A New Opportunity to Conserve Our Backcountry and Keep Adventure Alive

Why Backcountry Conservation Areas make sense for eastern Oregon and many other areas important to hunters and anglers

When I was a youngster growing up in central Oregon, I remember how much my dad missed the desolate mountains and yawning deserts of the eastern part of our state—eastern Oregon became an emblem of the absolute best that hunting and fishing had to offer. It represented a dangerously vast and unpopulated place, with real-world consequences for those who dared to explore it. I’d heard countless stories about wild places like the Trout Creek Mountains, Oregon Canyonlands, and Owyhee River long before ever setting foot there.

Image courtesy of Bryan Huskey.

As a kid, I longed to know them, and over the past 40 years, I’ve come to love them.

I strongly believe that the sportsmen and women who frequent these landscapes are uniquely qualified to understand what kind of land management solutions make sense. These places are so remote and rugged that it can take the bulk of a day to drive across them. In recent years, fires and noxious weeds have taken a toll in some of the wildest parts of the backcountry, impacting some of the best chukar and mule deer habitat, and these areas continue to draw interest from industry.

Image courtesy of Bryan Huskey.

I think there is value in allowing parts of this country to remain a working landscape. That’s why I support a new management approach, called Backcountry Conservation Areas (BCA), which the Bureau of Land Management can use to conserve places like the Owyhee uplands and Oregon Canyonlands from fragmentation and development, while at the same time maintaining Americans’ access for traditional uses such as grazing, hunting, and range improvement. The TRCP has been working with many partners to make sure this tool is available to the agencies responsible for America’s public lands, so they can be protected from development while active management continues.

The author, Bryan Huskey, enjoying Oregon’s public lands. Image courtesy of Will Bales.

I want to see this habitat maintained, if not improved, and never developed for any means, and I want the same access I’ve known for my entire life, so I can take my kids to the places that inspire dreams and passion for this land—just as my dad did for me. Considering all the people who enjoy outdoor recreation in these areas, plus all the heritage and history here, including that of ranchers who use these lands, being able to manage them as Backcountry Conservation Areas is an outcome I can fully support.

Image courtesy of Bryan Huskey.

The BLM needs to hear from you, though, to make Backcountry Conservation Areas available to land managers in Oregon and across the West. TRCP has made it easy to speak up for the future of the places we love to hunt and fish—click here to make your opinion count.

Bryan Huskey is a photographer, filmmaker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast based in Boise, Idaho. His works span the topics of fishing & hunting, conservation, and the western lifestyle. Bryan is the founder of the Keepemwet movement which encourages best handling practices of catch & release fish. 

Everglades Restoration Clears House Hurdle

House members vote to send the Water Resources Development Act to conference, meaning anglers are one step closer to better fish habitat in at-risk waters

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed the Water Resources Development Act of 2016 (WRDA), which matches Senate-passed provisions to jumpstart much-needed restoration of Everglades fisheries and water quality improvements across the country through strategic use of wetlands, reefs, and other natural infrastructure.

The bipartisan bill would authorize $5 billion in water projects overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, including $1.9 billion for the Central Everglades Planning Project, which would fast-track efforts to restore natural water flows, remove pollutants, and reverse algae blooms and other conditions devastating South Florida’s fisheries.

Image courtesy of Fish and Wildlife Commission.

“The sportfishing industry recognizes that it is vital for the Florida Everglades to receive funding as soon as possible to expedite the implementation of multi-year projects that will help fix the water quality and water management challenges that plague south Florida,” says Scott Gudes, vice president of government affairs with the American Sportfishing Association. “These projects have been through an extensive review process and will provide significant environmental benefits by moving more water south from Lake Okeechobee. However, Congressional authorization is required before construction can begin.”

The House bill would also emphasize the use of nature-based infrastructure—like wetlands, dunes, and reefs—over new man-made structures to reduce flood and storm damage, improve water quality, and protect vital fish and wildlife habitat in the process. This provision, which sportsmen have been calling for since June 2016, was added as an amendment after a strongly bipartisan voice vote.

Similar provisions in the Senate version of WRDA, which passed 95-3 on September 15, would clear a path toward making these conservation measures happen. The two bills will need to be conferenced, with any differences hammered out, before legislation can go to the president’s desk.

“It should be encouraging to sportsmen that Congress is making definitive moves to advance important conservation measures with major impacts for fish, wildlife, and water quality at a time when they are tasked with so much,” says Steve Kline, director of government relations with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “There will be as much, or more, competing for lawmakers’ attention going into a conference on these bills, but there is no time to lose when it comes to reversing destruction in Florida’s fisheries or prioritizing projects that have mutual benefits for habitat and infrastructure.”

Read about the Senate version of WRDA here.

Learn more about the Everglades fisheries crisis here.

World-Renowned Angling Destinations Are Literally Sinking into the Gulf of Mexico

Historic flooding in and around Baton Rouge last month was just the latest crisis for coastal towns dealing with the escalating threats of land loss and rising sea-levels

Historic flooding focused the nation’s attention on South Louisiana a little more than a month ago, as more than 100,000 homes and businesses were inundated by as much as 30 inches of rain that fell over a three-day span.

Streets and neighborhoods far removed from boundaries on federal flood maps became angry lakes and frenzied streams. All of that rain ripped and clawed its way into drains, ditches, bayous, and rivers and, when those couldn’t contain the deluge, water rushed back out the through banks of those waterways and into people’s homes.

Flooding in South Louisiana, August 2016. Photo courtesy of Chris Macaluso.

In the weeks since that unprecedented rainfall, some South Louisiana communities that were unaffected by the massive downpour have flooded, as well, though it’s doubtful the rest of the country heard much about it.

Small coastal fishing towns like Cocodrie, Delacroix, Leeville, and Dulac flooded, not because of storms that actually made landfall, but simply because the wind blew hard out of the southeast for a couple of days and a tropical system hit hundreds of miles away.

Flooding that covers roads and docks and water creeping into yards, under homes and camps, has become pretty routine for those who live in those towns or visit local marinas to launch boats in pursuit of speckled trout, redfish, flounder, and bass. It happens every couple of months.

Why So Water-Logged?

The Gulf of Mexico is rising, as is every other sea and ocean. In that respect, the threat of increased flooding is not unique to Louisiana’s coast. But what does separate Louisiana’s coast from that of its neighbors is the constant, menacing subsidence—this means that, for a variety of geological reasons, the land, created by millennia of sediment deposits from the Mississippi River, is slowly but surely sinking into the Gulf. The combination of rising Gulf waters and receding land mass, called relative sea-level rise, means Louisiana’s coastal towns are feeling the impact of higher water sooner and more frequently than other parts of the Gulf region.

This is not breaking news to coastal residents, who have had to elevate homes over the last two decades to keep their feet dry. Scientists and engineers are keenly aware of the threat, and are trying to design and build wetland restoration projects and extensive flood-protection systems to help shield New Orleans, Houma, and other coastal Louisiana cities from hurricane storm surges.

Hopedale, east of New Orleans, flooded as Hurricane Isaac built in the Gulf of Mexico in 2012. Across Louisiana, towns like these flood every few months, as the land sinks centimeter by centimeter each year. Image courtesy of Chris Macaluso.

An Intensifying Threat

It was recently revealed by the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority—staff working on the state’s revised coastal restoration Master Plan, due out in early 2017—that the latest models show relative sea-level rise may claim much larger swaths of what’s left of Louisiana’s coast over the next 50 years than previously predicted. The last time Louisiana’s blueprint of projects to restore critical habitat and protect coastal communities was updated in 2012, coastal engineers, planners, and wetland ecologists predicted that the worst-case scenario for areas south, east, and west of New Orleans was two to four feet of relative sea-level rise.

Now, those models indicate that might be the best-case scenario for those same areas, and as much as six feet or more of average sea-level rise can be expected in the coming 50 years.

That is sobering news for those optimistic about the future of one of the world’s most fertile areas for fish and wildlife, and the communities that provide access for hundreds of thousands of anglers, hunters, and commercial fishermen. If the models are correct, Louisiana towns like Venice and Shell Beach, renowned as world-class angling destinations, may be more submerged than they are dry—or worse, simply uninhabitable, even with elevated homes and businesses.

Levee systems will be pressured more and more as water regularly laps at their bases. The rebuilt marshes that were supposed to provide protection to the levees and help restore the critical nursery grounds for fish and their forage could succumb to more frequent wave action and saltwater intrusion. And rivers, like the ones overwhelmed by the August rains, and even the Mississippi, will increasingly struggle to push their way into coastal lakes, bays, and eventually the Gulf.

Worst-case scenario in 50 years, if no wetland restoration efforts are undertaken: Red areas represent fertile wetlands and communities that could be overtaken by relative sea-level, and green specks are new wetlands created by sediment deposits. Image courtesy of Karim Belhadjali/Louisiana Governor’s Advisory Commission

In the diagrams used by coastal planners to show the expected results of relative sea-level rise (above), red ink means land lost, while green demonstrates where sediment deposits will create new wetlands. Unfortunately, those diagrams look like a Santa Claus suit with a single sprig of mistletoe stuck to it.

But those charged with creating these models are quick to point out that this picture represents a future without action. This is what could happen if we do nothing. The upcoming plan includes projects to create marsh, elevate homes, and protect communities that could put a lot more green on the map.

A $20-Billion Opportunity

The settlement with BP over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster will bring as much as $6.8 billion to Louisiana, and $20 billion in all to the five Gulf States, over the next 15 years. That money will be used to restore and enhance coastal ecosystems and local economies, meaning Louisiana’s coastal planners have their best opportunity yet to take action to address sea-level rise and land loss.

A draft of the 2017 Louisiana Coastal Restoration and Hurricane Master Plan will be released in January of 2017, and the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority will accept public comments when the draft is released. We’ll let hunters and anglers know when they can make their voices heard on this important step in the planning process.

For more information about the master plan and the effort to restore Louisiana’s coast, please visit the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority website.

Glassing the Hill: September 26 – 30

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

The Senate and House will both be in session this week.

Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

Lawmakers have five days left to avoid a government shutdown. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) scheduled a cloture vote tomorrow afternoon on a short-term continuing resolution (CR), which would keep the government open at current funding levels – except for full 2017 funding levels for military and veterans’ related agencies – through December 9. The spending package includes $1.1 billion to combat the Zika virus and $500 million in funds to help the residents Baton Rouge, Louisiana recover from recent flooding. However, the CR language does not currently include funding for the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) insists that Democrats will not support the bill without money for Flint, Mich. If cloture is invoked tomorrow, a final vote can be expected on Wednesday.

House leadership will consider the short-term CR after the Senate passes it and before the end of the fiscal year at midnight on Friday. We expect the Senate and House to return to their respective states and districts after the final passage of this stopgap spending bill and not return until November 14, after the general election.

The House will debate a water bill on the floor this week, which includes provisions for Everglades restoration. As you may remember from the last Glassing the Hill, the Senate passed its version of the two-year authorization of “The Water Resource Development Act” (WRDA) with a 95-3 vote. The House will consider their own version of a WRDA bill that would authorize funding for, among many other projects, Florida’s Comprehensive Everglades restoration effort, a key TRCP priority. The House WRDA package authorizes $5 billion for water and infrastructure projects, while the Senate version would authorize $10.6 billion, which includes funds for the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

Amendments for WRDA will be considered Monday night during a House Rules Committee meeting. One of the amendments being debated during the meeting is a bipartisan amendment offered by Representatives Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) and Richard Nolan (D-N.M.), which would require funds to be used on natural infrastructure, such as wetlands and riparian buffers. TRCP and our partners continue to advocate for nature-based features that would enhance critical fish and wildlife habitat. Click here for information.

Should the House pass its bill, Senate and House leadership could begin the conference process to negotiate a final package. We expect negotiations to occur during the lame duck session – which will occur between the election on November 8 and the start of the new administration.

The Three R’s of Boosting Hunter and Angler Participation (and Conservation Funding)

The groups behind the movement to recruit, retain, and reactivate more sportsmen share a few simple ways you can celebrate our hunting and fishing traditions

In the hunting and fishing community, very few days are held more sacred than the opening day of your favorite season. The long wait to get into your treestand or duck blind is finally over. It’s marked on the calendar with a giant red circle, a day when you can’t be expected to take an extra shift, clean the gutters, or go see the in-laws (unless they’re waiting for you at deer camp.)

But there is another day that should be just as important to sportsmen—National Hunting and Fishing Day, this Saturday, September 24, when we celebrate the contributions hunters and anglers have made to conservation in this country and reflect on the freedom we have to enjoy America’s great outdoors.

Image courtesy of Bill Konway.

We should also take this opportunity to reckon with the state of our sports and the serious decline in hunting and fishing since the 1980s. For the last several years, it seems that almost every study has shown that our worst fears are, in fact, reality.

It’s no secret that sportsmen foot much of the bill for conservation in this country through the purchase of our hunting and fishing licenses, permits, and stamps, plus the excise taxes on hunting, shooting, and fishing equipment through the Pittman-Robertson Act and Dingell-Johnson Act. That money is a primary source of funding for state fish and wildlife departments; in some cases it’s the majority their funding. And while the “user pays” model is one that sportsmen and women should be proud of, we should also be concerned that the future of that funding source is tied to waning participation in our sports.

That’s a huge, huge problem, but it isn’t going unanswered.

Welcome to the R3 Community. R3 stands for “Recruit, Retain & Reactivate.” The whole concept focuses on finding new ways to get potential sportsmen outside (recruit), making sure that current sportsmen continue to hunt and fish every year (retain), and finding sportsmen who maybe haven’t hunted or fished in a while and bringing them back into the sport (reactivate). The R3 Community has created a “National Plan” aimed at boosting participation in our sports and, therefore, conservation funding.

This is the focus of the Council to Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports (CAHSS), which was formed in 2010, but the R3 movement is buoyed by a whole community with groups like the Archery Trade Association, the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation, Wildlife Management Institute, and many, many more doing their part. United, we are now equipped with the best tools possible to ensure that there is a National Hunting and Fishing Day in ten, 20, or 100 years.

Here’s what you can do to become an R3 advocate: Tomorrow, take someone hunting or fishing for the first time, and perhaps make someone a sportsman for life. If you haven’t bought a hunting or fishing license in recent years, Saturday is the perfect time to do so. And if you already plan on being in the field or on the water this weekend, buy an extra box (or five) of shells—don’t worry, it’s going to conservation.

If you want more information on National Hunting and Fishing Day, click here. To learn more about the Council to Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports, visit their website.

Celebrate National Public Lands Day by Showing the Land Some Love

This Saturday, September 24, is a day for celebrating our heritage – and you can join in by giving back

I love being outside, and I’m guessing that if you’ve found your way to this blog, then you do too. I am happy to live in Washington, DC, because it means I get to work at the TRCP, spending my days fighting for conservation and ensuring that that 640 million acres of public land remain public and remain accessible. However, lately, I’ve been neglecting my need to see the sky, smell the trees, and get my hands dirty. Sportsmen have a long history of getting their hands dirty – literally and figuratively – for conservation, and sometimes I just need to get out there and the work with my own two hands.

This Saturday, Sept 24, I’m going to get my on-the-ground fix – and you can too. In celebration of National Public Lands Day, parks, recreation areas, and more are hosting volunteer events all over the country. Additionally, if you’re in the Wyoming area, consider joining us at a Public Lands Day Celebration in Laramie.

Here are a few examples of Public Lands Day volunteer opportunities, in case you want to join me in celebrating our sporting heritage by taking care of our favorite spaces. Don’t see an event for your area listed here? Check in with your nearby public land agency and find events or start by browsing Find Your Park to find a spot near you.

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park. Photo courtesy of Dani Dagan.

Click here for more information on National Public Lands Day. Whether or not you get your hands dirty this Saturday, take the future of our public lands into your hands by signing the Sportsmen’s Access petition.


Where: Pipestone National Monument, Pipestone, Minn.

What: Seed collection from native tall grass prairie

More information


Where: Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, Western Ky. and Tenn.

What: Trail clean-up and work day

More information


Where: Red Top Mountain State Park, Cartersville, Ga.

What: Improve outdoor classroom

More information


Where: Don Carter State Park, Gainesville, Ga.

What: Shore sweep and trash clean-up

More information


Where: Yellowstone National Park

What: Trail maintenance

More information


Where: Colt Creek State Park, Lakeland, Fla.

What: Mulching

More information


Where: Lake Kissimmee State Park, Lake Wales, Fla.

What: Invasive weed removal

More information


Where: Lake Louisa State Park, Clermont, Fla.

What: Invasive weed and vegetation removal

More information


Where: 19 sites across Indiana

What: Trash clean-up, garden maintenance, trail work, invasive species removal, and more.

More information


Where: Poudre Wilderness, Northern Colo.

What: Trail maintenance

More information


Where: Hidden Canyon Community Park, Carlsbad, Calif.

What: Trail maintenance

More information


Where: Detroit Lake Campground shoreline, Detroit, Ore.

What: Shoreline and riverside clean-up

More information



This American Holiday is All About Your Right to Enjoy the Outdoors

National Hunting and Fishing Day is like Christmas, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving for sportsmen and women—so go enjoy the many gifts of the outdoors, cherish our American traditions, and give thanks

God put us in charge. At least, that’s what the Good Book says. Our human connection to nature and wildlife is so special, because we are at once a part of it, yet differentiated from it. The experiences we have with wildlife and wild places are vital to our existence, because they help us affirm our own uniqueness and value in life.

No one understands and appreciates this relationship more than American sportsmen and women. When a hunter or angler fairly and ethically pursues wildlife or fish, he is connecting with nature at a primal level—life and death are at stake. And with a respectful harvest of that animal, he is celebrating and appreciating what it has provided and taught him.

Theodore Roosevelt spoke of the virtues of a “strenuous life.” I believe he meant that life is an accumulation of experiences, big and small. Only by pushing ourselves in this pursuit can we know our full potential. Life is all around us, and sportsmen go out to meet it! It’s in the friction of water around your legs as you step into a stream, the crunch of frosty ground under your boot, the smell of a campfire, and the sound of laughter and tales being shared.

Elk hunting in Montana: A family tradition. Image courtesy of bhenak/Flickr.

September 24th is National Hunting and Fishing Day, and it should be celebrated and appreciated—not just by hunters and anglers, but by all Americans. Sportsmen are the original conservationists. Our traditions and passions for wildlife support a system found nowhere else on Earth, one that benefits all. The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation prioritizes professional science-based wildlife management, provides funding mechanisms through license sales and excise taxes that pay for conservation programs and, most importantly, holds that our fish and game resources are a public resource belonging to all Americans. Inherent in this truth is our democratic tradition of public lands, which goes back to the days of Roosevelt and others.

God put us in charge, therefore we are responsible. It is up to all of us, as sportsmen and women, to be vocal advocates for conservation of fish, wildlife, habitat, America’s public lands, and the sporting traditions we hold so dear.

Yellowstone River in Montana’s Paradise Valley. Image courtesy of Dusan Smetana.

In the spirt of this day, there are two things you can do to help guarantee that future generations have quality places to hunt and fish:

1)      Go hunting or fishing. Just get out there. Live the strenuous life. Even better, take someone with you.

2)      Speak up! Contact your lawmakers and elected officials to tell them why conservation and sportsmen are so important to our blessed country. Urge them to stand with sportsmen and women in celebrating our uniquely American traditions, on Saturday and every day.

This is a great place to start: Sign the Sportsmen’s Access petition and support America’s public lands at sportsmensaccess.org.

105 Sportsmen Businesses Agree: Don’t Mess With Sage Grouse Conservation

One year after the historic decision not to list the greater sage grouse for endangered species protection, retailers, outfitters, and gear manufacturers from across the country call on Congress to let sage grouse conservation work

Today, more than 100 hunting, fishing, and wildlife-related businesses are asking lawmakers to block attempts to undo collaborative conservation efforts that benefit the greater sage grouse.

As representatives of a $646-billion outdoor recreation industry that depends on sportsmen having access to healthy fish and wildlife habitat, business owners from 14 states have sent a letter that calls on Congressional leadership to oppose language or riders to any legislation that would force the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to abandon their own sage grouse conservation plans in favor of plans developed by the states.

Image courtesy of Department of Interior.

Almost exactly one year ago, on September 22, 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the range-wide population of greater sage grouse did not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act, following historic collaboration by federal and state agencies, industry, private landowners, sportsmen, and other stakeholders. This achievement, business leaders write, “should also be seen as a boon for business.”

However, some in Congress are attempting to derail the process by crafting language meant to block the federal conservation plans and attaching it to the only legislation moving in Washington, D.C.—the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and appropriations bills that keep the federal government operating.

“Sportsmen and outdoor business owners across the country are disappointed that Congress continues to play politics with our national defense and other must-pass legislation by attempting to insert unrelated and detrimental language about sage-grouse conservation into bills,” says Ryan Callaghan, marketing manager for First Lite, a hunting clothing company based in Ketchum, Idaho. “Healthy sagebrush is important not only for sage grouse, but also for mule deer, pronghorns, and elk, and to our customers that pursue these species each fall.”

Ed Arnett, senior scientist for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, adds that if language contained in the riders were to become law, it would throw into question decades of statutory precedent, several environmental laws, and the subsequent legal decisions around those laws. “Federal, state, and private landowner efforts are all needed to create on-the-ground results for sage grouse, and the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision last fall was predicated on all of these plans working in concert,” says Arnett. “Implementation must be allowed to continue.”

Business owners across the Western U.S. are counting on it. “There’s a lot that goes on in Congress that is confusing, frustrating or seemingly unrelated to what we care about as sportsmen, but when your bottom line—not to mention the activities you love and hope to pass on to your grandkids—depends on the health of an entire ecosystem, you pay attention,” says Melissa Herz of Herz Gun Dogs in Bend, Oregon. “We can’t allow the sagebrush landscape, vibrant with 350 species of plants and animals that rely on the same habitat as sage grouse, to become just a pawn in a political game, and we cannot waver on conservation plans that were put in place for good reason.”

The House version of the NDAA has already passed with provisions that would be detrimental to sage grouse conservation. The Senate is expected to consider its version of the bill, which does not include any language on sage grouse, in the coming weeks. Sportsmen’s groups and businesses have made it clear to lawmakers that the best thing they can do for sage grouse is ensure that state and federal land managers get the resources they need to implement their respective plans and that conservation efforts on private lands continue.

Undoing federal conservation plans might be the best way to ensure a listing, which is bad news for just about everyone.

Read the letter from 105 hunting and fishing businesses here.

Learn more about how conditions have improved for sage grouse in the year since the decision not to list the species.

Sage Grouse Still Face Issues One Year After Conservation Milestone

On the anniversary of the historic decision not to list the greater sage grouse for endangered species protection, population numbers are up—but there’s still plenty of work to do

Shortly after first light on opening day, my Labs and I maneuvered through the sagebrush in northwest Colorado searching for sage grouse. As we approached a fenced-off meadow, I noticed there were tags on the wires, markers designed to deter grouse from flying into the fence, which many ranchers and others are using to reduce accidental deaths. There definitely had to be birds in the area.

The author and his Labrador retrievers after a successful opening-day sage grouse hunt on public lands in Colorado. Image courtesy of Ed Arnett.

No sooner had I rested my gun on a wooden post to cross the fence when the sagebrush in front of me exploded with the unmistakable sound of a covey flush, and ten sage grouse flew off safely into the sagebrush sea.

Just four years earlier, I’d been hiking what felt like forever in one of my favorite Wyoming honey holes and no birds were to be found. I’d sat on a hillside wondering, “How did we get to this point?” How could a gamebird once so common, widely distributed, and liberally harvested have become so scarce?

That was in the fall of 2012, when drought continued to plague the West. Grouse numbers were low just about everywhere. In fact, the following spring yielded the second-lowest number of male sage grouse attending their breeding grounds in nearly 50 years. But it was more than just drought affecting sage grouse. More than half of the species range had been lost to development, cropland conversion, fire, or invasive juniper trees that the birds generally don’t like. The threats to habitat were so great and bird numbers so low that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was considering whether to protect sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.

Almost exactly one year ago, the agency decided that the bird was not warranted for listing, and this was heralded as a landmark success for collaborative conservation. On a perfect Saturday morning afield with my dogs, fortunate enough to be hunting sage grouse again, I might agree. But sage grouse are not yet in the clear—here’s why.

The Best Laid Plans

A listing would have dealt a crippling blow to the West and its economy. So, voluntarily, yet with the hammer of the ESA looming overhead, state and federal agencies, private landowners, and numerous stakeholders undertook what will be remembered as perhaps the largest coordinated conservation planning effort in the history of contemporary wildlife management.

Wyoming led the way for the states and dove in head first in 2008, launching its own version of a conservation strategy. Today, all states within the bird’s habitat have some version of a conservation plan for sage grouse. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) recognized early on how vital private landowners are to sagebrush conservation and initiated its own strategy, the Sage Grouse Initiative, in 2010. The NRCS immediately began advising and cutting checks to willing landowners to help improve conditions for sage grouse. The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service also began their own historic collaboration and developed conservation measures that would amend more than 100 land-use plans to better conserve and manage the sagebrush ecosystem. Finally, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) and the Department of Interior led planning and coordination efforts to combat wildfire and invasive species, like cheatgrass, that threaten sagebrush habitat.

It paid off. On September 22, 2015, the USFWS decided that sage grouse did not require ESA protections. However, that decision was predicated on strong conservation plans, especially on federal public lands, and with assurances that they would be implemented and effective.

Many of the states are implementing their plans. Some like Wyoming have been doing it for several years, but others are barely getting started. Now, one year after finalizing their plans, the BLM just issued guidance to all its field offices on how sage grouse conservation is to be implemented on our public lands.

Hopefully the actual implementation of federal plans doesn’t get as bogged down.

Healthy sagebrush ecosystems support 350 species of plants and animals, including those important to sportsmen, and help support ranching and outdoor recreation economies. Image courtesy of Ed Arnett.

Onward and Upward

So where are we today? Bird numbers are up across most of the range. According to WAFWA, 2015 saw a dramatic increase in males attending their leks—a 63-percent increase over what was recorded in 2013. Many have touted these numbers as evidence that the plans are working, but conditions have been naturally favorable. In 2014, rain finally found its way back to much of sagebrush country, improving habitat and helping to bridge the gap while conservation plans were developed. But there’s no doubt that ongoing conservation efforts are helping too—and it can only get better with more widespread support for the whole suite of conservation plans.

On the private lands front, NRCS has continued to sign on landowners under the Sage Grouse Initiative, with more than 1,200 participating so far. The Initiative has cleared 457,000 acres of encroaching juniper to open up sagebrush habitat, protected more than 400,000 acres from development, improved rangeland and grazing practices that benefit both grouse and livestock on nearly 2.8 million acres, and marked nearly 630 miles of fences to help grouse avoid collisions with deadly wires.

While hunting has never been identified as a major threat to sage grouse, sportsmen sacrificed opportunity in most states either with outright closures or curtailed seasons and smaller bag limits. But we also contributed to the solution with hundreds of millions dollars from hunting licenses, fees, and Pittman-Robertson funding dedicated by the states to sage grouse research and conservation.

Don’t Mess With Success

But not everyone agrees with all of the conservation efforts that are planned or ongoing. The strength of the federal land-use plans has been called into question in no less than six pending lawsuits in which the plans are being called either too onerous or not rigorous enough.

Unfortunately, some in Congress continue to meddle with success by trying to force the federal agencies to use only state-developed plans. The problem is that some state plans cannot stand alone to address the threats to sage grouse, and many are based on voluntary efforts with weak assurances they will be fully implemented. Lawmakers who would rather see state plans adopted across the bird’s range are attaching legislation to the only things moving through Congress—our national defense spending bill and other appropriations bills that keep the government funded.

There should be no language in any future legislation that seeks to delay, defund, or otherwise undo the federal sage grouse conservation plans on millions of acres of America’s public lands, and 105 business leaders agree. These retailers, outfitters, and gear manufacturers, who rely on sportsmen having access to quality fish and wildlife habitat, are urging lawmakers to let sage grouse conservation happen. Read the letter here.

The True Test of Conservation

It’s still far too early to claim victory for sage grouse, and quite honestly, I think we dodged the proverbial bullet. Without rain over the past three years, we may have seen a different scenario play out last fall. The documented increases in bird numbers only reflect a short-term uptick; the long-term trend is still one of gradual decline.

The true test of conservation is yet to come.

If oil prices perhaps break $60 per barrel or if we experience another drought in sagebrush country, then we’ll get to see how well the conservation plans really work. All game bird populations go through cycles, and sage grouse numbers will always fluctuate. But what we do next will determine if the species can emerge from particularly tough times.

The Next Chapter

As for my sage grouse hunt last weekend, the story ends like this: I saw exactly where the covey put down, and soon afterward my dogs and I were on the birds. Once again, I heard the telltale sound of flapping wings, and two shots later we had finished our quest for the iconic bird of the West.

How will the story end for sage grouse across their range? That chapter is still being written.

We must stay on track with implementing the conservation plans—all of them—that were so crucial to the not-warranted decision made one year ago. And we must be wary of political meddling. Congress should ensure that there is adequate funding to implement conservation plans and support the states and private landowners. A new presidential administration will take over soon, and no matter who wins, they too must stay the course for sagebrush conservation.

We have little time to spare, as drought will once again hit the American West, as it always has, and pressures to extract resources from the land will continue to compete with our conservation goals.

Sure, as sportsmen, we want to continue to have opportunities to pursue these birds, trek through brushy landscapes with our dogs, and hear the flush of flapping wings. But, as Americans, we should be proud of a collaborative process that’s working—one that represents our scientists, land managers, private landowners, elected officials, and businesses working together—and see it through to a happy ending for the sagebrush sea.

Glassing the Hill: September 19 – 23

The Senate and House are both in session this week.

Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

Breaking: An East Coast public land transfer bill may be introduced as early as Tuesday. This legislation, from Rep. Bill Keating (D-Mass.), would transfer thousands of acres of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge in Chatham, Massachusetts. This proposal is being put forth as a possible solution to an ongoing dispute between the refuge and several local elected officials. Public lands advocates prefer to resolve the disagreement with a formal agreement between the parties, or perhaps through litigation that can determine the legal legitimacy of the dispute. These alternatives would avoid setting the dangerous precedent of transferring federal public lands to the states through a legislative decision. The Senate is not expected to introduce companion legislation.

The Senate passed a water projects bill with big benefits for the Everglades last week, and now the House must do the same before talks move forward. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) indicated last week that the House might consider its version of “The Water Resource Development Act” (WRDA) sometime before Friday. However, it looks as though that timeline has slipped, leaving just a six weeks or so after the elections for House passage and the conference process.

The Senate cleared its WRDA package, which would authorize Everglades restoration and provisions to improve habitat connectivity, on a hugely bipartisan vote count of 95-3. The House version of the bill does not currently match the Senate version’s provisions on using nature-based infrastructure, like wetlands and reefs, over manmade structures—so that will come up in conference.

It looks like a short-term funding mechanism, which would last until Dec. 9, could be a go. The Senate will begin consideration of a short-term continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government through December 9. Senate leadership decided to use “The Legislative Branch Appropriations Act” (H.R. 5325) as the legislative vehicle to move the CR. Disagreements about Zika funding, Planned Parenthood, Internet regulation, disaster relief provisions for Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Flint, Michigan, persist, but Senate leaders seem confident that the deal will be cleared this week, and then senators will head home for an early October recess. We expect the House will stay in session until next week, then both chambers will remain in their respective states until November 14, after the general elections.

What else we’re tracking:

Tuesday, September 20

The merging of seed and farm-chemical industries will be discussed in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

Wednesday, September 21

Greenhouse gas emissions guidance by the Council on Environmental Quality will be debated at a House Natural Resources Committee hearing.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s mitigation policy will be reviewed in a Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife hearing.

The federal government’s management of wolves will be deliberated in House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing.

Public land legislation, including Rep. Rob Bishop’s (R-Utah) Public Lands Initiative bill will be discussed in a House Natural Resources Committee mark-up.

Thursday, September 22

A public land legislation mark-up is slated to continue in the House Natural Resources Committee.

Senate public land legislation is also on the docket in a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing.

Chesapeake Bay conservation will be discussed at a House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry hearing.

Economic fuel standards will be deliberated in a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade, and Energy and Power hearing.

U.S. National Park Service management will be considered in a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing.

Regulation guidelines for agencies will be discussed in a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management hearing.