December 28, 2020
By Andrew McKean
If you're like me, Washington, D.C., is as unknowable as the mind of a February gobbler, and as hard to navigate as a coastal estuary at low tide. But so many vital decisions are made in the nation's capital that we ignore Washington at our peril. Everything from our ability to own and use guns, and access federal land, to funding for keystone conservation programs comes from decisions made there.
You're right if you think your representatives listen more to organized advocacy campaigns than to your lone voice—and vote—back home. The latest election should remove all doubt about the power of collective action. The folks who get paid to think about our nation's conservation priorities know that, and it's a lesson they've learned the hard way, by being shut out of decisions because their efforts were so scattered and disorganized.
So, 20 years ago last summer, the Boone and Crockett Club gathered the leaders of 35 wildlife organizations at its offices in Missoula, Mont., and hammered out the first blueprint of wildlife priorities that it presented to the nation's decision-makers. The group was called American Wildlife Conservation Partners (AWCP), and the document members created was called "Wildlife for the 21st Century." In the two decades since that first effort, six of these conservation roadmaps have been presented to presidential administrations and congresses.
The latest "Wildlife for the 21st Century" is not only a lobbying guide, but also a fascinating insight into the nation's most pressing and achievable conservation goals. The document, which includes input from 50 hunting conservation organizations, was released for public consumption in the summer. It advocates for things like prioritizing big-game migration corridors, developing a more comprehensive strategy to slow the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) and increasing public access to public lands.
Here are the 10 priorities identified by the AWCP. You’re bound to hear much more about these over the next four years as conservation groups ask for your help in taking these issues from abstract ideas to concrete action.
No. 1: Conservation Funding
If you find yourself muttering, "Well, duh!" about this priority, then you haven’t kept up with the federal budget. During the past 50 years, funding for natural resources and the environment has been cut in half and is now less than 1 percent of federal discretionary spending. Conservation groups would like to see more permanent funding from public and private sources to help with everything from forest health to implementation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to aid state wildlife agencies in the fight against CWD.
No. 2: Recreational Access
This is another "of course" issue, but though we've done a decent job of creating and maintaining access to land, recreational access to the nation's waterways continues to be an impediment to angling participation. This priority includes requests to improve public-land-access databases so that hunters and anglers can easily find legal access points, and also to maintain robust funding for federal-land roads and trails, which would make access a core consideration of any travel planning. The recent passage of the Great American Outdoors Act should help with this.
No. 3: Big-Game Migration Corridor Improvements
One of the most interesting frontiers of wildlife research involves studying how elk, mule deer, antelope and other big-game species move across the landscape. In many cases, they require small but essential corridors to connect winter and summer ranges, and some of these pinch points require them to cross highways or impenetrable fences. The AWCP is asking the federal government to improve transportation planning to reduce wildlife collisions, and to assign dedicated staff to monitoring migration corridors.
No. 4: Energy Planning
The increase in domestic energy production has had 'significant effects on wildlife and habitats,' says the report. The AWCP requests that renewable energy development does not negatively impact wildlife, but also that wildlife impacts and their mitigation are considered early in energy planning, rather than late in the process, when habitat impacts are harder to resolve.
No. 5: Conservation Incentives for Private Landowners
The report notes that more than two-thirds of the land area in the U.S. is privately owned, and co-signers want to use federal funding mechanisms to incentivize landowners to "improve habitat while also promoting markets for sustainably managed agricultural products." They hope Congress reaffirms a national policy of no net loss of wetlands "while protecting and enhancing remaining wetlands and streams." Further, they hope to promote the use of conservation easements to deliver habitat programs on private land, and they advocate fully funding and implementing conservation programs authorized by the 2018 Farm Bill, which is the single largest source of funding for conservation on private lands.
No. 6: Active Management of Federal Lands
Just as priority No. 5 addresses conservation work on private land, this priority advocates for more active habitat management on the nation’s federal lands. "Conflicting direction and policy changes, declining federal funding, and routine litigation have paralyzed federal land management and reduced agencies’ effectiveness," notes the report. "Federal land management agencies need to work collaboratively to manage federal lands to actively improve their value for wildlife, recreation, and other uses." The idea of this is to actively manage National Forests to boost their wildlife value and mitigate wildfire risk, and to enable more aggressive habitat work on Bureau of Land Management and national wildlife refuge lands, as well. As part of this priority, the group is asking for increased funding to combat invasive species on federally managed landscapes.
No. 7: A Better ESA Program
This priority aims to help species before they are listed as threatened or endangered. In order to achieve this, the AWCP recommends providing funding to incentivize private landowners to conserve species and core habitat, and to boost collaboration between federal and state agencies. The AWCP also recommends more aggressive delisting of species when their population reaches recovery goals.
No. 8: CWD and Wild Sheep Pneumonia Strategies
If you hunt deer in America, then you are aware of the increasing threat of CWD. The always-fatal disease of deer, elk and moose is spreading across the country, and it's starting to affect not only hunters’ confidence in the health of venison but also sustainable populations of wild deer. Conservation leaders recommend enacting a federal CWD program that "authorizes appropriations for state management and prevention of the disease, applied research, and coordinated roles" for state and federal agencies. The AWCP also recommends that federal agencies pursue "separation strategies that are intended to address the risk of pneumonia outbreaks" in wild sheep. The separation strategies are designed to ensure adequate buffers between domestic sheep grazing allotments on public land in the West, and areas where wild bighorn sheep either exist now or might be translocated to create new bands.
No. 9: Climate Policy
America’s hunters and anglers are often the first to experience changes in climate, and this recommendation urges the federal government to focus climate policy on habitat conservation and restoration, to promote carbon sequestration strategies, and to "bolster climate resilience through natural defenses."
No. 10: Hunting and Shooting on Federal Lands
This final point requests agencies to prioritize hunting and recreation on federal lands, and also to support efforts to recruit, retain and reactivate America’s hunters. Finally, the group encourages the White House and Congress to continue engaging sportsmen and -women at every level of federal government.