Sportsmen and Sportswomen Cheer BLM Decision to Conserve Bennett Hills
120,800 acres of big game winter range will be managed for the benefit of Idaho’s hunters and anglers
Idaho sportsmen and sportswomen today celebrated the Bureau of Land Management’s official move to conserve 120,800 acres of valuable big game habitat in the Bennett Hills north of Mountain Home.
The Idaho BLM state director has signed the Record of Decision for the Four Rivers Resource Management Plan, a document that will guide the agency’s management actions for more than 783,000 acres of public lands in central and western Idaho for the next two decades. Within the plan, BLM officials took action to conserve game migrations, winter ranges, and public access by creating the 120,800-acre Bennett Hills Backcountry Conservation Area.
When successfully implemented by the BLM, the Bennett Hills BCA will be managed to:
Protect and enhance public access to world-class hunting.
Conserve intact wildlife habitat, including crucial big game winter range and migratory habitats for six distinct mule deer, elk, and pronghorn herds.
Prioritize management practices that restore habitat and control noxious weeds (i.e. treat cheat grass, control conifer encroachment, and allow water developments).
Support and maintain traditional uses of the land such as ranching and hunting.
The new plan culminates roughly a decade of planning efforts by the BLM, state wildlife biologists, and the hunting community. Thirty-nine outdoor-related businesses and eight hunting and fishing organizations supported conservation measures in the Four Rivers RMP.
“The Bennett Hills are a bird hunting destination and an essential winter area for the famed King Hill mule deer hunt. It is worthy of protections that help wildlife and sportsmen,” said Brian Brooks, executive director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation.
The BLM 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.
“The Bennett Hills form key winter range for several of southern Idaho’s mule deer herds and provide local habitat for sage grouse and other upland birds,” said Ford Van Fossan, director of brand at First Lite. “As a member of Idaho’s hunting industry, First Lite is excited by efforts to conserve and enhance this critical part of the state’s natural heritage.”
“This area is prioritized by IDFG for the conservation of migratory habitats for six distinct mule deer, elk, and pronghorn herds,” said Rob Thornberry, Idaho field representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “From limited-entry big game hunting in Units 44 and 45 to the over-the-counter opportunities in Units 39 and 43, you aren’t going to find a better place to hunt mule deer than on public lands managed by the Four Rivers BLM field office.”
In addition to the conservation of the Bennett Hills, the new resource management plan will continue wildlife-friendly management in the Boise Foothills and the conservation of habitat for both long-billed curlew south of Emmett and Columbian sharp-tailed grouse near New Meadows.
“Sportsmen and sportswomen thank the BLM for these management prescriptions that will help conserve a vast suite of wildlife species, including huntable species such as mule deer, elk, chukar, and sharp-tailed grouse,” continued Thornberry.
TRCP to Engage Members in BLM Rock Springs Management Plan Comment Period
We encourage the BLM to conserve big game habitats & hunting and fishing areas
Today the Bureau of Land Management released a draft plan that—when completed—will guide land management decisions for 3.6 million acres of public lands overseen by its Rock Springs Field Office in southwest Wyoming. This area includes habitats that support the Red Desert-to-Hoback mule deer migration corridor, the longest of its kind in North America.
“The diverse landscapes of the Rock Springs Field Office contain critical winter range for migratory big game, core sage grouse habitat, and world-class hunting and fishing areas such as the Greater Little Mountain Area,” said Josh Metten, Wyoming field manager for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Wyomingites love this wild and working landscape and want to ensure that these public lands are managed so future generations may also experience their richness.”
The TRCP and partners have been involved in the Rock Springs Resource Management Plan revision efforts since scoping began in 2010. The draft RMP is an important step forward in a lengthy public process that determines how habitat, recreation, development, and other uses will be balanced in the future. This release kicks off a 90-day comment period where the public will have an opportunity to provide input on the preferred alternative and other management options developed by the Rock Springs Field Office.
“Thousands of sportspeople recreate, hunt, fish, and work on the lands that will be managed by the Rock Springs RMP, all of whom have a vested interest in the outcome of this revision,” added Metten. “TRCP is committed to working with our membership, partners, state and local governments, and other key stakeholders to facilitate a successful outcome for the Rock Springs RMP that will benefit sportspeople.”
Interactive Map Shows PA Streams Lacking the Conservation They Deserve
Explore the waterways that qualify for High Quality and Exceptional Value status but have been backlogged at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection
If you’ve been following the TRCP for a while, you’ve likely seen us call for Pennsylvania anglers to take action in support of upgrading conservation safeguards that the PA Fish and Boat Commission can provide to our best trout streams. In this process, the commission opens a public comment period every three months and anglers are outspoken in their support of bestowing Wild Trout and Class A Wild Trout stream status where waterways are eligible.
Similarly, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection develops water quality standards designed to safeguard PA streams, rivers, and lakes and give the highest possible protections to our best waters. The agency designates qualified waters as High Quality or Exceptional Value to protect and maintain clean water where it already exists.
Unfortunately, a lengthy list of PA’s top wild trout streams qualify for the highest conservation safeguards at the DEP, but the agency has failed to implement these protections. And our trout streams have waited long enough.
Explore the map to see which streams in the Delaware River watershed are currently backlogged and pending designation by the DEP.
How Did So Many Streams Get Backlogged for Designation?
Waterways can be recommended for upgraded status by the DEP, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, or the public. After streams are proposed for additional designation, an arduous assessment by the DEP then follows. In fact, the evaluation of High Quality and Exceptional Value streams often represents years, if not decades, of work and detailed water surveys.
Even after this thorough process, though, some streams have not yet been designated. (See streams marked “Qualifies for Conservation” on the map.)
Many waters being considered right now are already recognized as wild trout waters and several are recognized as Class A wild trout waters by PFBC. (See streams marked “Recommended for Conservation” on the map.)
This means that not only do these waters sustain naturally reproducing populations of trout, but several of them are among the best in the state. These waters deserve top conservation safeguards, according to one state agency, but they await assessment and designation by the other. This has resulted in a lengthy backlog and delay in commonsense protections.
Why Is It Important to Clear the Backlog of Stream Designations?
Clearing the backlog is particularly important to our state’s $58-billion outdoor recreation economy right now. These additional protections are critical to helping the state manage and protect fish populations, especially as demands on water resources continue to increase. When you consider that roughly 40 percent of streams across the state are NOT suitable for fishing, swimming, and/or drinking water, according to the DEP, it makes sense to safeguard the exceptional waterways that already meet top standards and support outdoor recreation that drives our economy.
The state just broke ground on the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion—America’s largest and most expensive habitat restoration project to date—to breathe life back into a critical Gulf Shore basin and promote long-term fishery health.
The first time I launched a boat out of Empire, La., along the Mississippi River south of New Orleans, I had just graduated from high school in 1994.
I had spent a lot of time, to that point, fishing across Louisiana’s coast, from Delacroix, east of New Orleans, to Dularge in western Terrebonne Parish, but I never had the opportunity to traverse the speckled trout and redfish paradise of the eastern Barataria Basin with its seemingly endless maze of bayous, marsh ponds, lakes, and bays between our launching spot and the Gulf of Mexico.
About a decade later, those bayous, lakes, and bays were either gone or almost totally unrecognizable, laid to waste by Hurricane Katrina’s unprecedented storm surge and land-eating ferocity. Other powerful hurricanes like Gustav, Ike, Laura, Delta, and especially 2021’s Ida, which washed away more than 100 square miles of coastal wetlands, have gouged and gashed the Barataria Basin in the 18 years since Katrina. These, along with nature’s consistent, relentless attacks and effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, have further altered the basin.
What was once eight miles of marsh between Empire and the Gulf is now open water dotted with pilings and concrete riprap where old fishing camps and natural gas canals used to be. The Barataria Basin was 700 square miles of varying coastal marshes, swamps, bays, and islands from the west bank of the river to Bayou Lafourche in 1900. More than 430 square miles of that have vanished in the last century.
On August 10, the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, federal partners, and hundreds of Louisianans gathered just north of Empire to break ground on the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion, a project designed to breathe life back into the Barataria Basin by reconnecting the Mississippi River to the marshes, bayous, islands, and ponds it originally built.
It is America’s largest, most ambitious, and most expensive habitat restoration project to date, designed to move as much as 75,000 cubic feet of sediment-laden water per second through a gate on the Mississippi River levee and a two-mile conveyance channel to mimic the connection that once existed between the river and its delta. The price tag is estimated at an astonishing $2.9 billion, almost all covered by penalties levied against BP and others for damages caused by the 2010 oil disaster including $660 million for construction from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund. Optimistically, the project is set for completion by 2028.
Thousands of years of annual floods and consistent connections between the river and the basin immediately to its west built what was once one of the world’s most productive fishery and waterfowl wintering grounds. But since that connection was cut off, beginning initially in the late 19th century to straight-line the river’s channel for ease of navigation and with levees built to control flooding, Barataria has been sinking and eroding faster than any other coastal basin in the world.
Wetland scientists, engineers, and fish and wildlife biologists have been predicting the basin’s eventual demise since the late 1800s because of efforts to disconnect the river from dozens of outlets south and west of New Orleans. Even back then, with a seemingly inexhaustible expanse of wetlands and barrier islands still present, there was an appreciation that removing the land-building sediment and the life-giving water and nutrients meant eventually the coastal habitat would vanish, taking away the fisheries and wildlife production and natural protection for coastal communities. However, the prediction was that the region and nation would both benefit so greatly from consistent navigation and flood control it would undoubtedly re-invest in the ecosystem at some point.
It took numerous devastating hurricanes, the worst oil spill in the country’s history, and the resulting fines, the Gulf lapping at the doorstep of New Orleans’ West Bank, more than 50 years of discussion, and the unweaving of bureaucracies and complex environmental laws and policies for that prediction to come true. While CPRA, federal agencies, and parish governments have invested billions in important marsh creation, ridge and barrier island restoration, and hurricane protection over the last four decades, none of those projects truly addressed the fundamental cause of the land loss like the Mid-Barataria diversion is designed to do.
While valuable, dredge-created barrier island and marsh restoration projects begin subsiding and eroding as soon as the project is finished. They are only built to withstand, at most, three decades of sinking, winds, and waves. Mid-Barataria, on the other hand, is designed for longevity as it will mimic the annual sediment slugs and wetland-sustaining water and nutrients that built the basin prior to straight-jacketing levees and jetties.
Certainly, reintroducing freshwater and sediment will change local fisheries. The Barataria Basin will become more like unlevied areas east of the river and to the west where the Atchafalaya River’s annual spring floods inundate coastal wetlands with water and sediment. While those changes have drawn harsh criticisms from commercial and even some recreational fishers, including the threat of lawsuits to try and stop the project, the narrative used by opponents that Mid-Barataria will mean the end of catching speckled trout, redfish, shrimp, crabs, and other species in the basin is simply not true. If the Barataria is to have any chance in the future of producing and sustaining the harvest of all those species, the Mississippi River must be re-connected, and the habitat rebuilt.
While the politics and the bureaucracy of diversions is complicated, the biological equation describing what’s happening in the basin is relatively easy to explain. The Mississippi River, when connected to the basin, regularly delivered sediment, water, and nutrients. That consistent engagement created a rich environment perfect for innumerable fish and animals to thrive in, but with seasonal changes based on how much freshwater was in the system. When the connection between river and marsh was cut off, the nutrients continued to leach out and feed the system as the wetlands degraded. Fisheries production exploded, but a timer had been set for eventual collapse of productivity while saltwater overtook and killed brackish and fresh marshland and swamp. At some point, there simply wouldn’t be enough marsh left to degrade.
Collapse is where we are now. Over the last 40-plus years of fishing the Barataria Basin, I can look back at too many days to count where friends and I caught trout and redfish until we didn’t want to cast any more. Literally hundreds of fish in a day. A two-person limit of 60 trout and redfish on ice by 8 a.m. wasn’t unusual. Fishing un-rivaled by anywhere in the country, the best place to catch a redfish in the world.
Until Katrina, unfortunately, we took for granted that it would always be like that. Louisiana’s current, ongoing, heated discussions over reducing trout and redfish creel limits because of productivity loss have their origins in devastating habitat loss. We just don’t have the fish we once did.
In the wake of Hurricane Ida, the Barataria Basin northeast of Grand Isle was unrecognizable. Miles and miles of marsh washed away. Communities 40 miles from the Gulf were covered in fetid mud from dying swamps, leaving residents to question how much of this loss and devastation could have been avoided if the projects to reconnect the river and sustain wetlands had been built 30 or 40 years ago instead of debated and dismissed as too costly. The longer these types of projects sit tangled in bureaucratic morass, the more habitat is lost as the costs skyrocket.
The Mid-Barataria Diversion gives Louisianans like me an opportunity to think positively about the future of our coast. Certainly, it will change the approaches we take to fishing the Barataria Basin. But it will give us a chance to experience a basin that is growing and an opportunity to see new land, gain new shorelines to cast to, and new ponds and grass beds to sustain a diverse fishery. For me, it’s a welcome change from the constant disappointment of knowing each year more and more of my home state will be lost to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the best chance we have.
Groundbreaking photo at top courtesy of Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority
Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act Introduced in the House
House Lawmakers have introduced the Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act to boost a crucial Farm Bill program that creates public hunting and fishing opportunities on private land.
The Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act of 2023 has been introduced in the House by Representative Debbie Dingell (D-Mich) and Representative Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.). This bill is a companion to the bipartisan Senate bill introduced in April by Senator Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), and Senator Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) to strengthen one of the most critical Farm Bill programs for America’s hunters and anglers: the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP). It is the only federal initiative that helps to create public hunting and fishing opportunities on private land and this new legislation calls for tripling the program’s impact. Bipartisan sponsors in both the House and Senate show the value of this program and bode well for increased investments in hunting and fishing access.
“Lack of access is the largest barrier to hunter and angler participation, and the USDA’s Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program is the single best federal tool to increase recreational access on private lands,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We applaud Representatives Dingell and Johnson for their leadership on the Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act and we look forward to working with Congress to expand hunting and fishing opportunities for all Americans.”
“Access to private lands provides valuable fishing opportunities to anglers across the country,” said Glenn Hughes, president of the American Sportfishing Association. “Since 2008, the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program has delivered crucial support to landowners to voluntarily open their lands to fishing, hunting and other outdoor recreation. The American Sportfishing Association applauds Representatives Dingell and Johnson for their support of VPA-HIP through legislation that would expand this successful program and open new waters to America’s 52.4 million anglers.”
“We greatly appreciate Representatives Dingell and Johnson introducing the House version of the VPA Improvement Act. As we entered discussions of the 2023 Farm Bill, extending and expanding the impact of VPA-HIP was one of Delta’s highest priorities,” said John Devney, chief policy officer at Delta Waterfowl. “As duck hunters across the country look for additional access, increased investments in VPA HIP can lead to new partnerships with private landowners to enhance habitat and also provide access. We hope that the effort by Representatives Dingell and Johnson will lead to a broader bi-partisan effort to include an expanded VPA-HIP in the final Farm Bill.”
“Since 2008, the Voluntary Public Access & Habitat Incentive Program has provided one of the most vital funding sources for increasing public access to private lands for hunting, fishing, and other wildlife-dependent recreation. The economic returns from investments in VPA-HIP have been shown many times over across America for rural communities. Access is at the core of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever’s mission, and we thank Representatives Dingell and Johnson for their bipartisan support for this very successful program.” – Marilyn Vetter, President and CEO, Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever.
“VPA-HIP is an incredibly important program for hunters, opening nearly one million private acres to public hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation over its lifetime,” says Torin Miller, senior director of policy for the National Deer Association. “Not surprisingly, interest and enrollment in the program is growing. The Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act of 2023 recognizes the growing interest in the program and the importance of maintaining quality hunting access across the country. The bill’s $150-million authorization will ensure expanded and continued enrollment in VPA-HIP, benefiting hunters, landowners, and local communities. The National Deer Association is proud to endorse this legislation.”
“Restoring wildlife habitat and expanding recreational access on private lands is a win-win for both wildlife and the hunters, anglers, and outdoorspeople, who power our $862 billion outdoor recreation economy,” said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “This common-sense bill will ensure farmers, ranchers, and private landowners have the tools and resources they need through the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program to sustain our shared wildlife heritage. Thank you to Representatives Dingell and Johnson and their colleagues in the Senate for working to pass this important bipartisan legislation.”
The VPA-HIP is the single best federal tool for increasing recreational access on private lands by helping states create innovative ways of incentivizing private landowners to open their lands to the public for wildlife-dependent recreation. It also has a very special place in the hearts of TRCP’s staff and supporters, as it was championed by our inspirational co-founder, Jim Range, before his untimely death. The program was established and funded through the 2008, 2014, and 2018 Farm Bills—most recently at $50 million over five years—with its impacts felt across the country.
Apart from creating more outdoor recreation access, VPA-HIP funding is also utilized to provide technical and financial assistance to landowners for wildlife habitat improvement and enhancement projects. It is often layered with other Farm Bill programs that have habitat benefits, such as Conservation Reserve Program and Wetland Reserve Easements. And the program allows states to address liability, alleviating a roadblock for many landowners to open their lands to the public.
Recent studies have shown that the VPA-HIP has a more than eight-to-one return on investment in the form of outdoor recreation spending in rural communities.
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.