BLM debuts more balanced plan for 1.5 million acres of Colorado’s ‘Mule deer factory’

On Friday, the Bureau of Land Management’s White River Field Office in northwest Colorado issued its final Resource Management Plan Amendment (RMPA), with a specific focus on oil and gas development. The 1.5-million-acre area that will be impacted is home to two of the largest mule deer and elk herds in North America, and this RMPA will influence how those species are managed in the face of large-scale oil and gas development. After providing significant comments on the draft plan in early 2013, sportsmen are calling the final RMPA greatly improved.

Photo courtesy of the BLM.

“While there are still some concerns about long-term impacts tobig game and other wildlife, the BLM has made significant improvements from the draft plan,” said Nick Payne, our Colorado field representative. “The BLM has focused on maintaining wildlife populations and public recreationopportunities, while ensuring the responsible development of oil and gas resources. The ultimate success of this plan will depend on successful implementation in the coming years.”

The BLM has committed to sustaining habitat conditions that support big game populations at levels commensurate with long-term objectives established by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. This includes growing the White River mule deer herd, which populates what was once known as the ‘mule deer factory,’ to 67,500 animals. In the 2013 draft of the plan, the BLM had proposed a reduction of up to 50% of this herd, whose population was already 30% below the Colorado Parks and Wildlife management objective.

“Northwest Colorado offers some of the finest mule deer and elk hunting anywhere, and it is imperative that this resource be sustained for current and future generations of sportsmen,” says Ed Arnett, senior scientist for the TRCP. “I’d encourage BLM offices across the West to follow the lead of the White River Field Office in committing to the state fish and wildlife agencies’ established population objectives.” Arnett shared this opinion with the Denver Post’s Bruce Finley in this April 1 story.

The BLM will also be instituting a master leasing plan for more than 422,000 acres of BLM land surrounding Dinosaur National Monument in the northwest part of the field office. Development within that area will be introduced in stages to help minimize negative effects of development on wildlife and other resources. “Master Leasing Plans are an important component of responsible energy development,” says John Ellenberger, a retired Colorado Parks and Wildlife big game manager. “I was involved with establishing game management units in quality elk hunting areas, and I’m thankful that the BLM has adequately planned to give this important wildlife habitat ample consideration.”

Photo courtesy of BLM.

Within the White River RMPA, the BLM is applying measures to conserve about 167,000 acres of “generally intact and undeveloped backcountry,” which provide “high quality recreational settings, habitats, and primitive-type recreational opportunities.” This includes big game habitat and access to quality hunting opportunities in four Colorado Game Management Units that host thousands of hunters each year. “I appreciate the fact that the Bureau of Land Management has taken steps to maintain traditional land uses,” says Larry Amos, owner of Winterhawk Outfitters in Collbran and a volunteer with Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “This plan will ensure that hunting, fishing, and outfitting can remain viable in Colorado, by conserving some of our most spectacular lands and wildlife habitat and keeping it intact.”

A local coalition of 32 sporting organizations and businesses was involved in this planning process, and sportsmen across the West are prepared to stay involved as the plans are implemented. “The BLM has taken positive steps to conserve intact backcountry lands with high quality wildlife habitat and hunting opportunities, and as a business owner whose bottom line depends on public lands hunting and fishing, I appreciate that,” said Kevin Timm, owner of Seek Outside, a Grand Junction-based outdoor gear manufacturer that sells products directly to sportsmen. “The stage is now set for sportsmen to engage in the forthcoming full RMP revision. It’s what we need to do to ensure that intact and undeveloped lands are responsibly managed as backcountry conservation areas.”

Read the final EIS here. Protests may be filed through April 27, 2015.

Critter Madness highlight reel: Fur, fins and feathers will fly

This is it. The field is set. After 32 species have scratched and clawed their way through three rounds, we have our four regional champions.

After edging out a crowded field that included the mallard, the pheasant, and the sharp-tailed grouse, the wild turkey emerged as our avian representative in the Final Four. The elk easily steamrolled the competition in the first three rounds and has emerged victorious as the big game hunting champion. The brook trout continues to shock the world, upsetting the rainbow trout and writing another chapter in its underdog story. And the chinook salmon outmuscled the yellowfin tuna to claim its place atop the saltwater fishing division.

Now, these heavyweights, unencumbered by divisional foes, face off in unfamiliar habitats. What happens when bird meets beast? Will the elk continue to dominate, or will the battle-tested gobblers emerge as America’s favorite hunt?

And how brackish will things get on the aquatic side of the bracket? The brook trout has certainly fought in a heavier weight class before, but can it hang with the King?

To celebrate each of our divisional champions, we’re giving away another prize. Congratulations to Dee Jolley of Colorado Springs, Colo., the proud new owner of an Abu Garcia Orra SX Low Profile baitcasting combo.

At 12:01 AM Eastern on Friday, April 3, the winners advance, and we’ll give away our Final Four prize: a Yeti Tundra 45 cooler, customized with the TRCP logo. So don’t miss out. Enter to win, vote for your favorite game animal or fish, and see which two species make it to the championship.

Critter Madness fan prediction: Yellowfin for it all

Image courtesy of Brett Fitzgerald.

Brett Fitzgerald from West Palm Beach, Fla., was selected as the second-round winner in our Critter Madness bracket challenge, and we sent him a shiny new pair of Costa shades to wear the next time he goes out fishing for snook. He knows a thing or two about Atlantic Coast fish—Brett is the southeast regional director for the Snook & Gamefish Foundation, where we’re lucky enough to work with him on conservation policy—but will his beloved saltwater species represent in the final round of Critter Madness?

TRCP: Brett, what did you think of the upset action in the first two rounds?

BF: You know, I really thought one of the bass would take the whole tournament, just because they have the broadest appeal. And I figured that people who fish for both would probably favor the smallmouth. But since the brook trout beat them both, it’s hard to say how things will turn out. This isn’t like picking a college basketball team—this is important stuff! For what it’s worth, I remember the first brookie I ever caught more than 40 years ago. It was tiny, I used a fly out of my grandpa’s flybox, and I’ve probably told the story a hundred times. I can’t say that about my first bass.

TRCP: Do you think the brookie will win it all?

BF: I do think the winner will be a fish, but the yellowfin tuna is going to pull it out. It’s an underdog, too.

Congratulations to Brett, and best of luck to his Critter Madness picks for the Final Four.

Vote now for your chance to win prizes from Abu Garcia, Remington, and Yeti.

Check out some other fan predictions here.

The sale of your public lands is more possible now than ever

Yesterday the US Senate passed a budget resolution that, while it does not carry the weight of law – does serve as an internal instructional document, a broad outline of the policies and priorities that Congress will seek over the next few months to implement in legislation that most certainly will carry the weight of law. As such, it included a series of up or down votes that put members of the Senate on record on several issues important to sportsmen.

Photo courtesy of Marty Sheppard.

And, in general, it was not good news.  First, the numbers:

The Senate budget resolution would maintain sequestration for non-defense discretionary spending (including all conservation spending) and then cut an additional $236 billion over the 2017 to 2025 period.  The Senate budget would cut conservation funding in FY2016 by about $5 billion dollars relative to 2013 levels.  Conservation Funding wouldn’t return to its 2013 funding level of $41 billion until 2022.  If you adjust for inflation the cuts inflicted by the budget will be far worse.

And now the policy:

I’ll start with the two bright spots.  Senator Debbie Stabenow’s (D-MI) amendment clarifies that all existing agricultural exemptions in the Clean Water Act, which date back to the early 1970s, should be maintained in the proposed Waters of the US rule.  That the amendment passed unanimously may signal that Congress may be willing to look at the facts on the proposed rule and not just the rhetoric from status quo stakeholders.  The next bright spot was an amendment offered by Senators Crapo (R-ID) and Wyden (D-OR) that changes the way we pay for catastrophic fires, which now eat up almost half of the Forest Service’s annual budget. The amendment had sufficient support that it was included in the manager’s report by acclimation.

Besides the basic funding levels, the giant alarm bell coming from the budget resolution was the amendment offered by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) that essentially encourages Congress to “sell, or transfer to, or exchange with, a state or local government any Federal land that is not within the boundaries of a National Park, National Preserve, or National Monument…” The amendment passed 51-49. Here is a roll call of the vote.

Photo courtesy of Eric Petlock.

As most sportsmen know, transferring lands to the state or selling them off is a bad deal for sportsmen.  See www.sportsmensaccess.org for more information on the issue.  If Congress were to follow these instructions, all BLM lands, National Forests and even National Wildlife Refuges could go on the chopping block.  Heck, even national battlefields and historic sites could be transferred or sold.

All Democrats voted against the Murkowski amendment, and three Republicans — Senators Alexander (TN), Senator Ayotte (NH) and Senator Gardner (CO) — bucked leadership and sided with sportsmen.

The budget resolution does not carry the weight of law and is an easy place for members to make “symbolic” votes without actually changing the law.  But symbolic votes show what members think and what they think is important.

Make no mistake about it, the public lands vote on the budget resolution was a finger in the eye to sportsmen everywhere.  But the real action is still to come, the question is whether sportsmen and women will pay attention and make their elected representatives know what they think about selling off or giving away our public lands.

As a sportsman who cares about access to our federal public lands, you can do two things right away.

  1. Sign the Sportsmen’s Access petition at www.sportsmensaccess.org – and then forward it to two other friends and urge them to sign as well.
  2. Call your Senator’s office at (202) 224-3121 and thank them if they voted ‘No’ or voice your concern if they voted ‘Yes’ (see how they voted here).

Critter Madness Highlight Reel: Gobblers strut to a win

Make no mistake. Round two of Critter Madness 2015 was a nail-biter. Three of the eight matches were decided by only a handful of votes.

Yellowfin v. tarpon went down to the wire, with the tuna barely advancing with 52.5% percent of the vote. The mallard narrowly escaped an upset scare at the hands of the sharp-tailed grouse and advanced to the field of eight with 53.4% of the vote. And, after a match-up with record turnout and multiple lead changes, the wild turkey outlasted the pheasant in a true knock-down, drag-out fight.

Ali vs Fraiser. Lakers vs Celtics. USA vs the Soviets. And pheasant vs turkeys.

Of course, it wasn’t always close. After taking down the largemouth bass, the smallmouth bass was no match for the brook trout’s Cinderella run. Chinook salmon easily upset our saltwater fishing favorite, the blue marlin, 71.6% to 28.4%. And while we know westerners love their mule deer, it’s pretty clear that they love elk even more.

Now, it’s time for America to determine its regional champions. By the end of the day on Monday, we’ll know America’s favorite big game species, game bird, and saltwater and freshwater fish.

On the terrestrial side, we have a match-up of heavy-weights. Two staples of North American game, the whitetail and the elk, will lock antlers to see who will take home the title of America’s favorite big game species. The mallard and the turkey will face off, beak-to-beak, for the chance to be the avian representative in the Sportsmen’s Four.

While favorites have dominated on land, the aquatic bracket is wide open. Will the brook trout continue its Cinderella story to be our freshwater champion or will the rainbow trout leave the upset bid in its wake? In a matchup of two of America’s hardest hitters, will king salmon or yellowfin tuna emerge as your favorite saltwater game fish?

The stakes are higher now so we’re upping our prizes. Brett Fitzgerald of Florida won our second round prize, a brand new pair of Costa Sunglasses. For the round three, we’re going even bigger. On the March 30, we’ll draw our next winner and they’ll go home with a Abu Garcia Orra SX Low Profile baitcasting combo.

Choose America’s favorite game animal AND win this cool stuff? Now that’s what I’m talking about…

We’re giving out trophies soon, and as American sportsmen and women, you’re on the selection committee. What will you decide?

Log on to crittermadness.org today, cast your votes, and register to win some great prizes.

Looking for updates from earlier in the tournament? Check out our round one recap here or check out our tournament preview here.

Critter Madness fan prediction: Elk will go all the way

Josh Grieser from Colorado Springs, Colo., was selected as the first winner of our Critter Madness bracket challenge, and we sent him some great gear from Orvis, Buck Knives, and Berkley. He plans to use his prizes on his next trip to Eleven Mile Canyon on the South Platte River, where he’s pictured here fishing for brown trout.

Josh Grieser fishing the South Platte River.

TRCP: Josh, which species do you see going all the way in our Critter Madness Tournament?

JG: I think Critter Madness is a great idea, and I think that elk are going to take the whole thing. I’d definitely like to see steelhead make it pretty far, because I’m originally from the Pacific Northwest and grew up fishing for them, but elk are high on every hunter’s list. I bet, across the country, almost everyone who likes to hunt would love a shot at a big bull at least once in their lifetime.

TRCP: Does that include you?

JG: Oh, yeah! My wife and I recently got into bowhunting for elk, and we’ve got a pretty intense off-season training regimen going, so we’ll be prepared to stalk in close. I love that, especially with archery, you really have to work for it and put in the miles. We’re also planning to put in for our first mule deer tag this year.

Congratulations, Josh, and we hope you have great hunting and fishing this year!

Vote now for your chance to win prizes from Abu Garcia, Remington, and Yeti.

Want to read more fan predictions? Check out Brett Fitzgerald’s picks here.

Snapshots of Success: Lemhi Valley, Idaho

From California to New York, from Montana to Mississippi, hunters and anglers are leading important efforts to improve the quality and quantity of our water resources. The most successful conservation efforts are locally driven with a broad base of support, including federal financial and technical assistance.  They honor and respect the traditions of hunting, fishing, farming and ranching while protecting the resources we share.

In a report released on February 26, 2015, the TRCP showcases ten examples of collaborative, sportsmen-led efforts and the importance of federal funding that fuels them.  The lessons sportsmen have learned executing these projects tell a convincing story about the need for responsible water management and adequate funding.

Here is lesson three from Lemhi Valley, Idaho:

Joining forces to rejuvenate the Lemhi River: Lemhi River restoration

Immediately after Idaho rancher Merrill Beyeler met with a state fish and game officer to discuss how best to keep grazing cattle away from the Lemhi River, he started getting calls from neighbors.

Photo courtesy of Bill Mullins.

“My neighbors wanted to know if I was going to jail,” Beyeler said. “That’s how bad the mistrust was at the time.”

That was more than 20 years ago. Funding was scarce. But Merrill Beyeler’s initial conversation eventually brought together the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and state agencies, which found funding to improve fencing on Beyeler’s ranch. And a major conservation partnership began.

The Problem

Before the partnership, irrigation along the Lemhi resulted in polluted water, limited flow and increased water temperatures. Irrigators had also installed diversions that prevented traditional spawning migrations for Chinook salmon. Water quality and quantity suffered, and so did salmon populations.

But relationships improved. Local landowners and irrigators along the Lemhi eventually teamed up with The Nature Conservancy to use Bonneville Power Administration grant funding through the Columbia Basin Water Transactions Program (CBWTP) to restore the river and redevelop the natural habitat for salmon and many other fish, wildlife and vegetation.

How It Worked

With funding from the CBWTP, project leaders acquired a 630-acre conservation easement allowing local landowners to protect 7.5 miles of river habitat. The project allows ranchers and landowners to continue their long-term stewardship of

The new channel.

their land while meeting the conservation needs of the ecosystem.

It’s not just the fish that benefit from the project. With help from The Nature Conservancy, farmers and ranchers in the Lemhi Valley installed high-efficiency sprinkler systems, which means less demand for river water for irrigation—and more water for fish.

Ranching and Stewardship

Merrill Beyeler, now a Republican state representative in Idaho, entered into a conservation easement with The Nature Conservancy. The agreement allowed him to purchase another ranch with an existing easement, almost doubling the size of his property. The expansion of the property provides more flexibility while adjusting to the conservation standards set forth by the easement. Grazing areas can be rested and rotated with greater frequency, and cattle have been kept off sensitive riverbanks without negatively impacting the ranch’s bottom line.

Lemhi River chinook salmon.

In recent years, Beyeler has witnessed the Lemhi River rush back to life, rejuvenating the entire valley and the economy it supports. Fish and wildlife have reappeared, and local communities see children return to establish their own families and businesses. Merrill Beyeler sees conservation as a catalyst for economic opportunity, business diversity and community vitality.

Snapshots of Success: Grand Junction, Colorado

From California to New York, from Montana to Mississippi, hunters and anglers are leading important efforts to improve the quality and quantity of our water resources. The most successful conservation efforts are locally driven with a broad base of support, including federal financial and technical assistance.  They honor and respect the traditions of hunting, fishing, farming and ranching while protecting the resources we share.

In a report released on February 26, 2015, the TRCP showcases ten examples of collaborative, sportsmen-led efforts and the importance of federal funding that fuels them.  The lessons sportsmen have learned executing these projects tell a convincing story about the need for responsible water management and adequate funding.

Here is lesson two from Grand Junction, Colorado:

Sweet Success From  a Salty Situation: Colorado River salinity control and water flow restoration

Grand Valley canal.

Thanks to federal funding, innovative water managers and organizations like The Nature Conservancy, both endangered fish and local farmers benefit in Colorado’s Grand Valley surrounding the city of Grand Junction.

Cities as far away as Los Angeles and farmers as far downstream as Yuma, Arizona, also benefit from salinity control in the Grand Valley made possible by federal grants coordinated with major state, power user, and irrigator cost sharing.

How did it happen?

As part of a comprehensive program to control the loading of more than half a million tons of salt every year into the Colorado River from irrigation in the Grand Valley, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation engineers began lining sections of the 100-year old Government Highline Canal in the 1980s. The Highline Canal can divert over 1600 cubic feet of water per second from the Colorado River northeast of Grand Junction, and feeds several other irrigation systems in the Grand Valley on both sides of the river, including the Orchard Mesa Canal. Many farmers, meantime, took advantage of Environmental Quality Incentives Program funding to make on-farm irrigation improvements (such as installing pipes between the canal and farms) to control salinity loading.
It didn’t take long for all this cooperative salinity control to make irrigating in the valley much more efficient. But the combined diversions by the Government Highline Canal

and the Grand Valley Irrigation Company further downstream sometimes still de-watered a 15-mile stretch of the Colorado River that is critical habitat for two endangered fish species – the Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker.

“Humpback Chub.” Photo courtesy of Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.

Working with the Bureau of Reclamation, supportive water users and numerous other partners in the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, The Nature Conservancy secured even more improvements in the efficiency of the Highline Canal. With these water savings, the Highline Canal reduced its river diversions and stored the saved water upstream, restoring flows in the river—all without reducing farm deliveries.

These most recent improvements to the Highline Canal funded by the Bureau of Reclamation through the endangered fish program include state-of-the-art computerized monitoring equipment and check dams within the main canal. Before, the Government Highline Canal often carried up to 650 cubic feet per second. Now the canal can run at a rate of about 150 cubic feet per second late in the irrigation season.

What’s next?

Today the long-term effort to keep salt out of the Colorado River runs parallel to the effort to restore the flow of water for endangered fish recovery—as water efficiency improvements near completion.

Read the full report. 

Critter Madness Highlight Reel: The Brook Trout’s Cinderella Story

No top seed is safe in March. All it takes is one precocious upstart, a late-game surge, and just a touch of luck to knock off a heavyweight.

Kansas knows it. Villanova knows it, too. But few may know it better than the largemouth bass.

During week one of Critter Madness 2015, the top-seeded largemouth bass faced off against the eight-seed brook trout. Five thousand votes later, America’s most pursued gamefish faced defeat. In the end, 55% of voters pulled for the Northeastern native, blowing the freshwater region wide open.

And there were a few other nail-biters. Bobwhite quail captured 40% of the vote in its matchup, putting up a strong fight against the heavily favored mallard. Yellowfin tuna narrowly edged out redfish, 55% to 45%. And the pronghorn handily upset the feral pig, 70% to 30%.

The sixteen species headed into round two weren’t the only winners last week. Congratulations to Josh Grieser of Colorado, who was selected from round one voters to take home an Orvis Gale Force backpack, a TRCP Buck knife, and a pair of Berkley pliers.

As we move into round two, things are about to get really interesting. America’s favorite game animals and sport fish face off head-to-head, beak-to-beak, and fin-to-fin. How will you choose between the elk and the mule deer? We know America loves its turkey hunts, but does it love a good pheasant hunt more? And will the brook trout continue its Cinderella story into the third round?

Log in. Vote for your favorites. Enter to win a pair of Costa sunglasses. And keep it locked on Critter Madness 2015.

Seven Reasons Why Wingshooters and Sage-Grouse Conservationists Should be Hopeful

Ongoing concern for sage-grouse resources was matched with guarded optimism by a room full of state, federal, and non-profit wildlife conservation professionals at a gathering during the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference in Omaha, Nebraska, last week. The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership organized the event to celebrate the largest landscape-scale conservation effort in the history of contemporary wildlife management on behalf of this threatened game bird.

Sage-grouse in the company of other sagebrush species. Image courtesy of Sasha Nelson, Conservation Colorado.

The fact that a once abundant, widely-distributed, and liberally-harvested game species is now at population levels low enough to be considered for listing as threatened or endangered—that decision will be made in September—has greatly concerned many. But habitat loss impacts more than just sage-grouse. Sagebrush ecosystems are critically important to more than 350 species of plants and animals, including mule deer, pronghorn, and elk. Thriving populations of sage-grouse would indicate healthy sagebrush ecosystems, and this is the bigger-picture goal of those working to restore this troubled landscape, many of whom were in attendance as the TRCP expressed its gratitude for their efforts.

A presentation from the TRCP’s Tom Franklin at the NAWNRC reception.

Collaboration between the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, Natural Resource Conservation Service, and the states has been augmented by the participation of sportsmen, conservation groups, academic and research institutions, private landowners, and a multitude of other stakeholders in the energy and agriculture industries. At the event, posters and displays from many TRCP partners, including the Sage Grouse Initiative, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, North American Grouse Partnership, Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever, Mule Deer Foundation, and the High Lonesome Ranch, demonstrated their efforts to conserve sage-grouse and sagebrush ecosystems

The highlight of the evening was a fascinating and impressive presentation by Jason Weller, Chief of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). In its Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI), the NRCS has played a tremendous role in working proactively with private landowners to balance sustainable ranching with sage-grouse conservation. Under Weller’s leadership, the NRCS is demonstrating solid results, continued investments, and committed stakeholders as they remain steadfast in their dedication to protecting and bringing back the greater sage-grouse. Weller shared some outstanding achievements of that program:

  • In the five years since SGI was started, NRCS has worked with 1,129 participating ranches in 11 western states, and SGI and its partners have invested $424.5 million and conserved 4.4 million acres—that’s an area twice the size of Yellowstone National Park.
  • These investments have focused attention on large populations by successfully targeting 75 percent of investments inside Priority Areas for Conservation (PACs).
  • Conservation easement acreage has increased 18-fold under SGI. Of the more than 450,000 acres of easement, more than 80 percent are inside occupied habitats and 94 percent provide permanent protection.
  • Conifer removal has reclaimed 405,241 acres of otherwise suitable habitat. Nearly half of these acres are in Oregon, where the threat to habitat has now been reduced by more than 68 percent on priority private lands in the state.
  • Additional resources are enabling SGI to nearly double past achievements, and an estimated 8 million acres should be conserved by 2018.
  • Taking a business-like approach, Weller is asking each state to come up with an investment strategy for the next four years.
  • SGI will receive $198 million from NRCS starting in 2015 – this is a new commitment to conservation well into the future. Combined with partner contributions, this will bring the total SGI investment to an estimated $751 million.

Event attendees were also treated to a sneak preview of “The Sagebrush Sea,” a new film about sagebrush and sage-grouse sponsored by the George B. Storer Foundation and produced by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology for the NATURE series on PBS. The episode will air on May 20.

A sage-grouse lek in western Wyoming. Image courtesy of John Dahlke.

As they celebrate the heroic progress made in the sagebrush-steppe ecosystems thus far, the TRCP and its partners are continuing to press federal, state, and private landowners to create solid plans and make sufficient commitments to keeping this iconic bird of the American West off the threatened or endangered lists.