Acting DOI Secretary Continues Big Game Conservation Efforts

Acting DOI Secretary Continues Big Game Conservation Efforts

Photo credit: Tami Heilemann

Acting Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) David Bernhardt announced on Friday, Mar. 1, that $1.5 million has been approved for private land habitat projects in eight western states that will improve range and migration routes for Western big-game species. The breakdown is as follows: Arizona, $200,000; Colorado, $100,000; Idaho, $245,190; Montana, $152,600; Nevada, $235,000; New Mexico, $75,000; Washington $194,802; and Wyoming, $293,800. “The projects we are funding today will result in invaluable conservation to benefit mule deer, pronghorn, elk and other wildlife,” Bernhardt noted. California, Oregon and Utah did not submit projects. However, as the NRA Hunters’ Leadership Forum reported in October, Utah along with Arizona had already received a combined $495,000 for big-game migration research projects.

Under former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, Secretarial Order (S.O.) No. 3362, “Improving Habitat Quality in Western Big-Game Summer and Winter Range and Migration Corridors,” provided that the DOI partner with the 11 states in a way that recognized each state’s authority to conserve and manage species such as Rocky Mountain elk, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, moose and other wildlife. In addition, partnering with private landowners has opened the door to innovative approaches to improving habitat and migration routes for game. Zinke prioritized improving Western game migrations corridors, and hunters should be heartened to learn that Bernhardt, who served as Zinke’s deputy director, appears equally dedicated to ensuring that the increase in human population and development in the western interior does not diminish big game habitat. Bernhardt’s ongoing commitment to conserving America’s wildlife resources is why the NRA formally backed him to become the next DOI Secretary early last month. 

One of the private landownership projects funded in Montana is to try using solar-powered electronic collars on livestock on a 25,000-acre grazing ranch. Coupled with satellite positioning, the aim is to create a virtual fence that contains the livestock without the need for a physical barrier that hampers the migration of game species. Of course, not all ranches could use this approach, but if the pilot program is a success, it could mean even more routes will be opened for game-animal migration. The objective has been to not only partner closely with states, but to offer private landowners the opportunity to voluntarily work on the projects in tandem with state and federal efforts. “Of course, our public lands play a pivotal role conserving habitat and migration corridors as well, but we must continue to be good neighbor and all work together,” Bernhardt commented.

In South Central Wyoming, landscaping and wildlife-friendly fencing in an upland area adjacent to an underpass for a narrow portion of the Baggs mule deer herd corridor will now be funded.

In both of these examples, the respective state wildlife agencies prioritized these projects and approved them before they were submitted for consideration. Over 42 projects were received and 22 are now funded. In total, over 119 miles of fencing will either be removed or replaced with wildlife friendly fencing. Combined with invasive species control along those fence lines and habitat restoration work, over 44,000 acres will be improved for big-game herds. And that can only mean increased hunting opportunities within each state. In fact, part of the objective of S.O. No. 3362 is to “seek to expand opportunities for big-game hunting by improving priority habitats to assist states in their efforts to increase and maintain sustainable big-game populations across Western states.”

Matt Filsinger, national team lead for the USFWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife (PFW) Program detailed two other projects that were approved. Nevada’s mule deer stand to benefit from one of those projects. One reason uncontrolled wildfires are occurring with greater frequency is due to the invasion of exotic plant species in arid zones across the state. The Nevada Department of Wildlife, USFWS PFW Program, and private landowners will work together to treating invasive species to eliminate and stop the spread of flammable plants, lessening the chance of catastrophic fires. This will take place in the heart of the largest migratory corridor stopover zone of the state’s biggest mule deer herd.

And in North Central New Mexico, elk, mule deer and pronghorn antelope will receive a clearer route to the their winter range. Certain types of fencing prohibit migration of these game species and cause fragmentation of game herds. Wildlife-friendly fencing will be installed to allow for better movement. In addition, a grazing management plan will be developed in conjunction with this project to better manage the available food for the animals utilizing the area. The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish will work with USFWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program and private landowners on this project.

About the Author: Erin C. Healy is the associate editor of the NRA Hunters' Leadership Forum. She edited a lifestyle magazine on Cape Cod for 14 years and provided marketing services for her local guntry club prior to joining BLADE magazine and serving in the U.S. Army. She's an NRA Life Member, a National Wild Turkey Federation member and sends her Jack Russell Terriers to ground as often as possible.