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An unfortunate discovery resulted in the author’s conservation passion
I didn’t grow up in a hunting or fishing family. However, like most kids in Montana, I spent a lot of time outdoors rock climbing, camping, floating rivers, and skiing. My mom bought me my first fishing rod and tackle box—Tweedy Bird themed, of course—which I took to Flathead Lake to catch perch in the sailboat marina while my dad cursed at the old rusty motor that never seemed to start. I tried fly fishing, and it quickly became an obsession of mine. But I never thought I would become a hunter.
In college, I spent a lot of time at my boyfriend’s house. There, his roommates frequently made nachos, steaks, burgers, lasagna, and other amazing meals from the game meat they hunted. While it was apparent that the romantic relationship wasn’t going to last, I had fallen in love with the taste of elk, mule deer, and pronghorn, and knew I needed to become a self-sufficient hunter.
After taking hunter education, I didn’t really know the next step. No one in my family or friend group donned an orange vest and headed to the mountains looking for deer. Fortunately, I was able to join the University of Montana’s Backcountry Hunters & Anglers collegiate club, which opened up so many opportunities. I attended a Hunting for Sustainability course at the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Ranch on Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, where we learned about hunting ethics, techniques, and my favorite part: how to prepare different dishes with game meat.
Through the BHA Club, I also met Mike McTee, a researcher at the MPG Ranch in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, who came and presented on the impacts of lead from spent ammunition on non-target wildlife species. I was still so new to hunting that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the concept, but fast forward a year and it would hit home.
The following hunting season I joined a family friend on a moose hunt, a once-in-a-lifetime tag for him. After two days of only spotting cow/calf pairs, he decided it was time to take a break from moose and try to help me fill my deer tag.
We drove to a Block Management Area—a great cooperative program between private landowners and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks that provides landowners compensation for offering free public hunting access to private land. After hunting up and down several drainages, we had yet to see an animal. Not even a coyote slunk through the draws. We decided to head back to the truck and try a different spot, but as we crested a coulee, a golden eagle suddenly appeared in the sagebrush in front of us.
Surprisingly, the huge raptor didn’t fly away. We could tell the eagle was alert but could also see something was wrong. The talons were clenched, and wings drooped forward. The bird was in trouble, and while I’m not a biologist, I knew enough to understand that this eagle would not survive if we left it there. Assuming the bird had been electrocuted by the power lines above us, I found the number for Wild Skies Raptor Center and called the wildlife rescue organization.
The founder, Brooke Tanner, answered the phone and instructed us on how to capture the bird and bring it safely to her center. We grabbed one of our hunting coats and slowly approached the bird. It made a feeble attempt to wobble away, then froze as we tossed the coat over the frail body. The eagle was so weak it didn’t fight back or even jostle was we scooped it up and drove to the house to place it in a dog kennel for safe transport to the rehabbers. I had never seen an eagle up close like that before, let alone held one.
After delivering the eagle to Brooke, she called me a few hours later to explain that the eagle was suffering from lead poisoning.
“Lead poisoning!?” I exclaimed. “Eagles aren’t licking lead paint off old barns!”
Brooke then reminded me of what Mike McTee had said a year prior—when a hunter shoots an animal with a lead bullet, that bullet shatters into hundreds of tiny fragments. Those fragments end up in gut piles that scavengers, like golden eagles, take as a free meal. Like me, eagles enjoy the bounty of a successful harvest, however when eagles eat gut piles seasoned with lead fragments, the poison can result in a plethora of issues, including weakness, clenched talons, muscle wasting, blindness, and death.
I was floored. I had a lead bullet chambered when I found the eagle.
Brooke also explained to me that there are alternatives to lead bullets that I should investigate. I quickly found that copper bullets don’t fragment like lead, perform at a high-level, and leave a clean gut pile for scavengers. For me, this was a no-brainer transition.
Unfortunately, the golden eagle died two days later. The raptor was too far gone when we arrived to survive chelation, the treatment used on lead-poisoned birds.
This experience led me to my current profession. I’m now the Program Director for a Wyoming-based educational initiative, Sporting Lead-Free. Our mission is to encourage the voluntary use of lead-free ammunition and fishing tackle in the field and promote the conservation ethics of our sporting communities.
As hunters, we have the responsibility not only to the animals we harvest in the field, but to what happens beyond the bullet. Making the voluntary choice to switch to lead-free ammunition when we harvest our game will not only help non-target wildlife like eagles, but also removes one more point of attack on hunting.
Visit www.sportingleadfree.org to learn more about who we are, what we do, and find resources to help you switch to sporting lead free.
PC: Hannah Leonard
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
Click here to learn how the $2.9 billion investment from the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion project will create thousands of jobs and propel our economy forward while strengthening habitat for fish and wildlife.
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.”
The legislation would invest $150 million over the next five years in the VPA-HIP, which provides grants to states and Tribes to be implemented at the local level. This increased investment was among the recommendations made by TRCP’s Agriculture and Wildlife Working Group in its “Hunter and Angler Priorities for the 2023 Farm Bill” released earlier this year.
The Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act is supported by more than 30 hunting, fishing, and conservation organizations.
“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.
Recently, I had the opportunity to engage with the mentorship cohort of Next 100 Colorado while on a conservation tour in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. Inspired by the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, the Next 100 Colorado focuses on workforce diversity across conservation and outdoor recreation, ensuring equitable access for all people, and using the outdoors to tell accurate, complex, uplifting and healing stories about Colorado lands. The mentorship cohorts are intended to provide community for underrepresented individuals in conservation as well as guidance for mentees who are within the first five years of their conservation career. The conservation trip took place on July 18-19 and consisted of five mentees and four mentors (or members) of Next 100 Colorado.
On this trip both mentors and mentees were able to learn about the complexity and history of Spanish and Mexican land grants as well as private land conservation in Southern Colorado. On a ranch tour we were able to see conservation at a landscape level as the ranch was taking significant efforts to reduce fuel loads across the semi-desert shrubland to the montane forest ecosystems. This would help ensure that the next fire on the landscape isn’t catastrophic but rather beneficial. Fire has evolved with these ecosystems and during our tour we learned how indigenous tribes utilized fire to maintain healthy forests and create quality hunting areas for themselves. We ended the trip by visiting and camping at the Great Sand Dunes National Park, which was a first for many of the participants.
The experience was tremendous. It fostered camaraderie and community amongst the group as we broke bread together, learned about new people, and shared new experiences as a team. Together, we learned that a key to making any camping trip successful is being familiar with the tent you are bringing, and if you are setting it up for the first time, try to do it in the daylight hours. We overcame this obstacle together and left with the valuable lesson that there is nothing worse than setting up a tent for the first time in the dark.
While reflecting on this trip, I have spent time thinking of all the mentors and influential individuals who chose to share their time and talents to help shape me and my journey. Those who guided me range from family members to teachers and coaches to coworkers. I can personally attest that conservation needs to lean into mentorship as it is a powerful tool for passing on knowledge, skills, and experience. As demographics shift in the U.S. it is important that our conservation community engage and provide mentorship to underserved communities so that future generations know the importance of protecting our natural resources now and for future generations to come. Currently Hispanic and Latino children make up 50% of the U.S. population 18 years old and younger and we need to be intentional in how we connect with them.
Hunting and angling mentorship is important for introducing new people to the sport and our conservation ethos. It teaches the necessary safety and ethical practices while helping develop a lifelong passion for the outdoors. National R3 programs (Recruitment, Retention, and Reactivation) exist to increase participation in hunting, shooting sports, and fishing and have a strong focus on mentorship. To date, many states and organizations have implemented similar mentoring programs to help grow the hunting community as well.
Two additional organizations that have leaned into mentorship are the Minority Outdoor Alliance and Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever. Together, they are engaging new and diverse audiences to build a multicultural upland hunting community. The Learn to Hunt experience is designed to provide opportunities for novice minority hunters to form strong authentic bonds in the field and around the campfire. These events provide knowledge, skills, and an introduction to hunting through education and interaction with instructors in a controlled setting. The desired outcome is that participants gain the confidence and support they need to further pursue their outdoor interests and stay connected well after the event.
As conservationists, let’s keep leaning into the mentorship challenge and extend the olive branch to our kids, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and greater community just as our mentors did for us. I encourage you all to participate in your state wildlife agency’s mentorship programs or take a mentorship pledge like I did this year with Pheasants Forever.
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