
According to a recent report from State Farm Insurance Company, Montana has the second highest number of wildlife-vehicle collisions in the United States, with 17,000 incidents reported annually. These collisions not only threaten public safety—53 people died on Montana roadways because of wildlife-vehicle collisions between 2011 and 2020—but they are expensive, with each collision costing an average of $6,617. Wildlife accommodations on public roadways (fencing and under/over passes) have been shown to reduce vehicle collisions with wildlife, saving lives and helping to prevent costly repairs.
“HB 877 would enable the Montana Department of Transportation to take full advantage of significant federal dollars,” continued Laird. “Doing so would not only reduce vehicle and wildlife accidents in Montana—it would support and conserve the migration of popular big game species valued by hunters.”
In 2021, the U.S. Congress passed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which includes a $350 million Wildlife Crossings Pilot Program, a grant program that requires no less than 60% of funds be used in rural areas. On March 1, 2023, the Montana Department of Transportation announced a Montana Wildlife & Transportation Partnership Planning Tool, which will help the agency plan future projects aimed at reducing vehicle collisions with wildlife on Montana roadways.
“If the Wildlife Accommodations and Crossings Fund is created, MDT will have resources to implement projects that make our roads safer,” concluded Laird. “We encourage the legislature to build on the momentum of the recent committee action and move this bill swiftly forward for the people and wildlife of Montana.”
Photo Credit: CSKT & MDT
The Colorado River has the well-deserved nickname of the hardest working river in America. The river’s usage is as diverse as the people and species it serves.
Thirty different Tribes and a third of the U.S. Latino population depend on the Colorado River, which flows through two countries and provides drinking water to 40 million people across seven states. Its waters provide us with power for our homes and businesses, irrigate crops that are sent all over the country, and support critical fish and wildlife habitat that power our hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation opportunities.
Currently, the Colorado River Basin is in a 23-year drought—the worst dry period in 1,200 years. With above average snowfall so far this year in portions of the basin, some have indicated that the drought is over. The truth is that we need several years of above average snow across the basin to make a substantial dent in the drought.
The news is not all bleak for the Colorado River. Recently, $4 billion in federal funds were made available to address drought impacts and support habitat restoration in the West, with the vast majority of these funds going to address the Colorado River crisis. The Bureau of Reclamation and seven states, with input from Tribes and other critical stakeholders, are also in the process of developing new strategies to manage the Colorado River system in ways that address the concerns of agricultural producers, sustain drinking water supplies, and benefit the environment.
We commend the Biden-Harris Administration for its leadership and the substantial investments it has made to tackle drought in the West, and specifically the Colorado River Basin. In February of this year, for example, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that $728 million would be spent to address Western drought and improve climate resilience.
This new funding, made possible by legislation passed in the last two years, supplements unprecedented investments to protect the stability and sustainability of the Colorado River System now and into the future. Additionally, the Department of Interior recently announced an additional $120 million to rebuild and restore units of the National wildlife Refuge system and partnering State wildlife Management Areas.
But there is more to be done. These federal investments are only a down payment on the longer-term need to address the challenges facing the Colorado River Basin. Sustained, durable investments in a broad range of adaptation strategies will be necessary.
The challenges in the Colorado River Basin serve as a reminder that we need to live as part of nature and not separate from it. If you agree, help us advocate for additional long-term solutions that will ensure the future of hunting and fishing in the Colorado River Basin. Tell Congress and Interior Secretary Haaland to build on recent commitments to conservation in the Colorado River Basin.
Hunters are still celebrating the recent passage of the Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act, which authorized a total of $70 million per year through 2028 to be split evenly between disease research and state response. But even before these dollars have hit the ground, studies on new disease detection methods are advancing.
Our partners at the National Deer Association have just highlighted three such studies that show we may soon be able to detect CWD-causing prions outside of animal tissue—including in scrapes, at feeders, and in deer feces—just a reliably as we can with tests on the lymph nodes of harvested deer.
The testing technology in all three studies is known as RT-QuIC (pronounced “R.T. Quick”), and it is different than the two laboratory methods that could be used on samples from your deer.
In the first study, a researcher from the Mississippi State University Deer Lab sampled 99 scrapes in a CWD zone in southwest Tennessee, and 55% of them tested positive for CWD prions using RT-QuIC. This is the first study to confirm CWD prions in scrapes.
The second, an ongoing study out of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Prion Research and Outreach, makes use of previous evidence that prions are effectively held by stainless steel and glass. Researchers positioned “sentinels” made of these materials around feeders in a way that deer would touch them with their noses or mouths, then swabbed the surfaces and tested the swabs using RT-QuIC.
They’re seeing preliminary success: After running tests in three states on CWD-positive captive deer herds, CWD-positive wild populations, and a healthy captive herd as a control, RT-QuIC testing found CWD prions at approximately the same prevalence rate as the known CWD-positive rate in those populations.
Finally, researchers with the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the Wildlife Futures Program have recently made the first-ever attempt to train dogs to sniff out the difference between the feces of healthy and CWD-positive deer.
Two Labrador retrievers and a Finnish spitz scent-trained in a controlled setting using samples of feces from deer in both the early and late stages of CWD infection, and in field testing these dogs alerted on eight out of 11 positive samples. They falsely alerted to negative samples, as well, but significantly more frequently on CWD-positive samples.
The CWD status of the samples was known in this case, but if dogs were to be employed in surveillance efforts in the future, RT-QuIC could be used to confirm the presence of CWD prions when a dog alerts.
This science and its implications are extremely cool, so we thought you should know about it. As NDA’s Lindsay Thomas Jr. says in his article, “Good news is scarce in the fight against chronic wasting disease,” so it’s nice to have some to share. Check out the full story at deerassociation.com.
Photo by Laura Roberts via Unsplash
This week, the Biden Administration approved a scaled-back version of a major oil project on Alaska’s North Slope. The decision to greenlight the ConocoPhillips Willow project was announced on Monday, following many months of consultation with elected officials, local communities, Alaska Native leaders, and other stakeholders.
As a non-partisan conservation organization that supports collaborative solutions to complex natural resource management issues, the TRCP team feels a responsibility to guide hunters and anglers through the heated rhetoric around this announcement. Here’s our topline assessment of the decision to approve the biggest oil field in Alaska in decades, and what it could mean for important wildlife habitat in Northwest Alaska.
Willow is currently the largest proposed oil drilling project on America’s public lands. The Bureau of Land Management estimates that the project could produce up to 576 million barrels of oil over the 30-year life of the project. At its peak, Willow could pump out up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day, or about 1.5 percent of all U.S. oil produced daily.
The Willow project would be constructed in the area known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. At more than 23 million acres, this expanse is the nation’s single largest tract of undeveloped public land. The region is home to several Alaska Native villages and provides important habitat for caribou, between 80 and 90 species of birds, and polar and grizzly bears.
The NPR-A has been reserved for oil development for many decades, and also includes directives from Congress to ensure the maximum protection of fish and wildlife habitat for Teshekpuk Lake, the Utukok River area, and other areas designated by the Secretary of the Interior. Oil production was not economically feasible until 2015, and the vast landscape has remained mostly intact and wild.
The Department of the Interior approved a scaled-down version of the Willow project, denying two of the five proposed drill sites. By reducing the project’s drill pads and surface infrastructure, the DOI is decreasing Willow’s footprint on public lands while ensuring the project remains economically viable. This balance is important because ConocoPhillips has held lease rights in the NPR-A since the late 1990s, and the leases are regarded as binding agreements. If the Interior Department had not approved Willow, the energy company could have sued the federal government and, if successful, been awarded billions in damages. Then, after a costly legal battle, ConocoPhillips could still have been allowed to drill.
Forced by a federal judge to address the flaws in the previous administration’s environmental analysis of Willow, the Bureau of Land Management and Interior used this review process to craft a solution that respects the existing leases while mitigating the project by securing additional safeguards for important habitat.
According to a statement by the Department, ConocoPhillips has agreed to surrender rights to 68,000 acres of its existing leases, mostly in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area. The reduced project scope will decrease the project’s freshwater use and potential impacts to caribou calving grounds and migration routes.
There is fairly broad political support for the project across Alaska, including among the bipartisan congressional delegation, the state legislature, and the Alaska Federation of Natives. In the North Slope region, support has been described as a “majority consensus,” although notable opposition and concern about subsistence impacts have been expressed across the region and particularly from Nuiqsut, the community closest to the proposed development.
Environmental groups and climate activists are deeply concerned about the expected greenhouse gas emissions from the project. The BLM’s analysis estimates that using the oil produced by the Willow project would result in 239 metric tons of carbon emissions, the equivalent of adding nearly two million cars to the roads each year.
The Department’s Willow decision reduces the amount of surface infrastructure within ecologically sensitive areas, such as yellow-billed loon nesting areas, caribou calving grounds, and caribou migration routes. Although scaled down, the Willow project still carries impacts to habitat, wildlife and subsistence that should be minimized. For example, the approved version of the project has 21,114 fewer acres of caribou disturbances than the project proponent’s plan. Yet even with mitigation measures in place, some unavoidable impacts to caribou would occur.
Willow would also result in 532 acres of lost wetlands, 619 acres of potential polar bear habitat disturbances, and 17,037 acres of disturbances for birds. Durable mitigation, monitoring, and enforcement will be critical to ensuring development near Willow’s drill sites is least impactful to the region’s unique wildlife resources and hunting traditions.
In tandem with the Willow decision, the Interior Department recently announced a new public process to consider additional safeguards for more than 13 million acres of important habitat within the NPR-A for grizzly and polar bears, caribou, and hundreds of thousands of migratory birds. These safeguards would be focused on the Teshekpuk Lake, Utukok Uplands, Colville River, Kasegaluk Lagoon, and Peard Bay Special Areas. The NPR-A protections would bar development from landing in the reserve near Teshekpuk Lake.
The department also plans to “complete protections of the entire U.S. Arctic Ocean from any future oil and gas leasing” by withdrawing 2.8 million acres of the Beaufort Sea from development.
Our team at the TRCP supports the transition to cleaner energy, and we know that will take some time. Domestic oil production efforts—assuming the impacts to wildlife and local residents can be minimized—can be valuable bridges while we continue to reduce the demand for fossil fuels.
While this decision is far from perfect, as few real-world outcomes are, the TRCP believes the BLM attempted to thread a needle on the Willow project in working to offset impacts with conservation gains. Now, the TRCP calls on the administration to follow through with its commitments to increasing conservation measures and subsistence safeguards in the region and to do so in a timely manner.
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