BLM looks to new landscape plans to enhance sage grouse conservation efforts

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) took a critical step forward in ensuring the future of the greater sage grouse today, when the agency released plans to amend nearly 100 resource management plans (RMPs) across the West to benefit the bird. The reveal of 14 environmental impact statements comes after years of federal, state, and local stakeholders working to better protect sage grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species while allowing for energy development, livestock grazing, and recreation.

Image courtesy of Department of Interior.

The plans announced today take a landscape-scale approach that builds off initiatives like Wyoming’s core area strategy. Improvements include measures to minimize new and additional surface disturbance, enhance habitat, and reduce threats from rangeland fires. In the very best remaining sage-grouse habitat, mining activities will be prohibited. No surface disturbance will be permitted in most priority habitat and landscape surface disturbance caps will go into effect in other areas.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is set to decide whether to list the range-wide population of greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by September 30. The looming deadline has inspired unprecedented coordination among federal agencies, states, private landowners, and numerous other stakeholders. The BLM and the U.S. Forest Service manage nearly two-thirds of remaining sage-grouse habitat. Sportsmen’s groups are applauding the BLM’s new approach and support federal efforts on public lands as a vital foundation for the range-wide conservation of the species.

“The BLM should be commended for their work on these plans and today’s release is yet another step  in the right direction for sage grouse, sagebrush ecosystems, and the stakeholders committed to balancing conservation with other uses of the land to achieve a positive outcome,” says Howard Vincent, president and CEO of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. “These federal plans, combined with strong state plans and contributions from private landowners through the Sage Grouse Initiative, and other efforts, will hopefully set us up for success in the form of a ‘not warranted’ decision on the listing in September.”

In order to reach this decision, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requires regulatory assurances and conservation measures grounded in the best available science that the agency can ultimately defend in court. “While we still need to review the details, the revised plans appear to have improved the conservation measures and assurances needed to prevent the listing,” says Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Ultimately, the decision to list the range-wide population will end up in a federal court, and the BLM has taken a positive step forward by producing plans that hopefully can be defensible to a judge.”

As the BLM finalizes their efforts on federal lands, Western states continue working on their own efforts for state and private lands. Some, like Wyoming, have had a strategy in place for years and have already begun implementing conservation measures. Other states have yet to finalize their approach to sage-grouse conservation. “We need the states to finalize their own plans to complement strong federal efforts and keep the momentum and collaboration going,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We also need Congress to step up to the plate by funding the federal agencies for long-term implementation and success rather than promoting delays to the process.”

Whether these RMP revisions will be enough to reverse declining sage-grouse habitat and population trends remains to be seen. “The bottom line comes down to implementation of the BLM plans and commitments to sagebrush ecosystem conservation that will actually improve sage-grouse populations,” says Miles Moretti, president and CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation. “We not only need strong conservation plans but also strong commitments and funding to ensure the plans manifest into real conservation actions and long-term improvements on the ground.”

Breaking News: Final Clean Water Rule Reveal is a Victory for Fish, Waterfowl, and Sportsmen

Washington, D.C. – The EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers today announced a long-awaited rule which will restore critical protections for wetlands and headwater streams that provide habitat for fish and wildlife and supply clean drinking water to one in three Americans. The announcement of the final clean water rule, which comes after more than a year of consultation with stakeholders, who generated more than one million comments, will give clarity to regulators as well as hunters and anglers, who have been unsure of the Clean Water Act’s jurisdiction following two Supreme Court decisions and administrative actions.

Image by Dusan Smetana.

“This is a historic day that all sportsmen should welcome,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Nearly 15 years after legal confusion contributed to the first accelerated loss of waterfowl habitat in decades, we finally have a rule in place that will help stem the tide of wetlands loss and definitively restore water quality protections to trout habitat and salmon spawning waters. We want to commend the administration for making this long-anticipated day a reality.”

The clean water rule will restore protections to 60 percent of America’s stream miles and 20 million acres of wetlands currently at greater risk of being polluted or destroyed because of Clean Water Act confusion. Protecting the health of these waters not only preserves coldwater fisheries and waterfowl habitat, but strengthens the local economies that rely on the 6 million jobs created by our country’s $200-billion outdoor recreation industry annually.

“This rule was crafted through a very thorough process, one in which hundreds of thousands of Americans participated,” says Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited. “A vast majority of Americans support the rule and the protection of our country’s headwater streams, because they understand the need to protect our priceless water resources. And in a time of drought and changing climate, these resources are even more precious.”

Today’s announcement does not expand the Clean Water Act, but rather restores—and in some cases, enhances—critical protections to two major categories of waters: tributaries to waters already covered by the Clean Water Act, and the wetlands, lakes, and other waters located adjacent to, or within the floodplain of, these tributaries. In an important win for wildlife, the final rule also restores protection to some non-adjacent wetlands, which provide breeding grounds for as much as seventy percent of the nation’s duck population.

“By restoring Clean Water Act protections for streams and wetlands, the Army Corps and EPA are taking decisive action that benefits outdoor recreation, public health, and our economy,” says Scott Kovarovics, executive director of the Izaak Walton League of America. “This action is grounded in science and common sense, and it gives a tremendous boost to efforts nationwide to conserve essential water resources and sustain our outdoor heritage.”

“This important final rule provides clarity on protections for the lifeblood of many of our country’s prized fisheries,” says Benjamin Bulis, president of the American Fly Fishing Trade Association. “The health of these headwaters sets the tone for all waters downstream and creates the backbone of our nation’s water resources. If we as a nation fail to protect our headwater streams and wetlands, we could jeopardize the economy of the hunting and fishing industry and put millions of people out of work.”

Over 40 million Americans rely on clean water for hunting and angling. Sportsmen were among the leading advocates for passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, and that support held throughout the campaign for this much needed rule clarification. In fact, more than 200 sportsmen and conservation groups signed a letter calling for action to restore protections for wetlands and headwater streams.

“The clean water rule is good for our business, which depends on clean, fishable water,” says Dave Perkins, executive vice chairman of the Orvis Company. “Improving the quality of fishing in America translates directly to our bottom line, to the numbers of employees we hire right here in America, and to the health of our brick-and-mortar stores all over the country.”

John Doerr, CEO of Pure Fishing, the world’s largest fishing tackle manufacturer, says, “Our outdoor recreation economy is totally dependent on healthy watersheds for our fishable waters, and the Clean Water Act is the number one protection we have to ensure the future of our industry.”

“My company depends on people enjoying their time recreating outside, especially in or near watersheds,” says Travis Campbell, president and CEO of Far Bank Enterprises and a board member for the Outdoor Industry Association—the group that produced this report on the outdoor recreation economy. “Clarifying which waterways are protected under the Clean Water Act isn’t a nice-to-have, it is a business imperative, with outdoor recreation contributing $80 billion in local, state, and federal taxes. In order to sustain the growth and success of the industry, not to mention the enjoyment of these opportunities for further generations, we need to ensure we are caring for the infrastructure that supports American experiences like fishing, kayaking, and canoeing.”

Despite the release of the final rule today, the protection of America’s waters remains at risk as Congress considers legislation to undermine the rule even after it’s finalized.

“The process worked as it should, with the Army Corps and the Environmental Protection Agency making numerous improvements and clarifications to the rule based on the public comments,” says Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “The final rule balances the urgent need to protect our nation’s essential water resources with landowners’ desire for clarity.”

It’s a lot more than “The Big Empty”

The sagebrush steppe of the western U.S. stretches for hundreds of thousands of miles across 11 states. This massive ecosystem often goes overlooked and is frequently dismissed as “The Big Empty.”

But there’s more going on in this vast landscape than meets the eye. More than 350 plants and animals, including huge herds of pronghorn and mule deer, call the sagebrush home. The highlight of this menagerie is one iconic and somewhat peculiar bird: the greater sage-grouse.

Image courtesy of USFWS Mountain-Prairie.

The folks at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and PBS have teamed up to produce “The Sagebrush Sea,” a documentary that profiles the greater sage-grouse and the other species that call the sagebrush home.

PBS Nature has posted this full-length documentary online. Check out all 53 minutes of “The Sagebrush Sea” and learn more about one of the greatest conservation challenges of this era.

Watch the full-length episode right here.

Or check out this full length trailer from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Glassing The Hill: May 18 – 22

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

The Senate is in session from Monday through Friday. The House is in session from Tuesday through Thursday.

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

You might say that it’s rush hour for members of Congress looking to fund the highway bill. Both the House and Senate will be scrambling to find common ground on stopgap funding levels for an extension to the existing highway bill set to expire on May 31. This process will reimburse the Highway Trust Fund, the funding source for most federal transportation projects, but this legislation has also been a critical funding source for federal conservation programs since 1992. It pays for programs vital to the establishment of historic easements, native habitat and wetland mitigation areas, scenic byways, and recreational trails. As such, it is imperative that a long-term funding solution be established in the coming months or, at the very least, that a short-term solution be implemented to ensure that vital conservation programs do not run out of funding.

In the current climate, where smaller pieces of legislation are almost always passed as amendments to larger “must-pass” legislative packages, the highway bill will also present a prime opportunity to lawmakers who need a vehicle for their priorities.

Republicans in the House lobbied for implementing a 7-month funding plan, but quickly realized that the $10 billion needed to do so was unavailable. They will likely acquiesce to Democrats who’d been pushing for a 2-month extension. With Memorial Day recess on the horizon, lawmakers are running out of road.

Water Rule Under Fire

The controversial clean water rule, which would clarify Clean Water Act protections over wetlands and headwater streams, will come under scrutiny this week at two back-to-back Senate hearings. Republicans, who feel the rule is a gross expansion of government and EPA authority, will use these hearings to draw Democrat support for their opposition.

The first hearing, held by the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife will center on S. 1140, which was introduced by Senators John Barrasso (R-WY) and Joe Connelly (D-IN) and has become the central legislative means of opposing the clean water rule. Details on this hearing can be found here. Details on an oversight hearing on Scientific Advisory Panels and Processes at the EPA can be found here.

Conservationists and sportsmen argue that the rulemaking process conducted by the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was thorough and inclusive, and attempts to block a rule that has not been published yet would be premature. More than one million comments were read and considered during the rulemaking process, and the publication of the final rule will not mark the end of the amendment process.

These two hearings come at a sensitive time, with Senate appropriators set to mark up their energy and water spending bill this week. It is likely that the clean water rule will be discussed, if not heatedly debated, during that amendment process. Last year, attempts to force a vote on amendments to the rule disrupted the entire discussion.

Package Deal

A joint hearing will take place on Wednesday as the House Natural Resources Subcommittees on Federal Lands and Water, Power, and Oceans will look at the legislative “sportsmen’s package,” the purpose of which is to enhance hunting, fishing, and target shooting opportunities on federal lands and waters. Details of the package can be found here. Land Tawney, the Executive Director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, will be the only witness.

For the past two years, a bipartisan sportsmen’s package failed in the Senate as discussions on the Senate floor were politicized and became focused on gun rights. The measure passed through the House in 2014, however, and this year’s draft bill features the same language.

The hearing is Wednesday. Additional details can be found here.

Sage Grouse in the House

Conservationists will testify on sage-grouse management authority before the House Natural Resources Committee tomorrow. The hearing will examine the methods and practices employed by states to manage greater sage grouse populations. The implications of dwindling sage-grouse populations could have profound impacts on the economies of the Western states if the birds are listed under the Endangered Species Act in September.

Epic collaboration among federal land managers, state agencies, and local stakeholders is resulting in conservation plans to ensure the sustainability of the species. These tactics will likely be a central part of tomorrow’s discussions, as the panel considers delaying the listing decision and/or shifting management responsibility to the states. Discussions will likely deal with concerns that the federal government is less-equipped to protect the species than the state governments.

Among those testifying is Ed Arnett, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s Senior Scientist, whose unparalleled experience on this issue will undoubtedly aid in the decision-making process.

Details of the hearing can be found here.

This Week in Full:

Tuesday, May 19

House Hearing on state management of greater sage grouse

Natural Resources

House Meeting to set rules on research, fisheries bills (Not announced***)

Rules

Senate Hearing on S. 1140, The Federal Water Quality Protection Act

Environment & Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife

Senate Hearing on the impact of the Waters of the U.S. rule on small businesses

Small Business and Entrepreneurship

Senate Markup of energy and water spending bill

Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water

Wednesday, May 20

House Hearing on legislation to improve sporting opportunities on federal lands and waters

Natural Resources subcommittees on Federal Lands and Water, Power and Oceans

House Hearing on OSMRE’s stream protection rule

Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations

Senate Hearing on EPA Science Advisory Board reform bill

Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Superfund, Waste Management and Regulatory Oversight

Senate Markup of fisheries bills (Not announced***)

Commerce, Science and Transportation

Thursday, May 21

Senate Hearing on public lands bills

Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests, and Mining

Top Marks Are Great—Your Trust is Better

Usually we’re in it for the meat, not the trophies, but the staff here at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is really proud to announce that we received a four-star rating from Charity Navigator for the second year in a row! That’s the highest possible rating from the nation’s largest independent charity evaluator, and this two-time recognition for our financial health, accountability, and transparency puts the TRCP in the top 19 percent of organizations rated.

In case you were curious, here’s a look at how we spent our budget last year, and even more information can be found in our annual report, where we also detail our conservation policy successes from 2014.

In a letter, John P. Dugan, founder and chairman of Charity Navigator, says, “This ‘exceptional’ designation differentiates Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership from its peers and demonstrates to the public it is worthy of their trust.”

We think trust is a huge factor in our ability to bring together partners, build coalitions, and champion bipartisan progress towards protecting sportsmen’s access, investing in conservation, and guaranteeing Americans our unique sporting heritage, which is reliant on the vitality of the outdoors. That’s why, while accolades are nice, we’ll keep working to protect the places you hunt and fish.

 

Three USDA projects that could open more private land to sportsmen

There has certainly been some ongoing frustration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture from the ag community and sportsmen, but “The People’s Department” continues to put out good news for private lands conservation. By investing in partnerships with landowners, producers, ranchers, and foresters, the USDA is directly supporting sportsmen’s access and opportunity. Here’s how:

With One Million Acres and Counting

Image by Dusan Smetana.

USDA just enrolled land in La Moure County, North Dakota, in the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement initiative, bringing the nationwide SAFE acreage total across the one-million-acre mark. Val Dolcini, the USDA official who oversees the program, sums it up best: “SAFE began in 2007 as an offshoot [of the Conservation Reserve Program] to focus on establishing key plant species that help not just soil and water, but also are beneficial to selected rural wildlife habitat. And, as it enhances the flora and fauna of the countryside, it can also create recreational opportunities for the sportsman, which is an investment in the rural economy as well.” SAFE is helping private landowners across 36 states and Puerto Rico to provide habitat for the fish and game species we love.

With $235 Million Available for Conservation Partnerships

Image by Dusan Smetana.

Earlier this year, USDA announced the first round of RCPP awards—we highlighted a few of the projects here and here. Now, the agency is ready to receive the next round of applications, in which private partners will propose to match over $200 million in USDA funds dollar-for-dollar—meaning there will be more than $400 million worth of new projects to improve soil health, water quality, water-use efficiency, and wildlife habitat on private lands. For this round, USDA is specifically targeting projects that respond to the western drought, develop environmental markets (i.e. water trading or wetland mitigation banks), and combat climate change. These types of projects might not seem relevant to sportsmen at first, but when you read reports about the domino effect the drought is having on California’s wildlife, or the shocking rate of habitat loss over the last decade, it becomes more clear that these seemingly unrelated initiatives can have a cascade effect on our sporting heritage.

By Cleaning Up Waterways in Mississippi River Basin States

Image by Dusan Smetana.

USDA will invest $10 million this year across 11 states to improve water quality and habitat and restore wetlands that feed into the Mississippi River. Importantly, the resulting projects will enhance productivity for farmers and foresters throughout the watershed, which is absolutely essential if we hope to encourage more landowners and managers to put conservation on their acreage. But sportsmen of all stripes can also cheer the move: The Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative will directly safeguard fish habitat in dozens of inland watersheds, conserve waterfowl habitat up and down the Mississippi Flyway, and reduce the amount of farm runoff flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, which is necessary to restore healthy saltwater recreational fisheries.

 

The USDA is said to be “helping people help the land,” and we can see why. Especially in the eastern U.S., where the majority of wildlife habitat is on private lands, these voluntary public-private partnerships are an essential piece of the puzzle for quality sportsmen’s access.

Glassing the Hill: May 11 – 15

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

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

The Senate is in session from Monday through Friday. The House is in session from Tuesday through Friday.

These Senators are all charged up.

 After a flurry of proposals were submitted for inclusion in the bipartisan energy bill last week, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee has a busy few days ahead as they hold a hearing to consider 22 pieces of legislation that address issues from solar energy to natural gas pipelines. The Committee is anxious to move the bill this summer, marking the first time federal energy policies have been altered significantly since 2007. The Senate legislative package will focus on smart-grid technology, transmission lines, and gas pipelines. The controversial Keystone XL will most likely be discussed by Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) and other supporters, but will not be included in the bill. Details on the Senate hearing can be found here.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has also begun drafting its companion bill but, unlike the Senate’s, their package will feature a much more partisan slate of bills that support the GOP agenda. A draft of the House bill can be found here. Information on the hearing can be found here.

The Case of Lawsuits vs Wildfire Relief

On Thursday, a House Natural Resources Panel will address the issue of litigation and its impacts on the federal government’s forestry work, particularly in treating fire-prone areas. With wildfire suppression costs increasing at an average annual rate of 22 percent, the Forest Service no longer has the resources necessary to fund suppression costs and prevention measures. Many key players agree that boosting forest treatment and prevention programs is a necessary step to decreasing the dangers and costs of catastrophic wildfires.

However, for two decades, many organizations have employed lawsuits, often to great effect, as a tactic for blocking logging and forestry treatments throughout national forests. And, though the USFS was once quite adept at winning these lawsuits, the agency has been severely hampered by them in the past ten years. In this hearing, opponents of this tactic will most likely argue that costly litigation is preventing the federal government from employing programs to support forest health and mitigating the long-term risk of wildfires.

Dems on Sage-Grouse Delays

After a failed vote in last month’s House Armed Services Committee markup, this week House Democrats plan to file amendments to legislation that would delay an endangered species listing for the greater sage-grouse. Many conservationists feel strongly that a listing decision, which would have wholescale impacts upon energy development in the West and its regional economy, could be avoided if additional state and federal resources were invested in proactive conservation measures promoting sustainable population growth. So far, the immediacy of a September listing deadline has driven unprecedented collaboration to bring these birds back from the brink.

The House Rules Committee will meet this week to decide if the amendment filed by Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass) to block a delay of the decision will be allowed a floor vote.

Clean Water Rule Could Be Dammed

Sometime this week, members of the House are expected to attack the controversial Waters of the U.S. rule, which would clarify protections for headwaters and wetlands under the Clean Water Act. The House spending bill, which was introduced last week and will almost assuredly pass through the chamber, featured a policy rider which would block the clean water rule in fiscal year 2016.

The rule also faces an uphill battle in the Senate where John Barrasso (R-WY) and Joe Donnelly (D-IN) have filed legislation to prevent its passage.

Also This Week:

Wednesday, May 12

House mark-up of fiscal 2016 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies appropriations bill

Appropriations Committee

 

Senate Hearing on BLM fiscal 2016 budget

Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies

Grand Junction BLM Plan Creates New Backcountry Zone, Falls Short in Other Ways

The Bureau of Land Management’s Grand Junction Field Office recently issued its final Resource Management Plan (RMP) that will direct management activities on 1.2 million acres of public lands in northwest Colorado over the next 20 years. The resource area provides for a wide range of recreational use, including a wealth of hunting and angling opportunities. Sportsmen in the Grand Valley and throughout the state were involved in commenting on the draft plan and, while they’ll find some improvement in the final RMP, there was hope for stronger conservation measures for wildlife and sportsmen’s access.

One of the improvements to the Grand Junction plan is the creation of the Bangs Primitive Backcountry Zone, which will maintain opportunities and access for big-game hunters. The area contains critical habitat for desert bighorn sheep, including lamb-rearing areas and winter range. “It’s great to see safeguards in place that give this herd the space they need to raise young and wait out the winter in lower elevation areas,” says Terry Meyers, president of the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society. “Four lucky hunters will draw a ram tag this year and have the opportunity to take a desert bighorn in this beautiful landscape. The Bangs Backcountry Zone will help keep this opportunity open to the next generation of sportsmen.”

Image courtesy of Nick Payne.

A coalition of more than 300 sportsmen’s groups and businesses is working to conserve key intact and undeveloped backcountry BLM lands across the West through individual land-use plans that benefit habitat, sportsmen, and local communities. “Hunters and anglers are seeing some positive results for managing backcountry areas through local BLM land-use plans, and the Bangs Canyon area in Grand Junction is a good example,” says Montrose resident Doug Clowers, a member of Colorado Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “These achievements are positive and a good, but a small step toward a more consistent approach from the BLM on how backcountry lands are managed from one plan to the next.”

The Grand Junction office will also manage 10 areas specifically for wildlife habitat through the use of Wildlife Emphasis Areas (WEA), but reactions from sportsmen have been mixed on this provision of the final plan. “The WEA concept is a great attempt to conserve important habitat for wildlife species, like mule deer and elk, but some areas lack adequate safeguards,” says Nick Payne, Colorado field representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Without strong conservation measures for all of these areas, there is a risk that some WEAs could be fragmented by development, diminishing their value for wildlife.”

The BLM will be instituting a landscape-level master leasing plan for over 700,000 acres that will be managed for oil and gas development. Part of this master leasing plan encompasses the High Lonesome Ranch, where sportsmen are working on a project to demonstrate how oil and gas can be responsibly developed with the conservation of important fish and wildlife habitat in mind. “The Grand Junction field office made a positive step forward by including the master leasing plan in the proposed RMP,” says Ed Arnett, the TRCP’s senior scientist. “The success of the master leasing plan ultimately lies in its implementation, and we look forward to working with the BLM to ensure that energy development is balanced with the needs of fish and wildlife habitat as the planning process moves closer to the actual disturbance on the ground.”

Read the final EIS here.
Protests may be filed through May 11, 2015.

CRP: Beloved by sportsmen. Critical for wildlife. Ignored by USDA?

You probably know about the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, because you’ve hunted on CRP lands. And if you live anywhere near farm country, it’s no wonder—CRP essentially incentivizes farmers to cultivate wildlife on lands that would be less productive for crops. Ducks, deer, pheasants, sage grouse, and many other game species have found habitat and forage in farm country thanks to CRP. Since its creation 30 years ago, CRP has been one of the nation’s most important programs for hunters and wildlife—and for farmers.

Image courtesy of Dusan Smetana.

CRP lands can have many other benefits, too. If you follow the news, you’ll recognize that there’s a need to protect water quality from agricultural runoff; provide habitat for pollinators like bees and butterflies; prevent soil erosion and enhance soil health; mitigate the impact of floods and drought; and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. CRP lands do all of that and more. For the breadth and depth of its achievements, CRP is highly cost-effective, making up just a fraction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s budget.

And yet, 15 months after passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, the USDA has not taken the steps needed to maximize this critical and versatile program.

Some background: About once every five years, through the Farm Bill, Congress can adjust the number of acres that America’s farmers may enroll in CRP. In the 2014 Farm Bill, Congress established acreage caps that are progressively lower each year through 2018, scaling way down from 32 million to 24 million acres. This was in reaction to an ever-tighter federal budget (the USDA had less financial support available for farmers) and record-high prices for commodity crops like corn and soybeans (farmers were eager to plant more to earn more, rather than leave land unplanted for conservation purposes).

The 2014 Farm Bill makes it possible for farmers to enroll up to 26 million acres in CRP this year, but there are only 24 million acres currently enrolled, and enrollment could sink as low as 22 million acres by September—far below the allowed cap, and a full 10 million acres below 2013’s maximum. The USDA has neither taken meaningful action to close the gap, nor finished updating the CRP regulations, despite a solid effort to implement the rest of the Farm Bill’s 450 provisions over the last 15 months.

As we look ahead to the next Farm Bill, this seeming ambivalence at the USDA sets a low precedent for a landmark conservation program. It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago we proposed a 45-million-acre cap for CRP—nearly double the current enrollment!

Habitat loss is the biggest threat to wildlife population health. It is fundamentally important to sportsmen, and to the game species we love, that we keep CRP enrollment on target. And it is incumbent upon the USDA to provide farmers and ranchers with a full suite of tools to put conservation on their lands. A dozen U.S. Senators agree: The agency ought to announce a nationwide CRP general signup, which it last did in 2013, and aggressively encourage farmers to enroll in continuous programs like State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement. We all need the USDA to step up.

Glassing the Hill: May 4-8

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

The Senate is in session from Tuesday through Friday. The House is not in session this week.  

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

Temperatures are just starting to heat up in Washington, but the Senate is already looking ahead to the end of summer, when they’ll try to get a bipartisan energy bill on the floor. Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski has asked the committee to file all bills for consideration by the end of this week. With campaign season set to cause distractions in the fall, it’s in the committee’s best interest to see the legislative package reach the floor as quickly as possible. Last week’s two-part hearing to consider efficiency policies and best uses of the U.S. petroleum reserve was a very calm affair, but the division between Democrats and Republicans became readily apparent and will undoubtedly prove difficult for the Senate in the coming weeks. The bills introduced this week will provide a blueprint for what the overall package will look like.

Ashe’s Allowance

This week, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe will appear before the Environment and Public Works Committee to discuss his agency’s budget. The service has called for a $135.7-million increase over fiscal year 2015 funding levels, so Ashe will undoubtedly face heavy scrutiny, as this does not adhere to sequestration levels.

It is safe to assume that sage-grouse and increased protections of other species under the Endangered Species Act will be hot topics of discussion. Increased protections for the greater sage-grouse would have landscape-scale ramifications, and Republicans fear that may become a reality after the September 30 deadline for a listing decision.

Wildfires: A New Drill?

A perennial issue for the U.S. Forest Service in recent years has been the increase in frequency and cost of wildfires. With inadequate funding to cover the cost of wildfire suppression, which currently accounts for almost half of the USFS budget, the agency is forced to borrow from non-fire programs, crippling the effectiveness and progress of their other forestry projects nationwide. In a hearing last week, USFS Chief Tom Tidwell expressed his concerns, citing that the estimated suppression costs of the 2015 fire season will exceed $1.12 billion—yet his agency was only appropriated $1.01 billion. It takes more than a bake sale to cover that deficit.

On Tuesday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will explore ideas for improving federal wildfire management. A critical discussion point will be the introduction of wildfire prevention programs versus increasing resources devoted to suppression. Many believe that a proactive approach to wildfires is the sensible solution to trimming federal spending levels long-term and radically reducing the risk of wildfires.

It seems likely that Democrats will promote the S. 235 “Wildfire Disaster Funding Act” introduced by Senators Wyden (D-OR) and Crapo (R-ID). The legislation calls for changes to the outdated budgetary practices currently in place to fund wildfire suppression. While that proposal boasts strong bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, and is a priority for the administration, Republican critics claim that the bill fails to adequately address the issue of hazardous fuels.

Highway Bill’s Road Ahead

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday on the long-term reauthorization of a surface transportation bill, or highway bill. The short-term funding measure currently in place is set to expire on May 31, and lawmakers are scrambling to examine long-term solutions, though it seems far more likely that another extension will be filed to carry short-term measures through December 2015.

The highway bill is a crucial one to the conservation community. Since 1992, the legislation has funded programs vital to the establishment of historic conservation easements, and the program encourages the use of natural habitat and wetland mitigation areas, scenic byways, and recreational trails. As such, it is imperative that a long-term solution be found in the coming years. That said, a short-term funding solution is needed at the very least to ensure vital conservation programs do not run out of funding.