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Weaver Ranch. Photo by Kyle Weaver

Hard Country: A Lesser Prairie-Chicken Final Frontier

By Lew Carpenter

Reprinted with permission from the North American Grouse Partnership. This article originally appeared in the Fall 2020 edition of the Grouse Partnership News.

Thirty years of drought has been tough on lesser prairie-chickens in eastern New Mexico. The hard scrabble country leaves little opportunity for a bird that once exploded skyward by the hundreds throughout the landscape on any given day. And, while lesser prairie-chicken numbers have recently ticked up – offering hope that proper wildlife management and private landowner incentives will ultimately save this prince of the grasslands – so much still must be done.

 

Jim Weaver left his work – 18 years at Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology, Department of Ecology and Systematics where he focused on endangered species – to raise both a family and cattle on an eastern New Mexico ranch; plus to engage his passion, hunting with a falcon. Drought and the  inherent logistics of the remote ranch got the better of the cattle operation, but the lesser prairie-chickens are still there – not in the great numbers of the mid 70s, but with respectable populations that would not exist without landowner passion and respect for the habitat.

 

“It’s not what people think about when they think of a beautiful New Mexico Ranch. We are out on the eastern side where the country has been beat up for so long it’s hard to find a place that easily fits the travel brochure – let’s put it that way,” Weaver said.

Weaver Ranch. Photo by Kyle Weaver

The Weaver Ranch is on the High Plains where it’s nearly all been farmed at one time or another. The redeeming thing for Weaver is that this was where all the prairie chickens were, which means at least from that standpoint everything was looking pretty good.

 

“We started off buying a couple of sections down here and it was $40 an-acre-land if that sort of puts things in perspective – so at that point a couple of sections wasn’t that big of a deal for someone still holding down a university job,” he said. “So, at any rate, that’s how we started, and over time other pieces and properties came together and we ended up with roughly 30,000 acres of this kind of country over the past 30 or 40 years.”

 

When Weaver put together a cattle operation he did things a little differently than others. He started out with some Mashona cattle, a tribal breed of the Shona people of Zimbabwe, that he ran into over in Africa when he was there doing bird research, and brought that breed over here through an independent USDA import protocol and started them in 1995. “That was more-or-less a success and it was great having the breed here. But we sold out of those cattle probably six or seven years ago,” he said. “We’d had a couple of exceptionally dry years, even for the overall drought, and we could no longer make that pencil out on a normal kind of cattle operation, so we sold out and went back to just worrying about prairie-chickens, more-or-less, and continuing to improve the land and get it back in shape where we thought it was optimal lesser prairie-chicken habitat.” Habitat on the ranch has been improved during the years and, along with the deep sand and hard flats, it has more than a hundred pastures of various sizes with some irrigated pastures running organic alfalfa. The improvements have been good for the chickens, keeping them alive by providing access to water and insects in those pastures.

Weaver Ranch. Photo by Kyle Weaver

“In the beginning, for a period of three or four years in the early to mid-70s, you could easily see a thousand chickens in a day,” Weaver said. “I was hunting chickens back then, and other game birds, with a falcon. And we would use pointing dogs, too. We were camping down here in those days and we were out there every day. Many, many times we would see three or four hundred fly right over the top of our camp.”

 

It’s hard to say what the total population was back then since there was no real effort to figure it out, according to Weaver. If the birds were gone folks would just say they’ll be back like they always have, but it has taken a lot longer than anyone anticipated.

 

“I’ve always been one of the people that’s been against the listing of the birds,” he said. “All management and control of a species rests with the US Fish and Wildlife Service once they are federally listed as Threatened or Endangered. But there just isn’t any money to do anything once they are listed. And this goes back to my time at Cornell years ago with endangered species. It’s just the worst thing in the world when you start inhibiting people’s ability to work with wildlife – at least from a wildlife management standpoint – if you can’t get in there quick and get your hands on something to make a difference then you’re pretty much dead in the water.”

Weaver Ranch. Photo by Kyle Weaver

However, in Weaver’s mind there’s always hope. It really depends on whether the remaining habitat can be optimized with such little suitable habitat left in New Mexico – just two or three counties still have appropriate habitat, and very small portions of those counties. In addition, Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) payments in the area have been cut to their lowest in the country making it difficult to convince farmers to get on board. “They don’t even pay them enough now to cover their expenses,” Weaver said. “And then they cut out the mid-management contract and cost sharing and so on. So the farmers’ incentive is to plow it back up and we’ve seen a couple of leks plowed out of expired CRP. In this area its mostly classified as Highly Erodible Soil that has suffered by wind erosion since the Dust Bowl days. That’s one of the saddest things about it. Private landowners are willing to help, but they need to get paid.”

 

Mesquite and shinnery oak were Weaver’s biggest problems on the ranch when he arrived. And they still are a problem today, sucking what little moisture the landscape receives, preventing the grass from growing. Lesser prairie-chickens need residual grass for nesting habitat, but you can’t have residual grass unless you have grass in the first place. “The shinnery oak prevents the grass from becoming dominant again in the way it used to be back in pre-European times, and you’re up against that battle all the time,” Weaver said. “Mesquite is another big problem because chickens avoid places where the mesquite is more than three or four feet tall, so you’ve got to get rid of the mesquite.”

 

Weaver thinks the chickens could probably survive on a managed, million-acre complex. It doesn’t all have to be adjacent parcels, but they need to be close enough – not blocked by another wind farm or some high-tension wires, or something else that further breaks up the habitat that’s available.

 

“It’s really all they have left,” he said. “There’s really no place else for them to go. It’s absolutely the end of the line for the New Mexico lesser prairie-chicken if people don’t really start paying attention. New Mexico Game and Fish has been great. They’ve got chicken areas all over the place but they lack management money. But we’ve lined up some of those places for the Game and Fish to buy and it’s worked out great, and we’ve got a charitable foundation that buys acres when they become available to try to hold them for conservation-minded people that may want to buy them later, whether that be private folks, NM Game and Fish or US Fish and Wildlife Service – whoever might come along when they are solvent enough to want to make these kinds of conservation investments.”

Weaver Ranch. Photo by Kyle Weaver

Opportunities for the million acres of lesser prairie-chicken habitat could include Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. The BLM assets in this area aren’t all the best chicken habitat, but they do own some of it, and the BLM has made some positive strides, according to Weaver. “They’ve changed some of their grazing regimes around, which has been pretty unpopular for them in the ranching community, but it was the right thing to do to reestablish and maintain good habitat. There’s been no subsoil moisture here to speak of for almost 30 years. That moisture regime has to be returned and the brush has to be controlled and we might come back to a reasonable diversity of grasslands that will sustain these birds.”

Weaver Ranch. Photo by Kyle Weaver

Currently, there are about 17 leks on Weaver’s ranch up from three to four at the lowest point. He saw a good year, last year, with almost a tripling of numbers of birds on lek in just that one season. He’s optimistic that there are plenty of people coming along that want to conserve the country, and with good wildlife management and private landowner incentives something significant could be done. “We’ve worked closely over the years with groups or agencies that offer grant or cost-share assistance for conservation work. US Fish and Wildlife Partners for Fish and Wildlife, the NRCS Grasslands Reserve Program, Farm Services Agency EQIP and CRP programs, Bureau of Land Management, New Mexico Dept. of Game and Fish, New Mexico State Land Office, and Center of Excellence have all cooperated at some point. Folks want to do the best thing they can for the land and the wildlife and the habitat,” he said. “And they are proud of what they have to show for it when they do fix things up for game birds and for wildlife in general, which leads to better biodiversity overall.”

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Edited by Shane P. Mahoney & Valerius Geist

Review by Lew Carpenter

To begin, it seems best to articulate the focus of the book. The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is “an evolved and shared system of conservation laws, principles, institutions, and policies that has enabled the successes of Canada and the United States in the recovery, management, and protection of wildlife and brought them global recognition,” write Shane P. Mahoney, Valerius Geist and Paul R. Krausman.

And, like many of you, I am most familiar with the seven principles associated with the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation (the Model):

​1. Maintaining wildlife as a public trust resource, entrusted to the state to manage.

​2. Prohibiting deleterious commerce in dead wildlife products.

​3. Regulating and defining appropriate wildlife use by law.

​4. Ensuring wildlife can only be killed for legitimate purpose.

​5. Recognizing and managing wildlife as an international resource.

​6. Utilizing and safeguarding science as the appropriate basis for wildlife policy.

​7. Protecting the democratic allocation of citizen opportunity to harvest wildlife.

As hunters and conservationists we invoke the Model when advocating for our collective heritage. It is the philosophical foundation of our beloved sport and the significant implementation of how we engage with wildlife and the world around us in a respectful and scientific manner.

This essay is less a book review than an endorsement, a nudge and a hope that you will expand your knowledge of the the Model by making this book a well-engaged member of your nightstand or bookshelf.

Many people, and rightly so, believe that the Model came into existence as a fully formed concept. After all, it is often presented as such. But creation, evolution and structure came long before it was named, as you will find within the pages of this book.

It may come as a surprise to many that this is the first and remains the only book to ever address the Model. Author Shane Mahoney tells us that, “Given this pedigree it was designed first and foremost to be the most complete presentation of not only the Model’s history and structure (principles) but also the urgent context in which it arose (massive over-exploitation), the pre-conditions which gave rise to it (the ecological conditions of the continent as shaped by Native Americans and the influence of European ideals and perspectives) and which help explain its particular personality, and the characteristics of the Model which leave it open to challenge and reflection.”

There is no doubt that the authors of the various chapters seek to inspire an advancement in thought and creation for the next iteration of the Model. The book illustrates more than once the evolution of the Model and how we got to where we are today. And, through this gentle discourse, both strengths and weakness’ beg collective work and a desperate need to adapt and improve upon what has become the greatest system of sustainable wildlife management on the planet.

“The hope is that the book will encourage debate, incite deeper investigation of theModel’s assumptions and will force upon its proponents and detractors alike challenging truths that demand reflection and address,” says Mahoney. “While the book is meant to celebrate the Model’s successes and clarify the desperate plight of wildlife in late nineteenth century North America, it also contains an unequivocal recognition of what I perceive as the greatest misfortune in the Model’s origins and constitution….the complete absence of the perspectives and unparalleled natural history and landscape management knowledge of Native American cultures. If the book achieved nothing else, I would see bringing this to broader attention as a success.”

The format of the book is well designed as each chapter is self-contained, with Mahoney bringing it all home in conclusion. You can start with “A Comparison of the North American Model to Other Conservation Approaches” and jump to “The Great Early Champions” with ease. We are taken by many routes and a variety of voices to places of much deeper understanding about wildlife management, history, conservation and the critical role each of us plays in past and future success.

The historical context is compelling and emerges naturally from the beginning of the book. I simply had no real idea of the history of North American wildlife and its complicated path to being managed today. For example, Geist and Mahoney write, “…in the context of wildlife management and nature conservation in North America, it is important to note that the entry of modern humans at the beginning of the Bølling-Allerød Interstadial some 14,000 years ago marked the last time the continent’s biota and landscapes were natural.” Geist and Mahoney’s history lessons “…examine what is natural, and whether North America’s objectives for wildlife reflect realistic interpretations of the continent’s past and hopes for its future.”

Closer to home, James L. Cummins’ accessible essay on critical legislation explains how laws like Pittman-Robertson, Dingell-Johnson and Wallop-Breaux became key conservation funding cornerstones. As well, Cummins highlights other important conservation Acts, like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act (Duck Stamp). 

But the history of how we got to be where we are today doesn’t stop with the examples above, as the significant past comes up time and time again in additional chapters. “Thereare many insightful passages that explain lesser known facts, such as how knowledgeably first North American cultures worked to manage landscapes and how they impacted wildlife, how diverse the personalities and intense the debates were amongst early conservation advocates, how complex our institutions are today and how farsighted founding thinkers were in creating international treaties more than a century ago,” says Mahoney.  

And every hunter should read the chapter on “Hunting and Vested Interests as the Spine of the North American Model,” by James R. Heffelfinger and Mahoney, which clearly illustrates the core role of the North American hunter. It further details how the idea of seeking incentives for successful conservation program implementation was intuitively “baked” into the Model by self interest of the North American hunter.

As well, in Heffelfinger’s discussion of non-game species and their absence from the hunter-incentive paradigm, he rightly makes the case – without naming the effort – for the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA), which would provide funding relief to state game and fish agencies for all species under their care. As of this writing RAWA is again set to enter the American legislative process in the U.S. Congress.

Challenges to the Model

The honesty of the book celebrates both the vast successes of the Model, building a case for its continued relevance, as well as points a finger at its current weaknesses. With seven highly articulated challenges, we also find an “Incomplete Historical Narrative” that fails to recognize important contributors to the Model’s success. Brennan, Hewitt and Mahoney write, “To its detriment the traditional narrative also fails to address how prevalent social inequalities between genders, races, and classes during the development of the Model negatively impacted its practical inclusivity.”

Acknowledging the weaknesses of the Model, Mahoney makes the case for an enlightened upgrade, one we should all demand – rather than deny in retreat. “Without commitment to fundamental change, we must accept that current trends in conservation will continue and that the North American Model will inevitably weaken as its foundational principles prove outdated to both nature’s requirements and society’s tolerances and values.” He goes on to emphasize that we should all be leaders of the change – heroes and mobilizers of knowledge.

Mahoney explains that, “Ultimately, of course, the hope for this book is that it contributes to the vital debate over wildlife’s future, reminds us of the cultural ties and community identities that abide within its nexus of historicity and self-awareness, and forces upon the reader the ultimate question: if not this Model, then what alternative is reasonably and realistically proposed. Wildlife, not the Model, is the crucial reality to be, above all else, defended, safeguarded and preserved.”

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with this book. As a hunter and conservationist I’ll be reaching for it time and time again as I advocate for its principles, as well as seek resolution to its current challenges. And, to be clear, the book is not just for the North American hunter, it is for all who seek to engage, protect and support wildlife and habitat.

Mahoney says it best in his final conclusion: “Wild nature cannot speak for itself. We must. The greatest question facing North American society today is whether we will.”

The book may be found here: https://www.amazon.com/North-American-Wildlife-Conservation-Management/dp/1421432803/ref=nodl_

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NEWTOWN, Conn. — NSSF® the firearm industry trade association, marked a milestone achievement when firearm and ammunition manufacturers topped $14.1 billion in contributions to the Wildlife Restoration Trust Fund since its inception in 1937.


“This is truly a remarkable win for wildlife conservation,” said Joe Bartozzi, NSSF’s President and CEO. “This fund has been responsible for the restoration and recovery of America’s iconic game species, including the Rocky Mountain elk, whitetail deer, pronghorn antelope, wild turkeys and a variety of waterfowl. It is also responsible for funding the recovery and conservation of nongame species, including the American bald eagle, reptiles, fauna and conservation lands that allow them to thrive. The firearm industry is proud to perform such an important and vital function to ensure America’s wildlife remains abundant for future generations.”


The Wildlife Restoration Trust Fund, commonly known as the Pittman-Robertson fund or Firearms and Ammunition Excise Tax, is a tax paid by firearm and ammunition manufacturers on the products they produce. The excise tax is set at 11 percent of the wholesale price for long guns and ammunition and 10 percent of the wholesale price for handguns. The excise tax, paid by manufacturers and importers, applies basically to all firearms produced or imported for commercial sales, whether their purpose is for recreational shooting, hunting or personal defense. The tax is currently administered by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) in the Department of the Treasury, which turns the funds over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).


USFWS then deposits the Pittman-Robertson revenue into a special account called the Wildlife Restoration Trust Fund, which is administered by the USFWS. These funds are made available to states and territories the year following their collection.


These 10 to 11 percent excise tax dollars collected since 1937 under the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act are specifically designated to be used by state wildlife agencies for conservation. Collectively, purchasers of firearms and ammunition, hunters and the industry are the greatest source of wildlife conservation funding.



About NSSFNSSF is the trade association for the firearm industry. Its mission is to promote, protect and preserve hunting and the shooting sports. Formed in 1961, NSSF has a membership of thousands of manufacturers, distributors, firearm retailers, shooting ranges, sportsmen’s organizations and publishers nationwide. For more information, log on to www.nssf.org.

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Recreation infrastructure often is supported by LWCF funding, providing access to hunters and anglers. Photo by Lew Carpenter

Boat ramps, bathrooms, public open space, picnic tables, recreation infrastructure – simple things we often forget about until we can’t use them (due to pandemics or lack of maintenance). The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) often is a little-known financial backbone for communities that support hunters, anglers and outdoor recreation users in their wild pursuits.

LWCF generates new jobs, creates new opportunities for recreation and provides fuel for state and local economies. For more than five decades it has helped create and maintain parks, hiking and biking trails, ballfields, waterfront access, hunting and fishing access and so much more in nearly every county in the United States.

Since inception in 1965 LWCF has pumped $219,100,000 into Louisiana’s vast recreation and wildlife infrastructure.

When Congress created the Land and Water Conservation Fund in 1965, it devised a funding mechanism that would use offshore oil revenues instead of taxpayer money. The fund is entitled to receive $900 million a year, but only twice in its history has it received the full amount since Congress usually diverts funding to non-conservation projects. The permanent full funding bill currently coursing through Congress will finally remedy that situation so the Land and Water Conservation Fund will be able to reach its full potential.

Recently permanently authorized, but not fully funded – I know, it makes no sense – LWCF is in the crosshairs of current federal legislation. And, there are many reasons why you should care.

Since its inception in 1964, the LWCF program has established many of our nation’s most coveted public lands that generate billions of dollars for state and local economies. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, outdoor recreation supports $778 billion in annual consumer spending and 5.2 million jobs across the country. While LWCF enjoys broad support for these clear economic benefits, the program relies on a standing account of the United States Treasury which is subject to constant diversions from its intended purpose.

Permanent authorization of LWCF in 2019 was an important step in addressing these issues, but it did not ensure that all of the funds identified for LWCF are used for their intended purpose. This underfunding has created a backlog of conservation and recreation access needs in every state across the country. Therefore, Congress must pass legislation now to provide full and dedicated funding for LWCF at the authorized level of $900 million.

Bassmaster Magazine Editor James Hall lands a nice keeper redfish in the marsh

Lowering your boat to the river or marsh by rope without a launch sucks. So does erosion at epic scale making access difficult at best. We need public infrastructure now more than ever. We need to keep people hunting, fishing, recreating and we need to support communities that support our sport!

Recreation infrastructure development provides jobs, too, in places that will badly need them in the coming years. So now, when Congress is rightly focused on how to stimulate the economy, many leaders are realizing that one of the solutions is right in front of them. 

Across the country there are scores of shovel-ready projects just waiting for LWCF funding. These projects will provide jobs in construction, restoration and conservation. That in turn will provide additional opportunities for American families to get outside to hunt, hike, bike, camp, fish and pursue many other outdoor recreation passions. According to the Trust for Public Land, every dollar invested in LWCF returns at least $4 in economic benefits. For an investment of $900 million, that’s a $3.6 billion return.

While often unknown, LWCF funding supports access and habitat improvement to areas like Delta NWR in the bird’s foot of the Mississippi River Delta. Photo by Lew Carpenter

LWCF has helped support some of Louisiana’s most beloved public places. The list of major projects funded by LWCF in Louisiana includes:

Federal Public Land Investment ($143,000,000):

Atchafalaya NWR

Bayou Cocodrie NWR

Bayou Sauvage NWR

Big Branch Marsh NWR

Black Bayou NWR

Bogue Chitto NWR

Cane River Creole NHP

Cat Island NWR

Delta NWR

Grand Cote NWR

Isle Dernieres

Jean Lafitte NHP

Kistachie NF

Lake Ophelia NWR

Louisiana Black Bear NWR

Red River NWR

Southeast LA NWRs Tensas River NWR

Upper Ouachita NWR

Forest Legacy Program ($340,000)

Habitat Conservation, Sec. 6 ($500,000)

American Battlefield Protection Program ($450,000)

State Program, Total State Grants ($74,900,000)

Total: $219,100,000

To get a detailed look at LWCF investment in Louisiana since the 60s, see here: http://projects.invw.org/data/lwcf/grants-la.html

Now is the time to recommit this investment in conservation and restoration to begin the economic healing from the pandemic. Providing full and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund will produce jobs for the unemployed, provide new parks and hiking trails for our health and well-being, and stimulate our local economies with new recreation opportunities for generations to come.

Anglers rely on recreation infrastructure to access Louisiana’s vast waterways. Here, Eric Cosby yanks a fine redfish from Louisiana waters.
Photo by Lew Carpenter

So when that big bruiser of a redfish crushes your lure, the sea trout stack up in your cooler, the call from offshore gifts you with a cow yellowfin tuna, or taking that brace of blue winged teal – after thanking the hunting and fishing gods, tip your hat to a quiet American program that supports communities in their ability to support you. It matters.

Click Here to Support Permanently Funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund >>

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Photo by Lew Carpenter

WASHINGTON, DC — New legislation aimed at updating one of the nation’s foundational hunting and angling programs will strengthen wildlife management and conservation across the United States. The National Wildlife Federation urged Congress to swiftly enact the Pittman-Robertson Modernization Act.

“Ensuring a future where wildlife thrive depends not only upon our ability to restore habitat and confront threats like invasive species and disease, but equally upon our ability to engage more and diverse participants in our outdoor heritage,” said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “The National Wildlife Federation enthusiastically supports Representative Scott, Representative Veasey, Representative Duncan, and Representative Dingell’s bipartisan efforts to advance both of these critical conservation goals and urge swift passage of the Pittman-Robertson Modernization Act.”

The legislation, introduced by Congressman Austin Scott, Republican of Georgia, and colleagues, would support important programs to recruit, retain, and reactivate hunters by allowing Pittman-Robertson hunter education funds to be used for hunter outreach and recruitment programs as well.

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With countless places to roam and enjoy the great outdoors, Americans are taking advantage of these opportunities, and as they go, spending significant dollars, too. New economic reports by Southwick Associates reveal that more than 53 million Americans consider themselves sportsmen, spending over $93.5 billion in 2016 on gear, licenses, travel, clothing, gas and more. 

South Park, Colorado. Photo by Lew Carpenter

A series of reports released yesterday by the American Sportfishing Association, National Shooting Sports Foundation and the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation show that expenditures made in 2016 for hunting, target shooting and sportfishing gear and services supported 1.6 million jobs and provided $72 billion in salaries and wages. These monies also generated nearly $20 billion in local, state and federal taxes. Much of this tax revenue benefits vital conservation and educational programs that improve our outdoor areas for all who enjoy them and make hunting and shooting safer activities.

“If hunting, fishing and target shooting were a corporation, it would rank #25 on the Fortune 500, ahead of Microsoft,” says Rob Southwick, president of Southwick Associates. “While time spent outside may come across as something to do after the real work day is done, in reality hunting, fishing and target shooting is a critical industry, generating jobs and income for thousands of communities across the country.”

Key highlights of the reports include:



  • Each year, 35.8 million people 16 years and older take to America’s waters to fish.
  • More than 28 million people over 16 years old took to our nation’s forests and gun ranges to hunt and target shoot in 2016.
  • The number of people who participate in sportfishing, hunting and target shooting represents 16.5 percent of the total U.S. population.
  • When factoring in multiplier effects, spending by sportsmen created economic activity in excess of $220 billion.
  • Hunting, fishing and shooting adds $119 billion of overall value to our nation’s gross domestic product and generates $17.6 billion in federal taxes and $12.2 billion in state and local taxes.

Four separate reports are available: sportfishing from the American Sportfishing Association, hunting and target shooting from the National Shooting Sports Foundation (please register as a guest when asked), plus a report for all activities combined from the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation.

Southwick Associates is a market research and economics firm specializing in the hunting, shooting, sportfishing, and outdoor recreation markets. Celebrating 28 years in business, Southwick Associates has a strong reputation for delivering comprehensive insights and statistics to strategic decision making across the entire outdoor industry. Aside from custom market and economic information, Southwick Associates provides custom and syndicated research including customer-driven new product development, outdoor media consumption insights, and equipment purchase tracking studies. Visit www.southwickassociates.com for more information.

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Udall, Heinrich Join Conservation Leaders To Celebrate New Public Access To Sabinoso Wilderness, Call For Reauthorization Of Land And Water Conservation Fund

sabinoso_wilderness_blm_photo_bob_wick

Image courtesy BLM, Bob Wick

U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich May 29, 2018 joined the National Wildlife Federation, Wilderness Land Trust, Partnership for Responsible Business, Santa Ana Pueblo, and a number of other local conservation leaders and organizations to announce major gains towards improving access to public lands in New Mexico, including opening the Sabinoso Wilderness to the public, and the many successes of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The event was held at the Petroglyph National Monument Visitor Center in Albuquerque.

“Public lands like the Sabinoso Wilderness are essential to New Mexico’s way of life and are major economic drivers for our state. Unlocking Sabinoso’s rugged canyons and mesas to the public, for hiking, camping, horseback riding, and hunting, was a major victory for all New Mexicans. We showed that we can expand access to our public lands when we work together toward a common goal,” said Sen. Udall. “But we need to continue pushing back against the ongoing assault on our public lands coming from some in Washington. It starts with protecting the Land and Water Conservation Fund, an immensely popular and successful program which has provided funds to nearly every county in America to conserve public open space. The LWCF accomplishes so much with so little – protecting national monuments, national forests, wildlife refuges, lakes and rivers, state and local parks, and historic sites. As the top Democrat on the subcommittee that oversees funding for the Department of Interior, I will keep fighting to see that the LWCF is made permanent to support public lands in New Mexico and across the country for future generations.”

“The opening of the Sabinoso Wilderness is a major victory and will finally allow public access to this stunning landscape that we all own. I am proud to have worked hard for years alongside New Mexico sportsmen, wilderness advocates, and local community leaders to find a way to unlock this incredible place to the public. The Sabinoso will surely become an important destination for hunters, hikers and campers from nearby communities and around the nation, and contribute to our outdoor recreation economy,” said Sen. Heinrich. “I will continue working to protect and improve access to the places that we love here in New Mexico and fight for the permanent and full funding of conservation programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund that are critical to preserving our outdoor heritage for our children and future generations.”

The Land and Water Conservation Fund is one of the nation’s oldest and most successful conservation programs. Senators Udall and Heinrich have long advocated for the permanent reauthorization and full funding of LWCF. This vital program expires on September 30, 2018.

“Among the National Wildlife Federation’s top priorities are restoring America’s wildlife populations, conserving public lands, and ensuring that Americans have access to them, whether for hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, paddling or watching wildlife. We’re proud of the incredible work by New Mexicans to open the Sabinoso Wilderness to public access and our celebration today is a testament to the efforts of Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and sportsmen in partnership with Secretary Zinke and the Interior Department and conservation organizations, like the Wilderness Land Trust and the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. America’s public lands belong to all of us and we must all continue to work together to protect and enhance our public lands legacy, including reauthorizing and fully funding one of our most important conservation programs–the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” said Collin O’Mara, President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.

“LWCF is essential to our country’s outdoor spaces—from neighborhood parks to national parks,” said Diane Regas, CEO of The Trust for Public Land. “Without it our work in New Mexico would be impossible and the future of parks and open space would be uncertain. Both Senators Udall and Heinrich set a high standard for what it means to be a leader in conservation and The Trust for Public Land is profoundly grateful for their hard work and commitment to the outdoors.”

“We’ve been working on creating access to the Sabinoso Wilderness since it was proposed for designation in 2009,” said Brad Borst, President of The Wilderness Land Trust. “We are deeply grateful to the Wyss Foundation for funding the acquisition and transfer of the heart of the Rimrock Rose Ranch to the Bureau of Land Management; to US Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico for their leadership and perseverance; for the support of the San Miguel County Commissioners; for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance volunteers for helping with site cleanup; and for the sportsmen groups who publicly advocated for this New Mexico treasure.”

“The Land and Water Conservation Fund is a crucial program for New Mexico’s public lands, state parks, and restoration projects,” said New Mexico Wildlife Federation Acting Executive Director Todd Leahy. “We are pleased to come together with our Senators who have long been champions of LWCF as well as public lands access, and our partners who have worked side by side for conservation projects over the years. We hope this event brings the importance of LWCF to the forefront of New Mexican’s minds and inspire our entire New Mexico delegation to support permanently reauthorizing LWCF.”

“The Land and Water Conservation Fund has provided over $312 million to projects in New Mexico that have leveraged millions more in state, local, and private matching funds to contribute to the betterment of our state and well-being of our citizens. These investments also help sustain a network of parks and public lands that attract entrepreneurs, retirees, and tourists who strengthen our economy. Our state will suffer if the Land and Water Conservation Fund expires. Congress must not let that happen,” said Alexandra Merlino, Executive Director, New Mexico Partnership for Responsible Business.

“Latinos and all Americans in every state have benefitted from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, whether they know it or not. If you have visited a state park or played softball in your neighborhood, there’s a good chance those places in New Mexico were, in part, funded by the LWCF to the tune of over $310 million during the program’s lifetime,”said Ralph Arellanes, New Mexico LULAC Executive Director and Hispano Round Table of New Mexico Chairman.

“To grow up healthy, kids need a clean, beautiful, and accessible outdoors where they can play and discover the amazing world around them. Fortunately, New Mexico has numerous spectacular outdoor areas that have been protected thanks to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is set to expire this September. We can’t let that happen. In the bipartisan spirit that has characterized the LWCF since its inception, Congress must come together to reauthorize and fully fund this great provider of public lands access and enjoyment,” said James Jimenez, Executive Director, New Mexico Voices for Children.

“Growing up on New Mexico’s public lands, the Land and Water Conservation Fund is personal to me. As a Sportsman, I’ve seen firsthand how important LWCF is to increasing sportsmen’s access and improving wildlife habitat. If you’ve ever caught a Cutthroat trout in the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic river area, hunted in the Valles Caldera or the Gila, hiked in the Organ Mountains or seen bighorn sheep on the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument you are a beneficiary of LWCF,” said Rev. Andrew Black, Pastor at First Presbyterian Church Santa Fe. “Working with veterans, youth and families throughout the state, I’ve also seen firsthand how the lands funded by LWCF are places of great healing, wholeness and transformation.”

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One of the great things about this country is that when people come together they are very strong, and we need to come together to understand our natural resources, and how important natural resources are to future generations – Fernando Clemente, New Mexico Wildlife Federation Board Member and Wildlife Biologist

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Fernando Clemente, New Mexico Wildlife Services and NM Wildlife Federation board member with a Montezuma Quail. Photo by Lew Carpenter

I stepped in close to the desert scrub where I thought the fleeing Montezuma Quail had landed. These quail hold tight and I was right on top of one when it exploded up in front of me blasting out to my left. I pulled in line and my view suddenly clouded with a dense tree foiling my shot. I looked further left and saw Clemente smoothly and effortlessly raise his shotgun and drop the dynamic bird.

 

We were a mere 20 minutes into our Montezuma Quail (also known as Mearns Quail) hunt when the first covey had been busted. Field & Stream reporter Hal Herring had dropped a bird from that first flush and, apparently, I had become the bird dog for Clemente’s kill – both flushing and retrieving for him.

 

Our group had joined just a few miles from the US-Mexico border in the Coronado National Forest of New Mexico’s bootheel, just south of Animas. We were six – plus three dogs – out to hunt Montezuma Quail and talk wildlife impacts of a proposed border wall. Sixty percent of the Chihuahua desert grasslands are gone and further fragmentation of this essential habitat and its wildlife corridors would be devastating if a border wall is built.

 

“Some animals, because of their size, avoid predators, humans, autos and structures,” Clemente said. “So when they see a structure in the distance like the proposed wall, they will not even go near. So when you talk about home range and habitat for a species, it will be totally disrupted – from California to Texas.”

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Impressive tall-grass habitat of the Coronado National Forest in New Mexico. Photo By Lew Carpenter

New Mexico Wildlife Federation (NMWF) staff member Gabe Vasquez, board member Fernando Clemente and past NMWF board chair Ray Trejo – plus Field & Stream’s Hal Herring and Tom Fowlks (photographer) – were all on site to camp, hunt and expose a magnificent ecosystem filled with tall grasslands, wooded hills, Coues deer, bear, desert bighorn sheep and…oh yes, quail.

Vasquez organized the trip. He also authored the National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) Border Wall policy resolution, which was ratified by 51 NWF state affiliates during the 2017 NWF annual meeting in Stevenson, Washington. He is also a Las Cruces City Councilman and heads the Nuestra Tierra conservation program for NMWF.

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From top left: Fernando Clemente, Lew Carpenter, Gabe Vasquez. Bottom from left: Ray Trejo, Hal Herring. Photo by Tom Fowlks

“Under recent Congressional bills there have been environmental waivers granted for construction of any type of structure for border security,” Vasquez said. “New Mexico Legislators this year pushed back strongly with legislation that would trigger a state-version of NEPA or EIS anytime the federal government wants to come in and do a land swap with the state of New Mexico to facilitate the construction of any property, where there are no environmental laws required (like Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act). It received strong support and passed out of a House committee.”

“So clearly here in New Mexico we place a high value on our land – and when people talk about state’s rights – well here’s a federal decision that comes with the power to decimate our state’s recreation economy, our wildlife and our culture, and we don’t want it,” Vasquez continued. “People talk all the time about state’s rights and some of these folks are the same ones who want the wall, but you can’t have it both ways. This is terrible for sportsmen and women in New Mexico and terrible for anyone else who uses these public lands.”

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Gabe Vasquez, Las Cruces City Councilman, NM Wildlife staffer and leader of Nuestra Tierra. Photo by Lew Carpenter

NMWF’s Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, a program that helps underserved and Hispanic communities connect with the outdoors, has been advocating against the border wall since its inception, and the following is from its factsheet:

 

President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign promise to build a massive border wall across the U.S.-Mexico border is misguided, technically infeasible, and will deteriorate the country’s relationship with Mexico.

 

A massive border wall, on the scale that Trump has proposed, will also have a tremendously negative impact on wildlife and the natural environment.

 

Disrupting the flow of water

  • In many places across the border, existing fences already act as dams during periods of heavy rainfall, which cause severe soil erosion, degraded habitat for wildlife, and flooding in rural and urban population centers. A concrete wall would likely amplify these existing problems.
  • According to the National Park Service, the pooling of water against existing border fences in Arizona has already caused severe soil erosion and damage to riparian vegetation.
  • When it rains in Palomas, Mexico, which neighbors Columbus, N.M., the town’s streets, many of them dirt roads, flood badly. Engineers have concluded that the existing border fencing and infrastructure is largely to blame. Additional and larger border infrastructure could severely flood our southern neighbors by altering the course of naturally flowing arroyos, impacting both their health, infrastructure, and economy.

 

Severe disruption to wildlife habitat

  • Reinforced fencing – in particular solid walls – along the Southwest border will continue to disrupt the migratory ranges of wildlife in the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts and their endangered species.
  • Current border fences have already hindered efforts to save the native jaguar, which was listed as an endangered species since 1977 and is slowly recovering from near extinction. Restricting the movement of these creatures will almost certainly eliminate their ability to reach their traditional breeding areas.
  • The current wall has seriously hampered the distribution of the ferruginous pygmy-owl and bighorn sheep and could isolate other endangered populations of large mammals, particularly in Arizona’s Sky Island region, including black bears.

 

Building a massive border wall to divide these two great nations will destroy the cultural heritage that the land represents to its modern day inhabitants and will severely impact wildlife habitat and endanger binational communities. Nuestra Tierra strongly believes that to preserve our frontera culture, and to move forward as a nation, the border wall must not be built.

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From left: Gabe Vasquez, Hal Herring and Fernando Clemente. Photo by Lew Carpenter

“We need to act, Clemente said. “We need to come together. One of the great things about this country is when people come together they are very strong. And we need to come together to understand our natural resources, and how important natural resources are to future generations. The United States has always been the leader in wildlife management and the conservation of natural resources, and I don’t understand why we would head down this route (of a border wall).”

 

Trejo fortified that notion, “We work very hard to articulate just that, on the landscape and on the border. It is our responsibility to bring people who are making decisions down (to the border), and to look at the landscape – otherwise they don’t understand. We are connected with Mexico and we have always been connected with Mexico. And that wall is going to create a barrier that impacts the ecosystem that spans the border, and what happens to the people, the wildlife, the habitat and the work between the countries?”

 

As we drove into the boot heel of New Mexico — the northern part of the Chihuahua Desert – the exotic landscape opened up with magnificent grasslands, mountain ranges and rich colors of gold, brown and green.

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Dog on point with Vasquez and Clemente. Photo by Lew Carpenter

Our campsite was at 5500 feet altitude and the temps ranged from 14 to 75 degrees.

 

Trejo, a high school administrator in these parts, brought his two German short haired pointers and Clemente, who owns NM Specialized Wildlife Services, brought his pointer as well. Both men are experts in wildlife conservation and Clemente manages wildlife populations on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

 

“We are supposed to be a country that creates relations, and I hope that nothing will happen, but if the wall gets created, what will happen to those relations?” Clemente rhetorically asked. “And what do I mean by that? I’m going to talk about waterfowl, migratory birds, and many people say that ‘They can fly over the wall,’ but that’s not the point. The point is there are tri-lateral meetings every year between the US, Canada and Mexico.

 

“They meet to create a management plan for the migratory birds, and I’ve been fortunate to be a part of that within the Central Flyway. And they get to get together and talk about everything from habitat restoration and resting places (wildlife refuges) all the way to bag limits and how many each country harvests,” Clemente continued. “Why is that? Because they fly from Canada to Mexico and then back each year. It’s not a species that somebody owns – everybody owns them, and their habitat, and home range is from Canada to Mexico, so that’s the way it needs to be managed. So let’s say there is a break in our relationships, and now they don’t care because we don’t care about them – so we will change things to keep more birds for us. The problem is that if we start changing how we manage those migratory birds in order to keep numbers for each country, what will happen in 20 years?”

 

The same could be said about relations on Sonoran pronghorn, Coues deer, desert bighorn sheep – just a few in the game species category.

 

“We have a great population of Goulds turkeys because of releases from Mexico, and Mexico is doing great with Gould’s turkeys – almost half the country has Gould’s turkeys,” Clemente said. “So all those relationships have been created to build population sustainability with wildlife populations. If we damage that then it will be 10 times harder to be able to sustain a wildlife population. Now, with that being said, what kind of message are we sending to the wildlife biologists and ecologists about all that work from the past? When we build that wall we are saying we don’t care about the work.”

 

Heading out into the National Forest I was struck by the glowing, golden high grasses – excellent quail habitat. The quality of the landscape was like nothing I had seen further north. Un-grazed public land as far as the eye could see – challenging us as we searched for quail.

 

Tracking along a small wash, which was wooded along the southern face, we came upon that first covey and flush. Holding a Montezuma in my hand for the first time, I could easily see what the fuss was about with these birds. To detail all its beauty in words would be nearly impossible considering the diversity of colors and patterns throughout its plumage.

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Montezuma Quail. Photo by Lew Carpenter

Exploring a small slice of this incredible grassland ecosystem was a gift. Thick golden fields of grass; rocky, woodland washes and hills; and open space without structure extending well beyond sight (with occasional groups of Coues deer busting forth).

 

“Culturally we refer to this little piece on the landscape as the border, but it’s a landscape just like any other,” Vasquez said. “It is diverse, it is beautiful and to us it is our home. It is becoming more dangerous to us as we see what is happening in Congress.”

 

I admit, it’s hard to weave a hunting story with an issue as significant, deep and connected to so many people, cultures and conservation values. The hunt left a mark on me. The conversation about the wildlife impacts of a border wall left an impact on me. My life is forever changed by this type of experience, when being present in a special place merges with responsible, pragmatic dialogue about common values. And when we connect with each other physically in a place that is meaningful, one can’t help but be transformed forever.

 

And, while we sought both Montezuma and Blue (Scaled) quail, we encountered Gamble’s quail, too – all remarkable game birds. Afternoons in this area beg a hat trick. Though I didn’t shoot as well as I would like, the hunt will be one of my greatest sporting memories. The combination of epic habitat, spectacular wildlife and the best of companions (dogs included) made the trip truly special.

 

I am invested in my role with conservation, and even more invested in my relationships, but to be in a place that not only connects people and culture from two nations, and touches upon the values of wild places and wildlife, I can’t help but be transformed even further in my resolve to protect the things I love – people, wildlife, heritage and the vast beauty of the public estate.

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SHOT Show floor. By Lew Carpenter

I work in conservation because I love our lands, waters, fish and wildlife.

I am a sportsman.

When I think about the incredible opportunities I have in America to fish and hunt on public lands and waters, I feel strong, proud and grateful. But protecting what I – and tens of millions of other sportsmen and women around the country – value isn’t easy.

Yet it should be.

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SHOT Show panel. Photo by Kristyn Brady, TRCP

So when the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) asked me to be part of a panel reviewing the Trump administration’s first year of conservation at the 2018 SHOT Show last month, I gladly agreed to speak in front of representatives from across the shooting and hunting industry. After all, this industry relies on healthy habitat, clean water and vast public lands, and supports wildlife conservation through excise taxes and investment.

It’s a symbiotic relationship where a healthy environment drives economic gain, fueling opportunity, access and large and small businesses. These basic values and tenants emerged during the SHOT Show panel, including the current threats to sporting values and wildlife health that continue to grow at a pace that should concern all sportsmen and women. Read on for an overview of what the panel discussed, focused on public lands policies, the recent withdrawal of Clean Water Act protections to headwaters and wetlands, and restoring the Mississippi River Delta.

Public Land Access and Energy Development

Enacting policies to expand sportsman access to public lands is not just popular, it’s also critical to the future of hunting and fishing. A staggering amount of public land is landlocked, surrounded by private lands, and in many cases efforts to close easement access to these lands is ongoing. Great victories, such as the Sabinoso Wilderness effort by New Mexico Wildlife Federation (NMWF) and TRCP – working with both senators in New Mexico to garner funding and purchase private land – allowed a donation to the federal government for access to that pristine wilderness.

With hundreds of NMWF members signing a petition telling Secretary Zinke to open up this wilderness, this was a landmark example of what happens when sportsmen and women fight for their access, and was a huge victory years in the making.

Discussion turned to energy development and dominance on public lands, where energy development and mining can coexist with healthy habitat and quality hunting and angling. But this balance does not happen by chance.

Responsible energy and extraction development requires both careful planning and a commitment from decision makers to get it right from the start. It is, therefore, critical that our public land management agencies – the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service – have the right policies and procedures in place to facilitate both energy development and the conservation of healthy fish and wildlife populations.

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Waterfowl hunting on public land. Photo by Lew Carpenter

Withdrawal of Clean Water Act Protections

Moving on to water issues, we touched on the EPA’s decision to withdraw Clean Water Act protections for headwaters and wetlands impacting fish, waterfowl and businesses that rely on quality places to hunt and fish.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency have begun the process of rescinding the 2015 provision that clarified protections for headwater streams and wetlands under the Clean Water Act, despite broad public support for the rule and its benefits for fish and wildlife habitat. This is the first step in a two-step process to replace the rule, set into motion by an executive order in February 2017.

The repeal and replacement plan is likely to roll back Clean Water Act protections for a majority of the nation’s streams and wetlands, including the headwater streams that are so important for fish and game, plus millions of acres of seasonal wetlands that store flood waters and provide essential habitat for more than half of North American migratory waterfowl. Areas like the Prairie Potholes and Louisiana wetlands are at tremendous risk.

As the panel came to the end of its time, Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt took the podium. His prepared words of admonishment were designed to minimize any panel criticism of the administration, which was disappointing in its anticipation of our healthy, but brief dialogue.

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Deer hunting the Piceance Basin north of Rifle, Colorado. Photo by Henry Byerly

I spoke to the Deputy Secretary afterward about the place he grew up — Rifle, Colorado – and the collapse of the deer herds north of there in a place once called the “Deer Factory.” Fifteen thousand new oil and gas wells are proposed for that area in the coming years – an example he disregarded. However we shifted back to the Gulf Coast wetlands and the need for his administration to ensure that the coordination of sediment diversion project-permitting in Louisiana happens efficiently, which was something he expressed interest in supporting.

Restoring the Mississippi River Delta

It’s easy to understand getting behind restoring the Mississippi River Delta. A football field of wetlands continues to disappear every hour along the coast of Louisiana, and with those wetlands goes vital fish and waterfowl habitat.

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6.5-pound flounder in the Bird Claw of Louisiana’s wetlands. Photo by Lew Carpenter

Later that week Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) and other state and federal agencies to collaborate on permitting for the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion under the guidance of Trump Executive Order 13807. Located in Plaquemines Parish, the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion is a Louisiana Coastal Master Plan project that would direct sediment, freshwater and nutrients from the Mississippi River into nearby wetlands to build and maintain land in Louisiana’s Barataria Basin.

The Vanishing Paradise campaign was pleased to see this firm commitment to adhering to the two-year timeline for project permitting in an environmentally and legally responsible manner.

Looking Ahead

We can’t continue to simply hope our politicians on both sides of the aisle protect our public lands, waterways and wildlife. We have to hold them all accountable every day, or the opportunities that drive our sporting legacy, heritage and businesses will disappear.

At every turn, our fundamental values are being challenged – in some cases on a grand scale, and others by a thousand small cuts. Access and opportunity rely on robust public lands that allow wildlife and people to move freely. They rely on clean water, clean air and healthy soil. We shouldn’t have to continually fight for these basic tenants, but instead spend our energy addressing other critical challenges impacting our wildlife.

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