Six Major Investments in Conservation Announced This Spring
An influx of conservation funding will have an impact from our nation’s streams and migration corridors to imperiled grasslands and waterfowl habitats
After years of advocating for stronger funding of fish and wildlife habitat improvements, it’s an exciting time for sportsmen and sportswomen—these dollars are beginning to hit the ground and have an impact where we hunt and fish.
In 2021 and 2022, our community played a critical role in ensuring that once-in-a-generation investments in our nation’s infrastructure and climate response also create more quality places to enjoy the outdoors. We pushed for projects that have layered benefits, including stronger fish and wildlife populations, better habitat connectivity, more climate resilience, and safeguards for communities that face increasingly intense flooding, drought, and wildfire.
Now, federal agencies are rolling out their plans to address top-priority projects using these and other funds. Here are six major investments that hunters and anglers should know about.
More Than $13 Million for Migration Routes
Most recently, the deputy secretary of the Interior announced a plan detailing how $4 million in grants and $9.2 million in matching funds will power 13 projects that conserve key migration paths and other habitat important to pronghorns, elk, and mule deer across nine states. According to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which administers the grants, these projects will create new easements, improve 890 miles of fencing to encourage animal movement, improve management of 900,000+ acres of rangeland, treat 13,000 acres for invasive plants, and restore more than 200,000 acres of public, private, and tribal lands.
98 Forest Service Projects to Boost Access and Habitat
Strategic Distribution of Duck Stamp and NAWCA Funds
Beyond investments driven by recent infrastructure and climate legislation, funds have also been released for longstanding conservation programs that are well known with hunters. In April, the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission approved more than $146 million to help conserve or restore 242,000 acres of wetlands and uplands. This includes $50.9 million in North American Wetlands Conservation Act grants that will be matched by more than $73.4 million in partner funds. (Good to know: NAWCA has had a proven impact on waterfowl populations since 1989 and serves as the model for the new North American Grasslands Conservation Act, which would empower private landowners to improve native prairies and sagebrush habitat.) Another $21.7 million from the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund—drawn primarily from the sale of Duck Stamps—will conserve and expand five national wildlife refuges across four states, enhancing public hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation access.
39 Projects to Restore River Connectivity
In April, the Department of the Interior unveiled a $35-million investment for fish passage projects in 22 states that will address outdated or obsolete dams, culverts, levees, and other barriers fragmenting rivers and streams. It is one piece of a $3-billion commitment to improving aquatic habitat connectivity using funds authorized by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act. In a statement, the department described the locally led, collaborative development of each of the nearly 40 projects, nine of which will be implemented by Tribes. Atlantic salmon, American shad, Pacific salmon and steelhead, and other fish species will benefit.
Millions to Boost Irreplaceable Waterfowl Habitat
Interior also announced in March that it will invest $23 million in landscape-scale conservation and restoration in the Prairie Pothole Region as part of its plan for $120 million in new conservation funding authorized by legislation in 2022. This investment will prevent habitat loss in an area that supports more than half of North America’s waterfowl. DOI’s plan also includes $20 million for projects in the Lower Mississippi River Valley and $10 million for habitat restoration in the Upper Mississippi and Illinois River. Taken together, these three pots of funding signal a significant investment in the health of the river and the Central and Mississippi flyways. We covered this in more detail here.
Nearly $1B for Private Lands Habitat
The administration announced in mid-February that $850 million from last year’s Inflation Reduction Act will be distributed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help fund oversubscribed private land conservation programs at the Natural Resources Conservation Service. These dollars will benefit fish, wildlife, habitat connectivity, and hunting and fishing opportunities in rural America by supporting a diverse range of voluntary activities that also boost climate resilience, such as planting filter strips and grassed waterways, improving grazing management, and restoring wetlands. We covered this in more detail here.
BLM Proposes Near-Final Plan for Key Idaho Winter Ranges
Big game habitat and hunting areas to benefit in proposed Four Rivers RMP
Idaho sportsmen and sportswomen applaud the Bureau of Land Management for taking a vital step toward completing a revision of the Four Rivers Resource Management Plan, a move that will conserve crucial big game migrations and winter ranges in some of Idaho’s most popular hunting units.
In today’s announcement, the BLM issued a Notice of Significant Change to the Record of Decision with modifications to the proposed plan, which include increased conservation measures for elk and mule deer winter range along the Boise Front and the Bennett Hills. The BLM has reopened the draft to one final round of public comment for 30 days and is expected to issue a record of decision later this year.
“The TRCP appreciates the continued refinement of the BLM’s Four Rivers Resource Management Plan because of the benefits it will provide to wildlife habitat and our hunting opportunities,” said Rob Thornberry, Idaho field representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We will take a detailed look at the nearly completed plan and provide comments during this final opportunity.”
The Four Rivers Field Office includes Idaho Department of Fish and Game Hunting Units 39, 43, 44, and 45 in the central and western portions of the state. These popular public lands help fuel Idaho’s multi-billion-dollar outdoor recreation economy, provide important wildlife habitat, and support various traditional uses of the land.
“From the Boise Front to the Bennett Hills, you will be hard pressed to find more productive big game habitat and hunting country than the lands managed by the BLM’s Four River Field Office,” continued Thornberry. “We appreciate BLM’s increased consideration for wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities in the near final plan.”
Click here to contribute your public input on potential updates to the proposed Four Rivers Field Office Resource Management Plan.
New Striped Bass Regulations Aim to Rebuild Fish Population
Management Board took emergency action last week in response to increased mortality rates
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Management Board yesterday exercised a seldom-used emergency action intended to reduce fishing mortality in striped bass populations, with the goal of more effectively rebuilding stocks to target levels by 2029. The emergency action will implement a 31-inch maximum size limit across the entire recreational fishery, including the Chesapeake Bay and along the East Coast. Individual states are tasked with implementing the change by July 2.
The Board also initiated Addendum II to the Fishery Management Plan, which will consider more thorough management changes for 2024 using a formal public input process. The minimum size limit, bag limit, seasons, and gear restrictions for striped bass remain unchanged under the emergency action.
“The TRCP appreciates the Board taking action to increase the possibility of rebuilding the coastwide striper stock by 2029,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Active management to decrease fishing mortality, along with full consideration of the need for a healthy forage fish base and mitigation of impacts from interactions with invasive species, are all crucial elements of any plan to improve the chances of long-term stability of striped bass stocks.”
The commission’s Massachusetts delegation led the push for emergency action after population projections showed there are significant headwinds to rebuilding striped bass stocks, particularly stemming from four consecutive years of poor juvenile survival rates in the Chesapeake Bay and an increase in fishing mortality in 2022.
“The Board has signaled they are prepared to act conservatively on striped bass to ensure rebuilding,” said Mike Waine, Atlantic fisheries policy director for the American Sportfishing Association. “Hopefully taking emergency action now will pay dividends later, so we can avoid the further use of short-term changes in regulations, and instead focus on longstanding and predictable management measures to provide stability to the most important and valuable fishery in the mid-Atlantic and New England regions.”
Striped bass are extremely important to coastal communities along the Atlantic and the entire fishing economy, estimated to generate $7.8 billion annually.
The sportfishing industry values long-term fishery sustainability while allowing for reasonable recreational fishing opportunities. Sportfishing and conservation organizations continue to encourage state agencies and the ASMFC to work with industry leaders on educating the public to ensure a mid-year management change in 2023 will have the intended conservation benefits across the entire recreational fishery.
“Controlling coastwide fishing mortality is the key to rebuilding striped bass abundance to levels the public expects and deserves,” said David Sikorski, executive director of Coastal Conservation Association Maryland and Maryland’s legislative appointee to the Striped Bass Management Board. “It is also important to recognize, however, that striper recruitment issues related to successive poor spawns, coupled with an expanding blue catfish population in the Chesapeake Bay will continue to complicate the longer-term trajectory of this iconic fishery.”
“No doubt there are a lot of factors at play that drive striped bass abundance over time, but fishing mortality is the only thing we can address directly in the striped bass management plan,” said Chris Horton, senior director of fisheries policy for the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. “While the increase in recreational removals in 2022 could actually be a good sign, based on recent stock assessments and the current status of the stock given the information we have available today, it is not surprising the ASMFC is erring on the side of caution and reducing mortality without reducing access to the fishery.”
Fly fishing for the world’s most colorful salmonid along Alaska’s famed Haul Road
Thick mud flew from the truck tires and rattled against the wheel wells as I drove up northern Alaska’s vaunted Dalton Highway. Dirt-covered semi-trucks whooshed past in the opposite direction, hauling fuel tanks and heavy equipment. Other than industrial traffic, few people traveled the Haul Road. Fairbanks had just received its first snowfall of the season, and all my fellow Alaskans were rushing to complete autumn chores rather than heading out for ill-advised outdoor excursions.
The copilot on this adventure, my three-year-old black lab Dolly (named after the fish, not the singer) stared intently out the passenger window, looking for roadside grouse. Dolly and I were headed north towards the North Slope, a tundra plain extending from the northern foothills of the Brooks Range to the barren Beaufort Sea coast. The objective of the trip was to hike across the tundra to fish a pothole lake that contained wild Arctic char.
Going the Distance
October is not considered an ideal time to travel the Haul Road looking for fish to catch. Typically, snow already blankets the ground, lakes and rivers are partially frozen, and shorter daylight hours mean less time hiking and fishing. However, I was determined to catch my first wild Arctic char on a fly rod, and the North Slope was the place to do it because of the limited geographic range in Alaska where these fish are found.
We worked our way north from Fairbanks along over 400 miles of muddy, slushy road, crossing the Yukon River, passing the Arctic Circle, and stopping briefly at the Coldfoot truck stop for overpriced fuel and coffee. We then entered the foothills of the Brooks Range, and mud turned to slush and ice. Gray, angular mountains in Gates of the Arctic National Park could be seen on our left, while peaks in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge were visible on our right. Slowly ascending Atigun Pass, infamous for poor weather and slippery conditions, we crossed the Arctic Divide and entered winter. Several inches of snow covered the gray shale slopes and tundra foothills north of the range. Lines of caribou stood out across the snowy landscape, some even ambling across the road in front of us.
Driving through the Galbraith Lake area, which includes lakes that hold Arctic char, I thought about the many pressures facing these fish, and how to balance the priorities of competing user groups on these public lands. The Bureau of Land Management is currently determining the future management of 13 million acres of public lands and waters in this region. As part of the Central Yukon Resource Management Plan, hunters and anglers have an opportunity to ensure that key species like Arctic char, Dall Sheep, and caribou receive adequate habitat safeguards so future generations may continue to enjoy the same hunting and fishing traditions.
Not long after passing through the Galbraith Lake area, we reached our hopping-off point where we would begin our hike.
When selecting a lake to fish, the options overwhelmed me, but I was able to rely on a skill I learned through my job as a fisheries biologist: delving through data. Luckily, if you know where to look, historic scientific reports can give you some starting points. Armed with closely-guarded GPS coordinates, I believed I had found what I was seeking.
Loading up my pack, I started hiking out across the snowy tundra. Dolly raced back and forth over the frozen grass tussocks, not realizing we had several miles to travel. We soon left the sights and sounds of the road behind. A curious band of cow and calf caribou trotted towards us, getting within 200 yards before noticing Dolly’s wolf-like shape and beating a hasty retreat. After hours and miles of hiking, we reached our lake and set up camp. Its unfrozen waters gleamed like a chunk of obsidian framed in the ivory snow.
Iced Guides and Bunny Leeches
The next morning broke foggy and cold. We stayed in the tent until 10am, when the sun started peeping through the mist and the air temperature rose. Because I didn’t want to leave Dolly behind, I decided to fish from shore and work my way around the lake rather than troll in the packraft. The lake surface was calm and the water clear.
After about a mile circumventing the shoreline, I noticed the gravel shallows transitioned into a rocky dropoff. I cast out into the deep water, pausing every fifth retrieve to break ice out of the rod guides. I was fishing with a weighted black leech, suggested by a friend. Dolly was playing along the shoreline ahead, and we were both startled by a loud swirl about 50 feet down the bank. I caught a glimpse of two yellowish shapes cutting through the shallows to deeper water. We had found the char.
Arctic char are autumn-spawning fish, and like many salmonids, they exhibit several physical changes during their spawning period. These typically include a shift to brighter colors for both sexes and the development of a hooked jaw, or kype, in males. In the case of Arctic char, particularly those of Alaska’s North Slope, males can adopt an otherworldly orange or yellow color that undoubtedly wins them the title of most colorful salmonid. I had seen pictures of char in that sort of regalia, and I was after one of these orange “pumpkins.”
Finally seeing these fish brought on buck fever, and it took me what seemed like an eternity to break ice off my guides and sling an inelegant cast towards the area where the char had disappeared. I wasn’t sure what to expect—perhaps they were spooked and would not now bite? I didn’t have to worry. As I stripped the leech out of the deep and up into the rocky shallows, a yellow submarine was in pursuit.
I saw the flash of a white mouth open but set the hook too early. Cursing at myself, I calmed my nerves and cast to the waiting char hovering by the dropoff. Without reserve, the smaller, drabber female grabbed the leech and I set the hook. After a short but active fight, I brought her in to the rocky shore and let her rest in the shallows while I set up my camera for a self-portrait. Dolly came up and sniffed at the fish, excited by the sudden activity. I lifted the char out of the water for the photo, its bright red belly gleaming like a ruby. I placed it back in, flipped the hook out of its mouth, and it slowly finned its way out into the deep.
My hands ached from the cold water, and I warmed them on my bare neck to regain function. After allowing myself a moment of celebration, I cast the leech back out in hopes that the more brightly-colored fish would return. And here he came, chasing the fly up to the shallow shelf. But he would not strike, only follow. This repeated a couple more times until the fish grew bored and dissolved back into deeper water. Disheartened, I kept moving along the bank, hoping to find more fish.
After another half hour of fruitless casting, I decided to double back to where I’d had action. I thought about another friend who had caught North Slope char on silvery, brightly colored spoons, and this inspired me to try a different fly. With faint hope, I tied on a flashy, bright purple articulated salmon streamer. Casting out as far as I could, I stripped the fly back in and held my breath. As the fly neared the shallows, I could see the big orange male char was following it.
This time, before the streamer cleared the dropoff zone, I felt a sharp tug and set the hook. The fish of dreams was on the line. The several-pound char dove, cavorted, and pulled strongly. I took extra care to fight the fish to ensure I wouldn’t break my leader. Several times I thought he was ready to come to shore, but as his belly felt the lake’s bottom, he suddenly rushed back out into deeper water. Finally, I brought the gleaming fish into the rocky shallows.
It was a perfect, bright orange male Arctic char. The white-edged pectoral fins added an additional accent to an already-stunning fluorescent display. I took a self-timed shot holding the fish while Dolly raced back and forth on the bank, excited about the splashing but unwilling to enter the cold water. After the shutter closed, I unhooked the fish, and it shot off to join its pal in deeper water. I ran back and forth on the snowy bank to warm my body up; I was ecstatic. After years of plotting and planning, I had finally caught the Arctic char of a lifetime on a fly rod, that perfect “pumpkin spice” specimen.
Through the morning and early afternoon, I fished a nearby transition zone where the rocky shelf met a weedbed. Here, my luck continued, and I caught another half-dozen Arctic char, plus a lone lake trout, on the salmon streamer. Just after lunchtime, I felt satisfied with the day’s work and hiked back to camp. Realizing that I couldn’t improve much on a stellar day’s fishing, I decided to pack up and hike out early rather than stay one more night as planned. The goal of a Coldfoot truck stop burger loomed in my mind as Dolly frolicked through the whiteout ahead of me on our backtrail.
Essential to Happiness
The public lands extending five miles of both sides of the Haul Road—including the country we crossed on our hike, and the lake containing the char—are managed by the BLM as a critical component of our domestic oil and gas transportation system. At first blush, that may not sound like a recipe for world-class hunting and fishing opportunities.
But current restrictions on industrial mining and motorized use in the Dalton Highway Corridor help facilitate some of the wildest yet accessible backcountry fishing and hunting experiences you’ll find anywhere. Savoring the views of the craggy mountains, open tundra adorned with snow, braided creeks, and gleaming lakes, I reflected on how different this landscape might look in a few years if these public lands were opened to more intensive development activities.
The future management of 13 million acres of public land in Northern Alaska—including the Dalton Highway Corridor and the Middle Yukon and Koyukuk watersheds—is currently under review by the Bureau of Land Management. The agency is in the process of revising the Central Yukon Resource Management Plan (RMP), a process that happens roughly every 20 years. The draft plan, developed under the previous administration, recommended opening approximately 98 percent of these lands to industrial mineral development.
In response, more than 500 hunters and anglers took action and urged the BLM to expand public access for hunting, angling, and other forms of wildlife-dependent recreation in the Dalton Highway Corridor. Sportsmen and sportswomen also advocated for stronger safeguards for important caribou and Dall sheep habitat in the region.
A favorite quote from wilderness advocate Bob Marshall sprang to mind as Dolly and I crossed the expanse: “For me, and for thousands with similar inclinations, the most important passion of life is the overpowering desire to escape periodically from the clutches of a mechanistic civilization. To us the enjoyment of solitude, complete independence, and the beauty of undefiled panoramas is absolutely essential to happiness.” I hoped I’d be able to continue to visit this undegraded land of caribou and Arctic char, which to me is certainly an experience “essential to happiness.”
Kevin Fraley is a fisheries ecologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society based in Fairbanks, AK, and enjoys hunting, fishing, and rafting throughout Alaska. Click here to learn more about the research Kevin leads for WCS.
Menhaden Agreement Between Omega Protein and Virginia Falls Short
Members of the recreational fishing and conservation community focus on next steps to conserve the Bay as purse seine sector celebrates toothless memorandum of understanding
An agreement signed last week to address the impacts of industrial menhaden harvest in the Chesapeake Bay falls short of limiting real damage inflicted by the fishery on recreational fishing and broader ecosystem health, based on a collective initial assessment by a coalition of sportfishing and conservation groups.
Last Thursday, commercial purse seiners announced a voluntary agreement with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to avoid fishing in a small portion of the Chesapeake Bay, purportedly to avoid net spills near populated areas. However, the non-binding agreement is centered on the narrow goal of limiting and responding to future spill incidents, in which dead menhaden and other fish species released from nets foul area beaches, and does not address all areas within the Bay.
What the MOU does:
States that purse seiners will not fish within a half-mile of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, nor within one mile of the lower Eastern Shore and Virginia Beach regions.
States that purse seiners will not fish inside Bay waters on holidays, including Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day, nor on weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Outlines how the VMRC and purse seiners will develop a fish spill response protocol.
What the MOU does not do:
Establish any buffer in the northern portion of the Bay.
Prevent net spills outside the most populous areas of the Bay shoreline.
Create enforceable regulations of the reduction fishery.
Reduce the amount of menhaden removed from the Bay, which currently amounts to more than 100 million pounds of fish each year.
In short, the agreement does not address the concerns of Virginians regarding user conflicts and fish spills that have plagued the Bay for years.
“The menhaden MOU is a positive step, but it falls short in several ways,” says Steve Atkinson, president of the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association. “The buffer of one nautical mile does not extend to the Rappahannock River area, which is a popular spot for recreational fishing. The agreement also fails to address longstanding concerns about overharvest in the Bay.”
In December 2022, hundreds of Virginians attended a VMRC meeting to comment on a proposal by the Youngkin Administration that would have established regulations negotiated over months of stakeholder engagement. At that meeting, the VMRC agreed to instead pursue the non-binding memorandum of understanding with industrial menhaden harvester Omega Protein, which became final last week.
“While the memorandum of understanding covers a similar set of issues as the regulations put before VMRC last December, there is one big difference—enforceability,” says Mike Leonard, vice president of government affairs for the American Sportfishing Association. “Whether or not Omega Protein abides by the agreement, and we hope they do, there is still much more work to be done to lessen the harm that reduction fishing is causing to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.”
“This memorandum of understanding with a foreign-owned, industrial-scale fishing operation in the Chesapeake Bay does little to address conservation of menhaden as a vital forage fish for striped bass and other sportfish,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “While it is our sincere hope that the Commonwealth of Virginia will work to minimize user conflicts and fish spills in the Bay, this non-binding framework relies on the state’s ability to trust cosigners to abide by the rules. The reduction fishery hasn’t earned this trust.”
Last year, more than 10,000 anglers and conservationists from Virginia and up and down the East Coast signed a petition asking Gov. Youngkin to move industrial reduction fishing out of the Chesapeake Bay until science could show that the fishery was not having a negative impact on the ecosystem or the economy. The petition was delivered to Youngkin and the VMRC in October 2022.
“It is our hope that the signing of this MOU is only the first step toward increased conservation measures for this staple forage fish species,” says Chad Tokowicz, government relations manager for the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas. “As we inch toward the May openings of Maryland and Virginia’s respective striped bass seasons, it will be obvious the importance menhaden have for this keystone recreational species.”
Anglers remain engaged and anxious to see more meaningful action to safeguard menhaden, sportfish, and the Bay economy. The conservation community looks forward to working with the Youngkin Administration this September on the implementation of a menhaden study that would fill gaps in the data about the impact of the reduction fishery on Bay health and sportfish populations.
Virginia continues to be the only East Coast state allowing reduction fishing of menhaden—a practice where millions of pounds of these forage fish are turned into fishmeal, fish oil, fertilizer, or similar products—in its waters.
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.
3 Responses to “Six Major Investments in Conservation Announced This Spring”
I am pleased to hear that new funding is now available to protect the future of threatened and endangered species but more importantly their habitat. In Pierce County we face an the ongoing battkevto preserve endangered wetland habitat. Currently 83.5 acres of private land currently home to the long eared bat, spotted frog bald eagle and most importantly one of the last three habitats remaining in Wahington State, the Western Gray Squirrel. If you or another organization can assist us address these important land use changes, we would welcome any advice or assistance you may have.
I am overjoyed to hear of all this I am grateful for any part played by TRCP
If all these conservation projects actually happen, what a boon it will be for hunting, fishing, and for the natural world we all enjoy and cherish. Thanks TRCP for your role in this!