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In an important step forward for chronic wasting disease solutions today, Senators John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) introduced legislation to address a host of state and federal needs in the fight to contain CWD, which is a serious threat to the future of deer hunting in the U.S.
The Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act calls for an annual $70-million investment through fiscal year 2028 split between CWD management and research priorities.
“For years, hunters have been calling for a comprehensive legislative solution to help combat the rapid spread of chronic wasting disease, which threatens the very future of wild deer and deer hunting in America—this bill addresses multiple facets of this complex problem,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We were thrilled to see it move so quickly through the House this fall and we’re proud to see the bipartisan support this legislation already has in the Senate. Sportsmen and sportswomen look forward to working with lawmakers to see it through to the finish line, so we can support states in their ongoing response to CWD, while conducting research that will lead to better long-term solutions.”
Introduction, debate, and floor passage of the House version all occurred between October and December of last year. Since that time, hunters have been calling on senators to step up and act swiftly to send legislation to the president’s desk.
In both bills, $35 million per year for research would focus on:
Another $35 million per year for management, including surveillance and testing, would prioritize:
The bill also includes authorization for federal, state, and Tribal agencies to develop educational materials to inform the public on CWD and directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture to review its Herd Certification Program, which accredits captive operations as “low-risk” for CWD contamination but has proven inadequate to stem the spread of the disease.
Other Senators supporting the bill include Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.), and Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
Top photo courtesy of Russell Wooldridge / Maryland DNR via Flickr.
Spend any time around federal policymaking and you’ll quickly get a sense of the rhythm of legislating. To perhaps oversimplify things, Congress and the administration spar over funding levels in the spring, make the rounds to constituents during August recess, and do last-minute legislating in December.
This tempo, however, is complicated during election years. Incumbent legislators need victories to bring back to constituents in the summer and floor-time in the fall is eaten up by campaigning. If major legislation isn’t passed before August, the next opportunity is often a lame duck session in December.
So, while not the very last chance to act, the next few months will be critical to the future of some conservation solutions. Here’s what we want to see between now and early August.
The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, if enacted, would invest nearly $1.4 billion annually in state and Tribal wildlife agencies for proactive conservation of thousands of species vulnerable to listing under the Endangered Species Act and also provides funding for collaborative partnerships to voluntarily conserve habitat and recover species already listed as threatened or endangered. In short, the bill would make a generational investment in wildlife habitat conservation.
The House Natural Resources Committee passed its version of RAWA earlier this year, followed by the Senate EPW Committee earlier this month. Now, both pieces of legislation await consideration before their respective chambers. While differences between the bills remain, and negotiations over the bill’s ‘pay-for’ are ongoing, RAWA is further along than ever before and primed for floor consideration. The TRCP, our partners, and conservationists nationally continue to work with lawmakers and staff to see this landmark legislation pass.
The Water Resources Development Act authorizes water management and conservation projects at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The two-year bill is critical to water infrastructure maintenance and management in the United States, affecting not just commerce and agriculture, but also fish habitat and aquatic ecosystems.
House and Senate committees began holding hearings on the 2022 WRDA earlier this year and heard feedback on priorities for the bill in March. The TRCP and our partner groups have been working with key lawmakers in both chambers to include provisions that support natural infrastructure projects—those that use the power of habitat to solve infrastructure challenges or even replace gray infrastructure—and build climate resilience.
The House and the Senate are expected to consider and pass their own versions of the 2022 WRDA in the coming months.
With some provisions in the existing 2020 WRDA scheduled to expire in December, lawmakers will look to align the House and Senate versions as soon as possible and send a final bill to the president’s desk. For that reason, it’s vital that the TRCP and our partner groups continue to be engaged and ensure that conservation measures remain in the final bill.
In late 2021, the Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act was introduced in the House of Representatives by Reps Ron Kind and Glenn Thompson and was quickly passed by an overwhelming margin (393-33)—but we still need the Senate to act. The TRCP and partner organizations focused on wild deer and deer hunting are actively working with a bipartisan group of senators to bring forth the bill’s introduction in that chamber.
If enacted, the bill would provide $35 million annually to state agencies for CWD suppression and an additional $35 million for research into the disease and management techniques. We look forward to the bill’s introduction and expeditious consideration in the coming months.
Importantly, the bill also directs the USDA to carry out a public review of the Herd Certification Program, which is the federal standard by which states accredit captive cervid operations as “low-risk” for CWD spread. This review is critical now more than ever, as CWD detections originating from HCP-accredited facilities increase in frequency and voluntary participation in the program continues to decline.
For the better part of two years, the TRCP and several partner groups—including Pheasants Forever, National Wildlife Federation, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and others—have been developing a first-of-its-kind national grassland conservation proposal, to enable partner-led conservation of our nation’s most imperiled habitat. In doing so, we’ve gathered feedback from state and Tribal agencies, conservation groups, land trusts, and, importantly, the broader agricultural community. The biggest threat to our remaining grass and sagebrush ecosystems is development, so ensuring that the program meets the needs of farmers and ranchers is paramount to the success of the bill. Senator Wyden has agreed to lead on the legislation in the Senate, and we’re continuing to work with like-minded Republicans. We look forward to having a bipartisan bill introduced before the August recess.
Late last year, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Manchin and Ranking Member Barrasso introduced the Outdoor Recreation Act. Among the bill’s provisions is one that would direct federal land managers to consider opening lands for recreation during shoulder seasons, where appropriate. It would also direct managers to consider recreation improvements during management plan revisions and provide financial and technical assistance to “gateway” communities adjacent to federal lands.
Shortly after introduction, the committee held a hearing on the Outdoor Recreation Act along with a number of other bills aimed at improving recreation permitting, access, and infrastructure. The committee is expected to take up and approve a revised package of bills in the coming months. The TRCP, our partners, and many constituents of the broader $778-million outdoor recreation industry are excited about the opportunity to advance bipartisan recreation legislation. We’ll continue to work alongside lawmakers and committee staff to bring about its timely consideration.
The 2018 Farm Bill expires in September 2023, which is not quite as far off as it seems. With that in mind, the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have started holding hearings to review and gather feedback on the successes (and failures) of the 2018 Farm Bill.
The TRCP, through its Agriculture and Wildlife Working Group and other coalitions, is currently developing a conservation and forestry platform for the 2023 bill. We’re workshopping policy ideas and funding priorities, ground truthing them with state agencies and partners, and working with lawmakers to draft legislation. We look forward to a 2023 Farm Bill that builds on the successes of 2018, invests in conservation and forestry, and benefits fish and wildlife.
This snapshot of legislation in progress provides a glimpse of what the TRCP and our partner groups will be prioritizing on Capitol Hill in the coming months. Congress has some big opportunities ahead in 2022, and amidst it all, conservation continues to drive consensus in Washington. To track these legislative priorities along with us, sign up for TRCP’s weekly Roosevelt Report.
Top photo courtesy of the USDA via Flickr.
Anglers know that there’s a certain magic, when releasing a lively fish, in seeing the flick of its tail propel it back into a “wild” state, as if you’d momentarily held lightning in a bottle. That feeling is magnified many-fold, one might imagine, when letting go of an adult mule deer and watching her trot off toward the horizon on a blue-sky day in sagebrush country.
Needless to say, when faced with the opportunity to do just that by participating in the type of scientific research that informs our work at TRCP, I didn’t have to give it much thought before accepting the invitation. Here’s what I learned from a weekend of capturing and collaring mule deer and bighorn sheep with the University of Wyoming’s Monteith Shop.
(Check out the four-minute feature below and then scroll down to read the story and view additional video shorts from this project.)
Across the West, there’s no issue to which fresh-from-the-field data is more relevant than the challenge of safeguarding big game migration corridors and seasonal ranges. As development of all kinds sweeps across the Western landscape, transforming and fragmenting habitats at an alarming rate, unprecedented advances in the study of migratory big game animals help inform solutions to ensure these herds can access the food and cover they need throughout the year. And central to our understanding of these issues is on-the-ground, boots-in-the-mud wildlife science.
This is part of the reason I’ve long been intrigued by the work of my friend Kevin Monteith, a professor at the University of Wyoming, and was thrilled to join his team last month for a few days of working with collared bighorn sheep and mule deer.
Kevin’s team—a mixture of Master’s and doctoral students, postdoctoral fellows, and research scientists—had already been in the field for 10 days by the time I met up with them at a Wyoming Department of Game and Fish parking lot in Jackson. Each December and March, the researchers at the Monteith Shop spend three weeks capturing and collecting data from collared big game animals, timing the work to shed light on how winter has affected their physical condition. Then, in mid-May, they capture and collar that year’s offspring, gathering the first of what will be a lifetime of information provided by the study of these animals. On top of those three key periods, various other field work occupies researchers from the Monteith Shop for the rest of the summer and throughout the year.
Some of these different tracking projects have been ongoing since 2013, helping to illuminate the connections between the health and behavior of these animals and the changing landscapes on which they live. The data collected in the field amounts to a highly detailed portrait of these individual animals at a particular moment in time, and when repeated at regular intervals over a long period, it begins to tell the stories of their lives. As the years pass, the data begins to stretch across generations and the collective wealth of information illustrates population-level dynamics.
This is exactly the type of research that tells us, for example, what happens to herd numbers or fawn recruitment in the years following industrial development in a migration corridor or the fragmentation of winter habitat by a new highway.
As sportsmen and sportswomen who care about, observe, and encounter animals like mule deer and elk, it’s easy to take for granted that we know what we do about the bigger picture in terms of what will keep these populations healthy for future generations. To be sure, the most basic pieces of that puzzle are obvious—they need food, water, security, etc. But evidence showing, for example, that a specific change on the landscape will have a particular effect of a certain magnitude on a big game herd allows us to make well-informed, responsible decisions about how to manage our public lands for multiple uses over the long term.
At the day’s outset, a helicopter-based crew, which travels across the country performing this highly specialized work, tracks down the animals using the frequencies emitted by their collars. Individually, these animals are netted, then hobbled and blindfolded, before being transported to Kevin’s team, who set up staging areas in different locations throughout the day to minimize the distance traveled by each animal.
Once they arrive via helicopter, each individual animal undergoes a series of tests. Members of the team weigh each animal and measure their length, girth, and lower leg (metatarsus), while others collect blood, hair, and fecal samples. Portable ultrasound machines allow the researchers to gauge the amount of body fat remaining after a long winter, and to check each animal for pregnancy. For each pregnancy identified, the number of fetuses, as well as the width of their orbital sockets (a key indicator for their stage of development) are noted. The bighorn sheep, which are particularly susceptible to respiratory pneumonia, receive an extra test: nasal and tonsil swabs to test for infection.
Throughout the process, the animals are handled with care and their temperatures are monitored as a way of ensuring that they are not experiencing excessive physiological stress. Each animal also receives a mild pain reliever and fever reducer as a precaution. Behaviors such as vocalizations and kicks observed in the course of the process are all recorded for future reference.
After collecting all of these data, the team checks—and, when needed, replaces—the tracking collars, then marks each animal with livestock paint so that they will not be inadvertently recaptured as the day’s work continues. One finished, we release the deer at each processing site, watching as they spring forth onto the sagebrush-covered landscape, while the sheep are loaded back onto the helicopter to be released where each specific individual had been captured.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of my experience was watching the Monteith Shop team at work. With every load of animals from the helicopter, they leapt into action unprompted, moving with a care and a seriousness of purpose that never wavered throughout the process. Moments of downtime allowed plenty of laughs and smiles among the group, but a shared sense of responsibility for the welfare of each individual deer and sheep—as well as a shared understanding of each data point’s importance—meant that the whole operation hummed along methodically, efficiently, and deliberately.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve typed the phrase “the latest research tells us,” or some variation thereof, during my tenure with TRCP. That should come as no surprise: Smart conservation policy is grounded in science and derives much of its credibility from dispassionate, empirical data. But even the most objective and matter-of-fact fieldwork does little to dull the wonder of experiencing an up-close interaction with a bighorn sheep or mule deer.
Participating in the hands-on work of the Monteith Shop put into stark relief the strange familiarity, intimacy, and mystery that surrounds each encounter with the West’s big game animals and fuels my fascination with them. In that sense, it was a welcome reminder of why we do what we do at TRCP and instilled in me a greater appreciation for the tireless efforts and dedication of so many others who make our work possible.
New provisions and guidelines for public land energy leasing will conserve habitat, improve transparency, and benefit taxpayers
In November of 2021, the Department of the Interior released a report on public land oil and gas leasing that included specific recommendations for ensuring more responsible development of these critical resources. The TRCP published a blog supporting several of the report’s recommendations that would create new efficiencies in the process while also conserving quality fish and wildlife habitat.
Last week, the Bureau of Land Management, the agency responsible for the leasing and development of federally owned mineral resources, announced its intent to complete the first oil and gas lease sale of the Biden Administration. Scheduled for June 2022, the upcoming sale will include several important changes to the federal leasing program.
Among other changes, the BLM will:
It is important to note that these actions by the BLM and Interior Department will not have any short-term effect on the price of gasoline. There should be no doubt that TRCP supports affordable energy for American consumers—particularly the oil and gas we rely on to power our cars and heat our homes—while also working to increase the availability of renewable energy resources as the U.S. transitions to a more climate-friendly economy. TRCP fully recognizes that the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and associated sanctions against Russia have created pain at the pump, with many consumers paying well over $4 per gallon of regular gas. But the availability of public land oil and gas leases, simply put, has no short-term bearing on the supply-and-demand curve of our energy sector.
The Interior Department’s own documents indicate that 13.9 million acres of federal minerals already under lease—more than half of the 26 million total federal acres presently leased—have not yet been developed by energy companies. Energy producers could develop these existing leases for many years into the future before the availability of public land oil and gas resources becomes an issue, and no existing policies prevent energy companies from developing their current holdings.
And while the recent BLM announcement is taking heat from both sides of the political aisle, the TRCP believes these changes are both balanced and necessary and we have advocated for them for many years. Leasing oil and gas resources in a way that involves the public, reduces impacts to sensitive habitats, and generates a fair rate of return for American taxpayers is common sense. We now hope the administration will take an equally thoughtful approach to expanding renewable energy resources in a way that takes into account these same considerations and conserves our best fish and wildlife habitat and public resources.
Top photo: USFWS 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