Little Fish, Big Impact

River herring. Photo courtesy of Jerry Prezioso/NOAA.gov.

There has been a lot of news on the fishing-related websites and blogs recently about forage fish, primarily herring and menhaden. Truthfully, a complete discussion on forage would encompass a much wider range of species, but I think that I’ll at least narrow it down to the major ones.

Herring, specifically river herring, should be a hot topic. It is that time of year when town Herring Wardens get to see what has come back to rivers in towns all along the New England coast. Word has it that a bunch of rivers are looking good. They’re not where they should be but a heck of a lot better than they have been in the last few years. Some of this is due to in-stream restoration projects that now are paying off, and some is due to efforts to minimize the high seas interaction with sea herring caught by so-called mid-water trawling, both single vessel and pair trawling.

The in-stream work is fairly easy to measure. Restore the habitat in the watershed or rebuild or create fish ladder access to spawning grounds, wait a couple of years, and count the increase. These are very prolific spawners that grow relatively quickly, so gratification, while not instant, is pretty darn quick.

The at-sea interaction is a lot harder to measure for a number of reasons, but the main one is the sheer volume of fish caught in the sea herring fishery. It is fairly normal to have 200,000 pounds of herring and whatever else in a net. The volume is so great as to require that the contents are vacuumed out into the boat’s fish hold. An onboard observer may pull samples of a tote at certain points in the transfer process. If they pull a total of 100 pounds, there is a one in 2,000 chance that they will see any bycatch such as river herring. Those are not good odds. In some cases, even if they do get some in the sample, only a trained eye can distinguish the difference in herring species. In sum: it is likely that managers still do not have a good handle on the actual catch of river herring on the high seas. If the truth be told, there probably is not a good handle on bycatch in general in the northeast sea herring fishery. The New England Fishery Management Council has been working on it, but it has been a hard slog.

A lot of in-stream work still needs to be accomplished, but that will be a function of funding and some hardworking local folks to pull it all together. As mentioned above, that work can be very satisfying as the results are relatively quick and easily visible. In the spring, herring runs usually attract a lot of excited visitors, so positive feedback and PR help the process.

River herring

Image courtesy of NOAA.gov.

Sea herring seem to be managed fairly well, and their spawning success is predicated upon the environmental conditions at spawning time and the ability of managers to control access to spawning aggregations of sea herring. No matter how well managers do, there will always be fluctuations in the population. The major consideration of scientists that advise the managers on setting catch levels should be leaving enough resource for predators such as tuna, striped bass, whales, cod fish, etc. to feed on.

When I was on the NEFMC, there was an effort to put in place a measure to weigh all sea herring so that managers could get a realistic handle on what amount was being caught. Managers were using guesstimations, and in my opinion that is not good enough. NOAA’s regional office rejected that effort as being too onerous. Funny that 125 million pounds of lobster all get weighed in the state of Maine, and that is not considered onerous. It is considered smart business. In any case, a recent action may put in place at least a volumetric measure requirement.

As for menhaden, most of the catch of this forage species is in the Mid Atlantic. There have not been any major migrations of menhaden, like we used to see in the 1980s, north of Cape Cod for a number of years. I keep hoping that there will be, as they bring a whole host of predators that like to feed on them.

Some steps have been implemented by the ASMFC to control the harvest of menhaden. For 2013 there was a 20-percent reduction over the average catch for 2009-2011. The biggest issue has been how this has been enforced, or not enforced, by different states. Rhode Island was 7 percent over. New York was 421 percent over. Delaware was 234 percent over. Maryland 34 percent over. The Potomac River Fisheries Commission was 41 percent over. Florida was 152 percent over. Because some states with decent sized quotas were under, the total quota was just about on target at 2 percent under. A long list of folks will be pushing for a fair and equitable enforcement policy to be put in place. There also should be measures that do not allow states like Maryland to have a bycatch fishery after the quota is taken.

What I am not aware of is whether the catch is weighed or volumetric conversion to weight. That may vary state to state. We will have to see what the reduction does for overall populations in the next couple of years. It would certainly be great to get back to the 80s when massive schools moved all the way up into mid coast Maine. There were a lot of happy predators and a lot of happy anglers.

It should be obvious, but sustainably managing forage species has implications far beyond the fish themselves. If managers allow forage stocks to collapse, many other species will follow. Luckily, folks are paying attention, and it seems like things are moving in a positive direction.

Conservation Dollars Are Being Burned

Wildfire in the Pacific Northwest
Photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management

Wildfires are becoming an escalating threat in the Western United States. With each passing year, wildfires are increasing in frequency, burning more acres and proving more costly to suppress. Despite the escalation of wildfires and wildfire-associated damage, however, very little has been done to assist the Forest Service in its efforts to pay for wildfire suppression and prevention. Suppression costs are responsible for more of the Forest Service budget each year, forcing cuts to programs vital to conservation, forestry management and sportsmen.

Why is this happening?

A combination of factors is responsible for the increase in frequency and severity of wildfires, the most important of which is climate change. Higher temperatures across the United States make America’s forests drier through increased evaporation rates, decreased precipitation and subsequent drought. As a result, the fire season is two-and-a-half months longer now than in the 1970s. It’s very simple: drier forests are simply more likely to catch on fire.

A decrease in proper forestry management practices plays a role, as well. Ironically enough, this in part results from the increasing costs associated with wildfire suppression. Because suppression and prevention dollars come from the same budget, money used to suppress wildfires means fewer dollars available to prevent them. Suppression costs accounted for 13 percent of the Forest Service budget in 1991 but have risen to 47 percent in 2012, leaving very little left to engage in programs vital to fire prevention.

>>Check out The TRCP’s infographic on the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act here.<<

What needs to change?

Before suppression costs consumed nearly half of the Forest Service budget, the agency could afford to implement a variety of forestry management programs proven to mitigate the risk of wildfires, such as hazardous fuels reduction. A healthy, properly managed forest is far less likely to burn catastrophically.

Another important factor in the increased costs of firefighting has to do with the “Wildland Urban Interface (WUI).” This refers to development along areas prone to wildfires. The proximity between manmade structures and such areas has increased as development increases along national parks and other wild areas, forcing the Forest Service to prioritize property protection in its fire suppression and prevention activities.

How are conservation dollars being burned?
Click the image for the full infographic

But in recent years, the increase in wildfire frequency and longer fire seasons, combined with the higher costs associated with fighting fire in the WUI, has forced the Forest Service to annually engage in “fire borrowing” to pay for suppression – meaning it must take dollars from other forestry management programs to pay for the debilitating costs associated with putting out wildfires.

Why should this matter to sportsmen?

Without budgetary reform, the Forest Service cannot afford to put out wildfires and effectively engage in forestry management at an appropriate scale. This means that forests across the United States will become less healthy and more prone to catastrophic fire. As a result, forests and habitat will suffer, affecting people and wildlife throughout the United States.

How can sportsmen help fix this problem?

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (H.R. 3992 and S. 1875), a bill introduced in both the House and Senate, would put an end to the problem of fire borrowing – and do it without increasing federal spending. For budgetary purposes, the legislation would classify the most extreme wildfires as natural disasters, a designation previously reserved for tornadoes, hurricanes and flash floods. This would allow the suppression costs for America’s largest and most expensive wildfires to be paid using federal emergency dollars. While the Forest Service still would be responsible for suppressing wildfires, the money to do so would be drawn from another, more appropriate source.

This simple yet effective measure would permit hundreds of millions of dollars in the Forest Service budget to be used as Congress intended, allowing the agency to resume forestry management and fire prevention programs. If passed, this legislation would make America’s forests and wildlife habitat healthier while simultaneously mitigating the risk of future wildfires.

While the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act has received bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate, more congressional support is needed to ensure its passage. If you care about the future of American hunting and fishing and your representatives are not signed onto this legislation please TAKE ACTION here and help make a difference.

Five Ways to Celebrate National Fishing and Boating Week

NFBW Fishing Family

Image courtesy of Take Me Fishing.

June 1, 2014, kicks off the yearly, weeklong celebration known as National Fishing and Boating Week.  Each year during NFBW, boating and fishing organizations and enthusiasts alike work to extol the benefits of recreational boating and fishing on environmental preservation and quality of life.

Why should you choose boating and fishing?

  • De-stress: Boating is ranked as one of the top three of all stress-relieving activities
  • Connect with nature: 90 percent of Americans live within an hour of navigable water
  • Help conserve: The funds from your fishing licenses and boat registrations go toward the conservation of our natural aquatic areas

Want to go boating and fishing during NFBW? Here are some great ways to get started:

Try fishing for the first time. Many states offer free fishing days that coincide with NFBW. These days allow individuals to fish without having to purchase a fishing license. What better time to try out fishing than when it’s free? For a full list of states’ free fishing days, visit TakeMeFishing.org. Make sure to check out the “How to Fish” section on TakeMeFishing.org so you can learn all of the basics before you head out on the water.

Attend an event. Besides free fishing days, many states hold special events during NFBW. These events may include boat parades, fishing derbies, family festivals and how-to clinics. Head to the Events Page on TakeMeFishing.org to find events close to you.

Mentor a new angler or boater. Use the week as an opportunity to get someone new out on the water.  NFBW offers an excellent chance to mentor a new angler or boater and teach him or her the importance of the activities and their benefits both to the environment and the public. Teach them to hook their first fish and they may just be hooked for life.

Promote fishing and boating. Use NFBW as a way to show your friends and family how important fishing and boating is to you! On social media, you can use the #NFBW hashtag to tag your tweets, pictures and posts in celebration of National Fishing and Boating Week. You also can share photos of your big catch or your relaxing day on the boat with us by adding them to the Big Catch Photo Gallery.

Celebrate conservation. By simply participating in the activities of fishing and boating, you are helping to conserve your local and national waterways. A portion of every fishing license, boat registration and boating and fishing equipment sale goes toward keeping our waterways clean, safe and full of great fishing through the Sport Fish Restoration Program.

Want to find even more ways to get involved? Visit TakeMeFishing.org/nfbw for ideas.

TAKE ACTION! – Promoting liberty through conservation

Hunter with decoys and dog. Photo by Dusan Smetana.

Clean water gives us the liberty to pursue our hunting and fishing passions. Photo by Dusan Smetana.

SPEAK UP for clean water for hunting and fishing.

What does clean water have to do with liberty? Over at Field & Stream, our friend Hal Herring has a fascinating piece answering this question. Perhaps taking inspiration from Theodore Roosevelt’s adage that “there can be no greater issue than that of conservation in this country,” he argues that clean water is the investment we make in America, the dividend of which is the liberty to pursue our hunting and fishing passions. “[W]hen we fail to conserve” our natural resources, “and protect them from those who would do them harm…not only do we lose our fishing and hunting, we also endanger our prosperity and liberty.”

Hal’s article is worth reading in its entirety.

Rounding out the one-two punch from Field & Stream, Bob Marshall writes about an action you can take right now to ensure clean water for hunting and fishing and promote liberty. The Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency are taking public input on a proposal to clarify what federal safeguards are in place for water quality. With just a few mouse clicks, you can add your voice to the chorus calling for strong protections for headwater streams and wetlands.

Former Republican Congressman Sherwood Boehlert also highlighted the connection between clean water and liberty when he wrote an op-ed in favor of the Corps and EPA’s action, reminding us of a time when Republicans were leading the conservation movement. (Case in point: the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and EPA were all created under President Nixon.) Congressman Boehlert quotes President Reagan, who succinctly captured the importance of conservation to liberty:

“The preservation of parks, wilderness, and wildlife has also aided liberty by keeping alive the 19th century sense of adventure and awe with which our forefathers greeted the American West. Many laws protecting environmental quality have promoted liberty by securing property against the destructive trespass of pollution. In our own time, the nearly universal appreciation of these preserved landscapes, restored waters, and cleaner air through outdoor recreation is a modern expression of our freedom and leisure to enjoy the wonderful life that generations past have built for us.”  (emphasis added)

The TRCP and its partners have prepared fact sheets, videos and other information explaining the Corps and EPA’s proposal. Visit the “Sportsman’s Tackle Box for Understanding the Clean Water Act Rule” to learn more, then TAKE ACTION so that decision makers in Washington, D.C., know you want clean water for hunting and fishing.

Attention all anglers

NOAA Rec Fisheries Summit

Image courtesy of NOAA.gov.

That’s what we are getting: more attention. That’s a good thing. More fisheries managers, bureaucrats and pols are hearing about recreational issues. That’s a great thing. Maybe the sleeping giant is waking up.

I have written about it in a past blog, but last fall the Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management, also known as the Morris-Deal Commission, began work on a report, “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries.”  That vision document was released during the Miami Boat Show and received a great deal of attention. And, yes, I realize that it did not universally make everyone in the recreational industry warm and fuzzy. The two biggest concerns I heard were that it did not represent the “average angler.” There was also a lot of angst about the apparent support for “flexibility” in effort to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which is the main federal legislation that manages fish. From my standpoint this is a valid concern and one that I personally share. However, I don’t think having the discussion is a bad thing. From my standpoint interested and engaged members of the recreational community need to have these kinds of hard discussions. I also feel that the vision should be a work in progress. The good news is it has already made some important folks in D.C. take notice.

Participants at NOAA Rec Fish Summit 2014

Participants at the 2014 Recreational Saltwater Fishing Summit. Image Courtesy of NOAA.gov.

The introduction of the report by the Morris-Deal Commission was followed by the second national Recreational Saltwater Fishing Summit held in Washington, D.C. This was described by one of the organizers at NOAA Fisheries “as taking down the walls, bringing in the community and working on solutions together.” It was an open forum, and folks came from all over the lower 48 and Alaska as well. Like the first summit, the second one was designed to have the stakeholders create and prioritize a list of projects and tasks for NOAA Fisheries to complete to help enhance the working relationship with and engagement of the recreational fishing industry and community. The first summit created an extensive action list, and NOAA Fisheries has completed about 90 percent of that list. It is currently digesting the output from the second summit. One item that was committed to at the summit itself was the creation of a national marine recreational fisheries policy. The plan on how this will be done is almost complete and is scheduled to be release this coming winter. There will be a series of outreach meetings to get recreational stakeholder input. There also will be an online survey available soon. I urge interested parties to make their thoughts known through one of the venues. As John Brownlee, editor in chief at Salt Water Sportsman, said in his keynote speech, “The work will begin when NOAA says yes.” So, get to work folks.

As this is written, I am finishing up the spring session of the Fisheries Forum, which is a collaborative effort of Duke University and Stanford. This forum was on recreational fishing issues. It has a lot of Regional Fisheries Management Council members and staff in attendance. It addressed some of the most problematic issues facing recreational management, not from a policy standpoint but from a process standpoint. Some of the output from this event can be found at FisheriesForum.org. Once again, this kind of effort keeps the recreational fishing industry and community front of mind with many of those making the important decision.

This is all good stuff. The worst thing that could happen would be to have this community ignored. The best is to have the management makers talking about you. I am reminded of James Michael Curley, infamous mayor of Boston, who said time and again, “I don’t care what they write about me. Just make sure they spell my name correctly.” Right on, Mr. Mayor.

Watch video coverage of the 2014 Recreational Saltwater Fishing Summit:

The tortoise and the … javelina?

Sometimes a hunting trip may be more about what you don’t tag and take home.

Desert tortoise rescue

With his fate still unsure, Catherine holds a tortoise that was trapped in the abandoned mine pit you see in the background. Photo by Neil Thagard.

Earlier this year my wife Catherine and I were in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona bowhunting javelina. This ecosystem is one of the most strikingly unique anywhere, and any adventurous soul willing to explore this environment will find him or herself rewarded with a seemingly endless display of plants and wildlife.

As our adventure commenced we were hiking to one of the many high, rocky outcroppings to glass, carefully weaving our way through the ocotillo, saguaro, fishhook barrel cactus and jojoba. These prickly obstacles, while impeding our progress considerably, are common and essential sources of food, cover and nesting sites for Sonoran Desert wildlife such as Coues and mule deer, numerous bird and bat species and the desert tortoise, as well as the javelina we were pursuing.

We were carefully making our way during the early morning light and came upon the nearly vertical edge of an old mining pit. The area was heavily mined for copper, gold, silver and lead during the late 1800s and early 1900s, and these remnant exploratory mines are common, reminding us of those hardy souls who settled this harsh landscape in days gone by.

While we observed the pit, which was only about 6 feet deep, we noticed two objects crowded tight in opposite corners of the pit. Catherine and I blurted to one another, “tortoise!” It was obvious that the two tortoises had tumbled down the steep sides into the pit and were unable to escape. After some quick examination in hopes of ensuring that the ground in the bottom of the pit was safe for me to stand on, I climbed down to aid these timeless desert dwellers. Unfortunately, the first one I examined had succumbed to the elements, as there was no water or food available in the pit – there was no way of knowing how long she had been down there. This tortoise, a female, was probably 30-40 years old based on her size. I moved to the opposite corner to examine the other tortoise and realized this male, probably about the same age as the deceased female, was still alive. I gently picked him up and handed him to Catherine, who was standing on the rim of the pit.

Tortoise and cactus fruit

Though initially the tortoise had defensively withdrawn himself inside his shell, he could not resist the meal we had put in front of him. Photo by Neil Thagard.

I climbed out, and we carried the surviving tortoise to a spot away from the pit hoping to prevent him from ending up in it again. We provided him some much needed water (from the supply we carried) and food – the fruits from a nearby fishhook barrel cactus. Though the tortoise had defensively withdrawn himself inside his shell, he could not resist the meal we had put in front of him. He slowly poked his feet and head out of the shell to check us out, and, realizing we were not a threat to him, he proceeded to enjoy the fruit and water.

After polishing off several cactus fruits and some water, he slowly began his solitary trek back into the desert and appeared to be recovering well from his ordeal, all things considered. The desert tortoise is a resilient creature with evolutionary adaptations that allow his survival in the harsh demands of his desert home. Unfortunately, it is the human-induced factors in his environment that have that have landed him a threatened listing under the Endangered Species Act. Though he is not a critter that we as sportsmen and –women pursue, the tortoise and other keystone species’ well being indicate the future for the species we do hunt. It is not coincidental that President Roosevelt often referred to hunters as the “original conservationists” – in my experience sportsmen are keenly aware of their obligation to be stewards of the land and all its species!

Whether it is abandoned mine pits in the Arizona desert, punching gas wells in sage grouse habitat or paving roads through elk calving grounds, this experience underscores the importance of mitigating the human-induced factors that we impose on the inhabitants of our wild places.

Neil Thagard and Javelina 2014

Whether or not you believe in karma, we were rewarded later that day with a 30 yard shot that resulted in filling our javelina tag for 2014. Photo by Neil Thagard.

Though this adventure started out as a pursuit of javelina, it became one about providing a hands-on conservation act for a desert tortoise that would have been doomed without a helping hand. Whether or not you believe in karma, we were rewarded later that day with a 30-yard shot that resulted in filling our javelina tag for 2014.

I don’t find it strange that the memories of this hunt are as much about the tortoise as the javelina. It certainly validated to Catherine and me that sometimes our outdoor experiences are not just about what you bring home, but what you don’t.

Planting season in America’s heartland

Sprouting spring wheat. Photo by Ryan Wagner.

Sprouting spring wheat. Photo by Ryan Wagner.

Greetings from beautiful Day County in northeast South Dakota! After a long cold winter, spring is finally upon us, and it is planting season on my family’s corn, soybean and spring wheat farm. With this post I hope to give you a brief look into one of the busier times of the year on the farm.

Spring can be equal parts exciting and frustrating as the thrill of planting can quickly give way to the disappointment of a weather delay. We were fortunate enough to start seeding spring wheat on April 15 and finished on April 22. This year seeding conditions were about as good as we have seen for quite some time, and it was especially encouraging considering last year we did not begin seeding wheat until May 4.

As often happens, a good run of planting and hectic activity was brought to an abrupt halt as the first of many rounds of rain showers came through last week. This time of year farmers turn into amateur meteorologists, checking the radar and forecasts regularly, so I knew we would be going into wait mode because this weather system was predicted to hang around for a while (10 days and counting). Patience is a virtue – one that I do not possess – but I know this moisture will be very valuable later in the year, so for now all we can do is wait. A bonus of this rain delay is I will be able to attend my 5-year-old son’s second career soccer game tonight. I plan on bottling up some of the energy the Chickadees are sure to display and use it when I’m getting worn down later.

Planting wheat. Photo by Ryan Wagner.

Planting wheat. Photo by Ryan Wagner.

Soon enough, it will be full speed ahead at 4.8 mph. That may not sound very fast, but as the planter lumbers through the field at about that speed, there is a lot going on. Like many modern planters, ours is electronically controlled and monitored, so I have most planter functions and a view of its performance at my fingertips in the tractor cab. The GPS on board that automatically steers the planter tractor also teams up with various sensors on the planter to create “as planted” maps of many important planter operations. All this information is displayed in real time on a monitor and iPad in the tractor cab. My job is to make sure all these systems are working together to allow the planter to do its job of placing every seed exactly 2 inches deep and 6.2 inches from its neighbor. At more than 300 seeds per second, this is no small task! The first day is always the most stressful as we work out the bugs, but once we get into a groove and things start clicking, the sense of accomplishment is hard to beat.

Ag ap on the tractor iPad. Photo by Ryan Wagner.

Ag ap on the tractor iPad. Photo by Ryan Wagner.

Of course the end goal is to grow a crop and sell it (preferably at a profit), and an increasingly large part of my time is spent analyzing the profit margin for each crop and watching for selling opportunities. Today’s technology allows me to see the Chicago Board of Trade market prices live, not only in my office but in the tractor on the iPad as well. CBOT prices can be particularly volatile in the spring, so there is a lot of money at risk on a minute-by-minute basis, but tracking profit margin is always on my mind regardless of the season.

Farming has certainly come a long way since the days of open cab tractors, as technology continues to improve our productivity and our profitability, while reducing our impact on the land and water. It’s a great time to be an American farmer.

Ryan Wagner operates a family-owned farm near Roslyn, South Dakota. He and his wife Kerri participated in the 2013 TRCP Conservation Exchange Program.    

Sportsmen (and Beer Makers) Everywhere Rally in Support of Clean Water

Clean Water ActionWith the publication of the Army Corps and EPA’s proposed rule clarifying and restoring Clean Water Act safeguards for wetlands and headwater streams, many sportsmen’s organizations, including this one, are mobilizing comments in support of the proposed rule. You can stand with hunters and anglers in support of clean water through any of the following links:

Sportsmen are speaking up in the press, too. Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited, penned an excellent op-ed explaining why it is so critical we protect headwater streams. In a Politico ad, nine different sportsmen’s organizations – the American Fly Fishing Trade Association, B.A.S.S., Bull Moose Sportsmen’s Alliance, Izaak Walton League of America, National Wildlife Federation, Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever, TRCP and Trout Unlimited – called on Congress to support the rulemaking process to secure clean water for America’s outdoor legacy and the rural economies that depend on hunting and fishing. And Ted Turner, founder of CNN and Turner Broadcasting, demanded a return of clean water protections in an op-ed reflecting on the importance of small streams on his ranch in New Mexico.

It’s not just sportsmen. Businesses are championing clean water, too. The American Sustainable Business Council announced its support for the proposed rule in an ad featuring Kim Jordan, co-founder and CEO of New Belgium Brewing. New Belgium, the third largest craft brewery in the United States, went on to write an op-ed explaining why this proposed rule is so important to its business and many other industries. The National Farmers Union, which welcomed the rule proposal in March, has prepared a fact sheet debunking some of the most common myths and misinformation about the rule.

The TRCP and its partners have prepared fact sheets, video and other information explaining this issue. Visit the “Sportsman’s Tackle Box for Understanding the Clean Water Act Rule” to learn more, then TAKE ACTION so that decision makers in Washington, D.C., know you want clean water for hunting and fishing.

Turn down the heat

red snapper

Red snapper. Photo courtesy of NOAA.gov.

Just before NOAA Fisheries’ Saltwater Recreational Fishing Summit that I wrote about recently, a court in Washington, D.C., issued a verdict in the lawsuit of Guindon (a commercial fisherman) vs. Pritzker (the secretary Of Commerce). It had to do with what some perceive as NOAA Fisheries’ lack of ability to control the catch of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico by the recreational fishing community. However, by any reasonable measure it has a lot more moving pieces.

This issue has been bubbling away down along the gulf for a number of years, and this verdict has precipitated an immediate boiling over. Normally rational people have gone ballistic. People in the “media” are taking verbal shots at those they blame for this mess. The environmental community has jumped on the issue. The net result may cause this to get totally out of control. Or maybe it already is.

For those of us in the Northeast, we might simply turn to another station and go about our business. That might be the normal response, but this issue does have the potential to impact recreational fisheries all along our coasts. Its outcome might even impact the crafting and implementation of NOAA’s forthcoming national recreational fishing policy. This is not just a bunch of “good ol’ boys” spouting off about a decision they do not like. It has the potential to be a very important and impactful decision.

What’s it all about? Going back a few years, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council set quotas for both the recreational and commercial users of red snapper. The commercial harvest was implemented in the form of catch shares, in this case individual transferable quotas, which in its own right amped up the overall angst. The recreational harvest then proceeded to exceed the quotas for a number of years, except in 2010 when the BP oil-rig blowout essentially closed down the Gulf of Mexico. At the same time, the commercial quota now was well controlled. But the commercial fishing industry felt that its ability to take its quota and to have that quota increase with the rebuilding of the red snapper population was in jeopardy by the recreational overharvest. In fact, the population has continued to grow, and the potential for them to increase their take has, as well. By the way, because red snapper are slow-growing critters, the rebuilding period was not 10 years, but the built-in flexibility in the Magnuson-Stevens Act allowed a 24-year rebuilding period. Now that is real flexibility, but I’m not going there. A good overview of the red snapper fishery can found here.

As mentioned above, there are a lot more moving parts to this situation, but you get the general gist of it. So the Washington, D.C., judge who has minimal understanding about Gulf of Mexico fisheries supported the plaintiff in the lawsuit and ruled that NOAA Fisheries was not fulfilling its mandate under the Magnuson-Stevens Act to control the recreational catch of red snapper. The judge did not issue any remedial action. Perhaps one of the things that the judge discovered during the trial was that NOAA Fisheries has only a vague understanding of what the actual recreational catch is.

After the decision was rendered, one well-known blogger called the recreational red snapper fishery “embarrassing.” Another writer said of efforts to allocate additional quota to the recreational users, “stop asking for an additional helping when you’ve already taken more than your share.” The commercial industry, environmental groups and the recreational industry all are pointing fingers and shouting at each other. The individual angler is getting creamed and taking the heat. How is it that the individual angler is “embarrassing” or “taking more than their share”? I have not heard that there have been excessive numbers of anglers exceeding the limit or taking undersized fish. They stuck to the limits and season, so what’s wrong with that? Some of the pro-recreational organizations are advocating for more allocation and getting criticized for it. Well, duh, what should they advocate for? Less allocation. As more and more folks move to coastal communities, do we really know the number of angler trips and what their catch is? If we simply say that the current allocations will not change, that means a lot of folks only access to a public trust resource is through the local fish market.

If folks would work on pulling together all this disparate energy, maybe the problem could be solved. NOAA Fisheries needs to finish up the inner workings of the Marine Recreational Information Program. Then there might be a better understanding of what the recreational catch is and what the potential demand will be. There needs to be a new allocation model based on up-to-date and better recreational participation and, yes, it needs to have some element of the socioeconomic value of this fishery. Also, there needs to be some real cooperation and coordination between state and federal fisheries managers.

It is painfully obvious that what is being done now is not working. Solving this is not rocket science, unless folks are only interested in protecting the turf they have staked out.

Following the food: Migration is critical for big game

Muley migration

Mule deer need to travel between seasonal ranges to capture greening vegetation in the spring and to reach their winter range in the fall. Photo courtesy of Joe Riis.

When I started in the wildlife profession a few decades ago, all I wanted to do was study big game and work with the iconic “charismatic megafauna,” as large mammals often are called. I made that dream a reality and worked on deer, elk and bighorn sheep projects as an undergraduate student and concentrated on bighorn sheep for my master’s degree. I read all the scientific literature diligently and learned many things in the field while spending countless hours with our magnificent big game animals.

I thought, as most students do, that I knew a lot – not all there was to know, but a lot. But when it comes to understanding nature and how the biological world works, one adage rings true: “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

I distinctly remember one key lecture in a wildlife management class from a pioneering mule deer researcher, Dr. Richard Mackie at Montana State University. Dr. Mackie once was in a camp of deer biologists who believed winter range was the sole factor responsible for sustaining mule deer populations in Montana and across the West. But in that lecture, after presenting his pioneering research on winter range as a major limiting condition for mule deer, Dr. Mackie pronounced, “We were wrong!” Had it been 2013, he might have proclaimed, “We didn’t know what we didn’t know.” He then told our class about the complexities of nature and how we have learned that several different factors influence deer populations and their ability to survive in different environments. It was an eye-opening lecture I’ve never forgotten.

Fast forward to present day. Land managers still focus heavily, and in some cases almost exclusively, on winter range as the key to protecting deer populations in the West. Winter range is important, but big game habitat use and needs during different seasons goes far beyond just protecting winter range.

One thing we’ve learned from the science on big game is that nutrition on summer and fall range is absolutely vital and that those animals entering winter range in poor condition simply won’t make it, no matter how much winter range there is or how good of a shape it’s in. But we also know that big game animals like mule deer, elk, pronghorn and caribou migrate between areas where they spend their summers and winters. What we don’t always know are the intricate details of migrations, and, in many cases, we don’t even know which populations migrate or how far.

That’s key in a new study released by the University of Wyoming Cooperative Research Unit and the Wyoming Migration Initiative. Research biologist Hall Sawyer recently set out to study a deer population near Rock Springs, Wyoming, that was thought to make only short-distance movements between seasonal ranges. To everyone’s surprise, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. Global positioning system collars (that recorded each marked deer’s location with pinpoint accuracy every three hours) revealed the longest known migration of any mule deer population – 150 or so miles from the Red Desert to the high mountains near Jackson, Wyoming.

WMI Event

On Earth Day, April 22, 2014, the University of Wyoming and Wyoming Migration Initiative held an open house to release their report on the longest mule deer migration in North America. Photo by Ed Arnett.

Why is this important for mule deer? Sawyer said it best when he likened migration to driving long distances between two cities with no hotels, gas stations or grocery stores in between. Migrating animals need to freely pass through the landscape and stop occasionally to fuel up and rest. These places, called “stopover” habitats, are very important, because without them, deer could unnecessarily burn fat stores just trying to get to their winter ranges. Migration is all about finding and conserving body energy when trying to get from point A to B.

Barriers to movement or procuring food will cost some animals in the long run as they endure long, cold winters in the West. The Wyoming study identified several barriers and other management issues along this 150-mile corridor that could negatively impact mule deer. This study can help guide the management and protection of these important habitats while also pointing out the highest priority areas to target conservation dollars for easements, habitat enhancement and other management projects. That’s good news for this herd if state and federal agencies, private landowners and stakeholders work together to protect and conserve this migratory corridor. But what about other migrating herds of big game?

By learning more about what we didn’t know, scientists have solidified the need to think far beyond just one or two seasonal ranges or habitat types for mule deer populations. A more holistic view and management strategy with policy to back it is needed.

Migration corridors and habitats where big game animals rest and forage during migration are critical pieces in a complex habitat puzzle that is key to the health of populations of mule deer and other big game animals. But the science on migration has yet to make it into policy. Bureau of Land Management resource management plans do not identify migration corridors, stopover habitats or provide for their management. Now, with work like this there is an opportunity to get those lines on the map and start incorporating them into planning. That’s why the TRCP will keep working with partner groups, land managers and other stakeholders to ensure our big game populations are managed for long-term sustainability. If we do not manage and conserve key habitats on all seasonal ranges and the migratory passageways between them, big game populations likely will decline and impact both our outdoor traditions and our hunting-based Western economy.

Watch a video of the mule deer migrations: