Do you have any thoughts on this post?
After years of advocating for stronger funding of fish and wildlife habitat improvements, it’s an exciting time for sportsmen and sportswomen—these dollars are beginning to hit the ground and have an impact where we hunt and fish.
In 2021 and 2022, our community played a critical role in ensuring that once-in-a-generation investments in our nation’s infrastructure and climate response also create more quality places to enjoy the outdoors. We pushed for projects that have layered benefits, including stronger fish and wildlife populations, better habitat connectivity, more climate resilience, and safeguards for communities that face increasingly intense flooding, drought, and wildfire.
Now, federal agencies are rolling out their plans to address top-priority projects using these and other funds. Here are six major investments that hunters and anglers should know about.
Most recently, the deputy secretary of the Interior announced a plan detailing how $4 million in grants and $9.2 million in matching funds will power 13 projects that conserve key migration paths and other habitat important to pronghorns, elk, and mule deer across nine states. According to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which administers the grants, these projects will create new easements, improve 890 miles of fencing to encourage animal movement, improve management of 900,000+ acres of rangeland, treat 13,000 acres for invasive plants, and restore more than 200,000 acres of public, private, and tribal lands.
Earlier this month, the administration announced that $36 million would go to nearly 100 projects that improve water quality, roads, trails, bridges, and fish habitat on national forests and grasslands nationwide. The Forest Service’s Legacy Roads and Trails Program will distribute funds for habitat and access improvements in 51 national forests across 25 states. More detail on the specific projects can be found here.
Beyond investments driven by recent infrastructure and climate legislation, funds have also been released for longstanding conservation programs that are well known with hunters. In April, the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission approved more than $146 million to help conserve or restore 242,000 acres of wetlands and uplands. This includes $50.9 million in North American Wetlands Conservation Act grants that will be matched by more than $73.4 million in partner funds. (Good to know: NAWCA has had a proven impact on waterfowl populations since 1989 and serves as the model for the new North American Grasslands Conservation Act, which would empower private landowners to improve native prairies and sagebrush habitat.) Another $21.7 million from the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund—drawn primarily from the sale of Duck Stamps—will conserve and expand five national wildlife refuges across four states, enhancing public hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation access.
In April, the Department of the Interior unveiled a $35-million investment for fish passage projects in 22 states that will address outdated or obsolete dams, culverts, levees, and other barriers fragmenting rivers and streams. It is one piece of a $3-billion commitment to improving aquatic habitat connectivity using funds authorized by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act. In a statement, the department described the locally led, collaborative development of each of the nearly 40 projects, nine of which will be implemented by Tribes. Atlantic salmon, American shad, Pacific salmon and steelhead, and other fish species will benefit.
Interior also announced in March that it will invest $23 million in landscape-scale conservation and restoration in the Prairie Pothole Region as part of its plan for $120 million in new conservation funding authorized by legislation in 2022. This investment will prevent habitat loss in an area that supports more than half of North America’s waterfowl. DOI’s plan also includes $20 million for projects in the Lower Mississippi River Valley and $10 million for habitat restoration in the Upper Mississippi and Illinois River. Taken together, these three pots of funding signal a significant investment in the health of the river and the Central and Mississippi flyways. We covered this in more detail here.
The administration announced in mid-February that $850 million from last year’s Inflation Reduction Act will be distributed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help fund oversubscribed private land conservation programs at the Natural Resources Conservation Service. These dollars will benefit fish, wildlife, habitat connectivity, and hunting and fishing opportunities in rural America by supporting a diverse range of voluntary activities that also boost climate resilience, such as planting filter strips and grassed waterways, improving grazing management, and restoring wetlands. We covered this in more detail here.
Idaho sportsmen and sportswomen applaud the Bureau of Land Management for taking a vital step toward completing a revision of the Four Rivers Resource Management Plan, a move that will conserve crucial big game migrations and winter ranges in some of Idaho’s most popular hunting units.
In today’s announcement, the BLM issued a Notice of Significant Change to the Record of Decision with modifications to the proposed plan, which include increased conservation measures for elk and mule deer winter range along the Boise Front and the Bennett Hills. The BLM has reopened the draft to one final round of public comment for 30 days and is expected to issue a record of decision later this year.
“The TRCP appreciates the continued refinement of the BLM’s Four Rivers Resource Management Plan because of the benefits it will provide to wildlife habitat and our hunting opportunities,” said Rob Thornberry, Idaho field representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We will take a detailed look at the nearly completed plan and provide comments during this final opportunity.”
The Four Rivers Field Office includes Idaho Department of Fish and Game Hunting Units 39, 43, 44, and 45 in the central and western portions of the state. These popular public lands help fuel Idaho’s multi-billion-dollar outdoor recreation economy, provide important wildlife habitat, and support various traditional uses of the land.
“From the Boise Front to the Bennett Hills, you will be hard pressed to find more productive big game habitat and hunting country than the lands managed by the BLM’s Four River Field Office,” continued Thornberry. “We appreciate BLM’s increased consideration for wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities in the near final plan.”
Click here to contribute your public input on potential updates to the proposed Four Rivers Field Office Resource Management Plan.
Photo Credit: James Brower
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Striped Bass Management Board yesterday exercised a seldom-used emergency action intended to reduce fishing mortality in striped bass populations, with the goal of more effectively rebuilding stocks to target levels by 2029. The emergency action will implement a 31-inch maximum size limit across the entire recreational fishery, including the Chesapeake Bay and along the East Coast. Individual states are tasked with implementing the change by July 2.
The Board also initiated Addendum II to the Fishery Management Plan, which will consider more thorough management changes for 2024 using a formal public input process. The minimum size limit, bag limit, seasons, and gear restrictions for striped bass remain unchanged under the emergency action.
“The TRCP appreciates the Board taking action to increase the possibility of rebuilding the coastwide striper stock by 2029,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Active management to decrease fishing mortality, along with full consideration of the need for a healthy forage fish base and mitigation of impacts from interactions with invasive species, are all crucial elements of any plan to improve the chances of long-term stability of striped bass stocks.”
The commission’s Massachusetts delegation led the push for emergency action after population projections showed there are significant headwinds to rebuilding striped bass stocks, particularly stemming from four consecutive years of poor juvenile survival rates in the Chesapeake Bay and an increase in fishing mortality in 2022.
“The Board has signaled they are prepared to act conservatively on striped bass to ensure rebuilding,” said Mike Waine, Atlantic fisheries policy director for the American Sportfishing Association. “Hopefully taking emergency action now will pay dividends later, so we can avoid the further use of short-term changes in regulations, and instead focus on longstanding and predictable management measures to provide stability to the most important and valuable fishery in the mid-Atlantic and New England regions.”
Striped bass are extremely important to coastal communities along the Atlantic and the entire fishing economy, estimated to generate $7.8 billion annually.
The sportfishing industry values long-term fishery sustainability while allowing for reasonable recreational fishing opportunities. Sportfishing and conservation organizations continue to encourage state agencies and the ASMFC to work with industry leaders on educating the public to ensure a mid-year management change in 2023 will have the intended conservation benefits across the entire recreational fishery.
“Controlling coastwide fishing mortality is the key to rebuilding striped bass abundance to levels the public expects and deserves,” said David Sikorski, executive director of Coastal Conservation Association Maryland and Maryland’s legislative appointee to the Striped Bass Management Board. “It is also important to recognize, however, that striper recruitment issues related to successive poor spawns, coupled with an expanding blue catfish population in the Chesapeake Bay will continue to complicate the longer-term trajectory of this iconic fishery.”
“No doubt there are a lot of factors at play that drive striped bass abundance over time, but fishing mortality is the only thing we can address directly in the striped bass management plan,” said Chris Horton, senior director of fisheries policy for the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. “While the increase in recreational removals in 2022 could actually be a good sign, based on recent stock assessments and the current status of the stock given the information we have available today, it is not surprising the ASMFC is erring on the side of caution and reducing mortality without reducing access to the fishery.”
Photo by @woozyfishing
Thick mud flew from the truck tires and rattled against the wheel wells as I drove up northern Alaska’s vaunted Dalton Highway. Dirt-covered semi-trucks whooshed past in the opposite direction, hauling fuel tanks and heavy equipment. Other than industrial traffic, few people traveled the Haul Road. Fairbanks had just received its first snowfall of the season, and all my fellow Alaskans were rushing to complete autumn chores rather than heading out for ill-advised outdoor excursions.
The copilot on this adventure, my three-year-old black lab Dolly (named after the fish, not the singer) stared intently out the passenger window, looking for roadside grouse. Dolly and I were headed north towards the North Slope, a tundra plain extending from the northern foothills of the Brooks Range to the barren Beaufort Sea coast. The objective of the trip was to hike across the tundra to fish a pothole lake that contained wild Arctic char.
October is not considered an ideal time to travel the Haul Road looking for fish to catch. Typically, snow already blankets the ground, lakes and rivers are partially frozen, and shorter daylight hours mean less time hiking and fishing. However, I was determined to catch my first wild Arctic char on a fly rod, and the North Slope was the place to do it because of the limited geographic range in Alaska where these fish are found.
We worked our way north from Fairbanks along over 400 miles of muddy, slushy road, crossing the Yukon River, passing the Arctic Circle, and stopping briefly at the Coldfoot truck stop for overpriced fuel and coffee. We then entered the foothills of the Brooks Range, and mud turned to slush and ice. Gray, angular mountains in Gates of the Arctic National Park could be seen on our left, while peaks in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge were visible on our right. Slowly ascending Atigun Pass, infamous for poor weather and slippery conditions, we crossed the Arctic Divide and entered winter. Several inches of snow covered the gray shale slopes and tundra foothills north of the range. Lines of caribou stood out across the snowy landscape, some even ambling across the road in front of us.
Driving through the Galbraith Lake area, which includes lakes that hold Arctic char, I thought about the many pressures facing these fish, and how to balance the priorities of competing user groups on these public lands. The Bureau of Land Management is currently determining the future management of 13 million acres of public lands and waters in this region. As part of the Central Yukon Resource Management Plan, hunters and anglers have an opportunity to ensure that key species like Arctic char, Dall Sheep, and caribou receive adequate habitat safeguards so future generations may continue to enjoy the same hunting and fishing traditions.
Not long after passing through the Galbraith Lake area, we reached our hopping-off point where we would begin our hike.
When selecting a lake to fish, the options overwhelmed me, but I was able to rely on a skill I learned through my job as a fisheries biologist: delving through data. Luckily, if you know where to look, historic scientific reports can give you some starting points. Armed with closely-guarded GPS coordinates, I believed I had found what I was seeking.
Loading up my pack, I started hiking out across the snowy tundra. Dolly raced back and forth over the frozen grass tussocks, not realizing we had several miles to travel. We soon left the sights and sounds of the road behind. A curious band of cow and calf caribou trotted towards us, getting within 200 yards before noticing Dolly’s wolf-like shape and beating a hasty retreat. After hours and miles of hiking, we reached our lake and set up camp. Its unfrozen waters gleamed like a chunk of obsidian framed in the ivory snow.
The next morning broke foggy and cold. We stayed in the tent until 10am, when the sun started peeping through the mist and the air temperature rose. Because I didn’t want to leave Dolly behind, I decided to fish from shore and work my way around the lake rather than troll in the packraft. The lake surface was calm and the water clear.
After about a mile circumventing the shoreline, I noticed the gravel shallows transitioned into a rocky dropoff. I cast out into the deep water, pausing every fifth retrieve to break ice out of the rod guides. I was fishing with a weighted black leech, suggested by a friend. Dolly was playing along the shoreline ahead, and we were both startled by a loud swirl about 50 feet down the bank. I caught a glimpse of two yellowish shapes cutting through the shallows to deeper water. We had found the char.
Arctic char are autumn-spawning fish, and like many salmonids, they exhibit several physical changes during their spawning period. These typically include a shift to brighter colors for both sexes and the development of a hooked jaw, or kype, in males. In the case of Arctic char, particularly those of Alaska’s North Slope, males can adopt an otherworldly orange or yellow color that undoubtedly wins them the title of most colorful salmonid. I had seen pictures of char in that sort of regalia, and I was after one of these orange “pumpkins.”
Finally seeing these fish brought on buck fever, and it took me what seemed like an eternity to break ice off my guides and sling an inelegant cast towards the area where the char had disappeared. I wasn’t sure what to expect—perhaps they were spooked and would not now bite? I didn’t have to worry. As I stripped the leech out of the deep and up into the rocky shallows, a yellow submarine was in pursuit.
I saw the flash of a white mouth open but set the hook too early. Cursing at myself, I calmed my nerves and cast to the waiting char hovering by the dropoff. Without reserve, the smaller, drabber female grabbed the leech and I set the hook. After a short but active fight, I brought her in to the rocky shore and let her rest in the shallows while I set up my camera for a self-portrait. Dolly came up and sniffed at the fish, excited by the sudden activity. I lifted the char out of the water for the photo, its bright red belly gleaming like a ruby. I placed it back in, flipped the hook out of its mouth, and it slowly finned its way out into the deep.
My hands ached from the cold water, and I warmed them on my bare neck to regain function. After allowing myself a moment of celebration, I cast the leech back out in hopes that the more brightly-colored fish would return. And here he came, chasing the fly up to the shallow shelf. But he would not strike, only follow. This repeated a couple more times until the fish grew bored and dissolved back into deeper water. Disheartened, I kept moving along the bank, hoping to find more fish.
After another half hour of fruitless casting, I decided to double back to where I’d had action. I thought about another friend who had caught North Slope char on silvery, brightly colored spoons, and this inspired me to try a different fly. With faint hope, I tied on a flashy, bright purple articulated salmon streamer. Casting out as far as I could, I stripped the fly back in and held my breath. As the fly neared the shallows, I could see the big orange male char was following it.
This time, before the streamer cleared the dropoff zone, I felt a sharp tug and set the hook. The fish of dreams was on the line. The several-pound char dove, cavorted, and pulled strongly. I took extra care to fight the fish to ensure I wouldn’t break my leader. Several times I thought he was ready to come to shore, but as his belly felt the lake’s bottom, he suddenly rushed back out into deeper water. Finally, I brought the gleaming fish into the rocky shallows.
It was a perfect, bright orange male Arctic char. The white-edged pectoral fins added an additional accent to an already-stunning fluorescent display. I took a self-timed shot holding the fish while Dolly raced back and forth on the bank, excited about the splashing but unwilling to enter the cold water. After the shutter closed, I unhooked the fish, and it shot off to join its pal in deeper water. I ran back and forth on the snowy bank to warm my body up; I was ecstatic. After years of plotting and planning, I had finally caught the Arctic char of a lifetime on a fly rod, that perfect “pumpkin spice” specimen.
Through the morning and early afternoon, I fished a nearby transition zone where the rocky shelf met a weedbed. Here, my luck continued, and I caught another half-dozen Arctic char, plus a lone lake trout, on the salmon streamer. Just after lunchtime, I felt satisfied with the day’s work and hiked back to camp. Realizing that I couldn’t improve much on a stellar day’s fishing, I decided to pack up and hike out early rather than stay one more night as planned. The goal of a Coldfoot truck stop burger loomed in my mind as Dolly frolicked through the whiteout ahead of me on our backtrail.
The public lands extending five miles of both sides of the Haul Road—including the country we crossed on our hike, and the lake containing the char—are managed by the BLM as a critical component of our domestic oil and gas transportation system. At first blush, that may not sound like a recipe for world-class hunting and fishing opportunities.
But current restrictions on industrial mining and motorized use in the Dalton Highway Corridor help facilitate some of the wildest yet accessible backcountry fishing and hunting experiences you’ll find anywhere. Savoring the views of the craggy mountains, open tundra adorned with snow, braided creeks, and gleaming lakes, I reflected on how different this landscape might look in a few years if these public lands were opened to more intensive development activities.
The future management of 13 million acres of public land in Northern Alaska—including the Dalton Highway Corridor and the Middle Yukon and Koyukuk watersheds—is currently under review by the Bureau of Land Management. The agency is in the process of revising the Central Yukon Resource Management Plan (RMP), a process that happens roughly every 20 years. The draft plan, developed under the previous administration, recommended opening approximately 98 percent of these lands to industrial mineral development.
In response, more than 500 hunters and anglers took action and urged the BLM to expand public access for hunting, angling, and other forms of wildlife-dependent recreation in the Dalton Highway Corridor. Sportsmen and sportswomen also advocated for stronger safeguards for important caribou and Dall sheep habitat in the region.
A favorite quote from wilderness advocate Bob Marshall sprang to mind as Dolly and I crossed the expanse: “For me, and for thousands with similar inclinations, the most important passion of life is the overpowering desire to escape periodically from the clutches of a mechanistic civilization. To us the enjoyment of solitude, complete independence, and the beauty of undefiled panoramas is absolutely essential to happiness.” I hoped I’d be able to continue to visit this undegraded land of caribou and Arctic char, which to me is certainly an experience “essential to happiness.”
Kevin Fraley is a fisheries ecologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society based in Fairbanks, AK, and enjoys hunting, fishing, and rafting throughout Alaska. Click here to learn more about the research Kevin leads for WCS.
Photo Credits: Kevin Fraley
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