August 23, 2019
As break ends, 4 priorities
for Congress
Photo by Misha Popovikj/flickr
You might be picturing lawmakers on a five-week vacation, but the annual August recess is time that senators and representatives spend meeting with their constituents and visiting with leaders in their communities. Ideally, they also find some time to enjoy the outdoors and experience what we all value so much as sportsmen and women.

Of course, we hope they’re thinking about the legislative to-do list for when they return in September, because the timeline grows short for several critical conservation items that must be addressed to benefit fish, wildlife, and habitat. Here’s what we need Congress to move on before the end of the year or, in some cases, within weeks of their return to Capitol Hill.

Hailstorm kills 11,000 birds in Montana
The Washington Post
Photo by Antje Schultner/flickr
Thousands of birds  were killed  on Aug. 11 when a destructive hailstorm lashed regions northwest of Billings, Mont.  According to  Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the supercell thunderstorm “killed and maimed more than 11,000 waterfowl and wetland birds at the Big Lake Wildlife Management Area west of Molt.” Molt is about 20 miles west-northwest of Billings, Montana’s largest city.

According to the news release, biologist Justin Paugh estimates that about a quarter of the birds at the lake were injured or killed. About 5 percent of surviving ducks and a third of living pelicans/cormorants “show some sign of injury or impaired movement.”

The Storm Prediction Center had already been calling for potential large, damaging hail as early as 12 hours in advance, outlining Billings in a narrow corridor of “significant severe” potential. Their  morning bulletin advised that volatile atmospheric parameters would “favor supercells initially with large hail and possibly a couple of tornadoes.” By late afternoon, storms had developed, quickly becoming severe. Some storms towered nearly 10 miles high.

Rats! Alaska island faces invasive threat
By Sarah Gilman/Hakai
Photo by Mrs Airwolfhound/flickr
On a late-summer morning in 2018, Paul Melovidov walked into the freezer section of the Trident Seafoods processing plant. The weather-beaten building stands where breakwater meets land in Saint Paul, Alaska, a community of around 500 residents on an island in the Bering Sea. Behind the plant, rows of colorful houses march toward green, treeless hills and the steeple of a Russian Orthodox church. Hundreds of kilometers of moody ocean stretch away on all sides. Melovidov’s flashlight beam swept the room, then paused in a far corner. At the circle of light’s center crouched a rat.

Melovidov, soft-spoken with snowy hair, is the ecosystems coordinator for the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island Tribal Government. He’d been trying to catch the rat for a week. That might sound inconsequential, but it had big implications for Saint Paul Island, the largest of the Pribilof Islands, a critical stronghold for marine life in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

Nearly 200,000 seabirds nest on Saint Paul Island’s cliffs and rocky beaches, among them murres, kittiwakes, puffins, fulmars, auklets, and cormorants. On neighboring Saint George Island, about 75 kilometers away, the number pushes past two million. Hundreds of thousands of northern fur seals gather each summer on the islands, also home to endemic species of Arctic fox, rock sandpiper, shrew, and lemming. Rats and mice don’t belong here. They can transmit diseases to other mammals, including people, damage buildings and vehicles, and foul crops wherever they make their homes. But invading omnivorous rodents wreak special havoc on islands, where native plants and animals, seabirds in particular, have no innate defenses against them.

Why the Mississippi matters to the Midwest
By Avery Gregurich/Belt
Photo by Thomas Robertson/flickr
I drive the Great River Road south, following barges—the only sure way to mark the passage of time along the Mississippi River. I’ve been to four locks and dams today, and when I reach Lock and Dam #15 at Rock Island, Illinois, the Cheryl Stegbauer is there on its way south, pushing barges full of fertilizer solution.

“We’re in our element now,” Tom Heinold says, watching the first group of the Cheryl Stegbauer’s barges lock through. “And it’s a relief.” Heinold is the Chief of Operations for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Rock Island District. The Corps is in charge of maintaining 314 miles of the Mississippi River, including the operation of twelve lock and dam sites.

The whole system of locks and dams on the Mississippi—twenty-nine in all, stretching from just above St. Paul, Minnesota to its confluence with the Ohio River, south of St. Louis—function as gatekeepers along what is known as the “Stairway of Water.” The Mississippi drops about 420 feet over the course of these 670 miles, and the locks and dams serve as elevators for passing vessels: the dams pool the necessary water to maintain a channel with a depth of nine-feet, and the locks either raise or lower the vessels to the river’s natural height.

Annually, these barges account for almost $600 billion in economic activity, and the Mississippi is critical to the agricultural economy of the Midwest, bringing fertilizer and fuel up to farmers in the spring, and moving an estimated 60 percent of all U.S. grain products in the fall.

Testing is an obstacle to combating CWD
By Will Brantley/Field & Stream
Photo by Alan Light/flickr
One of the biggest problems with chronic wasting disease is that it doesn’t kill deer fast enough. If hunters were finding dead bucks by the dozen around their food plots, we might heed the dire warnings of state agencies and conservation groups. Our laissez-faire attitude toward captive-deer breeders might change. But whitetails can live for a year or more with CWD and not exhibit any symptoms—and many wild deer with CWD end up dying from something else due to a wrecked immune system. After years of being told that the disease is “always fatal” and yet still finding no dead bucks, many hunters have simply tuned out CWD.

What they need to make them take notice and get on board is more concrete evidence. They need proof that CWD is a problem outside of southern Wisconsin—the sort of proof that, lacking dead deer, might come from reliable, widespread test results. Until we can get a better handle on where all CWD is—and isn’t—and how fast it’s spreading, few hunters are going to sign on to killing off entire deer herds and banning doe-in-heat urine. Yet testing for the disease is onerous, expensive, and a little haphazard. I believe the test itself is one of the biggest hurdles in battling CWD.

 “If a man is really intelligent, there’s practically nothing a good dog can’t teach him. But a dumb man can’t learn anything from a smart dog, while a dumb dog can occasionally learn something from a smart man.”  

 - Robert Ruark
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