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June 9, 2022

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June 8, 2022

In a Tight Vote, Louisiana Legislators Opt Not to Consider Pogie Catch Limit

A bipartisan bill won’t go any further, but more decision-makers are beginning to question claims that the pogie industry is causing no harm to coastal fisheries or habitat

Just before Memorial Day weekend—the unofficial kickoff of summer and, for many of us, a season of sun-soaked fishing and boating—Louisiana’s Senate Natural Resources Committee killed a bill that would have, for the first time, set a catch limit on nearshore industrial menhaden harvest.

Rather than vote on the merits of House Bill 1033, which would have set a catch limit of approximately 800 million pounds in Louisiana state waters within three miles from shore, the Senate Committee voted 4-3 to defer further consideration of the legislation.

The Gulf-wide harvest of menhaden, called pogies in Louisiana, is usually about 1.2 billion pounds annually, about 90 percent of that harvest taking place off Louisiana’s coast and 70 percent of it inside the three-mile line.

H.B. 1033, championed by Lafourche Parish Representative Joe Orgeron, had a bipartisan group of 14 co-sponsors in the House. Originally, the bill called for a catch limit of about 575 million pounds, but Orgeron pledged to work with the menhaden industry to try and accommodate some of their requests for a larger harvest in years when conditions would allow it.

These concessions would have allowed the menhaden industry to harvest more fish annually than it has nearly every year since the 1980s. In the end, the industry again demonstrated that it’s not interested in any regulations at all in Louisiana.

Public support for the measure was overwhelming. So was support in the Louisiana House, which voted on April 27 to approve the measure 75-22.

Deferring the bill showed that four Senate Natural Resources Committee members continue to ignore what the public and most of their legislative colleagues understand: It’s unacceptable for two foreign-owned companies to continue to damage Louisiana’s beaches and harvest that much critical forage base—plus as much as 50 million pounds of bycatch—in state waters with virtually no management or oversight.

Representatives from Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries claimed throughout this year’s legislative session and over the last three years, as restrictions on the pogie industry have been debated, that a catch limit is unnecessary, the pogie industry is well-regulated, and it is causing no harm to coastal fisheries or habitat.

That claim is not backed by any available data or scientific studies. While stock assessments show the Gulf-wide pogie stock is healthy, there are no specific studies showing the impacts of the concentrated effort in Louisiana state waters. There are also no studies that show the industry is not harming beaches and shallow habitats where its vessels frequently make contact with the bottom.

Numerous coastal ecologists and scientists have raised concerns about habitat damage, loss of forage base, and bycatch from the industrial pogie fleet, as well as the damage to water quality caused by discharges from the boats and processing plants.

It’s hard to imagine any fishery that has no enforceable catch limit is well-managed, a point that was illustrated by State Senator Sharon Hewitt, one of three lawmakers on the committee who supported the bill’s passage.

“It doesn’t seem like you’re doing anything, really,” said Hewitt to the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries assistant secretary for fisheries, Patrick Banks, during the May 26 hearing. “I know you say you regulate because [menhaden] shows up in the statute 58 times, or something, but in terms of understanding how it affects the rest of the ecosystem or managing the amount of menhaden you take out of the Gulf, I don’t really see where you’re doing anything to manage that.”

Hewitt was pointing out the obvious. At the very least, the removal of a billion-plus pounds of pogies each year, nearly all of them from waters off Louisiana, means fewer of those fish in the water to serve their ecological function. Each time a pogie boat fishes in shallow water and disturbs the water bottom, there is damage being done to that habitat and the water quality in that area.

Each spawning-stock redfish or jack, shark, tarpon, and speckled trout that gets killed as bycatch in pogie nets—and there are hundreds of thousands killed each year—is one fewer in the water to reproduce. The latest examinations of the ecological role of pogies in the Gulf shows that pogies account for up to 20 percent of the diet of speckled trout and redfish. That number climbs to 40 percent for king and Spanish mackerel.

While that may be an oversimplification of a complicated issue, it’s the truth. There are no facts supporting the claim that the pogie industry is doing no harm. Louisiana is the only state in the entire Atlantic and Gulf basin to allow this massive, industrial reduction fishery to operate with no catch limit and with, thus far, unfettered access to ecologically sensitive, critical shallow-water habitats in coastal bays and along beaches.

It’s certainly frustrating for the TRCP, Coastal Conservation Association of Louisiana, American Sportfishing Association, Audubon, Louisiana Charterboat Association, and many others supporting this legislation to see it ultimately fail.

There are wins to count despite the bill not becoming law, however. Having Senator Hewitt and others support the bill publicly and point out the massive gaps in pogie management in the Gulf means that eyes are opening to the problems associated with this industry.

The bill’s introduction and debate throughout the legislative session gave an opportunity for a May 16 article in both the New Orleans Times Picayune and Baton Rouge Advocate newspapers illustrating how little oversight there is of Louisiana’s pogie industry. It’s arguably the most comprehensive look at the industry ever published in a Louisiana newspaper.

Efforts to rein in the pogie industry in Louisiana and across the Gulf, set catch limits, protect shallow water areas, and move toward ecological management that considers the role these fish play in the ecosystem will continue and increase in the coming years. There will be more legislation introduced, more thorough studies conducted, and the science behind the role that pogies play in feeding other fish and improving water quality will continue to evolve.

The TRCP, CCA, ASA, IGFA, Bonefish and Tarpon Trust, and many other conservation groups are just getting started in shining a light on this foreign-owned industrial fishery. The fight to conserve and properly manage fisheries resources in the Gulf does not end here.

 

Top photo courtesy of Louisiana Sea Grant via Flickr.

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May 26, 2022

New Private Land Conservation Effort Will Focus on Wildlife Corridors

USDA announces incentives for voluntary private land conservation in Wyoming’s big game migration corridors and sets the stage for scaling up across the West

Late last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced an innovative effort to conserve movement corridors used by big game animals. Through a new partnership with the state of Wyoming, the USDA will use a diverse set of Farm Bill programs and dedicated funding to support voluntary conservation of private working lands to safeguard migratory big game populations in the Cowboy State.

The announcement was made by Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation Robert Bonnie in Cody, Wyoming, at a celebration of Yellowstone National Park’s 150th anniversary. Describing this initiative as a pilot, the Department seeks to scale up this model of working with states and private landowners across the West, demonstrating the value of voluntary, locally led conservation efforts.

Wyoming was an obvious first choice for such a collaboration, given Governor Mark Gordon’s emphasis on the conservation of big game migratory corridors and other important habitat. This partnership shows a clear alignment in state and federal policy priorities, securing the endorsement of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

The pilot will utilize several USDA programs in a unique collaboration to address conservation priorities for big game habitat, such as land conversion and habitat restoration and enhancement. With this announcement, the USDA has committed an initial $15 million in investment through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Agricultural Conservation Easements Program to provide financial and technical assistance for landowners interested in restoring and protecting working lands from the threats of degradation, fragmentation, and development.

In addition, rental payments will go to producers who enroll in the Grassland Conservation Reserve Program. The Regional Conservation Partnership Program is another program that will be utilized. The Natural Resources Conservation Service will hire a dedicated staff member in Wyoming to help coordinate landowner engagement in these programs, each of which serves a unique need in addressing both habitat restoration and the long-term conservation of valuable migration corridors.

Safeguarding our migratory big game herds requires recognizing the essential role that private landowners—and working lands—play in this conservation opportunity. Meaningful and substantive engagement with landowners is necessary to ensure that elk, mule deer, and antelope can move between seasonal habitats. Sportsmen and sportswomen should applaud the USDA for its work toward these ends and encourage decisionmakers to expand the use of Farm Bill programs to conserve migration corridors across the West.

 

Photo: Wyoming Migration Initiative (Gregory Nickerson) via Flickr

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May 24, 2022

The Sheep That Started It All

This second installment of a four-part series on the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge is all about the refuge’s California bighorn sheep population. Read on to learn how these public lands became the first site for the reintroduction of this iconic species in Oregon—and the challenges bighorns face there today.

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.

Stay tuned for the next blog in this series on the refuge, where I’ll share more details about its unique habitat, ecology, and wildlife recovery challenges.

All photos: USFWS via Flickr

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May 20, 2022

Video: Restoring Longleaf Pines with the Conservation Reserve Program

How one farmer uses the Farm Bill’s most popular conservation program to benefit deer, quail, turkeys, and other species across 104 acres in Georgia

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.

Learn more about the Conservation Reserve Program and other Farm Bill conservation programs here.

 

Top photo by Justin Meissen via flickr

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