3_One of the first trees planted by volunteers on the property_Photo by Brenda Sieglitz (1)
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The Owyhee River begins in Northern Nevada and flows for more than 300 miles through some of the West’s wildest remaining country, forming an integral part of the sagebrush steppe landscape. According to the latest U.S. Census data, less than two people per square mile call this region home. For anyone who has spent a few nights in the river canyons or stared at the vast starry skies from the mountains and plateaus that define this place, its remote character is a defining feature.
What this region lacks in human population, it makes up for in wildlife. These canyons, encompassing more than 2.5 million acres of wilderness-quality lands, provide vital habitat for mule deer, elk, pronghorns, bighorn sheep, and more than 200 other species. Anglers catch native red-band trout in the beaver ponds of the West Little Owyhee, cast for 20-inch browns in the reach below the Owyhee dam, and introduce their kids to fishing on the abundant and easy-to-fool smallmouth bass found throughout the river basin. Hunters in the area enjoy some of the best opportunities in the West for mule deer, bighorns, antelope, and chukar.
Until recently, its distance from population centers has allowed the Owyhee country to maintain its backcountry character. Today, increasing pressures from renewable energy, mining, oil and gas, and off-highway vehicles grow with each passing decade. The recent surge of growth around Boise and the outdoor recreation industry within the area from rafters, hunters, anglers, hot springs enthusiasts, and other recreation-seekers also presents difficult management challenges. The impacts of these increasing uses, combined with invasive annual grasses, wildfire, and climate-change-fueled drought, all threaten the unique fish and wildlife habitat within the region. While sagebrush steppe habitat faces many of the same challenges across the West, these pressures are particularly acute in the Owyhee country.
Both the health of the landscape and the rural economies of the nearby communities need more resources to address these issues. Thankfully, Oregon’s congressional delegation is seeking pragmatic solutions after multiple requests from the ranching, conservation, and Tribal communities. In 2019, Senator Ron Wyden introduced a bill after a series of many stakeholder meetings that sought to find common ground for legislation that would promote the long-term health of the landscape, while providing for economic development and the continued traditional uses of public lands. Debate of and refinements to that first bill have continued since then, and in September 2022, Sen. Wyden introduced a revised Malheur Community Empowerment for the Owyhee Act (S.4860) that is now awaiting a hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
In a nutshell, S. 4860 would:
At the outset of this decision-making process, the TRCP partnered with the Oregon Hunters Association, Trout Unlimited, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, Friends of the Owyhee, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, Soul River Inc., and the Oregon Wild Sheep Foundation to form, organize, and engage a coalition of hunting- and fishing-based conservation organizations called the Owyhee Sportsmen. Since August 2019, the coalition has worked closely with the Oregon congressional delegation—especially Senator Wyden’s office—to provide input and recommendations on legislation that would improve the conservation of the region’s fish and wildlife habitat.
We continue to encourage our elected officials to work together to move S. 4860 forward in Congress. Our coalition is also focused on educating the public about the need to protect Oregon’s Owyhee canyonlands from development by highlighting the abundant opportunities the region provides for hunters, anglers, and outdoor recreators of all types.
Over the past few years, I’ve had the chance to hunt and fish together with several other members of the coalition to showcase the opportunities it provides for sportsmen and sportswomen. We were accompanied by Alpenglow Press Productions, who recently completed a film for our coalition that highlights a successful mule deer hunt in the heart of the Owyhees. We’re also finalizing a short film that tells the story of a flyfishing adventure in search of some of the Owyhee’s famous 20-inch brown trout.
There are few large areas of land and water left in the U.S. where one can get truly lost, where skies at night are completely free of artificial light, and where sportsmen and sportswomen can chase such iconic game animals, upland birds, and trout. Oregon’s Owyhee country is such a place, and we are committed to keeping it that way.
In a 2022 poll of hunters and anglers conducted for the TRCP, 19 percent saw climate change as having an impact on their ability to hunt and fish right now, while a combined 51 percent believe climate change will have some impact in the future—whether in five years, 20 years, or the next generation’s lifetime.
While not surprising, it is potentially dangerous to view climate change as a distant threat to fish and wildlife instead of a very present one. Intense storms, flooding, heatwaves, drought, and wildfires are ruining hunting and fishing conditions and access. Invasive species are pushing out native fish, while big game animals are displaying different behavior and migration patterns in reaction to weird and variable weather. Anglers are kept off the water by algal blooms or high water temperatures that threaten coldwater fisheries.
To help illustrate this, we set out to find hunters and anglers willing to share their experiences with these impacts of climate change. Here’s what we heard from you:
Changing weather patterns are recognizable, particularly to folks who have hunted or fished the same areas for a long time. One hunter writes, “Waterfowl hunting is nowhere what it used to be. Not enough cold fronts to push the birds down.” Another follower called out a major challenge for anglers: “Annual fishing closures in mid-summer on cold water river fisheries.”
The proliferation of wildlife disease and parasites came up a few times. “As a hunter in the Northeast, I would have to say the yearly spread of ticks into new areas and changing weather patterns. I hunt a friend’s property that he has owned over 25 years, and due to the elevation and cold winters he never had to deal with ticks. However, in the past two years they have started turning up on harvested deer and on people who spend time in the woods.”
A friend to the north writes about the effect this has on hunting opportunities: “Here in Ontario, the boundary between whitetail and moose range runs straight through the province, but as the climate warms, deer are moving further and further north, encroaching on moose habitat and bringing along parasitic brainworm. This, combined with the increase in winter ticks, is doing a real number on our moose, and getting a tag has become extremely difficult.”
One Instagram follower notes, “Historic temperature rises in the Arctic have delayed caribou migration by several weeks.” A climate-driven shift in animal movement and migration has outsized impacts on subsistence hunters in Alaska, a topic that author Seth Kantner previously wrote about on our blog.
According to the poll mentioned above, 72 percent of hunters and anglers believe that climate change is happening, and a majority agreed that climate change will affect their ability to hunt and fish one day. Hunters and anglers also believe that we can positively impact fish and wildlife habitat through human intervention—and that’s what we’re calling on decision-makers to support.
Want a cheat sheet on what to look for when it comes to climate change impacts? Download our two-page guide on 10 ways climate change is already affecting hunting and fishing.
And if you missed our call for real-life examples, you can still send us yours right here.
Are you voting for conservation and access this November? Our decision-makers, especially at the state and local level, have a much greater influence on these issues than you might realize. From your county seat to Capitol Hill, decisions are being made every day that will impact the health of fish and wildlife habitat, the availability of access to outdoor recreation, and the many uses of our public lands.
Simply put, your vote matters. Here are just a few of the positions you could see on the ballot where you live and what role these officials play in conservation.
Here in Wyoming and in many states, county commissioners are tasked with making a variety of decisions that affect wildlife, including those relating to the management of county roads, local representation in BLM and Forest Service land-use planning processes, and zoning on private land. For instance, when weighing a proposal to change zoning for land that overlaps with known big game migration corridors, an informed commission can work with landowners to ensure development is undertaken with appropriate consideration for potential impacts on our elk, deer, and pronghorn herds.
Every state legislature will vote on critical wildlife and conservation bills each year. During the last session here in Wyoming, thanks to advocacy efforts from hunters and anglers like you, the legislature passed a $70-million increase to the Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust. This landmark conservation victory will support critical habitat work across the state for decades to come—and it’s just one example of the impact of our state lawmakers.
In the past, our legislature has also considered bills supporting the transfer of or restriction of access to public lands. While these efforts have failed in prior sessions due to the strong constituency of public land advocates in Wyoming, new attempts to steal our heritage continue to emerge. It’s a good reminder for sportsmen and sportswomen to stay engaged in the political process.
Your state’s congressional delegation can support the passage of meaningful conservation and access legislation with impacts close to home and across the nation. An example of this is the recently passed MAPland Act, which directs federal agencies to digitize and make publicly available access easement data to landlocked public lands. This bipartisan legislation will bring huge benefits to hunters and anglers looking for legal access to what once looked like inaccessible parcels.
“The first duty of an American citizen, then, is that he shall work in politics; his second duty is that he shall do that work in a practical manner; and his third is that it shall be done in accord with the highest principles of honor and justice.” – Theodore Roosevelt
Voting isn’t the only way to make an impact for conservation, of course. As residents of the least populous state in the union, Wyomingites are uniquely situated to build relationships with our state and local decision makers to drive important conservation policy, but anyone can become more involved in shaping policy by seizing a few key opportunities. Whether commenting at public hearings, meeting with your state legislators, writing letters to the editor, or volunteering with a conservation group like the TRCP, there are numerous ways to adhere to Theodore Roosevelt’s vision for conservation advocacy.
(I’m tracking these kinds of opportunities for folks here in Wyoming, so if you’d like to take action beyond a petition signature or paper ballot, please contact me here.)
It’s important to say that the TRCP doesn’t endorse anyone in an election. But we do work to educate candidates on what matters to hunters and anglers, so whoever is elected walks into their new role knowing how they can best serve fish, wildlife, public lands, and our community.
With the general election approaching on November 8, 2022, and the 2023 state legislative session coming in January, we’d like to see candidates in Wyoming work with us and our partners on the following issues.
Public lands, waters, and wildlife are central to our way of life in Wyoming. Any proposal to transfer or privatize these resources is a non-starter for sportsmen and sportswomen.
Science-based management guided by the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation has proven itself as the most effective approach for recovering and sustaining wildlife populations. Decision makers can build on our conservation legacy by supporting the state agencies and dedicated biologists who manage our shared wildlife resources.
In Wyoming, 4 million acres of state and federal lands are surrounded by private holdings with no legal means of public access. Lawmakers should support cooperative solutions—including funding for voluntary access agreements—that respect private property rights and open access to these landlocked parcels.
Public-private partnerships such as Access Yes have opened over 2.6 million acres of private land to hunters and anglers in Wyoming. Lawmakers can continue to financially benefit landowners who steward wildlife habitat while providing public access by expanding funding for these programs.
Wyoming’s robust big game populations and the hunting opportunities they provide are threatened by the spread of wildlife diseases such as pneumonia in bighorn sheep and Chronic Wasting Disease in elk and deer. To address these issues head on, wildlife managers need support and funding from lawmakers.
Migration corridors and winter range support wildlife abundance that maximizes hunting opportunities and supports our rich outdoor heritage. Wyoming Game and Fish needs the tools necessary to conserve these habitats on public lands while also providing financial incentives to landowners to voluntarily conserve key habitats on private lands.
Wyomingites recognize that many of our best wildlife habitats need continued investment in on-the-ground stewardship work, such as habitat restoration and invasive weed control. Continuing to expand and support state programs such as the Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust will secure essential funding for these projects, while improving access to federal matching grants: a win-win for Wyoming’s fish and wildlife.
Wyoming’s pronghorn populations are declining, as are hunting opportunities. Supporting science-based management and policies that conserve the sagebrush ecosystem will help recover pronghorn and support other species, including greater sage grouse and mule deer.
4.2 million acres of state trust land in Wyoming provide important wildlife habitat and opportunities for outdoor recreation, including hunting and fishing. By utilizing wildlife friendly options to generate revenue in appropriate areas—such as conservation leasing— decisionmakers can support public education and steward the landscapes and wildlife that drive tourism and outdoor recreation, Wyoming’s second largest economic sector.
Multiple-use management includes resource extraction, habitat stewardship, and outdoor recreation. Sportsmen and sportswomen support the balanced use of our public lands—which includes both responsible development and the conservation of our natural resources—so that future generations can experience the same opportunities we enjoy today.
More than 10,000 anglers and conservationists from Virginia and up and down the East Coast have signed a petition asking Governor Youngkin to protect the Chesapeake Bay from the negative impacts of industrial menhaden fishing. The petition is being delivered to Youngkin and the governor-appointed members of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to push for meaningful conservation of menhaden, a critical forage fish species.
A coalition of 11 national and 10 Virginia-based groups teamed up earlier this year to demand regulation changes that would move menhaden reduction fishing out of the Chesapeake Bay and stop wasteful fish spills from fouling the state’s beaches.
Beyond signing the far-reaching petition, Virginia residents have also been showing up to VMRC meetings all summer to make public comments about how the menhaden reduction fishery is affecting their lives. According to Virginia code, menhaden regulations can only be changed from October to December, but menhaden are still not on the VMRC agenda for its October 25 meeting.
“Over 10,000 anglers, charter captains, and Bay-area residents have spoken, and they want the menhaden reduction fishery moved out of the Bay,” says Steve Atkinson, president of the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association. “We are now waiting to see just how much the governor cares about these resources.”
The recreational fishing community is concerned that years of localized depletion from the annual harvest of over 100 million pounds of menhaden in the Bay has deprived gamefish like striped bass, bluefish, and weakfish of a critical food source. Atlantic menhaden play a vital role in coastal ecosystems by serving as the base of the food chain for larger fish, marine mammals, and seabirds. Yet, millions of pounds of these valuable fish are being removed from the Chesapeake Bay and “reduced” into fish meal and oil for pet food and salmon feed by a single foreign-owned company.
Menhaden are especially critical to striped bass and make up 30 percent of the popular sportfish’s diet. The striped bass fishery is the largest marine recreational fishery in the U.S., driving $166 million in recreational fishing activity in Virginia alone. However, the economic value of striped bass fishing to Virginia has declined by over 50 percent in the past decade.
According to the latest science, menhaden reduction fishing contributes to a nearly 30-percent decline in striped bass numbers coastwide. The detrimental impact of menhaden reduction fishing on the marine environment is so pronounced that it is outlawed in every other East Coast state. However, in Virginia, a single foreign-owned fishing company—Cooke Inc., locally known as Omega Protein—is still allowed to harvest over 100 million pounds of menhaden each year from the most important striped bass nursery on the East Coast, undermining the sportfishing economy and small businesses throughout the Commonwealth.
Omega boats have caused multiple Eastern Shore fish spills in 2022 alone, resulting in the waste of 12,000 pounds of red drum bycatch, but Virginia continues to allow this unsustainable practice. Virginia residents and East Coasters who vacation and recreate in the Bay are fed up.
“I am trying to give the residents who live on the Eastern Shore, as well as the guests and tourists who come to visit, a chance to let their voices be heard to express their disappointment and disapproval of menhaden reduction fishing,” says Christi Medice, an Eastern Shore resident who has gone door to door with a paper version of the petition. “This has given me the opportunity to talk to people about their concerns around dead fish washing up on the various beaches. I have over 1,500 signatures and am still getting more.”
An online petition hosted by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and promoted by local groups, including VSSA, has garnered an additional 8,900 signatures since June 2022. A policy change on industrial menhaden harvest near shore would serve both anglers and tourism businesses, while still allowing Omega to operate in deeper waters.
“Ninety-nine percent of inshore and near-shore gamefish depend on bunker at some point in their lifecycle,” says Captain Tyler Nunn, owner of Tidewater Charters. “Especially for the apex predators like striped bass, red drum, and cobia that my charter business and many businesses around the Bay depend on, the importance of menhaden is immeasurable. No one has seen the potential of the Bay with a healthier forage base. It would make magnitudes of difference in the sportfishing industry and the Bay’s ecosystem if we left more bait in the water.”
“When will decision-makers answer the many questions that have been raised about this company’s activities and choose the side of recreational fishing and coastal economic growth?” asks Jaclyn Higgins, forage fish associate at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “It is necessary to implement commonsense regulations until the science demonstrates that menhaden fishing can be allowed without negatively affecting the broader Bay ecosystem.”
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