Stoneflies: A Gift to Anglers and a Vigilant Monitor of Water Quality

The hatch that defines a season, drives local spending, and indicates the health of our trout fisheries

I roll over a riverside rock and smile. The stone’s now-exposed belly teems with life. Dozens of stonefly nymphs—at least three varieties—squirm. Some hunker down and twist into a circle to avoid detection. Others crawl for cover, diving back into the cobble and cold, pristine water of the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River.

The annual stonefly hatch is near, perhaps only days away. The nymphs have lived in the river for three years, and over the next two weeks they will emerge, molt, mate, lay eggs, and die. Trout will abandon caution and feast, putting on the weight they need for survival. Rainbows, cutthroats, browns, and brookies will shed their varying levels of suspicion and target adult stoneflies. It is a visual experience: Browns and bows savage the fly, cutthroats lazily pick them off, and brookies dart and dash.

Nate Rolston holds a brown trout he caught on the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River on a dry stonefly. Image courtesy of Jim Hardy.

It is a simple, enduring life cycle built on the availability of clean water.

Because of the vagaries of temperatures and runoff, the stonefly hatch plays out across two months as Western rivers seemingly take turns showing off their hatch, but the first is always here on the Henry’s Fork in late May. Then, like dominoes, other rivers follow: the Big Hole, the Madison, the South Fork, the Teton, the Gunnison, the Green, the Deschutes, the Yellowstone, and the Middle Fork.

A stout, well-provisioned angler can chase adult stoneflies for two months and not visit the same water twice. (Trust me: I’ve tried, but that is a story for another time.) The trout feeding frenzy brings anglers from around the world to the West in May, June, and early July. It is a semi-crazed, sleep-deprived tribe of fishermen in search of the big fish that single-mindedly hunt for stoneflies.

The hatch is not only a harbinger of summer but also a boon to local businesses, from fly shops to truck stops. Local fishermen complain about the crowds on “their” rivers as business owners cheer. Anglers eat and sleep in restaurants and hotels. Fly shops are full. Guides are booked. Shuttle drivers are flush. An Idaho Department of Fish and Game study claims the Henry’s Fork alone generates $40 million in recreation spending annually. And as long as we take care of the headwaters of our western rivers, it is a self-sustaining resource.

What joins all these rivers together is the cold, clean water that comes from public lands high in the Rockies. Near my Idaho Falls home, it is the flanks of Yellowstone National Park’s Pitchstone Plateau, the spine of the Wyoming Range, and the runoff from central Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. Trout especially rely on consistent conditions in these headwaters, as pure as they can be in an environment influenced by man.

Image courtesy of Bob Henricks/Flickr.

Since stonefly nymphs spend three years in water, they are an excellent—and accepted—measure of stream health. They require cool, well-oxygenated water and are susceptible to pollution, making them a low-tech monitor for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality’s Beneficial Use Reconnaissance Program. They are also used as an indicator species by the Environmental Protection Agency.

So, when I flip the rock again, and re-submerge the writhing pile of stonefly nymphs, I’m reminded that the hatch is our reward for thoughtfully managing our public lands, with an eye to the best-available science, and never backing down when it comes to threats that would compromise the fish and wildlife we treasure.

My friends and I launch our boat, hoping that at least a few bugs and a few fish are getting started early this year, and it is the opening move of a two-month ramble with stoneflies and trout. We journey through some of the best public lands the West has to offer.

Water rushes by as we fish. It is destined for use, agricultural or otherwise. Here and now, the water is a renewable resource and a business driver, the lifeblood of this magical time of year. We need to protect our public lands and waters to keep it that way.

Glassing The Hill: May 9 – 13

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

The Senate and House are back in session after a weeklong recess. Here’s what’s in and what’s out of the bills currently up for debate, with only 50 days left on the legislative calendar.

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

IN: Provisions to transfer a popular wildlife refuge. On Tuesday, the House Natural Resources Committee is expected to release new language to address the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s financial problems. The rewritten bill is likely to include a modified provision to transfer the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge to Puerto Rico. Transfer of the refuge could mean loss of public access for Puerto Ricans whose government is in disarray and presumably ill-equipped to properly manage the refuge’s habitat. The Committee plans to mark up the bill at the end of the month.

OUT: The mission to muck up sage grouse conservation. The Senate Armed Services Committee and subcommittees will hold a three-day mark-up on their version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which does not include any language that would halt state and federal collaboration on critical habitat conservation plans for the greater sage grouse.

Before the recess, Congresswoman Tsongas (D-Mass.) offered a motion to strike this type of language from the House NDAA, but the motion failed along party lines. The House Armed Services Committee passed the NDAA with a 60-2 vote, and the legislation is expected to be considered on the House floor next week.

OUT: Using wetlands to address water quality. Before the break, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee marked up and passed “The Water Resources Development Act” (WRDA), which would address water resources that are administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The TRCP and its partners are encouraging lawmakers to include language that promotes the use of natural infrastructure, like wetlands, to benefit fish and wildlife while addressing other water resource issues, when the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee marks up their version of WRDA on May 19. That language was not included in the Senate version.

IN, still: A controversial amendment that is keeping Senators from regular order on appropriations. Two weeks ago, “The Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act” failed to pass on the Senate floor, due to controversy over Senator Cotton’s (R-Ark.) amendment that would block the U.S. Energy Department from purchasing heavy water from Iran. On Monday evening, the Senate will try again to pass the energy and water spending bill with a 60-vote threshold, but it’s unlikely that the Senate will pass the legislation.

Next week, the Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to mark up the agriculture appropriations bill. The House will begin considering appropriation bills on the floor next week, too. “The Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act” is anticipated to be considered first, followed by the energy and water development and agriculture spending bills.

Also IN… town to testify: County commissioners concerned with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Planning 2.0 Rule. A House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing will focus on the proposed extension of the public input period and suggestion that 2.0 will lead to a decline in local input on developing land-use plans.

What Else We’re Tracking

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Legislation impacting public lands in California, Oregon, and South Dakota, up for debate in this House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands hearing

The rising costs of natural disasters, to be discussed in a House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management hearing

A Brief History of the Tenuous Connection Between One Game Bird and Military Readiness

Must-pass legislation that funds our military is no place for attacks on critical conservation plans

Image courtesy of Mia Sheppard.

One doesn’t often think of the United States military and the greater sage grouse in the same breath. But for a small number of politicians in Washington, linking the bird with the armed services has become a tactic for undoing solid conservation on millions of acres of national public lands, while attempting to erase the first few chapters of a great conservation success story.

Because of a whole slew of factors—habitat fragmentation, invasive species, wildfire, and energy development, just to name a few—populations of greater sage grouse, a bird once widely hunted during long seasons with liberal bag limits, have been on a worrisome path of decline. Indeed, things for the bird were looking dire enough that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) considered listing the bird under the Endangered Species Act—a decision that would have had significant implications across the West.

But facing a listing decision led the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to revise dozens of land-use plans across the 11-state range of the grouse and prioritize the durable conservation of sage-grouse core habitat. At the same time, many of the states across the range crafted their own plans for non-federal portions of the bird’s habitat, and the Department of Agriculture prioritized funding for ranch and rangeland conservation efforts on private land. This mix of coordinated efforts proved robust enough that in September of 2015, the FWS decided that the bird did not warrant a listing.

Make no mistake, the conservation of core habitat included in the federal plans was the sine qua non of the agency’s unwarranted decision. Some lawmakers in Congress have bristled at the tough conservation initiatives that are required to keep the bird off the list, but they ensure that the bird continues to be managed by the states. So, in the summer of 2015, before the unwarranted decision had been made, several of those lawmakers made the case for including language in the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would have given the states nearly unfettered veto authority over sage-grouse conservation plans on national public lands, while freezing the bird’s conservation status for a decade.

If this mashup of national defense and birds on the lek still has you scratching your head, consider this: The NDAA is pretty important, given that it keeps our military funded and functioning, and Congress has passed this bill every year for as long as anyone cares to remember—it’s as close to ‘must-pass’ as we have these days in Washington. So, the sponsors of this short-sighted effort made the tenuous claim that a listing of the bird would have dire impacts on military readiness, and they got it included in the House version of the NDAA in 2015. Thanks to a lot of common sense and distaste for including something so beyond the pale, the Senate did not include similar language in their own version of the bill, and the NDAA ultimately signed by the President did not include the offending language either.

Conservation groups quietly celebrated a victory that few Americans really heard about.

Image courtesy of Jeannie Stafford/USFWS.

But bad ideas are pretty hard to kill in Washington, and this one’s no exception. Despite the fact that the bird was not warranted for listing, some in Congress are obsessed with undoing what might be the greatest achievement in Western public lands conservation in a generation. And we are gearing up for another run at keeping this bad language out of the NDAA.

The TRCP and many of our partners have already started the process of letting our lawmakers know that the best thing they can do for sage grouse is pretty easy: Simply see that adequate funding goes toward implementation of federal plans, that necessary resources go to the states, and that private lands conservation continues.

If implemented, these plans would be a windfall for the habitat of species like mule deer and pronghorns, not to mention a boon to sportsmen. And the plans keep the responsibility for the management of sage grouse in state hands. Undoing those conservation plans might be the best way to ensure a listing—bad news for just about everyone.

Be the first to know about sage grouse and the NDAA. 

Pounding the Pavement to Safeguard Days on the Water and in the Woods

Our government relations associate describes the outdoor experiences and family traditions that drive her to work for better conservation policy in our nation’s capital

Image courtesy of Julia Galliher.

When it comes to skill in the outdoors, I didn’t have the most auspicious beginnings. In fact, on my first family fishing trip at the age of five, I ended up hooking my mom—not dinner. Fortunately, I’ve learned to watch my backcast, and I’ve grown from a girl with a Goofy rod and reel into a person who feels passionately about advocating for legislation that improves sportsmen’s access and benefits the fish and wildlife habitat we rely on. That’s why I’m here in Washington, D.C., working with my colleagues at the TRCP to guarantee all Americans quality places to hunt and fish.

In this town, I think it’s easy to get caught up in what we have on our to-do lists, and lose sight of why we’re doing it. To remind myself, I recently gave my dad a call. Since 2006, he has been involved with the Red-tail Land Conservancy, a not-for-profit land trust in Muncie, Indiana, that has conserved over 2,600 acres of private land. He’s also the person who taught me everything I know about the outdoors.

Image courtesy of Julia Galliher.

At 15 years old, I recall being aware of his participation in restoration projects and other volunteer work to further conservation, but until now I’d never asked him why he felt so compelled to give back. Like so many sportsmen and women, Dad credits our country’s fish and wildlife habitat for the best experiences of his childhood. His father—my Gramps—and grandfather took him fishing on the West Coast of Florida and many of the rivers and lakes in Indiana. Gramps taught him firearm safety and set him up with a BB gun and targets made from hanging acorns and fat flower blossoms. Dad grew up training his English setter, competing in field trials, hunting upland birds, and fishing whenever and wherever he could.

He jokes that he started taking us kids out so he’d have an excuse to take time off work or get out of household chores, but of course he wanted us to have these memories of family time in the outdoors, too. And I have many. Before hanging up, we chatted about our deep-sea and back-bay fishing trips in Florida, the walleyes and northern pike we caught in Manitoba, and our hunting expeditions for wild quail in Illinois.

All that time, Dad was showing me how to be a good sportswoman and steward of these resources, too.   Our most unforgettable stories aren’t about the biggest fish or the trophy-size bucks—they’re about connection and tradition. So, while there are times that I feel helpless and frustrated with Congress, whether for lawmakers’ actions or inactions on conservation priorities, I’m armed with the understanding that quality places to hunt and fish are worth fighting for.

Image courtesy of Julia Galliher.

What was important to Gramps and my dad is now what drives me to do this important work of advocating for habitat and access. So, the next time I’m headed into a meeting with a Congressional staffer, or rushing across town to attend an event hosted by one of our conservation partners, I’ll be thinking about my family, our cabin, Muncie’s White River and, yes, even Mom’s shriek as I tried to reel her in on that first cast.

If you’re hooked on the thrill of the outdoors, we want to hear from you. Who first taught you that being a hunter or angler means taking responsibility for our fish and wildlife? What do you want our lawmakers to know about the value of the outdoors

Bringing back Lees Ferry

Back in the 1970s, the 15-mile stretch below Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River known as Lees Ferry was renowned as one of the finest tailwater fisheries in the world. Anglers flocked there to catch monster rainbows fattened on Gammarus scuds to the 10- to 20-pound range amid cold, clear river flows and spectacular desert canyon scenery.

The fishery has experienced ups and downs over the years. Today, the Lees Ferry trout fishery, while still good, is a shadow of its former self. Arizona Trout Unlimited and other partners would like to bring the fishery back to some semblance of its glory days.

Image courtesy of John Hamill.

Joe Miller of TU’s Arizona Council says managing flows from Glen Canyon dam is a key. “The Lees Ferry fishery has so much more potential than we’re realizing now,” he told me, “But we need to fine-tune the dam releases to find more sustainable and optimal conditions for the trout.”

The massive dam, completed in 1964, helped create a recreational coldwater fishery in a desert environment. But managing those flows over the years has proved tricky. Water releases and temperatures impact everything from the survival of juvenile trout to aquatic bug and food production.

In recent years, dam operations have led to a decline in bug life on the river and water conditions that fall short of a quality trout fishery. Gammarus scuds are greatly reduced, and main food base is now only midges and very small black flies. Several of the most common bug orders found in every other quality tailwater fishery in the West—mayflies, stoneflies and caddis flies—are totally absent from the Lees Ferry trout buffet.

Moreover, frequent High Flow Events (HFE’s) in the fall may be adversely impacting the rainbow trout fishery and the aquatic food base.

For the last 5 years, the Bureau of Reclamation, the dam operators, and the National Park Service have been developing the Glen Canyon Dam Long Term Experimental and Management Plan EIS (LTEMPEIS), which will determine how the Glen Canyon Dam operates for the next 20 years.

It’s a prime opportunity for anglers to have a direct say in how fishery is managed—but public comments for the EIS are due by May 9.

Some of the key LTEMPEIS recommendations from TU and other groups include:

  • recognize the Lees Ferry rainbow trout fishery as a priority resource “value” to be enhanced by dam operations.
  • test the use of sustained low and steady flows to increase the production and diversity of the aquatic insects in the Colorado River below Glen Canyon Dam.
  • modify the HFE protocol to shift more high flows from the fall to the spring to benefit a variety of resources besides sediment/sandbars, including aquatic food base and the rainbow trout fishery.  HFE’s should only be conducted in the spring if/when the condition of trout or the aquatic food base in Lees Ferry is poor.
  • reintroduce historic mayfly, caddis and stonefly species in the Lees Ferry reach.

Image courtesy of John Hamill.

These and other science-based recommendations (read the full report here) are supported by a wide range of conservation organizations and outfitters and guides, including Trout Unlimited and its Arizona Council and chapters, International Federation of Fly Fishers, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Arizona Wildlife Federation, Arizona Fly Casters, Desert Fly Casters, Orvis Company, Lees Ferry Anglers, Marble Canyon Outfitters and many more.  The Arizona Department of Fish and Game has issued a formal Lees Ferry Fisheries Management Plan based on those recommendations.

It’s time to get Lees Ferry back on track – go to the National Park Service LTEMPEIS website and express your support for trout-friendly dam operations and aquatic habitat restoration at Lees Ferry.

And please comment before May 9, 2016!

If we miss this opportunity, it could be decades before we get another shot at restoring Lees Ferry to its glory days.

Randy Scholfield is Trout Unlimited’s communications director for the Southwest region.

Toasting to conservation: Three champions for the sportsmen’s community recognized at our annual gala

Conservation philanthropist Louis Bacon, Sen. Martin Heinrich, and Sen. James Risch recognized at eighth annual awards dinner

At its eighth annual Capital Conservation Awards Dinner last night, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership celebrated three honorees building a legacy of support for fish and wildlife on Capitol Hill and across the country: Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Senator James Risch (R-Idaho), and conservation philanthropist Louis Bacon.

Image courtesy of Kristyn Brady.

The gala event, held at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C., brought together policy-makers, conservation advocates, and outdoor industry leaders.

Bacon received TRCP’s 2016 Lifetime Conservation Achievement Award after more than two decades of supporting efforts to conserve threatened habitat, protect open spaces, and safeguard clean water through The Moore Charitable Foundation, which he founded in 1992.

In his opening statement last night, TRCP President and CEO Whit Fosburgh extolled Bacon’s remarkable work with former Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create the 170,000-acre centerpiece of the Sangre de Cristo Conservation Area, the nation’s 558th unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System, and the efforts of all the honorees to embody Roosevelt’s words: “The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets, which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value.”

“Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy is one of great environmental success, but conservation success today requires as much, or more commitment than in Roosevelt’s time when tens of millions of acres of natural wildlife habitat could be set aside with the stroke of a pen,” said Bacon. “Conservation success today is also about tackling the issue of environmental justice. We must guarantee that all citizens have access to clean water and clean air as well as access to the outdoors that we all love.” 

Sen. Heinrich and Sen. Risch were presented with the 2016 James D. Range Conservation Award—named for TRCP’s co-founder, a conservation visionary, and presented to one Democrat and one Republican each year—for their dedication to protecting what sportsmen value in Congress.

As he accepted his award from Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Heinrich lauded the overwhelming bipartisanship of last week’s Senate vote to pass sweeping energy modernization legislation including big conservation benefits for fish and wildlife. “Marble halls and concrete are certainly not my natural habitat, but I’m motivated to be here and ensure that the outdoor experiences I’ve enjoyed all my life are possible long after I’m gone,” said Heinrich.

In his time as senator, Risch has co-sponsored legislation designed to reauthorize key conservation programs and put an end to fire borrowing, and as governor of Idaho, he was instrumental in creating the state’s roadless rule—a fact highlighted by Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), a 2013 honoree who presented Risch with his award. “We can accomplish conservation in America if we all come to the table and enter the collaborative process with a spirit of goodwill,” said Risch.

Learn more about the TRCP’s Capitol Conservation Awards.

Barbecue, Beer, and Sportsmen: Celebrating Conservation with Secretary Jewell

Jewell discussed the power of hunter and angler voices in Washington and her dedication to public lands access and sage-grouse restoration at annual barbecue on the Potomac

Last night, at a celebration of her final year in office, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell thanked American sportsmen and women who speak up for conservation funding, habitat management, and the protection of public lands access. The event was hosted by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership at the Potomac Boat Club.

Image courtesy of Kristyn Brady.

After chatting over barbecue and beer with conservation community leaders from across the country, Jewell addressed the crowd and was candid about her remaining goals related to conservation, hunting, fishing, habitat restoration, public lands, and youth and minority engagement.

“We’re going to keep our good momentum going,” said Jewell, who highlighted the landscape-scale conservation effort on behalf of sage grouse and the need to look to the future of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. “Every day is a tricky balance between the here and now—non-renewable resources, fish and wildlife habitat, the livelihoods and heritage of the tribes and ranchers—and what we leave to future generations. People expect us to be in the forever business.”

Jewell also had advice for conservation advocates: “Never stop talking about how much sportsmen and women contribute to the economy. You represent a constituency that is Republican, Democrat, Independent, hunting, fishing, Latino, Caucasian, new generations waiting to get outside, and people like me, who grew up in the outdoors. All these people can help to make progress on the things we care about,” she said.

“We have a great conservation ally in Secretary Jewell, who understands the clout of the outdoor recreation industry and the restorative power of spending time on our nation’s public lands—in solitude or with family and friends,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the TRCP. “Throughout her term, she has been a champion for many of the things sportsmen stand for, including making better investments in conservation, improving fish and wildlife habitat, balancing multiple uses of America’s public lands, and securing access for all. We’re anxious to work with her this year and see these priorities through.”

Key to success in conservation: Hunters and anglers like YOU

Annual report highlights 2015 growth and success in service of guaranteeing all Americans quality places to hunt and fish

We just released our 2015 Annual Report detailing the our diverse array of accomplishments benefiting habitat and sportsmen’s access in the last calendar year. It’s all thanks to hunters and anglers like you; thanks to our growing coalition of 46 formal partners, 23 corporate affiliates, and thousands of supporters across the U.S., you’ve helped us affect positive policy changes and conservation investments in service of Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy and our mission to guarantee all Americans quality places to hunt and fish.

“Too often, people mistake action for accomplishment. Nowhere is this more true than in Washington, where how many meetings you attend is often mistaken for actual success,” writes TRCP President and CEO Whit Fosburgh and Board Chairman Weldon Baird in the opening pages of the report. “For the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, 2015 was about accomplishment— achieving real results that will directly benefit fish and wildlife habitat and Americans’ access to those lands and waters.”

Despite ongoing threats from well-funded anti-conservation interests, the benefits of last year’s work will extend to marine fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico, greater sage grouse and other sagebrush species of the West, headwater streams and wetlands across the country, and all Americans who rely on public lands for their hunting and fishing access. The 501(c)(3) organization also confirms its accountability to donors by sharing 2015 financials and accolades from charity-watch organizations, including a third four-star rating from Charity Navigator.

Read the 2015 Annual Report here.

Glassing The Hill: April 25 – 29

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

The Senate and the House are both in session this week.

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

The House NDAA includes a greater sage-grouse provision that is sure to ruffle some feathers. The House Armed Services Committee will hold a mark-up of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), legislation which helps fund our military, on Wednesday, April 27. The chairman’s version of the bill includes language from “The Greater Sage Grouse Protection and Recovery Act,” which would undermine conservation plans in core habitat areas. Congresswoman Tsongas (D-Mass.) is expected to make a motion to strike the provision to be stripped from the underlying bill. So far, this effort is playing out precisely as it did in 2015.

Aquatic habitat improvements that benefit wildlife and improved access. On Wednesday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will mark up the Water Resources Development Act, which would address various aspects of water resources administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Sportsmen should be pleased with a possible addition to the bill calling for use of nonstructural, naturally-occurring infrastructure, such as wetlands, in place of sewer and stormwater inlets. Using natural infrastructure would improve water and habitat quality and enhance hunting and fishing opportunities.

It’s open to debate. The Senate will continue considering “The Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act,” which will not include a rider to block the administration’s clean water rule after Senator Hoeven’s (R-N.D.) amendment failed to pass last week. Later in the week, the Senate will begin consideration of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development spending bill. The House will consider two bills: a resolution to prevent retirement investment regulations from being altered; “The Email Privacy Act,” legislation that would require the government to obtain a warrant before accessing people’s electronic devices.

Here’s what else we’re tracking:

Tuesday, April 26

Senate Natural Resources Committee hearing on oil and gas development in different environments and economies

Wednesday, April 27

House Armed Services Committee mark-up on the National Defense Authorization Act

Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee hearing on the Clean Water Rule 

House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources hearing entitled; “Bureau of Land Management’s Regulatory Overreach into Methane Emissions Regulation”

House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power, and Oceans hearing on renewable energy resources

Thursday, April 28

House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s role in the Pebble Mine case

Senate Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests, and Mining hearing on invasive species

House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands hearing entitled; “Locally-elected Officials Cooperating with Agencies in Land Management Act”

House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing on public land management along The United States’ border

This Chopper-Aided Wildlife Study Looks Dramatic and Has Lasting Impacts on Conservation

Our Wyoming field rep gets up close with big game species in an exciting capture-and-collar study

Most people, especially hunters, are intrigued by the idea of wildlife captures and studies. The data is critical, but the logistics are mind-boggling. So is the prospect of being that close to a live big-game animal. I get a lot of questions about the captures happening around Wyoming when I mention that I work on wildlife migration for TRCP —when I clarify that I work on policy, I’m usually met with blank expressions.

Well, prepare for my bar stories to get a whole lot more exciting, because a few weeks ago I was able to help out with the captures to help study mule deer and bighorn sheep migration, right here in my hometown of Dubois, WY. I’d seen photos and videos of the process before, but to be there in person with a helicopter buzzing overhead, and to carry and hold down a live animal, was an intense experience.

There’s no shortage of people willing to help the Wyoming Migration Initiative and Wyoming Game and Fish Department staff with these captures, and joining us over the course of two days were volunteers from the National Bighorn Sheep Center, Muley Fanatic Foundation, a local education program called SOAR, The Nature Conservancy, and many other groups. The folks running the show were actually more concerned with keeping volunteer numbers to a reasonable level than not having enough help. It made me wish we had this nice-to-have problem when asking sportsmen to engage in policy decisions.

One of the younger volunteers expressed concern that the captures seem stressful for the animals—you may be thinking the same thing when you watch the video above. A skilled marksman in a helicopter flies over and fires a net gun to capture each animal, which is then blindfolded and hobbled before being flown in mid-air to a field where a bunch of people are prepared to install a collar and take all kinds of samples including blood, fecal, ultrasounds – a whole lot of poking and prodding to a stunned creature.

The important thing to remember is that the information collected helps us study their diseases, body condition, and movements, so captures are invaluable to making sure our wildlife herds stay healthy. Armed with data, wildlife and land managers can make informed decisions to help reduce disease transmission, improve habitat quality, and conserve areas that mule deer are known—not just assumed—to frequent.

This is actually where my work at the TRCP comes in. Based on the best science and data, we’re able to advocate for the places where habitat protections are needed, like migration corridors and stopover habitats, to ensure healthy wildlife herds.

Image courtesy of Jessi Johnson.

Prior to the use of GPS-collars, biologists had a rough-to-good idea of where herds migrated and identified these areas with only a simple line on a map. With GPS-collars affixed to big game animals, it is now possible to get accurate location and timing data that identifies stopover areas and the full width of the corridor over its entire length, along with being able to model the high-use corridor. Looking at the old routes, compared to the new information, you can see how useful this is for wildlife conservation—less guesswork means more improvements that keep herds healthy.

Left: Data previously available for mule deer migration routes in the Big Sandy area.
Right: The data available now that includes the mule deer corridors for the Sublette Herd showing the Red Desert to Hoback high-use corridor (black outlined) and stopover areas (pink polygons).

Joining these captures gave me a new perspective on what it takes to get the data that is so necessary for wildlife conservation. Even though I worked crazy hours as a hunting guide and field biologist in the past, I was impressed by the crew’s stamina in getting all the animals captured and sampled safely, and Dubois was just one stop on their tour. It also inspired me to make sure we are doing everything we can to make sure the science gets translated into good policy, so that the stress these animals endure benefits their future.

Image courtesy of Jessi Johnson.

This is where you come in: We need YOUR help to let decision-makers know that sportsmen want the best wildlife science resulting in strong policy. A few months ago, when the WY Game & Fish Commission was updating their strategy for managing migration corridors, comments and feedback from hundreds of sportsmen really made the difference.

I hope we can count on you and your voice in the future. Policy isn’t as exciting as being out on the hunt or wetting a line, but it’s critical to ensure that our hunting and angling opportunities and wildife health continue to be unmatched throughout the world.

Be the first to know about sportsmen’s issues and how you can help.