February 03, 2023
By Lynn Burkhead, OSG Senior Digital Editor, and Fly Fisherman Staff
This week saw several key announcements in the conservation world—including a momentous EPA Clean Water Act decision in the ongoing Pebble Mine controversy—all serving as a reminder that things can get better instead of worse, at least where the intersection of the fly fisher's world and key conservation measures are concerned.
Tongass National Forest Gets New Safeguards
While Alaska’s controversial Pebble Mine project received the lion’s share of news headlines this week, one of the 49th State’s true natural gemstones in the fabled outback also made a few headlines.
That came when news broke of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) announcement of conservation guardrails being restored for some 9.3 million acres of roadless lands in the Tongass National Forest, as well as new USDA measures that will aim to boost local economies and conserve natural resources that are considered priceless by many.
Thanks to the USDA's Southeast Alaska Sustainability announcement, the USDA will "...end large-scale old growth timber sales on the Tongass National Forest and will instead focus management resources to support forest restoration, recreation and resilience, including for climate, wildlife habit and watershed improvement."
Set amongst towering coastal range mountains, the Pacific Ocean, and nearly 15,000 miles of rivers and streams, the Tongass National Forest supports five species of wild Pacific salmon, steelhead, char, and trout populations as well as all kinds of other wildlife.
The American Salmon Forest organization says subsistence, commercial, and sport fisheries generate upwards of $1 billion to the regional economy.
“The Tongass’s backcountry roadless lands offer wild adventure, unsurpassed solitude, incomparable fish and wildlife, and irreplaceable hunting and fishing,” said Land Tawney, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers president and CEO, in a news release. “They also offer enormous economic gains to the people and communities of southeast Alaska. We are grateful, therefore, for the bold step being taken by Secretary Vilsack and the Biden administration to conserve these unique landscapes and implement management practices that will secure the future of these Alaskan public lands and waters, as well as those who rely on them.”
Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection Applauded
Alaska and its pristine wilderness areas weren't the only places receiving some good conservation news this past week. Good news also came to those who love the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in Minnesota.
That word came on Jan. 26, 2023 when U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland secured historic protections for the BWCAW with the signing of an order that withdraws some 225,504 acres of public land from mineral leasing over the next 20 years in the Rainy River watershed of northeast Minnesota, a move against hard rock mining upstream of the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park.
"Across the country, the significance of the historic decision by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to implement 20-year protections for the Boundary Waters is being celebrated," said Lukas Leaf, executive director for the Sportsmen for Boundary Waters group, in a news release.
"Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters would like to express our deepest gratitude to this Administration for its leadership in protecting the BWCA from sulfide-ore copper mining. Not only is this announcement a milestone in the history of the BWCA, but it also affirms the immeasurable value of the Boundary Waters to Minnesota’s outdoor economy, its unparalleled recreational opportunities, and its contribution to the legacy of our nation’s public lands and waters. Thank you to all who have stood shoulder to shoulder with us for years in defense of the Boundary Waters.”
Others in the conservation world also joined in with praise regarding the decision.
“The TRCP applauds the administration’s decision to safeguard the Rainy River watershed from mining for the coming two decades, and we will continue to work to conserve the Boundary Waters permanently,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “This world-class fishing, hunting, and canoeing destination has provided generations of Americans with important outdoor experiences, and today’s decision will support future opportunities.”
“The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is one of the most magnificent landscapes in America and provides outstanding habitat for moose, bear, otters, lynx, wolves, and hundreds of species of birds,” Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, said. “Allowing sulfide-ore mining in the ‘crown jewel of Up North’ would be devastating to the hundreds of wildlife species that make their home in the pristine watershed and would have threatened a billion-dollar outdoor recreation economy that supports 17,000 jobs. Secretary Deb Haaland’s decision is one that future generations will look back upon with gratitude.”
U.S. Representative Betty McCollum (D, MN) also recently reintroduced the Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Prevention Act (H.R. 2794) to the U.S. Congress, which would permanently protect the BWCA from mining operations (as opposed to Haaland’s 20-year moratorium).
“Some places are simply too special to mine,” said a statement on McCollum’s website. “It is our obligation to ensure these unique and valuable lands and waters remain intact for generations to come.”
Public Feedback Being Sought for Yakima River Habitat Restoration Study
Feedback is being sought from the public regarding a draft report from a cooperative partnership between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
That feedback concerns a study about proposed next steps to restore the Yakima River Delta at the confluence of the Yakima and Columbia rivers, as well as the Bateman Island causeway to the south of the island that blocks water flows and leads to very warm water temperatures on the island's west side.
That brings a problem for the natural fishery there since the warm water temps allow for non-native fish to dine on migrating young salmon every spring, along with making it difficult for adult salmon to make their upstream journey in the summer. Add in algal blooms, degrading water quality, and mosquitoes, and the region's salmonid fishery faces some key challenges.
Released a few days ago, the Corps' draft report on the study is available for public review through March 10, is accepting public comment through the same date.
The public can submit feedback via the Corps website, by email, or at upcoming open houses.
Section of Yellowstone River Reopens
A stretch of the Yellowstone River just downstream of Livingston has reopened to boaters after the dilapidated railroad bridge next to the new Highway 89 Bridge was successful removed. The railroad bridge posed a danger to river users after being damaged in the June 2022 floods.
The 6.5-mile section, from Mayor’s Landing Fishing Access Site in Livingston downstream to the Highway 89 Fishing Access Site, had been closed since July.
Montana Groups Sue Over Grayling Omission
The Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project, and Butte resident Pat Munday have filed a lawsuit against the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) over its decision to exclude Arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus) from the Endangered Species List (ESA) in 2020. The three parties are represented by lawyers from Earthjustice.
Grayling, which are native to Montana’s upper Missouri River drainage, parts of Michigan, and Alaska, only remain in Alaska and a few Montana fisheries.
According to a 2020 USFWS press release: “The Big Hole CCAA partners include private landowners, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Today, thanks to their efforts, the grayling’s habitat has been greatly improved and there is an increase in the number of breeding fish.”
But the groups in the lawsuit don’t believe nearly enough has been done.
“These fish face a litany of threats including over-withdrawal of water, habitat degradation, competition from non-native fish, and now climate change on top of it all,” Emily Qiu, associate attorney with Earthjustice’s Northern Rockies office, said. “Too much water is already taken out of the Big Hole River and climate change will only make the situation worse.”
Grayling had previously been determined to be “warranted but precluded” and left as a species of special concern, but the 2020 determination removes even that designation.
“I fish the Big Hole River often and grayling are truly the jewel of the river,” Munday, a professor at Montana Tech and author of Montana’s Last Best River: The Big Hole and Its People, said. “It is incredibly sad that we must sue the Fish and Wildlife Service to follow the law and protect our natural heritage.”
Funding Proposed for Montana Streamflow Gauges
A bill in the Montana House would allow the state to build and maintain more streamflow gages throughout the state, to help monitor critical flow information crucial to fisheries management. HB2 (The General Appropriations Act of 2023) includes a request for $1.4 million to fund add the gauges, starting in 2025.
The United States Geologic Survey has recently discontinued several streamflow gages nationwide due to lack of funding, which ultimately limits anglers’ and agencies’ ability to monitor the fisheries.
Those who wish to voice support can contact members of Montana’s Joint Subcommittee on Natural Resources and Transportation, listed below:
For more information or to track legislation that affects trout in Montana, follow Montana Trout Unlimited’s Legislation Tracker here.
New Swift River Signage Hopes to Spread Wild Brook Trout Awareness
Massachusetts’s Swift River has been graced with new signage, courtesy of the Native Fish Coalition (NFC), alerting anglers and river users to the presence of wild brook trout on their spawning beds.
The signs state, “This area is critical spawning habitat for brook trout, a species native to the Swift River watershed. Avoid wading through small, clear patches in the streambed (known as redds) as it disrupts spawning and can destroy eggs. Please consider fishing elsewhere if fish appear to be in the act of spawning.”
Massachusetts NFC worked with Massachusetts Department of Conservation & Recreation and Pioneer Valley Trout Unlimited to develop these informational signs.
The Swift River tailwater is one of New England’s most popular fisheries and supports a robust population of the popular gamefish.
New Mapping Resource for Anglers in Michigan
In other Michigan news, anglers now have a helpful online resource that will aid them in discovering some of the best spots to catch the pugnacious predators in the Wolverine State.
That comes thanks to the online Master Angler Catch Locations Map, a resource available from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
Using Master Angler state record information—the program runs from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31 each year in Michigan with applications for catches being accepted until Jan. 10 each year—the mapping system identifies locations of prize fishing possibilities generalized by river drainages or lake centers. Information about various fish species state records in the state, the mapping system itself, and how to use the maps are included by the Michigan DNR and can be found on the map launching page.