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June 5, 2024

BLM Restoration Landscapes Lakeview OR

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May 29, 2024

Ensuring the Future of Sage-Grouse

Now is our best, and maybe our last, chance to act on behalf of this iconic, American bird

Each spring across the vast, but increasingly fragmented, sagebrush ecosystem, greater sage-grouse perform their ancient and elaborate mating ritual with fewer and fewer performers. As an aging biologist, I’ve been witness to the drama of the display, the loss of the bird and its habitat, as well as unprecedented efforts to conserve both.

At his 2007 Sage Grouse Summit in Casper, Wyoming, Governor Dave Freudenthal didn’t mince words, “The scientific picture is clear,” he said. “We need to roll up our sleeves and develop a plan to protect and restore core sage grouse habitat. We have a narrow window of opportunity to protect the grouse and prevent it from being listed as an endangered species.”

That statement catalyzed policy-making efforts in Wyoming, often mirrored in other states, which were then largely incorporated into range-wide plans approved by the BLM and USFS in 2015. Cumulatively, these plans—shaped with collaboration from Wyoming’s industries, non-governmental organizations, and government agencies—provided the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with the basis to determine that the greater sage-grouse was not warranted for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Unfortunately, the plans developed in 2015 were never fully implemented.

Our success or failure with greater sage-grouse will be measured by whether or not we maintain enough of the remaining sagebrush sea so that the primal, guttural sounds of strutting sage-grouse continue to punctuate the clear, cold air of spring sunrises across the West.

My 33-year career with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the last 15 years of which were as the state’s sage-grouse coordinator, meant I spent thousands of hours out in the sagebrush. Over those decades, I learned that this conservation effort, and the threats to this ecosystem, is about much more than just a single species. The problems associated with a breakdown in the health of sagebrush country resulting from massive wildfires, invasive plants like cheatgrass, woody species expansion, and human infrastructure and disturbance impacts all of us, here in Wyoming and across the West. These lands underpin the economies of our rural communities.

In an unsettling revelation, we’ve recently learned through satellite imagery that the West is losing 1.3 million acres of functioning sagebrush habitat every year. And because the bird depends on healthy sagebrush habitat, the range-wide population of sage-grouse has declined 80 percent since 1965 and half of that decline has happened since 2002.

But we now have an opportunity to realize a healthier future for this ecosystem. The BLM, which oversees 67 million acres of sage-grouse habitat across 10 states, is currently updating the prior plans using new science and input from its partners.

Again, the health of the sagebrush ecosystem is larger than just one species. Our collaborative conservation efforts must shift from a sage-grouse focus to a sagebrush biome focus in order to more effectively address the threats facing not only sage-grouse but the entire ecosystem and those species, including human users, reliant on it. I implore the BLM to better incorporate this concept into their decision document.

Tom Christiansen, longtime Wyoming state sage-grouse coordinator, observes a lek on an early spring morning. Photo credit: Tom Christiansen  

Also, any and all plans, including those of the states, must make a commitment to transparency and collaboration in managing the sage-grouse habitat. Open data sharing across administrative boundaries is essential in fostering an inclusive environment where scientists, policy makers, and the public can access and contribute to the ecological data that guides management decisions. This approach not only enhances the trust and cooperation among stakeholders but also strengthens the scientific basis for those decisions and provides defensible evidence of the successes and failures of management actions.

Here in Wyoming, we are lucky to still have some relatively intact landscapes that rise above others in terms of their value to sage-grouse and associated species. I support efforts to secure the most effective safeguards for these “best of the best” areas, which are resistant to impacts like invasive species and resilient in their ability to return to good habitat after an impact such as wildfire. These landscapes are the cornerstones upon which the survival of the sage-grouse depends. Irreplaceable places, such as the Golden Triangle in western Wyoming, have such high biological value that these habitats must receive the highest level of conservation.

The current proposal by the BLM to update its sage-grouse management plans is an important step forward. By focusing on strategic habitat management, implementing open data practices, and utilizing advanced adaptive management tools, we can forge a sustainable path for the sage-grouse. This approach will not only benefit the bird but also the myriad other species and human communities that rely on a healthy sagebrush ecosystem. It’s a chance to reaffirm our commitment to conserving a vital part of our natural heritage thereby ensuring that we hand these natural resources in good condition to future generations.

Historically our record is less than stellar when it comes to grouse conservation. The heath hen of the eastern coastal barrens is extinct. The highly endangered Attwater’s prairie chicken is hanging on by a thread along the Texas Gulf Coast. And lesser prairie chicken populations in the southern Great Plains are now listed as threatened or endangered. Our success or failure with greater sage-grouse will be measured by whether or not we maintain enough of the remaining sagebrush sea so that the primal, guttural sounds of strutting sage-grouse continue to punctuate the clear, cold air of spring sunrises across the West.

Tom Christiansen retired after a 33-year career with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department where he served as a regional wildlife biologist and then as the statewide sage-grouse program coordinator. Tom served on the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ Sage and Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse Technical Committee, the Rangewide Interagency Sage-Grouse Conservation Team, and the Wildfire and Invasive Species Working Group. Like sagebrush, Tom’s roots run deep in Wyoming. His family has maintained continuous residence in Wyoming since 1885.

A version of this article was published by the Casper Star Tribune.

Photo credit: USFWS  

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May 24, 2024

Legislation Update: Farm, Food, and National Security Act of 2024 

House Committee advances Farm Bill with benefits for habitat and access.

After a busy few weeks of Farm Bill proposals, House Ag Committee Chairman G.T. Thompson released a discussion draft on May 17th and formally introduced his bill on May 21st. Titled the Farm, Food, and National Security Act of 2024, Chairman Thompson’s bill represents several years of work. The Chairman and his staff, as well as Ranking Member David Scott (D-Ga.) and the rest of the Ag Committee Members, have traveled the country hearing from stakeholders, reviewed and discussed thousands of individual and coalition priorities, considered dozens of marker bills, and held several formal Committee hearings. On Thursday, May 23rd, the Committee debated this bill, proposed amendments, and ultimately advanced it to the House floor. Given the importance of the Farm Bill to hunters and anglers, and the difficulty of the task, we are excited to have a bill to review and formal committee action toward passing it. 

Before we summarize some key provisions of Chairman Thompson’s bill, there are a few important points to remember: 

Farm Bills must be bipartisan to become law. With Democrats controlling the Senate and a Republican majority in the House, bipartisanship will be essential. The details of this bill were chosen by Chairman Thompson and his staff, and although there are clearly bipartisan priorities reflected in it, it will take considerable support from outside the Chairman’s party for this bill to pass. Major sticking points include changes within the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, limitations to the Secretary of Agriculture’s authority within the Commodity Credit Corporation, and how Inflation Reduction Act conservation funding would be incorporated.  

Negotiations will continue.  Work on this Farm Bill began as soon as, or even before, the 2018 bill was signed. Although five years seems likely plenty of time to resolve differences, there is a lot of negotiation to go. The May 23rd markup was a big step, but further debate will happen as the bill moves forward to the House floor. Beyond that, Senate Ag Chairwoman Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Ranking Member Boozman (R-Ark.) are working on their own bill in the Senate. Taken together, this means that any individual provision in Chairman Thompson’s bill has a long way to go before it becomes law, and many are likely to change.  

Time’s getting short. We are in an election year, and a presidential election year at that. While this will motivate some Members of Congress to show efficacy in getting a Farm Bill done, party conferences and campaigning also compress the legislative calendar. Floor time is already becoming difficult to find, especially for large and complex bills. The months of May and June will be critical if we’re going to get a bill done.  

Farm Bill programs have a huge impact on hunters and anglers. Engaging in this bill is crucial, as policy and funding changes in this Farm Bill will impact fish and wildlife habitat and hunting and fishing access for the next five years and beyond. You can find explanations about how Farm Bill programs support hunters and anglers here. 

Keeping these dynamics in mind, let’s dig in. What exactly is in this bill? Below, we run through a few of the key elements of the proposal from Chairman Thompson. Remember here that Farm Bills cover topics as varied as nutrition support, agricultural research, trade, risk reduction, livestock disease, and more, so a comprehensive analysis of the entire bill (over 950 pages) is beyond the scope of the TRCP. We focus below on a few of the pieces we believe would have the biggest impact on habitat and access for hunters and anglers. 

The Farm, Food, and National Security Act of 2024 would: 

Reallocate Inflation Reduction Act funding for conservation programs into the Farm Bill Conservation baseline. This piece of the bill alone would be a huge win for hunters and anglers, and it has both bipartisan and bicameral support. It is also urgent, with the amount of funding available decreasing with time. There is still considerable disagreement about how this should be done, including to what extent climate mitigation remains a focus of these funds and which programs receive the bulk of the funding, but we remain hopeful that these disagreements will be resolved, and we can see the first meaningful increase to the Conservation Title in years. 

Increase funding for the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program to $150 million and provide program continuity. The Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Improvement Program is the only federal program designed to incentivize landowners to allow public hunting and fishing. The TRCP and our partners have been leading the charge to reauthorize and plus-up VPA-HIP, as was proposed in the Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act, and we are thrilled to see that Chairman Thompson’s proposal does just that. This proposal provides for the continuity of VPA-HIP, which means that in future Farm Bills we would begin in a much stronger negotiating position thanks to the program having mandatory, dedicated funding. 

Make multiple changes to the Conservation Reserve Program. The Chairman’s bill appears to include changes proposed in several CRP marker bills, including the CRP Improvement Act. On the positive side, these changes would increase rental payment rates on marginal cropland, restore cost-share for mid-contract management activities, increase incentive payments, and increase payment limitations. These taken together are significant improvements. On the negative side, this bill would reduce rental rates for CRP reenrollments, allow early cancellation of contracts, and remove some of the wildlife focus of Grassland CRP, which could be detrimental to initiatives like Working Lands for Wildlife or the Migratory Big Game Initiative.  

Support voluntary conservation easement programs. Conservation easements provide the most durable habitat protection of any Farm Bill program, and landowner demand for them has long exceeded funding by a huge margin. Chairman Thompson’s bill makes multiple positive changes to easement programs, including increased funding across the board, creating a new Forest Conservation Easement Program with mandatory funding, improving management opportunities on existing wetland easements, and increasing cost-share for Agricultural Land Easements. One drawback of this bill is the removal of Buy-Protect-Sell authority, which would hinder the ability of some of our partners to permanently protect habitat. 

Encourage a focus on wildlife migration corridors. This bill includes several sections relevant to western wildlife (including big game) migration corridor enhancement, including allowing the Secretary of Agriculture to “support the development, restoration, and maintenance of habitat connectivity and wildlife corridors” in all USDA conservation programs. It would also add language specifically including the “restoration and enhancement of wildlife habitat connectivity and wildlife migration corridors” as a priority resource concern under the Regional Conservation Partnership Program and add rangeland research, including virtual fencing, as a High Priority Research and Extension Area. These priorities reflect the intent of the Habitat Connectivity on Working Lands Act that the TRCP and partners worked with Congressman Vasquez (D-N.M.) and Congressman Zinke (R-Mont.) to develop. As noted above, shifting the focus of Grassland CRP away from corridors would run counter to these goals, and the bill would not codify the USDA’s authority leverage benefits of different programs to support farmers, ranchers, and wildlife as proposed in the Habitat Connectivity on Working Lands Act. 

There are many other pieces of this bill we will be following, and there is a long way to go before we see its impact on the ground. The TRCP thanks both House and Senate Ag Committee leadership for their work toward a bipartisan Farm Bill that supports habitat and access. 

Learn more about Farm Bill conservation programs here

Top photo by Nicholas Putz


You can help. Conservation is, and should be, a shared priority regardless of party affiliation or ideology. Congress needs to hear that this is important to you. Take action here.

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May 22, 2024

125 Pennsylvania Trout Streams That Deserve a Conservation Status Update

Anglers are again campaigning to update the designations of top Pennsylvania waterways to reflect the exceptional status of their wild trout populations and water quality

Four times each year, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission proposes streams to be added to the Class A Wild Trout and Wild Trout lists. Right now, there are 125 Class A and Wild Trout streams that represent the best of our best waters up for designation. Among those eligible for protection during this comment period include Beaver Creek and Deep Run in Monroe County and tributaries of the Delaware River and Shohola Creek in Pike County. These outstanding waters positively affect surrounding communities through increased economic activity and improve the natural, scenic, and aesthetic values of the state.

Pennsylvania sportsmen and sportswomen have a chance to influence this process and seal the deal for our best trout streams—here’s why you should take action today.

The Economic Power of Trout Waters

With 86,000 miles of streams and around 4,000 inland lakes, Pennsylvania is home to some of the best publicly accessible fishing that the East Coast has to offer, including phenomenal trout and bass fishing. With opportunities like these, it’s no wonder that 1.2 million Pennsylvanians fished their local waterways in 2020, helping contribute to the state’s $58-billion outdoor recreation economy.

Since 2010, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has worked with sportsmen and local universities to distinguish our best waters through the Unassessed Waters Program. Based on the UWP’s evaluation, stream sections that meet a set of criteria are eligible for certain protections. For example, streams that have abundant populations of wild rainbow, brown, and brook trout can be eligible for Wild Trout Stream or Class A Stream designations. Protecting these streams ensures that the outdoor recreation industry continues to thrive and that future generations can enjoy the same (or better) fishing opportunities.

Tackle shops and fishing guides are among the businesses that make up an important part of the robust outdoor recreation industry in Pennsylvania. And giving special consideration to the best wild trout streams supports these small businesses. “When I worked in the local fly shop, the Class A list provided a great reference to point people in the right direction to find trout water,” says Matthew Marran, a flyfishing guide and former fly shop worker in the Delaware River Basin. “As a guide, I depend on Class A waters to put clients on wild trout with consistency and confidence. And I’m seeing more and more people ask when booking to fish exclusively for wild trout.”

Why Does a Designation Matter?

In these cases, what’s in a name really matters: Wild Trout and Class A streams qualify for additional protections from Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, including the limitation of activities around these streams that would degrade water quality. The Wild Trout Stream title designates a water as a Coldwater Fishery and protects surrounding wetlands from development. Similarly, streams that qualify for the Class A designation get additional recognition as high-quality waters, which restricts in-stream discharges and guards against habitat degradation.

These designations from the PFBC are critical to helping the state manage and protect fish populations, especially as demands on Pennsylvania’s 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.

Fortunately, sportsmen and sportswomen understand the importance of this process. A TRCP survey found that 92 percent of Pennsylvania sportsmen and women support designating streams when they meet the right criteria.

What You Can Do to Help

Pennsylvania’s hunters and anglers have an important opportunity to conserve more critical streams. If we don’t speak up, these exceptional waterways could easily be degraded and eventually lost to pollution.

Take action now and tell the PA Fish and Boat Commission that you value these protections for clean water and fish habitat.

This blog was originally posted in November 2019 and has been updated for each quarterly public comment period. The current comment period ends on June 14, 2024.

Banner photo credit Noah Davis; other photos by Derek Eberly.

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May 21, 2024

In the Arena: Sam Maher

TRCP’s “In the Arena” series highlights the individual voices of hunters, anglers, and conservationists who, as Theodore Roosevelt so famously said, strive valiantly in the worthy cause of conservation

Sam Maher

Hometown: Houston, TX
Occupation: Wildlife Biology Ph.D. Candidate
Conservation credentials: Maher is currently spearheading the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem Antler Study to better understand the interest and influences shed antler hunting has on wildlife behavior in the GYE.

Since childhood, Sam Maher has spent time in wild places among wild creatures. This fascination and immersion in the wild has led her to pursue a doctorate in wildlife biology at the University of California at Berkley. From the American West to Botswana, Maher is interested in how wildlife agencies make measured decisions when it comes to managing land and wildlife.

Here is her story.

I was raised by two geologists who spent time in the backcountry doing research and mapping projects in Alaska, Svalbard, and the Sierra Nevada. I remember them taking us hiking and camping in the most amazing places as a kid, and I would just complain about having to walk uphill. Looking back, I am grateful for the time they spent with me outside because it’s made me more comfortable in the field and attentive to the land around me.  

I’ve never been much of a hunter or angler because those weren’t activities that were passed down in my family, and there’s a pretty steep learning curve there. But more recently, I’ve gotten to know a lot of sportsmen and women and have grown to admire the amount of skill and knowledge involved in these pursuits. Sometimes I feel like hiking and sightseeing is a passive way of moving through a landscape, but when you hunt, fish, and track, you engage with your surroundings in a such a meaningful way. Photography for me has filled that role for me in some ways. 

Participate in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem Shed Study HERE!

I spent a field season in rural Botswana doing some vegetation monitoring, and at the end of the project my advisors took us to Moremi Game Reserve in the Okavango Delta.  I was fast asleep on our first night there when I was awoken by the commotion around my tent and a high-pitched yapping sound. I was curious about what was going on, but we had been instructed not to leave during the night, so I eventually fell back asleep. In the morning, I emerged from my tent to see blood dripping from the tree above our kitchen site. It turns out that a leopard had killed an impala outside our tent, only to be accosted by a pack of hyenas, then dragged its kill into the tree above us. It was incredible to think I had been just a few yards away from all of this, snug in my sleeping bag! 

I have a running list of places that I’m just sort of fascinated by and where I’d want to spend time exploring and taking photos. Alaska is one of three states I’ve yet to visit, so that one is up there. I watched an episode of River Monsters where the Jeremy Wade fishes in Mongolia, which looks incredible. I really like the idea taking an extended pack trip out there with those hardy little Mongolian horses and hunting with golden eagles. I think what appeals to me the most is the continuity in the way communities in these extreme, isolated environments make their living and are still participating in a way of being that’s been practiced for hundreds, or even a thousand years. On the other hand, I struggle with the idea that my participation in those practices as a tourist is what would destroy that authenticity. 

“Conservation doesn’t enhance my outdoor life so much as it IS my outdoor life.”

Conservation is about making decisions on how to steward land and wildlife in such a way that the public can benefit. This seems simple but it’s really this massive objective setting endeavor where we make collective decisions about who the public is, which groups of the public we should prioritize, and which uses for the land are most important. That is extremely challenging when those objectives are at odds with another.  I’d probably say that on a personal level, conservation is about cultivating a relationship between myself and the land and its creatures and being a good steward. Conservation doesn’t enhance my outdoor life so much as it IS my outdoor life. 

An example of the complexities of conservation: elk in my study area in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem use private and working lands as habitat for much of the winter but spend summers on public land. So, do we manage for high elk populations on working lands because they can be hunted and viewed by the public, or do we need to control populations to reduce costs for producers who deal with disease risk and competition with cattle for forage? How do you even do this if there is limited private lands hunting access? I imagine a lot of people reading this have a strong opinion on that, and being involved in decision-making is the only way we can get closer to managing wildlands so that everyone’s needs are met.  

I’m doing my Ph.D. in the Bay Area, where fire, drought, and development are three of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.  I would say the fourth is a more existential question about identity and how we relate to nature as people, as well as how we relate to other people about nature. Specifically, I’m thinking about the rural-urban divide, and how a lot of urban people are in love with an idea of nature as this gentle, pristine thing that maybe doesn’t really exist. There’s a great study led by Robert Bonnie, now the Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation at USDA, that shows how conservation is this one last bipartisan issue, that urban and rural people and conservatives and liberals care about the environment equally, but that they disagree on the government’s role in stewarding it. I think recognizing that conservation is a shared priority would take us a long way.  

We live in this thrilling and terrifying time in history where everything around us is changing at breakneck speed and there’s so much uncertainty about what life is going to look like in just a decade.  Being involved in conservation and connected to the natural world feels grounding and comforting, like no matter what craziness is going on around me with AI and social media, I still have somewhere to go that is peaceful, that exists outside of the rat race. 

All photos courtesy of Sam Maher.

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CHEERS TO CONSERVATION

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.

$4 from each bag is donated to the TRCP, to help continue their efforts of safeguarding critical habitats, productive hunting grounds, and favorite fishing holes for future generations.

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