Public Lands Transfers Threaten Sportsmen’s Access: Moosehead Mountain

In an increasingly crowded and pay-to-play world, America’s 640 million acres of public lands – including our national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands–have become the nation’s mightiest hunting and fishing strongholds. This is especially true in the West, where according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 72 percent of sportsmen depend on access to public lands for hunting. Without these vast expanses of prairie and sagebrush, foothills and towering peaks, the traditions of hunting and fishing as we have known them for the past century would be lost. Gone also would be a very basic American value: the unique and abundant freedom we’ve known for all of us, rich and poor and in-between, to experience our undeveloped and wild spaces, natural wonders, wildlife and waters, and the assets that have made life and citizenship in our country the envy of the world.

A big game hunter’s bucket list might include a trip to the slopes of Alaska’s Brooks Range for Dall sheep or an excursion deep into the southwestern desert for beautiful little Coues deer. But, one thing is certain: That list will hold a hunt for big bull elk, and there is no better place to do that than on high-country public lands in Colorado.

In Part Four of our series, we head to the northwest part of Colorado.

Moosehead Mountain is in the northwest part of the state, south of Dinosaur National Monument and not far from the towns of Rangely and Dinosaur. Its elevation tops out at about 8,400 feet and the terrain is thick with sagebrush, mountain mahogany, pinyon pine, and juniper—all the makings of a classic glass-and-stalk hunt to get in front of moving elk. Cross paths with bands of pronghorns in the warmer months and big mule deer bucks transitioning from high country to low as the snows come in.

Image courtesy of Nick Payne.

This area serves as a portion of the home range for the second-largest elk herd in North America, including some truly big bulls scoring up to 370. It’s a wild place, remote and empty, and accessible to hunters on foot or on horseback. The bull tag for Game Management Unit 10 has been one of the most coveted big-game tags in America for decades.

Colorado elk hunters have been among the first citizens to oppose proposals for largescale transfer of federal lands to the states, because they know best what is at stake: their access to places like Moosehead Mountain and, quite possibly, the future of hunting in Colorado. Despite public opposition, some Colorado politicians are pushing the idea, and two land transfer bills were promoted by anti-government activists during the 2015 legislative session. More than 200 sportsmen and women rallied at the Colorado state capitol in opposition to this legislation, and the bills were defeated.

Currently, federal land managers are bound by law to manage public lands like Moosehead Mountain for multiple uses, such as for wildlife habitat and hunting opportunities. The state of Colorado has no such multiple-use mandate, and, to the contrary, its mandate is to maximize profits from state-held public lands, not to conserve resources or access to hunting and fishing. In fact, most state lands in Colorado are closed to hunting, fishing, shooting, and camping, and so sportsmen must remain diligent to put a stop to any proposals that threaten our ability to pursue these American traditions on federal public lands.

State management of these lands could result in unrestricted development, based solely on what will net the highest possible profits. It might even mean the outright sale of game-rich lands, like Moosehead Mountain, to private interests that will make a fortune selling access or high-priced hunts on what now belongs to every American hunter. If we want once-in-a-lifetime big-game hunts to be available to the average hunter, sportsmen need to continue to voice our opposition to this controversial idea.

Let’s cross Moosehead Mountain off our bucket lists because we’ve been there, not because we’re locked out forever.

Here are three ways you can support sportsmen’s access on public lands. 

Stay tuned. In the rest of this 10-part series, we’ll continue to cover some of America’s finest hunting and fishing destinations that could be permanently seized from the public if politicians have their way.

These Important Changes Will Impact the BLM Lands You Hunt and Fish in Colorado

Over the past few months, there have been some major developments on the management of BLM lands important to Colorado hunters and anglers. We’ve seen two management plans get finalized in northwest Colorado, and another impacting the majority of BLM lands east of the Continental Divide is in the early stages of review. The BLM revises these management plans every 20 years and decides how use of the lands will be balanced among hunting, fishing, grazing, OHV use, oil and gas extraction, timber harvest, and road building. Sportsmen throughout Colorado, the West, and the country have been working diligently to get the best results possible from these planning processes for our nation’s wildlife and our hunting and fishing heritage. If you hunt, fish, or visit these public lands with your family, then you need to know this:

The “Mule Deer Factory” will benefit from some safeguards against development

Image courtesy of Nick Payne.

The BLM management area surrounding Meeker, Rangely, and Dinosaur is home to the Piceance Basin mule deer herd once called “the mule deer factory,” as well as the largest elk herd in North America. The White River Field Office Oil and Gas Resource Management Plan Amendment will guide oil and gas development on these 1.5 million acres of BLM-administered lands in northwest Colorado. While the plan will put a great amount of pressure on the already hurting Piceance Basin mule deer herd, the BLM has made significant improvements over the draft plan, largely due to the efforts of sportsmen. These improvements include a reduced footprint on acres affected by development, a commitment to Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s long-term population objectives for big game, a robust Master Leasing Plan for oil and gas development on 422,000 acres, and safeguards for 167,000 acres of important backcountry hunting areas.

Sound implementation will be crucial to success of the plan, and it’s important that sportsmen continue to monitor these issues. A local coalition of 32 sporting organizations and businesses were involved in this planning process, and sportsmen across the West are prepared to stay involved, as the new guidelines are instituted on the ground. I’m proud to be serving on a BLM subgroup that will be advising on travel management decisions during the revision of their travel plan. Read the final RMPA and EIS here.

Backcountry and wildlife will get a moderate boost in Grand Valley

The Grand Junction Field Office Resource Management Plan will guide management on 1.2 million acres of BLM administered lands in northwest Colorado on public lands that provide habitat for game species including bighorn sheep, mule deer, elk, upland game birds, grouse, and native trout. The resource area also provides lands for a broad array of uses across a varying Western landscape, largely serving Grand Valley residents in the cities of Grand Junction, Montrose, Delta, Rifle, and surrounding areas, and supporting a great deal of tourism related to outdoor recreation. Sportsmen were involved in commenting on the draft plan, and while there are some improvements in the final plan, there was hope for stronger conservation measures for wildlife and sportsmen’s access.

After the draft plan was released, a group of 20 sportsmen groups, organizations and businesses submitted a proposal to safeguard 227,000 acres of backcountry lands important to fish and wildlife and hunting and fishing. Roughly 150,000 aces (66%) were meaningfully protected through various means in the plan. The BLM also created new Wildlife Emphasis Areas where “protection and enhancement of the wildlife resource” will be prioritized over other uses. The institution of a master leasing plan for oil and gas development on 700,000 acres of the field office has some specific management, but overall it doesn’t differ much from what is currently in place. A closer look at the area is necessary to get the full value out of a master leasing plan, which should help to avoid adverse effects through better planning. Read the final EIS here.

Learn more here.

Your comments are needed to ensure protection of 7 million acres of big-game habitat

Image courtesy of Nick Payne.

The BLM Royal Gorge Field Office is formally starting its management planning process, which will guide management decisions on 668,000 acres of public lands and 6.6 million acres of BLM-managed federal mineral estate in eastern Colorado over the next 20 years. Through a plan they’re calling the “Eastern Colorado Management Plan,” the BLM is seeking public input on a vision for the management priorities of these public lands and will be hosting seven scoping meetings throughout the state.

It’s crucial that they hear from local hunters and anglers, now and throughout the process, to ensure our outdoor traditions remain intact. Sportsmen should attend these scoping meetings, encourage the BLM to protect public access on these lands, and urge them to safeguard crucial habitat for mule deer, bighorn sheep, elk, and wild trout from development. They can do this by instituting development setbacks from streams, lakes, reservoirs, and wetlands, supported by the most recent science and research, and by following through with energy leasing reforms, including a more thorough master leasing plan in South Park, to ensure responsible energy development. Sportsmen can also ask the BLM to conserve backcountry hunting and fishing areas that provide intact habitat and a quality outdoor experiences.

The South Park and Arkansas River drainage waters are used by thousands of Front Range anglers every year, contributing greatly to the $1.3 billion spent on hunting and fishing in Colorado in a single year. If you want to speak up for these traditions, and the quality habitats that make them possible, get involved or attend one of these meetings:

Monday June 15th
5:30 – 7:30 PM
Denver Mariott West
1717 Denver West Blvd.,
Golden, CO
Tuesday June 16th
5:30 – 7:30 PM
Greeley Recreation Center
651 10th Avenue,
Greeley, CO
Tuesday June 23rd
5:30 – 7:30 PM
Salida High School
26 Jones Avenue,
Salida, CO
Wednesday June 24th
5:30 – 7:30 PM
Fairplay Community Center
880 Bogue Street,
Fairplay, CO
Thursday June 25th
5:30 – 7:30 PM
National Mining Museum
117 East 10th Street,
Leadville, CO
Monday June 29th
5:30 – 7:30 PM
The Abbey, Benedict Room
2951 E Hwy 50 (E. Frontage Rd.)
Canon City, CO
Tuesday June 30th
5:30 – 7:30 PM
Huerfano County Community Center 1038
Russell, Walsenburg, CO

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

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

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

Image courtesy of Nick Payne.

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

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

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

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

Join sportsmen in Colorado to stand up for public lands

Politically extreme groups in Colorado and throughout the West are attempting to hijack federal public lands through takeovers that would undermine local, public-driven efforts towards responsible management of important hunting and fishing lands.

Now is the time to get the message to legislators and other decision-makers that our public lands must stay in our hands.

Join sportsmen from across Colorado to rally in support of public lands!

Rally details:
February 25th, 2015
12:00 p.m. – 2:00 p.m.
Colorado State Capitol, West Steps
200 East Colfax Avenue, Denver, Colorado 80203

RSVP here and on the Facebook event page to get event updates. Invite your friends!

Click here for directions to the rally site.

After the rally, sportsmen will be meeting at Stoney’s Bar and Grill for drinks, appetizers and raffles!

Reception details:
February 25th, 2015
2:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Stoney’s Bar and Grill
1111 Lincoln St, Denver, CO 80203

Can’t make the rally? Want federal and state officials to stand up for your sporting heritage?

Sign our petition today!

Colorado maps its water future

In 2013, Colorado Gov. Hickenlooper directed the state’s water board to develop a strategy to guide water supply decision-making in the state. Fortunately, like hunters and anglers across the Colorado, Gov. Hickenlooper knows that healthy trout streams and productive habitat for elk, mule deer and other game species are essential to Colorado’s $9 billion outdoor economy and our sporting heritage. In fact, he has said that “every conversation about water should start with conservation.” (emphasis added)

Gross Reservoir, Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Beall

On December 10, 2014, the water board delivered the first draft of the state water plan to the governor, but not before over 7000 Colorado sportsmen spoke together in a telephone town hall about it. Callers talked about the importance and potential of conservation efforts, the risks associated with diverting more Colorado River water to the Front Range and how healthy stream flows affect hunters as well as anglers. You can listen to their discussion here.

The draft plan represents one significant milestone on the journey to a secure water future for Colorado, but there are many miles yet to go. The draft plan recognizes that we must protect healthy rivers for fish and wildlife and make more efficient use of our existing resources, but the plan needs to lay out specific directions to actually achieving those goals. Also, the draft plan leaves the door open for risky, large diversions of Colorado River water from the west slope to the Front Range.

In 2015, all Coloradans have an opportunity to tell Gov. Hickenlooper, his water board and others involved in the process exactly how important it is to protect the habitats where we hunt and fish. Visit Colorado Trout Unlimited to send a message to the governor and other officials.

Feeding Frenzy on the Gunnison

“You think it’s worth a go?”

My buddy Ryan and I were standing over his kitchen table looking down at a map of Black Canyon of the Gunnison Wilderness Area. The stretch of the Gunnison River that we were eyeballing had the potential to produce some nice trout, and we had heard rumors that the salmon fly hatch might be on. What that means, for anyone who might not be a fluent trout junkie, is that the fish would be feeding on giant bugs with reckless abandon.

But there were other factors to consider.

“I dunno, that’s a hell of a drive down there… and then there’s the hike in,” I responded.

Judging from the map, the route from the rim of the canyon down to the river looked impassable without a parachute. It descended 2,722 feet in two miles. With our fully loaded packs, it would be brutal.

Gunnison River, Colo.

The previous three days fishing the Yampa River near Ryan’s home in Steamboat Springs, Colo., had produced some nice rainbows, but overall things were tough. We were looking to change up our strategy, and the Gunnison seemed like a good bet.

We put in a couple of calls to the National Park Service (the wilderness area is surrounded by Gunnison National Park) and a handful of fly shops that confirmed…well they didn’t confirm anything. Our guts told us that the salmon fly hatch could still be on. We didn’t have a lot to go on, but so what? We loaded up the truck, cranked some bluegrass and were on our way.

The hike down into Black Canyon was just as challenging as it had looked on paper. There was no marked trail and the terrain was made up of boulders, loose rock and sand that left us constantly on tenuous footing.

Feeling a bit haggard about half way down to the river, we crossed paths with a couple from Denver who were on their way back out after a three-day fishing trip.

“It’s on!” they said, beaming with excitement.

They relayed a few stories while we stood there wide-eyed and grinning ear-to-ear, and went on their way. The good news was refreshing, and it fueled us as we made our way down the final, sketchy descent.

When we reached the river, we were greeted by salmon flies the size of B-52 bombers buzzing awkwardly around the canyon and the sweet sound of trout plucking their fallen comrades out of the surface film. They say that trout can take in 70 percent of their yearly protein during the salmon fly hatch. After spending five minutes taking in the scene next to the river, there was no doubt in my mind that this was an accurate statement.

TRCP’s Brandon Helm with a brown trout from the Gunnison River.

The two days that we spent in the canyon were unforgettable. Big, healthy Gunnison River browns were hitting salmon fly imitations so big and ugly that I would be reluctant to throw them at the scrappy smallies on my home waters of the tidal Potomac. I don’t remember how many fish we caught before a dam release upstream put a damper on the hatch. What I do know is that there were plenty of big fish to keep us both entertained, and to solidify this trip as one of the most unique fishing experiences that I have had to date.

Colorado State Fish Swims in Only One Stream

Can you tell whether this is a greenback? Photo courtesy of ‘TRCP’s Native Trout Adventures.’

The greenback cutthroat trout, Colorado’s state fish, can be found only in a 4-mile span of Bear Creek, located southwest of Colorado Springs.

A recent study conducted by the University of Colorado delved into the genetics of the greenback cutthroat trout and found that many were mistaking the Colorado River cutthroat, Rio Grande cutthroat and others for the greenback.

The U.S. Forest Service is currently exploring options to conserve the greenback and creek upon which the fish depends. Meanwhile, TRCP partner Trout Unlimited is working to address trail impacts the Bear Creek area.

For any anglers out there thinking they caught a greenback only to learn later that they were mistaken, the TRCP feels your pain. Last summer, we shot an episode of “TRCP’s Native Trout Adventures” in which we mistakenly thought we were fishing for – and catching – greenback cutthroat trout in Pike National Forest near South Park, Colo.

A Colorado Sportsman’s Perspective on the State’s New Roadless Rule

Native Trout

The Colorado roadless rule keeps some of the state’s last remaining intact public lands accessible to sportsmen and other citizens. Photo by Nick Payne.

Following numerous revisions and several years of debate, a management plan for Colorado’s 4.2 million acres of roadless national forest backcountry has been published in the federal register, cementing it as the law of the land until another politician or judge sweeps through with enough momentum or gusto for reform.

Considered in the context of the 10th Circuit Court’s recent decision to uphold the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, the finalization of the Colorado rule – and the importance of maintaining a high standard for backcountry lands in the state – is undeniably clear.

The Colorado roadless rule maintains that standard by including roughly 30 percent, or 1.2 million acres of backcountry, under a higher level of safeguards (i.e., “upper tier” areas) from unneeded development. While the rule keeps these areas intact, it also allows some backcountry lands to be developed for coal mining and ski area expansion. It also allows tree-cutting and some road building in backcountry lands located within 1.5 miles of communities recognized as at risk for wildfires. Colorado’s remaining backcountry areas are managed in a similar fashion to the 2001 rule.

Sportsmen were a consistent, engaged and reasonable presence throughout the multi-year rule-making process. Recommendations from members of our community helped result in the final Colorado rule being a common-sense management tool able to assure conservation of some of the state’s best hunting and fishing grounds and most valuable fish and wildlife habitat. The state of Colorado and the U.S. Forest Service likewise deserve recognition for their efforts to refine and improve the plan for the benefit of Colorado’s backcountry traditions.

As someone who enjoys backcountry hunting and fishing throughout the state and who is well-acquainted with both the Colorado and national rules, I can celebrate the fact that much of Colorado’s most important national forest lands will remain intact and accessible for hunters and anglers into the foreseeable future.

Data from the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife demonstrates that more than 900,000 acres of lands designated as “upper tier” under the new rule provide extremely important habitat for much of Colorado’s bedrock fish and wildlife, including cutthroat and other wild trout species, elk, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, grouse and bighorn sheep.

Backcountry roadless areas are lands already largely devoid of roads and other development. Daily, they are becoming rarer and rarer. The Colorado roadless rule does not close any existing roads or trails. Instead, it keeps some of the state’s last remaining intact public lands intact and accessible to sportsmen and other citizens. That equals thousands of acres that I know I can depend on for a true backcountry experience, and that’s huge in my world.