Mississippi River – USDA
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If you climb to the top of 8,017-foot Warner Peak on the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge and look west, down into the cliffs and crags that descend more than 3,000 feet to the valley floor, you will undoubtedly gain a new appreciation for the rugged habitat preferences of one of North America’s most iconic game species: the California bighorn sheep. While the refuge is best known for its namesake population of pronghorns, the long and complex history of bringing bighorns back to Oregon, and managing them, highlights the importance of this high-desert habitat to wildlife.
As any wild sheep enthusiast will tell you, Oregon is home to two native subspecies: California bighorns and Rocky Mountain bighorns. Historically, California bighorns were the most abundant and found throughout the steep, rocky country of southeast Oregon, as well as in the watersheds of the Deschutes and John Day Rivers. Oregon’s Rocky Mountain bighorns occupied the more timbered country of the Blue and Wallowa Mountains in the northeast corner of the state.
Wild sheep were an important food source for Native Americans and then, later, for settlers during the homesteading era. As Oregon’s non-Indigenous population grew, Western emigrants brought with them millions of domestic sheep, resulting in the introduction of new diseases and parasites to wild herds. Overharvest, disease, and habitat loss caused bighorn numbers to rapidly decline during the second half of the 19th century and, by 1915, the last California bighorn was extirpated from Oregon.
Decades later, the first effort to return California bighorn sheep to Oregon took place on the west face of Hart Mountain. In 1954, the Oregon State Game Commission released 20 sheep from Williams Lake, British Columbia, onto the refuge. The reintroduction was incredibly successful and for decades, the Hart Mountain Refuge was used as a source population to establish additional herds throughout southeast Oregon.
Over 600 bighorns relocated from Hart Mountain over the years produced more than 32 herds comprising a statewide population of more than 3,700 animals. Thanks to the success of the original reintroduction on Hart Mountain, the first California bighorn sheep hunting season occurred in 1965, when the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife authorized two hunts with three tags each on Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge.
The refuge’s sheep herd—and the resulting hunting opportunities—continued to grow for decades, peaking in the 1980s with a population of over 400 animals. To give an example, in 1987 the refuge offered four different hunt seasons in two separate areas. Each hunt had at least five tags, for a total of 40 tagholders entering the field that fall. Several over-170-inch, trophy-class California rams were taken over the years, making the refuge one of the best locations in the country to draw a California bighorn tag and pursue one of North America’s most highly sought-after big game species.
That same year, 87 bighorn sheep were translocated off of the refuge to augment additional herds in Southeast Oregon. Unfortunately, this highpoint was short-lived, as bighorn sheep numbers on the refuge began to steadily decline in the late 1990s. In recent years, this decline has accelerated, with the population falling to about 48 animals in 2020. There will be no bighorn sheep hunts on the refuge until the population recovers.
Wildlife biologists and agency staff from USFWS and ODFW have been working to identify the cause of these increasingly concerning declines in hopes of reversing the trend. Research has shown that long-term habitat degradation by invasive weeds and encroaching junipers, as well as climate change and high predation by cougars, are all contributing to Hart Mountain’s declining sheep population.
With these challenges in mind, the USFWS partnered with ODFW to finalize a new Bighorn Sheep Management Plan for the refuge in 2021. The new plan, which includes a combination of habitat management and predator control, was broadly supported by sportsmen groups and reflects the urgency of the situation by calling for several short-term management actions based on the best-available science, plus a longer-term management framework and monitoring strategy.
Thankfully, the new plan has shown signs of promise in the first year of implementation. During the most recent survey, lamb production and recruitment on the refuge improved for the first time in years, and the overall population has increased slightly.
The TRCP and several other hunting-based conservation organizations in Oregon are supportive of the USWFS’s multifaceted approach and believe that the new plan’s successful implementation will provide the best chance of recovery for this iconic and critical population of bighorn sheep. Sportsmen and sportswomen across Oregon are optimistic that a robust herd of California bighorns will once again thrive along the basalt cliffs atop Hart Mountain and, when numbers recover sufficiently, hope to see the return of a hunting season for these iconic species.
All photos: USFWS via Flickr
Georgia farmer Hal Avery has had 104 acres of his land enrolled in the Farm Bill’s Conservation Reserve Program since 2015, when he began restoring longleaf pine forest and its native understory of warm-season grasses to benefit wildlife and soil and water quality.
Longleaf pine forests are some of the most diverse ecosystems in North America and serve as critical habitat for bobwhite quail, wild turkeys, whitetail deer, and hundreds of other species. They are also naturally resilient to drought, extreme weather, and wildfire, while capable of storing carbon to combat climate change.
Private landowners like Hal have an important role to play in restoration efforts that boost habitat connectivity and climate change defenses one acre at a time. Watch the video to hear his story.
Top photo by Justin Meissen via flickr
On April 25, Colorado Parks and Wildlife director Dan Prenzlow was placed on administrative leave following remarks he gave at the 9th annual Colorado Parks and Wildlife Partners in the Outdoors conference in Vail. Specifically, Prenzlow recognized conference organizer Alease “Aloe” Lee, a Black woman and the CPW statewide partnership coordinator, noting that she was standing “at the back of the bus” in the room of more than 500 people.
Whether Prenzlow’s remarks were part of a pattern or merely insensitive, Governor Polis did the right thing in suspending him and launching an investigation amid charges of longstanding racism in the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.
The irony is that the remarks came at a conference designed to welcome new and diverse voices to Colorado’s outdoors. The issue of equity and inclusion in the outdoors is finally being taken seriously across the country, including in federal and state government. Colorado deserves credit for being toward the front of this effort, as evidenced by the Vail conference’s goal: “to cultivate common ground, explore best practices of partnering, and design collaborative solutions with diverse voices and stakeholders to conserve Colorado’s outdoor heritage.”
But the Vail event also shows what a slow and often difficult process this will be across the country. While we are working to help break down centuries of overt and subtle racism, many of the leaders in the conservation community are older, male, and white. I am one of those people. It is, unfortunately, not surprising that phrases like “back of the bus” are repeated without thinking about the root of the phrase and its impacts on people who were, before the civil rights movement, made to sit at the back of the bus.
The process before us will be one of intensive learning and introspection, and one that requires patience and humility. Undoubtedly, there will be more insensitive comments at public forums. We must learn what we can from these incidents, including what happened in Colorado, and take more steps toward getting it right.
What we can’t do is stop having these conversations. Some states will say that hosting a conference like Colorado’s is simply a recipe for disaster as it will expose fissures and potentially get someone fired. Such an attitude will not move conservation, or the country, in the direction we need to go.
There are things we can all do to make the journey forward go more smoothly. Training on diversity, equity, and inclusion must remain a priority for state natural resource agency leadership and staff, who regularly interact with the hunting and fishing community—and are, in fact, a critical part of the R3 work required to grow outdoor recreation’s reach. And there should be little tolerance for those who, despite such training, continue to make insensitive or racist remarks.
As we continue to embark on this journey, I ask our Black, Brown, Indigenous and other communities, who have been subjected to centuries of discrimination, to engage with us and help us do better. But ultimately, it’s the current, predominately white leadership that must embrace change. And when people show up in good faith to learn, there should be a safe space to question long-held beliefs and assumptions and understand how phrases and words impact different groups of people.
We need to get this right. TRCP’s mission is to guarantee ALL Americans quality places to hunt and fish, and we need to make sure that the conservation community reflects all the diverse voices of our great nation. That doesn’t mean that the process will be easy or quick, but it’s the right thing to do.
Top photo by Rimlight Media.
The Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee recently voted unanimously to advance the Water Resources Development Act of 2022, important two-year legislation that authorizes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to carry out flood control, improve waterways, and conduct ecosystem restoration work. Past WRDA bills have also addressed water infrastructure policy and financing.
Why WRDA Matters
The TRCP has long advocated for conservation priorities in the biennial WRDA process because it presents several opportunities to support federal investments in ecosystem restoration and natural infrastructure approaches that benefit fish and wildlife habitat.
Hunters and anglers may not know that the Corps is the primary federal manager of the nation’s water resources and plays a critical role in planning, designing, and implementing water resource projects, while protecting communities from floods and other natural hazards. The Corps’ mission area also includes ecosystem restoration, and it is a driving force behind the implementation of many largescale projects that benefit sportsmen and sportswomen, particularly in the Everglades and Mississippi River Delta.
More recent WRDAs have expanded the Corps’ focus to include implementing natural infrastructure approaches—where healthy habitat can help solve infrastructure challenges, such as restoring floodplains and coastal wetlands to reduce the vulnerability of critical infrastructure and communities to natural disasters. Wetland and riparian restoration projects provide numerous public benefits while boosting the habitat that supports sportfish, waterfowl, and other species.
So, hunters and anglers should take note as WRDA moves through Congress this year. A strong WRDA ensures that the Corps has the authorization to carry out restoration and prioritize natural infrastructure across the country.
What to Watch for in WRDA ‘22
Thanks in large part to the TRCP and our partners’ advocacy efforts, the Senate version of the Water Resources Development Act of 2022 includes several important victories for hunters and anglers as it heads for a floor vote. The bill clarifies the federal cost-share for ecosystem restoration in the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, lowers the local cost burdens for the Mississippi River Interbasin Project and the Lower Mississippi River Comprehensive Study, and would expedite a western Everglades ecosystem restoration study.
Importantly, the legislation also calls for the Corps to conduct a study evaluating the benefits of utilizing natural infrastructure approaches, such as restoring source watersheds to enhance the resilience of Western water supplies, critical water storage, and delivery infrastructure to drought and wildfire. Across the West, drought and fire are reducing the quantity of water available to fish, wildlife, agricultural producers, and residents, and degrading the quality of water as post-fire debris flows downstream.
Emerging evidence indicates that nature-based solutions, such as restoring wetland systems upstream of critical water infrastructure, can help to mitigate these impacts, but additional research and demonstration will be helpful in encouraging greater utilization of nature-based approaches. If WRDA passes with this provision, the Corps would utilize information gained from the study to further integrate nature-based approaches into Western water management in ways that benefit people and the environment.
This year’s WRDA is still only partway through the legislative process, and the TRCP will continue to look for additional opportunities to expand the use of natural infrastructure in the USACE’s work. For example, there could be a reduced cost-share on natural infrastructure projects to ensure that disadvantaged communities can access them. A holistic accounting of the benefits of natural infrastructure would enable these projects to be more competitive with (and ultimately considered over) traditional gray infrastructure.
Top photo by Bob Wick / BLM Colorado via Flickr.
Theodore Roosevelt’s experiences hunting and fishing certainly fueled his passion for conservation, but it seems that a passion for coffee may have powered his mornings. In fact, Roosevelt’s son once said that his father’s coffee cup was “more in the nature of a bathtub.” TRCP has partnered with Afuera Coffee Co. to bring together his two loves: a strong morning brew and a dedication to conservation. With your purchase, you’ll not only enjoy waking up to the rich aroma of this bolder roast—you’ll be supporting the important work of preserving hunting and fishing opportunities for all.Learn More