Sportsmen Tell Scientists: We Need More Clarity to Restore Water Protections

Earlier today I spoke to an independent panel of scientists reviewing an EPA report that summarizes our best understanding of how wetlands and streams affect water quality. This report is important because it will inform the rules the federal government comes up with that say which bodies of water in America deserve protection by the landmark Clean Water Act. These rules have been up in the air for over a decade because a couple of Supreme Court decisions in the 2000s put longstanding protections for wetlands and headwater streams – some of the waters most important to sportsmen – in jeopardy.

I told the panel that hunting and fishing are a major part of the American heritage and economy, and they both depend on clean water. Also, I presented the consensus views of the sportsmen’s community: While we’re generally pleased with the report, EPA can improve it by taking a closer look at areas like the Prairie Pothole Region, which is home to as many as 70 percent of all the ducks in North America.

Read on for my full remarks. Also, follow a webcast of the panel’s deliberations over the next two days here.

Then tell the EPA you support actions that protect wetlands and headwater streams based on the best available science.

 Statement of Jimmy Hague

Director, Center for Water Resources

Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership

To the Panel for the Review of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Report:

Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters: A Review and Synthesis of the Scientific Evidence

December 16, 2013

Chairwoman Rodewald and members of the panel, thank you for the opportunity to address you on this issue of utmost importance to the sportsmen’s community and comment on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) report Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters: A Review and Synthesis of the Scientific Evidence.

I am Jimmy Hague, Director of the Center for Water Resources at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP). The TRCP is a coalition of more than 30 organizations, some of which are represented here today, dedicated to strengthening the laws, policies, and practices affecting fish and wildlife conservation. Inspired by the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt, we work every day to guarantee all Americans quality places to hunt and fish.

Each year, 47 million Americans head into the field to hunt or fish. The money sportsmen spend in pursuit of their passion supports everything from major manufacturing industries to small businesses in communities across the country. The economic benefits of hunting and angling – which total $200 billion a year – are especially pronounced in rural areas, where money brought in during the hunting season can be enough to keep small businesses operational for the whole year. Through fees and excise taxes on sporting equipment, sportsmen also pay hundreds of millions of dollars each year for wildlife management, habitat conservation, and public access.

The TRCP has been involved in debates over the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act for years because these economic and conservation benefits – plus over a million American jobs – all depend on clean water and productive wetlands.

However, hunting and fishing are not merely an irreplaceable component of our economy. They are a heritage we cherish and want to pass on to our children. As streams are lost to pollution and wetlands drained, fish, wildlife and sporting access are lost along with them. The Clean Water Act is the best tool we have to protect the quality of our water resources, and its jurisdiction needs to be clear to work effectively.

The TRCP was pleased to see the EPA produce the Connectivity report synthesizing more than 1,000 peer-reviewed publications of the best available science on wetlands and headwater streams in preparation for a rulemaking on Clean Water Act jurisdiction. Several of TRCP’s partner organizations, including Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, Izaak Walton League of America and The Wildlife Society, submitted detailed comments to the Science Advisory Board (SAB), and I commend those comments to you because these organizations contain some of the foremost wetlands and streams scientists in the world. However, today I will restrict my comments and recommendations to the consensus views contained in a letter to the SAB from 16 of the nation’s leading sportsmen organizations:

  • American Fisheries Society
  • American Sportfishing Association
  • B.A.S.S. LLC
  • Berkley Conservation Institute
  • Bull Moose Sportsmen’s Alliance
  • Delta Waterfowl
  • Ducks Unlimited
  • Izaak Walton League of America
  • National Wildlife Federation
  • Pheasants Forever
  • Quail Forever
  • Snook & Gamefish Foundation
  • Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership
  • Trout Unlimited
  • Wildlife Management Institute
  • The Wildlife Society

Our letter contained two comments and suggested one area for further analysis in the final report.

First, we agree with the draft Connectivity report that the watershed scale is the appropriate context for assessing connectivity. Using this fundamental ecological unit will lead to better management of the resource because it can account for the myriad factors affecting our water quality.

Second, we commend the draft Connectivity report for recognizing the importance of aggregating the effects of small water bodies in a watershed. This approach is critical to determining connectivity of some of the waters most important to sportsmen.

Take, for example, the Prairie Pothole Region of the Dakotas. This area, stretching into Canada, is home to as many as 70 percent of all the ducks in North America. Taken individually, a single pothole may have little impact on downstream waters. But taken as a class, they act as important water sinks and pollutant traps. Therefore, the wholesale draining or filling of the Prairie Pothole Region will impair water quality downstream. It will also irreparably harm waterfowl habitat, America’s duck hunters and part of the $200 billion sportsmen economy I described earlier.

This leads me to our recommendation for the panel. The draft report does not draw general conclusions about the connectivity of unidirectional wetlands but does say that such evaluations could be done on a case-by-case basis. We ask that the final report include additional clarity on the connectivity of unidirectional wetlands. Even if their connectivity cannot be assessed on a categorical basis, there is sufficient evidence to assess it at a regional or watershed level in some cases, such as the Prairie Pothole Region. Such analysis will strengthen the report and make the subsequent rulemaking this report will inform more useful.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment and for your service on this panel. I look forward to reviewing your results.

TAKE ACTION! Tell the EPA to Protect Aquatic Habitat Based on the Best Science

The Clean Water Act is undoubtedly one of our nation’s most successful and important environmental laws. Photo by Dusan Smetana.

Many sportsmen may not realize it, but we are on the cusp of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to restore protections to our most cherished hunting and fishing areas.

That is because the federal government is taking steps now that will decide which bodies of water will be protected by standards set by the Clean Water Act.

But the waters most important to sportsmen won’t benefit from this effort unless you take action and speak up now.

The Clean Water Act is undoubtedly one of our nation’s most successful and important environmental laws. In the 41 years the modern Clean Water Act has been in existence, it has transformed many of our lakes and rivers from toxic dumping grounds into vibrant fish and wildlife habitat, sources of drinking water and commercial and recreational hotspots.

However, there has long been a debate about which bodies of water Congress intended to cover with the Clean Water Act. Was it everything that is wet in America or only the largest interstate rivers? (Most reasonable people agree it’s somewhere in the middle, but where exactly do you draw the line?) A couple of Supreme Court decisions in the 2000s confused rather than clarified this debate, but the most recent decision pointed to a solution.

In a 2006 Supreme Court decision, Justice Kennedy established the significant nexus test for determining which waters should receive Clean Water Act protections. He said that waters deserve federal protection if they “either alone or in combination with similarly situated lands in the region, significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity” of the larger bodies of water that everyone agrees should be covered by the Clean Water Act. To figure out the answer to this test, however, you first have to know how wetlands, headwater streams and other small water bodies are connected chemically, physically and biologically to larger, downstream water bodies.

So the Environmental Protection Agency brought together their best scientists, and they compiled and reviewed more than 1,000 of the best peer-reviewed scientific papers on hydrologic connectivity. The draft report summarizing their results, Connectivity of Streams and Wetlands to Downstream Waters: A Review and Synthesis of the Scientific Evidence, will inform future decisions the federal government makes about Clean Water Act jurisdiction. An independent panel of scientists is currently reviewing the draft report, and that’s where you come in.

The EPA is taking comments related to the report from the public now. Comments received by Nov. 6 will be considered by the independent review panel when it meets in December. Once the independent review is complete and public comments are incorporated, the EPA will finalize the report and use it to decide how to apply the Clean Water Act. Those decisions will be open for public input and scrutiny starting in early 2014 and will shape Clean Water Act protections for a long time to come.

It’s critical that sportsmen make their voices heard, because hunters and anglers understand the value of these resources like no one else.

Tell the EPA you support actions that protect wetlands and headwater streams based on the best available science.

Keys Fishing Has Character

I couldn’t have asked for a better guide. From his well-worn, cut-off sun shirt to the way he used his teeth to nip off the heads of the squirming shrimp we were using as bait to his immaculate 18-foot flats boat – Bob Baker was the quintessential Keys boat captain.

When he opened up the throttle on his Maverick we hauled across the water, quickly making headway on the trip from Islamorada’s World Wide Sportsman toward Everglades National Park. Our conversation settled on fish stories as our ears adjusted to the steady buzz of wind across our faces.

Fishing with us that day as part of the TRCP Saltwater Media Summit was Tom Van Horn, a writer and fishing guide from the Orlando, Fla., area. Between two locals we had enough fodder to keep us in fish tales for the entirety of the journey without any trouble.

We have a great responsibility to ensure that recreational fishing opportunities in the Gulf of Mexico remain. Photo by Christen Duxbury.

It was impossible to persuade my smile to recede as we navigated shallow runnels, cruised past islands dense with mangroves and flocks of seabirds, and wove around wooden channel markers at what felt like a breakneck speed.

Bob and Tom were at home on the water. As my land-locked legs struggled to keep me upright in the slight chop, I asked these captains endless questions about life on the water. Can you really make a living doing this? How many times have you been hooked? How often do you take your boat out of the water? What if I have to go to the bathroom? What are some of your more memorable clients?

They answered my barrage of questions graciously and with a smile.

Bob’s response to one of my questions struck me. As we were cruising back toward the World Wide Sportsman, I asked him if he had a backup plan. Had he thought about what he would do if bad weather or a catastrophic event were ever to take away his ability to fish? He looked at me and said, “No. I’m just a fisherman. I just want to fish.”

As his answer drifted away in the salty spray coming off the bow, it struck me that we have a great responsibility to ensure that recreational fishing opportunities in the Gulf of Mexico remain. Not only is sportfishing essential to the region’s unique culture and quality of life; without it people like Bob and places like the Keys would cease to remain as we know and love them.

To help create a blueprint for healthy Gulf fisheries, the TRCP has released a report outlining recreational anglers’ recommendations for projects and initiatives designed to help the Gulf of Mexico recover from the 2010 oil spill.

“Gulf of Mexico Recreational Fisheries: Recommendations for Restoration, Recovery and Sustainability” is the result of a series of workshops the TRCP organized in May with Gulf State anglers, scientists, charter fishermen and guides, state and federal fisheries managers, fishing tackle and boat retailers and representatives of conservation organizations.

Proper management and planning of our Gulf resources is integral if we want to pursue the outdoor pastimes and way of life that make our coastal places, and people like Bob, so unique.

Learn more about the report.

Early Season Dove Hunting in North Dakota

Dove Field near Bismarck

The lands on which we hunted were managed to sustain wildlife while still being economically viable.  Photo by Katie McKalip.

“Here they come!” Randal hissed in my ear. “Get ready to shoot!”

The doves flew in a wild circle past the hay bale where we stood, their silhouettes fast moving against the North Dakota sky. I shouldered the Remington 20-gauge and fired once, twice.

The doves kept flying, heading south. In the distance, shots rang out, and two of the birds dropped. I heard laughter from the next hay bale and looked over in time to see my companions share a high five.

“I think the birds flew closer to them this time around,” Randal said diplomatically.

No matter. While my pride would have liked to down a bird, I was just happy to be afield on a gloriously unfolding September morning, with fine guns, old friends and new, and the wide-open Northern Plains before me.

I was east of Bismarck, N.D., at the TRCP’s Western Media Summit, an annual event that brings together some of the best and brightest in outdoors and natural resources journalism along with policy experts, conservationists and other influential names in the sportsmen’s community. For three days, we’d be talking about the most critical issues currently facing hunters, anglers and others who appreciate and enjoy our nation’s unique outdoor opportunities – and trying to figure out how to make decision-makers in Washington, D.C., heed the growing voice that is sportsmen as they set policy that affects our fish, wildlife and natural resources.

Our partner for the 2013 Western summit was Ducks Unlimited, which hosted our policy sessions at DU’s Great Plains Regional Office. DU staff members also graciously guided summit attendees during our field outings: early season dove hunting near Bismarck and walleye, pike and perch fishing on lakes fed by the Mighty Mo.

With me that morning were DU’s Randal Dell and Matt Shappell; Matt Miller, senior science writer for The Nature Conservancy and freelancer for publications ranging from Sports Afield to National Geographic Online; and Bill Klyn, international business development manager for Patagonia.

We were fortunate to be able to access excellent bird habitat that day. North Dakota, like so many other Great Plains states, has experienced a rapid loss of grassland ecosystems due to economic factors that incentivize the conversion of land to intense row-crop production. Rural landscapes have changed profoundly as a result.

Agricultural practices have changed, too. Converting from grass pasture to row crops has never been so potentially lucrative. Yet it still is possible – and speakers at the TRCP summit confirmed this – to minimize grassland loss and make a living off the intact prairie. In Bismarck, we heard from landowners who practice conscientious management strategies and invest in their land’s health – resulting in an economically sound operation that allows bird populations to thrive.

Our dove hunt that day brought these details into sharp focus. We were hunting on lands managed to sustain wildlife while still being economically viable. The growing pile of doves at our feet testified to the success of these management practices. But we also drove past a seemingly endless cornfield that until a year ago had been native prairie. The difference was palpable.

That’s why the TRCP media summits are important: They expose writers to ideas, places and practices that clearly illustrate the impacts of federal resource policy and the land management practices that result. When groups like DU and the TRCP advocate for stronger conservation programs in the Farm Bill, places like the fields and grasslands near Bismarck, N.D. – and the hunters who frequent them – all stand to gain.

Learn more about the TRCP media summits. Read articles in The Washington Post, The Bismarck Tribune and the TNC’s Cool Green Science published in the wake of the TRCP’s 2013 Western Media Summit.

 

Ballot Box Biology Bad for Sportsmen

At first glance, many of the issues facing hunters and anglers today seem overwhelmingly complex. On topics as diverse as ATV use to public land development, climate change to predator management, emotionally charged debates spring up at every sportsman’s gathering. None of these issues seems to have a simple answer.

I often am confronted by individuals or organizations asking about the TRCP’s position on the issue of the day. My answer is always the same: What does the best available science tell us?

The TRCP’s mission is, and always has been, to guarantee all Americans a quality place to hunt and fish. To do this we need sustainable fish and wildlife populations and habitats to support them. Our professional wildlife managers intimately understand this and implement policies and procedures to ensure it.

Where the process falls off the rails is when we start trying to manage our fish and wildlife through what is sometimes referred to as “ballot box biology” – a process by which fish, wildlife and habitat management decisions are made not by professionals using sound, supportable, peer-reviewed and published science but by public opinion. Unfortunately, public opinion can be deeply divided, fueled not by the facts but by emotional rhetoric and snappy catch phrases that fit neatly onto bumper stickers.

A good example of this can be seen in the ongoing controversy surrounding gray wolf management, an issue that has splintered the sportsman’s community. Specifically, wolves have been single-handedly blamed for dramatically reducing big game numbers to the point where the absurd claim of “the wolves ate them all” is commonly heard in reference to elk, deer, moose and even bighorn sheep.

It’s an easy bandwagon to jump on. The image of a snarling, larger-than-life predator with blood-drenched fangs can haunt even the most reasonable hunter’s dreams when he’s on a long and unsuccessful quest and not finding the animals he is used to seeing in his favorite hunting spots. But the scientific reality behind recent population declines is far more complex, and to attribute it solely to any one factor, including predation, is an unjust over-simplification.  In fact, a study sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation on the elk declines in the Yellowstone area has determined that wolves have had a minimal effect on elk populations.

Another recent study out of Minnesota, where a 69-percent decline in moose populations has put an end to moose hunting in that state, points toward climate change as the major factor. Milder winters are raising the survival rates of blood-sucking ticks that attack moose in the tens of thousands, when the animal already is stressed by a warmer than normal summer. Unfortunately, despite sound scientific support, “the ticks ate them all” just doesn’t have the same ring to it – and likewise would be inaccurate.

Predators such as wolves or ticks don’t exist in a vacuum. Undeniably, they have an impact; however, a host of other, much less glamorous causes exists, such as habitat degradation and fragmentation, fire suppression, irresponsible development, over-grazing, invasive species and disease.

As difficult as it may be, every sportsman is responsible – for the future of our own and our children’s hunting and angling opportunities – to be factual and credible to ensure we identify and address the actual challenges our natural resources are facing.

We must make the effort to look for the facts of each situation and ask ourselves, “What does the best available science and our professional wildlife managers tell us is best for fish, wildlife and their habitats?” Because ultimately, this also will be what is best for sportsmen.

The science behind sustainable fish and wildlife management is complex. But the decision to use it should be very simple.

Only 3 More Days to Speak up for Bristol Bay

Join the TRCP and the sporting community in protecting the abundant fish and wildlife resources in Bristol Bay, Alaska. Speak up today and be entered to win a trip for two in Alaska’s Crystal Creek Lodge.

The time is now to tell the EPA to act upon its scientifically sound watershed assessment showing Bristol Bay salmon are at grave risk if Pebble Mine is allowed to proceed.

Pebble would be the largest open pit mine in North America and would create up to 10.8 billion tons of waste containing heavy metal toxins known to destroy salmon spawning and rearing habitat.

Southwest Alaska’s remarkable web of abundant wildlife, including salmon, bears, moose, wolves and migratory waterfowl, is in serious jeopardy – along with one of the nation’s foremost sporting destinations.

Take a stand for Alaska’s greatest fish and wildlife habitat and you’ll be entered to win a trip for two to Crystal Creek Lodge in Bristol Bay.


The TRCP and Guns

Now that the gun debate in Congress has died down, I wanted to address those questions that we got along the lines of “why hasn’t the TRCP taken a position?”

The TRCP was created in 2002 with a very focused mission: to guarantee all Americans quality places to hunt and fish. Our mission has been reaffirmed over the years and is being done so again this year.

Gun owners are very effectively represented in Washington, D.C.; what was lacking before the TRCP was a single organization to pull together the disparate voices of the hunting and fishing community to work together on issues related to conservation and access.

Roosevelt in Africa on horse with gun

Image courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress.

Very simply, others know far more than we do about the Second Amendment, not to mention school safety, the mental health system, weapons trafficking and other key components of the gun-violence debate today.

Mission drift is a concern for all organizations. That is why they create missions, visions and strategic plans to guide their actions.

The range of conservation issues in which the TRCP does engage is diverse and represents the interests of the millions of hunters and anglers in this country. From water quality, private lands conservation and marine fisheries management to responsible energy development and conservation on federal public lands, the TRCP works collaboratively with our partners to develop smarter natural resource policies – policies that promote the conservation of fish and wildlife and their habitat, increase funding for responsive resource management and enhance public access for sportsmen.

There are a few issues important to sportsmen (in addition to the Second Amendment) that fall outside our organization’s charter. We do not engage in youth education efforts, in large part because so many of our partners, from the National Wild Turkey Federation to the International Hunter Education Association, do such a great job at this work.

We don’t do on-the-ground habitat conservation projects. That’s already being done by Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and many others. And we don’t do electoral politics – we don’t have a political action committee and we remain fiercely nonpartisan. In short, we focus on what we do best: advocating for habitat, funding and access.

It is worth noting the important role that hunters and anglers play in funding conservation in America.  For more than 75 years, the Pittman-Robertson Act, which created an excise tax on guns and ammunition sales, has thrived, providing more than $6.5 billion to state fish and wildlife agencies.

As sportsmen, our priority should be to ensure the successful continuation of funding for key conservation programs. Not only are such programs critical for fish and wildlife habitat, they make good economic sense. This is a point we have stressed to Congress and the administration since the TRCP was created, including during the gun debate.

While the gun control debate has dominated the recent news cycle, conservation, funding and access continue to demand our attention and advocacy – and will do so well into the future. The TRCP will remain at the forefront of these issues and will persevere in our efforts to uphold opportunities to hunt and fish for this generation and those that follow.

Video: Future of the Farm Bill

Ducks Unlimited’s governmental affairs staff sit down to discuss the future of the Farm Bill with Rep. Kristi Noem (SD) and Rep. Tim Walz (MN). Watch the video below to find out where conservation, commerce and our sporting trations fit in.

The Silence of the Lambs

Bighorn lambs

A single truck accident wiped out one-third of the bighorn lambs in the lower Rock Creek drainage. Photo by Neil Thagard.

If you’ve ever doubted the fragility of our nation’s wildlife resources, a recent incident in western Montana will erase those doubts. A single truck accident wiped out one-third of the bighorn lambs in the lower Rock Creek drainage, the Missoulian reported.

This accident is particularly devastating given that the wild sheep in Rock Creek and across the West already was hammered by an outbreak of pneumonia, which is transmitted to bighorns by domestic sheep and goats. In addition to the wild sheep deaths directly attributable to pneumonia, the lingering effects of the disease are predicted to reduce bighorn numbers even further. Several years of poor lamb recruitment will follow a pneumonic outbreak, making the loss of those lambs in Rock Creek particularly tragic.

Physical separation of domestic sheep and goats from wild sheep is essential to prevent the transmission of the respiratory disease. Earlier this year the TRCP, working in concert with the Wild Sheep Foundation and others, successfully removed a damaging amendment to the House appropriations bill for interior, environment and related agencies. The rider would have prevented the implementation of a management plan designed to provide that critical separation between bighorn sheep and domestic sheep grazing on public lands in the Payette National Forest in Idaho. When you consider the fragile state of bighorns throughout the West, the importance of this initiative to help protect them is clear.

Stories like this drive home the importance of proactive wildlife management and highlight the critical work of TRCP and our partners, organizations that are working to ensure healthy fish and wildlife populations through science-based management and policy. Resource management based in current science remains crucially important to strong natural resources policy – not only to wildlife like bighorn sheep, but also to sportsmen.

The tragedy in Rock Creek reminds us that we can never take our fish and wildlife for granted and we must not falter in our efforts to ensure these precious natural resources remain for generations to come.

Watch an episode of “TRCP’s Conservation Field Notes” concerning wild sheep management.

A Win for Wild Sheep

Bighorns on John Day

The removal of the rider marks a victory for wild sheep and a win for good science. Photo courtesy of Mia Sheppard.

Common sense and the best interests of Western wildlife prevailed last week when Representative Mike Simpson withdrew his policy rider to the House appropriations bill for interior, environment and related agencies. The amendment would have prevented the implementation of a management plan in the Payette National Forest in Idaho that would separate bighorn sheep from domestic sheep grazing on public lands.

Keeping the two species apart is critical in the effort to prevent the transmission of a fatal respiratory disease from domestic sheep and goats to bighorn sheep. The respiratory disease has devastated populations of bighorn sheep throughout the West.

Not only was the removal of the rider a victory for wild sheep, it was a win for science-based policy and the consensus on grazing that’s been forged between wildlife professionals, range managers and the hunting community.

The TRCP,  Wild Sheep Foundation, Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies and others look forward to working with Representative Simpson and others to conserve wild sheep in Idaho and other western states.

Learn more about the issue on WAFWA’s website.

Steven Rinella, host of “MeatEater” addressed issues with exotic and invasive species in a recent episode of “TRCP’s Conservation Field Notes.