FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Sportsmen’s advocates are waging petty battles in Congress that will do little to ensure that public lands and wildlife are conserved into the future, said Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.
Rather than push controversial bills to allow the importation of polar bear trophies or prohibit the regulation of lead ammunition, sportsmen should focus on bigger battles such as preventing the disposal of federal lands and recruiting a new generation of hunters and anglers, Ashe said late last week in a speech to the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s media summit at the Fort Collins Brewery & Tavern.
"This is our dysfunction," Ashe said. "We let ourselves get drawn into these debates that allow us to not be working on things that are important: building a new, connected conservation constituency for the United States of America."
His speech included a somewhat provocative message: A bipartisan sportsmen’s package that has been plodding its way through Congress for roughly the past four years will not significantly move the needle for conservation.
"Is conservation as we know it going to be crippled if the sportsmen’s bill doesn’t pass?" Ashe asked. "No."
That’s a tough pill for some groups that see passage of a sportsmen’s package as paramount. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, for example, called S. 405, by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), one of the recent iterations of the sportsmen’s bill, "simply the most important package of measures for the benefit of sportsmen in a generation."
Ashe was clear that he wants a sportsmen’s bill to pass. He said he supports provisions like the reauthorization of the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA). He also backs a provision authored by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) that would allow hunters to import 41 polar bear carcasses harvested before the animals were protected under the Endangered Species Act, which is opposed by some Democrats and the Humane Society of the United States.
"Let ’em come in. They’re dead bears," Ashe said. "But should we be spending our time on it? And is that going to help conservation in the United States?"
There are bigger fish to fry, Ashe said. By insisting on provisions that benefit only a few people or that tackle problems that don’t exist, sportsmen risk sinking good legislation and are taxing some of their chief allies on Capitol Hill, he said.
"We’re asking leaders like Martin Heinrich to spend his time — his valuable time — working on that stuff," Ashe said. "And you know what I think it does in the long run? It wears those leaders out, because they go, ‘You know what? I can make a lot bigger difference working on something else.’ And so they tend to walk away after a period of time."
Ashe’s comments came as Congress debates two competing sportsmen’s packages attached to House and Senate energy reform bills.
The Senate in April voted 97-0 to add a sportsmen’s and natural resources title to S. 2012 that would promote hunting and fishing access on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands, reauthorize NAWCA, permanently reauthorize the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act, and promote access to federal lands that are currently shut off due to landownership issues.
S. 2012, which later passed 85-12, would also permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a top priority for sportsmen of all political stripes.
On the House side, Republican leaders recently introduced a revised version of their energy bill, H.R. 8, that includes provisions from the lower chamber’s sportsmen’s package, H.R. 2406. Unlike the Senate version, the House package include the polar bear and lead ammunition language, as well as provisions to remove Endangered Species Act protections for wolves and safeguard Second Amendment rights on water projects supervised by the Army Corps of Engineers, among others.
The chamber backed the revised energy package on a 241-178 vote in late May, with eight Democrats voting in favor of the bill and six Republicans opposing it.
Both energy bills, along with their sportsmen’s provisions, must be reconciled before reaching the president’s desk.
While most sportsmen’s groups support the House bill’s provisions, the language has drawn opposition from leading Democrats, the White House and environmental groups.
Ashe said the lead ammunition provision is a solution in search of a problem.
"Nobody is talking about taking away guns, but we as a community expend this immense energy on this fear that there’s a Second Amendment issue out there," he said. "What we need to do is stop working on things that are not important, and work on the things that are important."
While reauthorization of NAWCA would be good, the program, established in 1989 to fund the preservation of waterfowl habitat, is still receiving money from Congress, Ashe said. It’s currently funded at $35 million.
Paul Wilkins, TRCP’s chief conservation officer, said his organization supports both the House and Senate versions of the sportsmen’s act, and is hopeful that they can be resolved in conference.
"But when we look at those bills, the good conservation is in the Senate package," he said. "We think the substance is what allowed it to pass 97-0."
Yet divisions within the sportsmen’s community remain.
Neither the National Rifle Association nor the Safari Club International commented on whether they would support the Senate sportsmen’s package.
But SCI is pushing lawmakers to support House bill provisions that were omitted from the Senate bill.
They include delisting wolves, polar bear imports, a provision to allow for the continued legal trade of ivory, and a provision to overturn a National Park Service rule limiting certain hunting and trapping techniques on national preserves in Alaska.
"We, as hunters, must put the president in a position where he either stands with us or explains his opposition to us," SCI said in an issue brief on its website in May.
Bigger threats to sportsmen, Ashe argued, include the pending expiration of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the political movement in the West to transfer federal lands to states and private citizens, a move many stakeholders fear would reduce access to hunters and anglers.
The issue rose to prominence in January when Ammon Bundy led a 40-day takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oregon on lands managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
A move this spring by Republican lawmakers to allow 3,100 acres of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge to be transferred to the Puerto Rican government as part of a bill to restructure the island territory’s debt was "all about creating a chink in the armor" of federal land control, Ashe warned.
"The very concept of public lands are under sustained assault," Ashe said. "We have to have zero tolerance for politicians at every level of government — federal, state and local — who support divestiture of public lands."
Ashe also warned that conservation risks becoming "irrelevant" to a younger generation that is more diverse, more urbanized and less exposed to outdoor recreation. The demographics of sportsmen’s organizations groups do not match the demographics of the nation at large, he warned.
"We do not look like America," he said to a mostly white audience in Fort Collins. "If we do not look like America, then that means we do not think like America."
The threat of irrelevance comes as the world population is forecast to grow by billions of people by midcentury and as a greater portion of the world lives like Americans, consuming more land, energy and food, Ashe said.
"There’s only one conclusion for everything else that we collectively call biological diversity: less," Ashe said. "I wish that it wasn’t so, but it’s [the] law of thermodynamics. There’s only so much energy available on the planet, and we’re going to take more of it."
As a result, Ashe added, "we have to be a lot better, a lot smarter, a lot more coordinated in the way that we think about conservation."