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February 5, 2024

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January 31, 2024

TRCP to Engage Hunters, Anglers in Next Phase of Lolo National Forest Planning

Organization encourages the Forest Service to conserve big game and cold-water habitats

Today, the Lolo National Forest released its Proposed Action to revise the Lolo Forest Plan that when completed will guide land management decisions for two million acres of public lands overseen by the Lolo National Forest in western Montana.

“The Lolo offers vital habitat for elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and moose, and native fish like bull trout and Westslope cutthroat,” said Scott Laird, Montana field representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “But these lands are facing increased pressure from a growing human population and hotter, drier weather, and hunters and anglers need to speak up during the process.”

The Lolo National Forest provides important wildlife habitat for nationally significant big game populations, five major river systems, and recreational and commercial opportunities that support thousands of jobs in local communities.

Today’s announcement kicks off a 60-day formal comment period where the public can submit scoping comments that will be used to inform the draft forest plan, which is expected to be published at the end of 2024.

“Thousands of people recreate, hunt, fish, and work on the lands managed by the Lolo National Forest, all of whom have a vested interest in the outcome of this revision,” added Laird. “TRCP is committed to working with our supporters, partners, state and local governments, and other key stakeholders to see a successful planning outcome that conserves important big game and fisheries habitats and maintains special places for outdoor recreation.”

Read more about TRCP’s work in the Lolo HERE.

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January 25, 2024

Building Better Duck Hunting Through Working Lands Conservation 

Funding the Migratory Bird Resurgence Initiative will enhance critical habitat for migratory birds.  

Waterfowl hunters have worked for decades to ensure that ducks and geese have quality places to nest, raise their broods, and winter. Through nearly a century of wetland protection and restoration, we’ve made great strides toward ensuring the long-term viability of waterfowl populations. Much of this habitat is on private agricultural lands. For example, the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR), an expansive area in the northern Great Plains, is where 50-70% of North America’s ducks are hatched each year. It is also about 90% privately owned, with over half of the region in crop production. 

Cropland wetlands, like those in the PPR, are protected from drainage through the wetland conservation compliance provisions of the Farm Bill, commonly known as Swampbuster, but they are typically not managed for waterfowl. Instead, they are usually farmed during dry years and left alone when flooded. This strategy can be successful for farmers when conditions are good, but it adds operational uncertainty and often leads to lost profit from flooding or soil salinity. 

Recognizing an opportunity, our partners at Delta Waterfowl and Ducks Unlimited worked directly with farmers, commodity groups, and state agencies to find ways to increase and enhance duck nesting habitat in the PPR. The solution they devised would be voluntary and incentive based, turning wetlands previously seen as an inconvenience into an asset. First piloted in North Dakota in 2015, this project became known as the Migratory Bird Resurgence Initiative (MBRI). The MBRI uses the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), a Farm Bill Conservation program, to conserve the most important and most at risk small shallow wetlands. This practice provides a clear market signal to farmers that these small wetlands have value-not just to breeding ducks, but all people in the prairies and beyond. EQIP is well liked by farmers due to its numerous practice options and a great degree of flexibility. Thus, packaging a suite of EQIP practices into the MBRI makes it easier for farmers to enroll and for Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff to administer.  

It’s important to foster more and better habitat in the breeding grounds, but without adequate winter habitat we won’t increase duck populations. Again, working in partnership with farm groups, Delta Waterfowl, and Ducks Unlimited, biologists identified post-harvest flooding of rice fields as a cost-effective way to increase habitat in a way that works with, not against, farmers’ operations. Here’s how:  

Rice fields are engineered to be flooded during the growing season, which reduces weed pressure and increases yield. This design makes fields easy to flood in the winter too, during which time the flooding creates massive areas of winter habitat for ducks, geese, shorebirds, and more. These shallow water habitats also create public hunting opportunities, such as through the Arkansas Waterfowl Rice Program. 

What’s Next 

In 2024, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) and our partners are asking that NRCS allocate additional funds for the PPR (MT, ND, SD, IA, and MN) and for the wintering grounds (MS, AR, CA, TX, LA). Our partners at Delta Waterfowl estimate that investment in the MBRI would: 

  • Conserve more than half the region’s remaining small cropland wetlands. 
  • Create 500,000 acres of flooded rice winter habitat. 
  • Support more than a half million breeding pairs of ducks, countless shorebirds and other species. 
  • Store nearly 9.5 million tons of carbon annually  
  • Digest over 16 million pounds of nitrogen and 1.6 million pounds of phosphorus annually, improving water and air quality. 
  • Store more than 275,000 acre-feet of water, mitigating both drought and flooding. 

By using the voluntary, incentive-based framework of Farm Bill conservation, we can create these outcomes in places we could never reach with other strategies. So, what needs to be done to make this a reality?  

First, the NRCS needs to commit funds to the MBRI that reflect its innovative design and wide-ranging benefits. Restoring wetlands and creating wetland wildlife habitat fits squarely within the NRCS’ mission and few if any initiatives better meet NRCS’ stated objectives (even fewer were designed with as much intentional collaboration among hunters and farm groups). One way to financially support the MBRI would be by recognizing Wetland Wildlife Habitat Management as a climate-smart practice, which would make it eligible for funding through the Inflation Reduction Act. Wetlands are carbon storage powerhouses and restoring them only increases their capabilities. 

Second, Congress needs to pass a Farm Bill that ensures that conservation programs like EQIP continue to support both agricultural production and wildlife habitat.

Click here to learn more about the Farm Bill and get involved.

 

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January 23, 2024

Weigh in on Forest Management to Support Hunting and Fishing

In December, the U.S. Forest Service released a notice to amend 128 land management plans across the National Forest System to promote the persistence and recruitment of old-growth forest conditions across the 193-million-acre National Forest System.

Hunters and anglers recognize that old growth is an important forest type for salmon, steelhead, and trout that benefit from the cold, clear water and habitat provided by older forests. In some places, old forests intercept snow during the coldest months, providing relief for wintering big game. Our community also values the young forests that provide forage for many wildlife species, including deer, elk, and grouse.

Fortunately, as proposed, the forthcoming Forest Service changes are thoughtful and would enhance the agency’s ability to maintain old growth stands through active stewardship—allowing for restoration to maintain forest resilience and to reduce the threat of uncharacteristic wildfire. The changes would also provide space for the creation of young growth habitats in areas of our national forests where old growth is not present.

Speak up for habitat by commenting today in support of balanced and scientifically defensible national forest policy. You can draft your own letter using our talking points below and easily submit them to the USFS comment portal link HERE.

Suggested Comments for your Convenience:

TRCP has developed suggested main points to help you submit formal comments on the Forest Service proposal. Individual comments carry more weight than form letters, and we appreciate you taking a few minutes to weigh in on this important issue:

Old growth trees and forests are important components of National Forest ecosystems, and we appreciate the USFS effort to create a consistent approach to protecting and managing old growth trees across our national forest system. Young, early seral forests are also important to the hunt-fish community, and we encourage the USFS to ensure that the value of early seral forests is recognized in the plan amendment process. Fortunately, as proposed, the forthcoming Forest Service changes are thoughtful and would enhance the agency’s ability to maintain old growth stands through active stewardship—allowing for restoration to maintain forest resilience and to reduce the threat of uncharacteristic wildfire. The changes would also provide space for young growth restoration projects in areas of our national forests where old growth is not present.

As you move forward with the nationwide amendment to create consistent management direction for old growth forests and other forest types, please consider these important comments to advance healthy forests on our public lands.

• Promote forest diversity and recognize that forests are dynamic. Young, middle-aged, and old forests across landscapes provide habitat for multiple species and their life cycle needs. To do so, we must view forests as dynamic collections of important seral states. Forests are healthiest when varying forest ages are interspersed across landscapes, from young forests to old growth.

• There is broad agreement that active forest management is necessary to reduce risks posed by wildfire, optimize carbon outcomes, improve wildlife habitat, safely restore fire to fire-adapted forests, and restore impaired ecosystems. The challenge is how to manage these landscapes at the scope and scale that will address the increasing need.

• The Forest Service must conduct more vegetation management on larger geographic scales to restore forest health and promote resilience, which includes an ecologically appropriate abundance and distribution of mature and old growth forests where those traits are lacking.

• The old growth inventory and analysis of threats completed by the USFS found that mortality from wildfires is currently the leading threat to mature and old growth forests, followed by insects and disease. I support management efforts that focus on science-based restoration and wildfire treatments to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire in mature and old growth as well as other forest types.

Photo credit: Jack Lander

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January 22, 2024

Removing Retired Gulf Rigs Ruins Offshore Fishing

Decades-old offshore oil and gas structures, no longer involved in extraction, still provide critical marine habitat – and bipartisan legislation is aimed at protecting these rigs-turned-reefs

Here in Louisiana, I look forward anxiously to the first weekend in June every year.

Some good buddies and I always get together to fish our high school’s alumni tournament in Port Fourchon. Weather permitting (and sometimes even when we should have stayed in bed), we snapper fish on the oil and gas rigs and artificial reefs that have come to life on those structures, almost always with incredible success.

Our favorite destination was once the South Timbalier 50’s blocks, specifically the red-and-yellow-painted double platform that towered over the other dozen or so structures in the area. It was about 12 miles southwest of Belle Pass, meaning it was generally accessible in a 24-foot bay boat. It stood in 60 feet of water and always held nice-sized red and mangrove snapper. Six years ago, we aimed the boat right for it on the first day of the tournament, only to find it wasn’t there anymore.

From a marine fisheries standpoint, Gulf rigs provide an extensive network of the world’s most productive artificial reefs.

This has become a common story along the Gulf Coast. In the early 1980s, there were some 4,000 oil, gas, and sulfur production platforms in the northern and western Gulf. Obviously, the metal structures fixed to the sea floor in depths of 3 to 1,300 feet of water were built to extract and transport petroleum and minerals. But from a marine fisheries standpoint, they also quickly became an extensive network of the world’s most productive artificial reefs.

In the last 25 years, that number of rigs has been cut by 60 percent. In the next decade, as many as 700 more of the 1,550 or so remaining rigs could be removed as well. And, when they are removed, federal law currently requires that the sea floor be stripped bare, with all signs of the rig and associated reef removed.

Fortunately, two Gulf Coast congressmen have recently stepped in to try and save some of the ecologically and economically valuable reefs that have colonized the rigs. Rep. Garret Graves, a Louisiana Republican, and Rep. Marc Veasy, a Texas Democrat, introduced H.R. 6814 late last year. Named the “Marine Fisheries Habitat Protection Act,” it would change federal law and policy to require the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to examine the Gulf’s artificial reefs and associated fisheries production while encouraging more participation in the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s Rigs-to-Reefs Program.   

Critics of artificial reefs, and of the oil and gas industry, have long claimed these structures are simply fish aggregators, meaning they make fish easier targets for anglers and commercial harvesters, likening them to piles of corn or salt licks that attract deer. However, research conducted over the last 30-plus years by Texas A&M Corpus Christi, Louisiana State University and a host of other academic institutions have thoroughly debunked those claims. For some fish, especially snappers and groupers, rig reefs are just as productive or more productive than natural hard bottoms and corals. And these vertically oriented structures can host as many as 90 species of fish that utilize different water depths, while steering fishing pressure away from sensitive natural reefs.  

Within weeks of being in the water, rig legs begin to be colonized by benthic creatures like corals, sponges, barnacles, algae, and other organisms. Some fish species also arrive almost immediately, with jacks, dolphin (mahi mahi), sharks, mackerels, barracuda, tunas, and others quickly orienting higher in the water column. Reef fish and crustaceans come soon after with snappers, groupers, spadefish, triggerfish, and numerous other structure-loving fish colonizing the maze of vertical pilings and cross members.

While Atlantic coast and eastern Gulf states seek out decommissioned naval ships, old tugboats, subway cars, and many other hard structures to sink to expand fish and coral habitat and increase fisheries production and opportunity, Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama had artificial reefs built for them free of charge by the oil and gas industry. All four states have worked with the owners of those platforms on programs to keep as many decommissioned structures as possible in the water, but the rate of removal has far outpaced the effort to navigate the web of bureaucracies, laws, and policies allowing them to stay in place.

For Gulf anglers, the removal of their favorite fishing spots has been a punch to the gut. Many are rightly frustrated, and even angry, at the lost fisheries production and opportunity. Reps. Graves and Veasy, both avid anglers, are deserving of praise for trying to do their part to help their constituents and, more importantly, the fish themselves. With your support, hopefully all of Congress sees it that way and gets behind this bill.   

Tell Congress to support legislation to protect artificial reefs and offshore fishing.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

CHEERS TO CONSERVATION

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.

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