Mountain Khakis Gives Sportsmen-Conservationists a Thank-You Deal

If you’re a TRCP supporter, this Western brand wants to help you out with your holiday shopping—we’re glad to be working with yet another company that is #PublicLandsProud

For Mountain Khakis, what started as a casual conversation at the Shady Lady Saloon in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, has turned into a top mountain-inspired lifestyle apparel brand. Their duds have become a staple in the wardrobe of sportsmen, golf pros, those who travel by jet, and those who travel by thumb.

Mountain Khaki stands for freedom and rugged adventure as a way of life, but they also stand with us at TRCP. “We must be caretakers of the environment and the communities in which we are present,” says Jen Taylor, brand manager of Mountain Khakis. This means speaking up for the places that make their company culture and the passions of their employees and staff possible.

As a thank you for the hard work and commitment of the conservation community, Mountain Khakis is extending a special offer to TRCP supporters. Now through Dec. 10, take $15 off your order of $75 or more at mountainkhakis.com using promo code MK4TRCP.

Thanks, Mountain Khakis!

In 24 Hours, the Pending Legislation We Care About is Going to Get Scrapped—Again

When lawmakers leave town, this session of Congress is over, and all pending legislation goes back to square one in January

The last few grains of sand of the 114th Congress will soon fall through the hour glass, and the most important priorities of sportsmen appear poised to fall, as well. Here’s what we know about the status of legislation important to TRCP, as of publication.

Pretty Much Toast
This marked the third consecutive Congress where a slew of critical sportsmen’s priorities dealing with both conservation and access were assembled into a comprehensive legislative package. (Reminder: We urged lawmakers to make passage of this legislation a priority this week.) With just hours left in session, it looks like this will also be the third consecutive Congress that has failed to move this important legislation to the president’s desk.

Image courtesy of Dustin Gaffke/Flickr.

Some Good, Some Bad
For months, TRCP and other sportsmen’s organizations have been enthusiastically supportive of passing the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) to authorize billions of dollars’ worth of water infrastructure projects across the country—including the Central Everglades Planning Project, a major TRCP priority. However, as negotiations stretched down to the wire, some problematic California drought provisions, which would weaken protection for salmon and target the eradication of economically important sport fish, were hastily added. While we’ll still likely support the bill, these provisions were not originally included in either the House or Senate version of the WRDA bill, and airdropping them in now is no good for fish or anglers.

One Quiet Victory
Sage grouse comprise one of the few bright spots of the last few weeks of the session. TRCP has long viewed the efforts to conserve sage grouse core habitat as a major conservation victory, and likewise has opposed all efforts to undermine the implementation of those plans. The most realistic threat to ongoing sage grouse conservation once again occurred in the debate over the National Defense Authorization Act, but thanks to the concerted efforts of sportsmen and other conservationists and our champions on the Hill, for the second year in a row, short-sighted grouse language was left out of the final bill.

We’ll keep tracking these bills (and a short-term funding solution that’s imminent) until lawmakers leave town for the holidays—some of them for good—so follow us on Facebook and Twitter for the latest developments. Of course, we’ve been here before, and we’re committed to seeing these critical conservation priorities through in the next Congress.

How Genetic Information from Sage Grouse Feathers Could Help Us Save Them

DNA pulled from more than 3,000 feathers is helping to set the course for the future of sage-grouse conservation

Successful hunters gather data. They climb trees, glass ridgelines, or use trail cameras to consider how critters are moving—the more you can comprehend a landscape, the greater your ability to get a shot.

The same kind of big-picture understanding is essential to conservation that benefits fish and wildlife. In the effort to conserve greater sage grouse habitat and avoid listing the bird, researchers and land managers have been using all the innovative tools at their disposal to fully understand the habitat conditions contributing to the sage grouse’s plight. The trouble is, with a range encompassing such a huge area of western North America—the birds are currently found in 11 states and some parts of Canada—that’s a heck of a lot of ground to monitor.

So, wildlife biologists got creative. They’re unlocking more comprehensive knowledge about habitat connectivity by pulling DNA from sage grouse feathers.

Image courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The DNA contained in feathers can paint a broader, more in-depth picture of how the birds interact with the landscape than was possible before this technology was widely understood. Genes, discrete bits of DNA, get passed from parents to chicks and vary from bird to bird like a signature. If you know how to decipher the code, it can reveal how related the birds are—and where the landscape might cut them off from one another.

Todd Cross and Mike Schwartz, wildlife biologists with the U.S. Forest Service, recently published a study that begins to unlock the ties between sage-grouse genetics, the sagebrush sea, and how to best conserve the species that depend on it. By recruiting friends and colleagues to help, scientists collected 3,481 sage grouse feathers from 351 leks across the West. Sportsmen were in on the action too—according to Cross, hunter-harvested wings provide the highest quality DNA samples.

Cross decoding DNA back in the lab. Image courtesy of Todd Cross.

Focusing on feathers from Montana and the Dakotas first, Cross and Schwartz looked at gene flow, which is similar to a game of hot potato: Genetic structure gets passed along until someone drops the potato. In a landscape with habitat connectivity, critters share genetic information across distances far greater than a single bird could travel. However, when some groups of sage grouse are isolated from others by fragmentation, birds in one region have different genetic markers than others down the line.

Cross wanted to identify where the landscape results in barriers for gene flow—the places where potatoes get dropped, so to speak—and he and Schwartz found a significant difference in the genetic structure of sage grouse across various parts of the landscape. They took what they learned from the genetic material and created a map indicating the location of subpopulations, clusters of sage grouse with discrete genetic structures, which is depicted below.

Three main subpopulations of sage grouse are colored in reds, blues, and yellows. Pairs of darker and lighter colors signify subpopulations with similar genetics to one another. Image courtesy of Todd Cross.

This discovery—both in terms of the research method they employed and the map they produced—is significant when it comes to conserving and managing sage grouse on the ground. In the words of Schwartz: “The beauty of this work is that it allows for informed decisions.”

The architects of the federal, state, and local conservation plans to reverse an overall decline in sage grouse populations have determined where management actions should be taken based on established priority areas for conservation (PAC)—habitat parcels that are essential for the species’ success.

Often, discussion surrounding PACs is focused on habitat quality in the specific area in question, which can miss critical ingredients for conservation success. Healthy conditions within one patch of habitat is important, of course, but it must also be connected to other swaths of sagebrush habitat for these birds to thrive. Sage grouse need the ability to move from place to place, and stakeholders must work in cooperation between discrete management areas accordingly—after all, grouse don’t recognize the boundaries between state, federal, and private lands.

“We can use the DNA study and other scientific data to better define landscape boundaries for conservation and mitigation actions, as opposed to drawing arbitrary or politically-based boundaries,” says Ed Arnett, TRCP’s senior scientist. Cross and Schwartz’s work helps map out how sage grouse are actually using the landscape.

Image courtesy of Ed Arnett.

Furthermore, the genetic isolation implied by their results in Montana and the Dakotas can be problematic in and of itself. Schwartz explains that inbreeding—a consequence of isolation—can lead to diminished fitness in the population. In other words, without new genes coming into a population from outside geographic areas, sage grouse might see a reduced ability to survive or breed.

“We know this from domestic stocks,” he says, referring to agriculture. “You see these consequences in things like reduced milk production. To keep the animals healthy, you have to see new blood coming into populations.”

So what does this mean for management? All the stakeholders—including agencies that manage distinct regions—must work together to establish more habitat connectivity to benefit sagebrush species. The good news is that sage grouse have a history of bringing people together.

“We have seen unprecedented coordination and planning efforts across 11 Western states that led to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision not to list the bird for Endangered Species Act protection in September 2015,” says Arnett. “This type of broad collaboration among the state and federal agencies and diverse stakeholders is a game changer for the future of conservation in America.”

Cross and Schwartz also shared a little about the future of their study: They’ve expanded their work to encompass almost all of the bird’s range, and they’re uncovering some exciting new information about this icon of the West. For example, they found that a sage grouse traveled more than 120 miles in a single season!

Relying on science to determine what’s best for fish and wildlife has always been a key tenet of the North American Model of Conservation. But the innovation it takes to reach informed decisions about land management and habitat restoration is pretty cool on its own.

Learn more about the sage grouse genetics study here. And if you think DNA pulled from a feather is fascinating, check out this mule deer migration study, where big game animals are literally sending their GPS coordinates to researchers’ smartphones.

Funding the Government with Short-Term Fixes Has a Direct Effect on Conservation

This week, Congress will likely end their session by passing another continuing resolution—this keeps the government funded through April, but has other unintended consequences for habitat projects

As we head toward a much-needed holiday break in Washington, D.C., lawmakers will officially adjourn the 114th session of Congress for good—or go sine die, the wonky Latin term for adjournment that permanently ends consideration of any bills that have not been passed this session. All legislation left on the table will have to be reintroduced next year.

Image courtesy of Dusan Smetana.

But first, we expect to see another continuing resolution (CR) approved by Congress to fund the federal government through next spring. This is just a short-term solution made necessary when lawmakers fail to pass the multiple appropriations bills necessary through regular order. The CR will lock in fiscal year 2016 funding levels for everything from military spending to conservation and, fortunately, these funding levels are pretty good for the programs we care about.

Here’s what isn’t: Conservation projects that are approved sit gathering dust until Congress can come together on a spending plan next spring.

A great example of this unintended consequence of the CR can be seen with the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA), a federal grant program that has contributed to the conservation of more than 33 million acres of habitat across the continent.

As with many of the nation’s conservation laws and programs, NAWCA was born in an era of crisis. During the 1980s when waterfowl hunters were facing tough times due to drought, decreased bag limits, and shorter hunting seasons, sportsmen rallied Congress for support and federal assistance to address the reduced bird populations across the nation—particularly the drastic declines in the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways. Today, NAWCA has improved conditions in every state as one of the most successful conservation grant programs in history.

Its benefits are undeniable: NAWCA ensures that federal dollars directed toward wetlands conservation and waterfowl habitat are spent expeditiously and efficiently. Every federal dollar provided by the NAWCA program must be matched by at least one dollar from non-federal sources, and often the match is three to four times the required amount. NAWCA projects are generated at the local level by some of our partners, including Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, Delta Waterfowl, the Nature Conservancy, and Trust for Public Land, among many others.

Cosumnes River Preserve, California. Image courtesy of Bob Wick/BLM.

NAWCA projects can take a few months to more than a year to plan, often as part of delicately negotiated agreements between private landowners and conservation groups interested in establishing wetlands easements or restoration projects. It’s a shame that, depending on the whims of Congress, all of this hard work on the ground sits in limbo as lawmakers extend budget timelines and eventually work through one of the most contentious appropriations bills—the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies bill—where major disputes are waged annually on issues such as endangered species, the Clean Water Act, and climate change.

Currently, a total of 21 NAWCA grants are being held up by Congress’s inability to pass a FY2017 budget. These projects have been approved since June 2016 and represent a total funding request of $21,494,724 in federal dollars. However, $51 million in matching funds from partners can’t be put to good use either, at least while this dysfunction continues.

The TRCP is closely tracking the CR’s progress this week, and we’ll be educating Congressional members and the incoming Trump Administration on the importance of programs like NAWCA for sportsmen and women and the resources we depend on for our best days afield. We will also continue fighting, as part of a broader effort by the conservation and outdoor recreation community, to sustain and grow the overall piece of the federal funding pie that goes to conservation programs. (Remember, funding for conservation as a percentage of the federal budget has been cut in half.)

There will be many twists and turns before the proposed CR runs out in April 2017, as the next Congress begins to negotiate their next steps and President-elect Trump releases the first budget of his tenure. With Republicans in control of the White House and both Houses of Congress, there is some hope that the budget process will return to normal and CRs will be a thing of the past.

To do our best work for conservation, a budget process based on regular order would be ideal. Because when good partners are ready to act on behalf of conservation, the best thing we can do is connect them with the tools, funding, and support they need.

Glassing the Hill: December 5 – 9

The TRCP’s scouting report on sportsmen’s issues in Congress

Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

The Senate and House are in session this week, and lawmakers are eager to leave D.C. as soon as this Friday, December 9. As the clock ticks, Congressional leadership remains optimistic about passing essential legislation that affects sage grouse conservation, the Everglades, and critical funding. The 115th Congress will convene on Tuesday, January 3.

Sage grouse conservation is safe—for now. On Friday, the House passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) conference report, which the Senate is expected to pass this week. A provision that would have allowed governors to veto sage-grouse conservation plans for federal public lands—effectively freezing the conservation status of the bird for a decade—was omitted from the report after significant push back from conservation and sportsmen’s groups. In fact, more than 3,000 sportsman-advocates responded to a TRCP action alert and sent letters urging lawmakers to allow sage grouse conservation success to continue. The exclusion of this language from the NDAA is a short-term victory though, and we’re prepared for this issue to resurface in the next Congress.

Government funding is on the docket, no strings attached. A new short-term continuing resolution (CR), which must pass before federal funds run out on Friday, will fund the government at 2016 levels through early spring, although the specific end date is not yet public. While these measures sometimes carry riders with implications outside of funding, the new CR is expected to be fairly clean.

Water legislation could bring good tidings for the Everglades. Leading members in the Senate Environment and Public Works and House Transportation and Infrastructure committees have indicated that they have come to an agreement on the Water Resource Development Act (WRDA), and they’re expected to pass it this week. The issue that kept the bill in limbo was a provision that provides emergency funds to combat the lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan. Since both the Senate and House versions of WRDA include authorization of funds for the Central Everglades Planning Project and promote the use of nature-based infrastructure, such as wetlands and marshes, the final negotiated bill should include these provisions, too.

BLM Gets Locals More Involved in Public Land Management

By updating a decades-old rule, the agency is injecting more opportunities for the public to weigh in on land-use planning—and for sportsmen to make the case for habitat and recreation

The Bureau of Land Management, which is responsible for overseeing 245 million acres of the nation’s public lands, has issued its final ‘Planning 2.0’ rule that will update how the agency plans for land management in the West.

The most significant change is the establishment of three additional public input periods early in the planning process to increase transparency and allow for more robust public involvement. Sportsmen and women are hopeful that these changes will increase public satisfaction in the land-use planning process and eventual management of public lands.

Image courtesy of Eric Petlock.

“Public lands are an asset to every American, and even though land-use planning has always been a public process, Planning 2.0 will allow people to weigh in early and often about the land-management decisions that impact the places they hunt and fish,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “It doesn’t matter if you live in central Montana or southern New Mexico, you will now benefit from having a better seat at the table when the BLM is considering how to manage your public lands, and that means more opportunities to sustain quality hunting and fishing.”

Because of this, support for Planning 2.0 has come from sportsmen, but also from community leaders in Colorado, Montana, and California counties where Planning 2.0 principles were road-tested.

“As an elected official representing a rural Western county, I believe the BLM’s revised planning efforts are helping us get ahead of the game, by increasing opportunities for public input and allowing all parties to roll up their sleeves and get involved before land management decisions are set in stone,” says Mike Brazell, a county commissioner in Park County, Colo. “This thorough pre-planning will help to better manage landscapes for all the ways they are used—whether it be for hunting, fishing, trailrunning, timber production, or energy development—and support our community’s ability to maintain a high quality of life and healthy local economy.”

Migratory wildlife will also benefit from better management and conservation in the new planning rule. Where there once was no specific mention of wildlife migration corridors in BLM planning documentation, now field offices must consider identifying and locating migration corridors early in the process of planning for land use. That’s good news for big game animals and hunters.

“Migration corridors are a vital habitat component for big game like mule deer, elk, and pronghorn antelope in the West,” says Miles Moretti, president and CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation. “We’ve long seen the need for more formal recognition of these areas, where animals move, feed, and rest between seasonal ranges, and we’re confident that identifying these corridors early in the planning process will reduce conflicts, while yielding better experiences afield for sportsmen and women.”

More than 8,400 hunters and anglers have signed a petition and sent letters of support for better BLM land-management tools that prioritize public access, conserve and enhance habitat, and balance development with the needs of fish and wildlife. More than 500 hunting and fishing businesses, sportsmen’s groups, and wildlife professionals have also backed the idea that BLM lands are “Sportsmen’s Country” and should be managed in ways that support sportsmen’s values, including habitat conservation and access.

Learn more about Planning 2.0 and the benefits to hunting, fishing, and wildlife.

A Big Game Expert Becomes a Conservation Champion in Colorado

Meet the TRCP volunteer keeping a watchful eye on energy development and habitat management in elk country

TRCP’s ambassador program calls on sportsmen-conservationists to help advance our goals by offering local volunteer support. These #PublicLandsProud hometown heroes are not willing to sit idly by as the wild places we love are lost. They know there’s more to our sports than just hunting, fishing, and going home.

Meet John Ellenberger, our newest volunteer ambassador representing the great state of Colorado. For three decades, Ellenberger worked as a wildlife biologist and big game manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and he’s seen it all. Over the years, he’s also learned that, in conservation as in hunting and fishing, there’s a time for restraint—passing on a small bull to get a chance at a monster next year or sacrificing a productive hunt to share the experience with a squirmy grandchild—and a time for action. Learn more about our Colorado ambassador and why we’re glad to have him on our side.

TRCP’s Colorado ambassador with his rocky mountain bull. Photo courtesy of John Ellenberger.

TRCP: What’s your earliest memory in the outdoors and how do you spend your time outside these days?

Ellenberger: My earliest outdoor memory is going rabbit hunting with my Dad and older sister. I had to be only 3 or 4 years old at the time, so it didn’t take very long before my sister and I would get tired and didn’t want to walk anymore. Dad would then carry both of us, plus his shotgun, and any rabbits he had killed, back to our car. Now that I have children and grandchildren of my own, I have a great deal of respect for the patience that my father must have had. He was willing to take two youngsters hunting with him even though he knew it would likely result in his outing being cut short because we would get tired or bored. I applaud his efforts in attempting to include us in his outdoor activities, and I try to do the same with my grandkids now, no matter how short their attention spans.

TRCP: What got you interested in TRCP and the work we do? How do you see yourself helping TRCP achieve our conservation mission?

Ellenberger: Approximately three or four years ago, Joel Webster called asking for help assessing the impacts of energy development on deer and elk habitat in northwestern Colorado. I was referred to TRCP because of my years of experience working as a wildlife biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife in the northwestern portion of the state. We developed a working relationship on that original issue and several others. The work TRCP was doing impressed me—your staff wasn’t simply blaming wildlife managers for declining wildlife populations or dropping hunter success rates. The organization understood the importance of protecting habitat as a way to preserve and protect wildlife populations, and you are willing to take that message to the public and try to influence them to take action in support of habitat protection issues. I wanted to be a part of that.

Beginning as a field biologist in the Northwest Region of the state in 1976, I worked for the Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW), what is now Colorado Parks and Wildlife, for 33 years. I was the senior terrestrial biologist for the NW region of CDOW from 1979 to 1996, before becoming the state big game manager, and I held that position until I retired in 2004. My experience has provided me with a wealth of information about terrestrial wildlife populations in northwestern Colorado, I maintain good working relationships with wildlife managers, and I understand how the agency manages various wildlife populations for which they are responsible. Compared to the average sportsmen, all of this gives me a leg up when it comes to making science-based recommendations for conservation issues that the TRCP is involved in.

TRCP: How can everyday sportsmen make a difference for fish and wildlife? Why is it so important?

Ellenberger: Sportsmen can influence political decisions that affect wildlife populations and their habitat by first informing themselves about the issues and then contacting natural resource managers and elected officials to express their educated opinions and preferences. In Colorado and other Western states, there are numerous issues that have the potential to have negative impacts on wildlife populations and their habitats. Unless sportsmen share their opinions on projects affecting wildlife and wildlife habitat, decisions will be made that might negatively impact wildlife and sportsmen’s opportunities to utilize and enjoy wildlife resources.

In addition to hunting and fishing, Ellenberger enjoys hiking, mountain biking, and photographing wildlife. Photo courtesy of John Ellenberger.

TRCP: What’s the most pressing conservation issue where you live?

Ellenberger: There are a number of important conservation issues in western Colorado, but first and foremost is the impact of energy development­—primarily drilling for natural gas—on wildlife and habitat. The need to oppose the transfer of ownership and management of public lands is also very important.

TRCP: What has been your most memorable hunt? What’s still on your bucket list?

Ellenberger: One of my most memorable hunts was the year I drew a bull elk tag for unit 201 in northwest Colorado. On the first day of that hunt I called a young bull to within nine yards. Although I chose not to harvest that particular bull, it was very exciting to experience that animal up close and personal, to the point that I could watch him blink and flare his nostrils as he breathed. My patience paid off as I harvested a larger bull a few days later, but it was almost anti-climactic compared to the experience of calling in that first bull.

I have two sons-in-law and two grandchildren, and I hope to be able to instill a strong interest in hunting, fishing, and conservation in all of them. Hunting and fishing trips with them would be on my bucket list.

TRCP: Where can we find you this fall?

Ellenberger: I already had the opportunity to hunt bull elk during the first rifle elk season here in Colorado. Although I wasn’t lucky enough to harvest an animal, we saw a number of elk and the total experience was enjoyable. I plan to pursue chukar partridges later this fall, and if the warm weather continues, I hope to be able to make a few more fly fishing trips to the Gunnison River. In addition to hunting and fishing, I will be out and about hiking, mountain biking, and photographing wildlife.

When One Program Opens Access and Improves Habitat, Everyone Wins

We dig into the across-the-board benefits of a key Farm Bill conservation program on private lands

For every walk-in access sign there are numerous forces at play, granting you permission to use the land and ensuring quality habitat for critters. On private acres, your experience might be thanks in part to Farm Bill conservation programs. One in particular, the Volunteer Public Access and Habitat Improvement Program, provides $40 million specifically to support quality hunting and fishing access on private land—but its benefits don’t stop there.

Rabbit hunters meet with the landowner and run their beagles on MRAP land near Marceline. Image courtesy of the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Private land access helps keeps the sport alive.

Westerners are flush with public lands, while the rest of the nation’s sportsmen and women make do with smaller, isolated public patches that may not be close to home. Some of the non-Westerners among us may travel to Big Sky Country once a year, but access can be a significant barrier for beginning hunters and anglers or anyone who doesn’t have a big-ticket trip with out-of-state license fees in his or her budget.

Of course, this means non-Westerners rely heavily on access to private lands.

In 2012, there were more than 914 million acres devoted to agriculture across the United States.  These acres can make for excellent habitat teeming with some of our favorite species—sage grouse, quail, whitetails, doves, and geese—and present some of the best hunting opportunities in the nation, assuming hunters are allowed in.

public lands map

Image courtesy of State of the Birds 2011.

As its name suggests, VPA-HIP has two primary goals: securing public access and improving habitat. Authorized and funded in the 2008 Farm Bill and renewed in the 2014 Farm Bill, VPA-HIP helps states incentivize landowners to implement conservation-minded practices, such as clearing a forest understory of invasive plant species or creating stream buffers. In exchange, landowners allows the public to hunt, fish, trap, and observe wildlife on their property.

In short, VPA-HIP invests money in states like Illinois, Nebraska, Connecticut, and South Dakota—often in parts of the country where public lands are relatively scarce—to help give more Americans opportunities to hunt and fish.

Local economies get a boost.

Last month, TRCP’s government affairs director Steve Kline spent some time chasing upland birds on private land in eastern Montana, and he’ll be the first to tell you that hunting season supports rural economies. At this time of year, even in otherwise sleepy towns, you’ll see bustling restaurants, packed sporting goods stores, and busy streets—and the economy is better for it.

The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA) calculated the actual economic impact in a 2012 study and found that for the $9.1 million invested into VPA-HIP in 2011, 322 jobs were created and $18.1 million in gear- and travel-related spending was associated with hunters accessing newly enrolled private lands. That’s double the investment!

And that figure only covers direct spending. The economic boost echoes down the entire supply chain with more production, jobs, and higher profits, which stimulates even more spending. The report calculates that once those amplifying effects are taken into account, the return on investment for VPA-HIP funds was actually more than $73 million in a single year.

Report Assessing the Economic Benefit of VPA-HIP: 2011, produced for the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies by Southwick Associates. See the full document for more information.

This isn’t just free money.

A common point of criticism for incentive programs like VPA-HIP is that the government shouldn’t give handouts to the agriculture industry. However, this money isn’t free. VPA-HIP isn’t a charity, it’s a payment for services rendered to wildlife and the public. Landowners invest funds into habitat improvements, which critters need to survive. Instead of laying crops all the way up to a stream’s edge, for example, VPA-HIP dollars help a landowner create buffers to keep water clean so fish and waterfowl can thrive. After all, access is basically worthless without quality habitat.

Furthermore, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)—the branch of the USDA that governs VPA-HIP—is highly selective when it comes to choosing grant recipients. NRCS prioritizes funding for state and tribal applications that maximize acreage, ensure appropriate wildlife habitat, and are likely to receive matches from other funding sources. States that receive grants are then responsible for deciding which landowners may enroll, and they are similarly selective. Wisconsin, for example, prioritizes larger properties with more usable cover, as well as lands that are in close proximity to existing public hunting or fishing grounds. This kind of scrutiny ensures that every dollar invested creates the largest possible benefit to the public and to wildlife.

Everybody’s a winner!

Sometimes public lands and agricultural lands are viewed as polar opposites fighting for a share of resources in a no-sum game. But when it comes to VPA-HIP, that paradigm is shattered. When landowners and agricultural producers transform acres into valuable wildlife habitat, they’re improving conditions for the critters we love to pursue, while receiving compensation and technical assistance. It’s important to their business plans because, often, the land that is least productive for crop production is the most valuable for wildlife anyway. On top of all that, the public gains access to otherwise closed-off lands. That means more places for moms and dads to take their kids hunting or fishing, more kids growing up loving the outdoors, and more hearts beating for conservation far into the future.

It’s a total win-win-win.

BONUS: We are extra proud of VPA-HIP, because TRCP’s co-founder helped put the program in motion almost a decade ago. For the other two posts in our three-part series on this important part of the Farm Bill, click here and here. And learn more about other Farm Bill conservation programs that work for farmers, sportsmen, and wildlife.

Glassing the Hill: November 28 – December 2

The TRCP’s scouting report on sportsmen’s issues in Congress

Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

The Senate and House are both in session this week, but lawmakers are eager to get out of town as soon as possible.

First thing’s first—funding. With only 16 legislative days left on the 2016 calendar, Senate and House leadership are running out of time to pass a new continuing resolution (CR)—which would keep spending at fiscal year 2016 levels—before the current CR expires on December 9. In the end-of-year funding crunch of previous years, we’ve kept a watchful eye out for dangerous riders, cuts, and provisions that would be bad for conservation, but the latest intel from Capitol Hill indicates that a clean CR should pass without any of these concerns, giving a new Congress until March 2017 to sort out long-term funding measures.

Temporary pass for sage grouse. Second on leadership’s must-pass shortlist is “The National Defense Authorization Act” (NDAA) conference report. Thankfully, a House-written provision that would undo federal and state collaboration on sage-grouse conservation plans was taken out during conference negotiations, and is not included in the final report.

Looks like a Congressional tug-of-war, and sportsmen’s provisions are the rope. The ticking clock doesn’t seem to be rushing energy bill conference negotiations. Here’s the play-by-play: The initial offer came from the Senate side. Then, on November 18, the House presented a counteroffer with no sportsmen’s provisions (reminder: good things for habitat and conservation funding) included. Just after Thanksgiving break, Senate conferees issued another counteroffer, which reinstated the Land and Water Conservation Fund and other sportsmen’s provisions—what the House had taken out. Some Republican leaders in the House seem likely to view the next Congress as more favorable for energy legislation, but both Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) are still enthusiastic about reaching the finish line this month.

Everglades boost might make it through this brief window. “The Water Resource Development Act” (WRDA) is another end-of-the-year conference that could come to the House and Senate floors. Last week, committees spent several hours in a closed-door meeting discussing reconciliation of the Senate and House version of WRDA. The Senate version authorizes twice the funding for water resources projects than the House version, but both bills include provisions for the Central Everglades Planning Project and nature-based infrastructure, such as marshes and dams. Since a spending package is expected to be clean, lawmakers could use WRDA as a vehicle to pass emergency funding for the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan—in which case, WRDA could pass this year.

The Democratic Party could see some surprising changes. This week, the Democratic Caucus will meet to vote on leadership positions. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the 13-year Democratic minority leader and former speaker of the House, will be challenged by three-term freshman Congressman Tim Ryan (D-Ohio). Rep. Ryan’s district is located in the Rust Belt, an area the Democrats failed to secure in the November 8 election.

 

What else we’re tracking:

Wednesday, November 30

Legislation on recreational permitting on public lands, as well as two other bills, will be discussed in a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands hearing.

15 Reasons to Raise a Glass on Turkey Day

A Thanksgiving toast to the important things: family, friends, and the healing power of days afield

We tend to write about what sportsmen stand to lose—public lands access, healthy streams, sage grouse habitat, and more. But, in honor of Thanksgiving, we want to focus on appreciating what we have. And there’s a lot to be thankful for.

“I’m thankful for wild places that inspire and humble me, even when the deer are scarce.” –Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO, TRCP

“I’m thankful for every opportunity to spend time outdoors with family and friends. Whether you’re new to the sport or very experienced, the natural world is inspiring. And around the holidays it’s the best place to reconnect with the people you love.” —David Perkins, vice chairman, The Orvis Company

“Why we fish? The look of curiosity and wonder on the face of your nephew when he scores his first catch! What to be thankful for? On your next visit he asks, ‘Uncle Geoff, will you take me fishing again?’” –Geoff Mullins, chief operating officer, TRCP

“I’m thankful for the state and federal biologists who recover and manage America’s rich wildlife and habitats so I can watch sandhill cranes circle overhead by the thousands on their way south, or spy a mountain goat billy on a ridgetop above while scanning for elk below, or hear wood thrushes and wood ducks while waiting for a turkey to walk by.” —Mike Leahy, public lands conservation and sportsmen’s policy, National Wildlife Federation

“I’m thankful for crappy weather, pouring rain, and November storms rolling in off the North Pacific. Those rains beckon wild winter steelhead. Riding those storms are ducks and geese. I’m a Washingtonian; there are few things I love more than gearing up and stepping into the elements.” —Chase Gunnell, Conservation Northwest

“I’m thankful for the work I get to do in Washington, DC, ensuring wildlife professionals can continue to sustain wildlife resources and their habitats for the benefit of the American people.  I’m also thankful for the quick escapes from the political scene to the surrounding landscape — hiking, kayaking, and hunting in the rivers and forests nearby — so I can remain connected to the resources we work so hard to conserve on the Hill.” —Keith Norris, director of government affairs and partnerships, The Wildlife Society

“The week before Thanksgiving, we managed to pack four bulls and three bucks into our Montana hunting camp. The freezers are full, and it was a good time with family and friends. I’m thankful for the opportunity to recharge—and I’m ready to tackle what’s to come.” —Joel Webster, Western lands director, TRCP

“In this polarized climate, let’s be thankful for the binding power of turkey. Now’s the time for gathering with friends and loved ones, whether at the table or outside — both environments can be potent equalizers.” —Geoff Mueller, senior editor, The Drake Magazine

“I’m thankful for public access, which allows me to build incredible memories with my family, friends, and dogs. I’m grateful that access is an important initiative locally and nationally—I appreciate all of the folks that are fighting to keep it!” –Diane Bristol, senior director of employee and community engagement, Simms Fishing

“I am thankful that I live in a country and state that puts the protection of natural resources and wild places as a high priority. I am thankful that my kids have been raised in an area that is beautiful and abundant with wildlife. I am thankful to be a witness to the efforts of sportsmen and other” —Scott Laird, Montana field representative, TRCP

“I’m grateful to be married to a man who loves to fish as much as I do and doesn’t mind when catch more than he does. I’m also grateful for public access to float, healthy rivers, and wild steelhead.” —Mia Sheppard, Oregon field representative, TRCP

“I’m thankful for the friends and teachers, often one and the same, that have shared their knowledge and love of fly-fishing with me. It’s through their good humor, contagious love of the sport and the complete thrill in finally hitting trout on wet and dry flies this year that have made even the coldest, toughest days on the river all the better.” —Christy Plumer, chief conservation officer, TRCP

“I’m thankful that I was lucky enough to have a father who taught me and my brother to hunt and fish. I can’t imagine my life without those pursuits, which have ultimately become my profession. My son is due to be born around Thanksgiving this year and I can’t wait to pass our family outdoor traditions on to him.” –Nick Pinizzotto, president and CEO, National Deer Alliance

“I am very thankful that my wife and daughter support my efforts to save the Everglades and remind me not to get skin cancer!” —Ed Tamson, Florida field representative, TRCP

“I am grateful for the all mentors who encouraged me, took me afield, and made the hunting and fishing sports accessible through their patience and commitment. Their lessons are with me every time I set foot on a range, in a river, or on the first rung of a ladder stand, and every shot I’ve made or fish I’ve landed since has been a product of their generosity.” —Kristyn Brady, director of communications, TRCP

“It’s easy to forget the big things when we are wrapped up in modern day society, but nature has a way of grounding us and prioritizing things. We are born to be outside and I am immensely grateful to get to watch the sun rise while standing knee deep in the river, or getting a first glimpse of a big adipose on a steelhead as it quietly wakes in front of me, and I am especially thankful to watch my baby boy’s face light up, the same way mine does, as he gently touches a fish before we release it.” —Russell Miller, Marketing Manager, Sage/Redington/Rio