Q&A with USFWS Director Dan Ashe in the Twin Cities

Prior to sitting down for an interview with Rob Drieslein, USFWS Director Dan Ashe spoke Thursday at a press conference on monarch butterfly recovery at Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Bloomington.U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe was in the Twin Cities on Thursday, Aug. 20, to promote a new monarch butterfly initiative kicking off from Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Bloomington. After the press conference, Ashe sat down with Outdoor News Managing Editor Rob Drieslein to answer some questions about several topics of interest to sportsmen. Ashe’s comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Drieslein: Looks like the next big action coming from your agency will focus on sage grouse in the West.

Ashe: We have to make a decision on whether listing of sage grouse is warranted or not warranted by Sept. 30. We’re under a court order to do that, and we’re on schedule. We’ve had an epic collaboration, it’s been inspirational how the sporting community, all 11 range states, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the Natural Resource Conservation Service – I’m buoyed by level of commitment to conservation on the ground.

A big issue is fire in the Great Basin portion of the range. That’s something that’s not subject to regulatory control. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell signed a secretarial order on fire, which is making rangeland fire a priority. We’ve already seen benefits of that – equipment tankers and fire trucks fighting rangeland fire this year.

Drieslein: Can you tip your hand and tell us what might happen with sage grouse?

Ashe: It’s hard to see the level of effort and commitment on the part of great institutions and states like Wyoming where we’ve seen commitment at the political level. This has been an epic effort to plan for sage grouse conservation. I feel it will all add up to a secure future for sage grouse. Whether that’s enough to keep them off the endangered species list is something we’re in the process of deciding right now.

Drieslein: Where are things with wolf management and delisting? Your agency filed a notice of intent to appeal the December court decision, right?

Ashe: We believe wolves in the Great Lakes are recovered and no longer need Endangered Species act protection, and we believe the states have put together good state-based management plans, so we’re confident that without Endangered Species Act protection, wolves will prosper and be well managed by professional state wildlife managers.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar also was present at Thursday’s press conference, which unveiled a five-year, $20 million initiative earmarked for restoring monarch butterflies in the United States.Having said that, we were sued and we lost, surprisingly, and we are in process of appealing that decision. The U.S. Justice Department is appealing that. As part of that appeals process, the judge has asked parties to mediate so there is an ongoing discussion between the parties to the lawsuit now. So there is some hope that we could see a settlement that would get us back to a place where we could re-propose a delisting. That process is ongoing.

I don’t know the timeline for a resolution. Mediation is ongoing. It’s ongoing literally as we’re speaking today.

Congress also has had bills introduced, riders placed on appropriations bills, but there’s probably a low probability that an appropriations bill will pass this year. It’s ultimately something that Congress may decide they’ll want to legislate.

Drieslein: Your agency is investigating Walter Palmer and the Cecil the lion case, right? Where does that and importing lions into the United States stand?

Ashe: Right now, lion is not a listed species in the U.S., so we don’t really have any restriction on movement of trophies into the U.S. They just have to be legally harvested and have an export permit from the country of origin.

We have proposed to list lions as a threatened species and we’ll probably publish a final rule between now and the end of the year. Then if we list as threatened or endangered, then we would have to issue an import permit on our end. That process to potentially delist the species as threatened was completely separate from the Palmer case.

But right now, the situation with Cecil the lion is the trophy was seized in Zimbabwe. Had the trophy been imported into U.S. having been harvested in violation of Zimbabwean law, then it would be a violation of the Lacey Act here in the United States. That did not happen, so we’re currently investigating whether Dr. Palmer was involved in a conspiracy to violate Zimbabwean law. If he was involved in a conspiracy knowingly violating Zimbabwean law, then that would be a violation of the Lacey Act also, so we are in process of investigating that. His representatives have voluntarily contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and we’re working with them at this point.

Drieslein: The Land and Water Conservation Fund is up for renewal by this fall. Pretty important piece of legislation for your agency, right?

Ashe: The Land and Water Conservation Fund has been one of the principal mechanisms by which we conserve refuges and property for wildlife conservation. Here at Minnesota Valley NWR for instance, we’ve used LWCF as well as in the Tallgrass Prairie refuge, in the prairie potholes – some of the most important areas for sportsmen and women have been acquired by LWCF dollars.

Kelly Nail, a Ph. D. student at the the Monarch Lab at University of Minnesota and a a student employee with the USFWS Twin Cities Ecological Services field office, tagged butterflies with youth at Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge on Thursday.A couple years ago, I was waterfowl hunting in Cache River Refuge in Arkansas – almost entirely bought with LWCF money. So American sportsmen and women have been the principal beneficiaries of lands purchased with LWCF dollars, so it’s vitally important for outdoorspeople generally, specially hunters and anglers, that we get LWCF reauthorized because it is a lifeline for us, and provides access and opportunity. And when you think about this basic concept: We’re taking revenue from exploitation of a nonrenewable resource, oil and gas, offshore oil and gas development and putting that back into conservation of a renewable resource. That concept is just fundamental to managing fish and wildlife in North America.

Drieslein: Regarding public lands, we had a nonbinding resolution in the U.S. Senate earlier this year to sell off public lands, presumably including refuges. Would you have anything left to manage if something like that actually passes?

Ashe: The concept of protected lands when you think about the United States as a whole and western U.S. in particular – where a lot of this notion is centered – is the American people are the great beneficiaries of these public lands, especially people who love the outdoors. When we think about the West, we think about broad expanses, we think about recreational opportunities whether you’re a hunter, an angler, a camper, canoer, a rock climber, a hiker, then you have this opportunity represented in these public lands. 

That’s not to say that states aren’t good stewards, they are, but this is an asset for all the taxpayers, not just the citizens of Utah, Wyoming, or Oregon. This belongs to all the people. That is a gift to us today, and it’s a gift to future generations. Whether you live in New York, Minnesota, or Florida, you have access to these resources that belong to you, as an American taxpayer.

So the notion that we should convert those to the stewardship and the benefit of only one state to me is inimical to the notion of that these are national resources.

Drieslein: The duck stamp increase finally passed. What are you going to do with the wad of cash coming to your agency?

Ashe: First, thank you to the community of waterfowl hunters who have always exemplified the generosity that is an essential quality of the American hunter. Waterfowlers – and I’m one of them, so I’m biased – they have always demonstrated that notion that “I give back and invest in the resource that supports my tradition.” Also, thank you to great organizations like Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl and the California Waterfowl who supported this. 

So we had a $15 stamp that’s now a $25 stamp, and I had the privilege of buying the first one ever sold – down in Memphis at Bass Pro Shops, a great partner.

A close-up of a tag on a monarch.We’re going to take that resource and 70 percent is going to the prairies. We made that commitment, and I feel like the USFWS needs to continue that commitment because that’s the heartland of waterfowl in the U.S., the Duck Factory, and we have a crisis with agricultural development expanding from the east and energy development expanding from the west. The best way we can ensure the future of waterfowling for the nation is by conserving that prairie pothole and grassland resource and continuing to invest 70 percent of those dollars into prairie pothole conservation.

I’d also like to see a portion of that increase go into improved access. Let’s look for places across the country where we can invest those hunter dollars and look for the best opportunities to improve access. We’ll be talking with state and nonprofit partners about where we can invest those dollars in great refuges like Cache River or refuges in the Louisiana Delta or the Central Valley of California to find places to really make big improvements in access.

Drieslein: A personal pet peeve, Adaptive Harvest Management has been around for 20 years, and we’ve had a liberal hunt every year. Are we just on a great run of luck, or are we being too liberal with our duck hunts?

Ashe: Well, I guess I’d say it’s working because we’ve had abundant populations and opportunities. It’s a combination of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan and the broad, deep partnership that has grown from that, and we’ve had the fortune of good weather. So we’ve set the table with these big habitat partnerships and the Farm Bill and conservation programs there have been extraordinarily helpful, and we’ve had a run of good weather. We’ve been fortunate.

Now, the concern for me is that we are seeing conversion of habitat at rates we have not really seen in our generation of conservation. My concern is when the next sustained drought comes along, how resilient will that resource be? I’m confident we’re managing well now in terms of season and bag limits. I think liberal seasons are appropriate and biologists support that but my concern is that we’re losing resilience in that resource, and as soon as we see that next drought, might we go right from liberal to restrictive?

Drieslein: You had a big announcement here today pitching a plan for saving monarch butterflies, though I don’t see any habitat acquisition as part of the effort. What am I and my fellow taxpayers getting for our $20 million for monarchs over the next five years?

Ashe: For your $20 million you are getting a generation of young people of all kinds of economic, social, ethnic, and racial backgrounds who are going to understand the importance of conservation. It’s heartening to see a partner like Howard Vincent from Pheasants Forever here today. He gets it. This is a generation of kids who are going to grow up and they’re going to support grassland conservation because of monarch butterflies. They might never hunt a pheasant, but they’re supporting native grassland prairie conservation and the pheasants are going to benefit. Pheasant hunters will benefit, so Howard sees the benefit of that.

The American sportsmen from this $20 million gets a much bigger tent. A lot of people who support habitat conservation and help take the burden off the hunter who’s been bearing that principle burden. 

We’re going to get a symbol that tells us we can tackle big problems, and we can do that by building broad coalitions. That’s the history of conservation in the United States. We made conservation happen by building a broad middle, and so I see that monarch butterflies and this $20 million we’re putting on the ground will help us build that broad middle that supports conservation.

And certainly we’re going to get monarch butterflies and restore that creature itself, and that’s worth the $20 million in and of itself. But we’re going to build – as a result of this – a more durable, broader, and much more effective conservation constituency for the future.

Drieslein: Finally, this situation with avian flu protocols preventing Minnesota hunters bringing their ducks back from Ontario broke this week. Are you following this? 

Ashe: We’ve grappled with avian influenza in the past. For the short run, I think there will be some inconveniences for hunters. I was talking with our folks here (in Minnesota) this morning about whether we can engage in a dialogue with folks in Canada and our U.S. Department of Agriculture people and find a way to try and ease restrictions on movement of waterfowl that had been hunted in Canada into the U.S. We’re having those discussions now. Hopefully there’s something we can do, but it’s a serious issue. As a hunting public, we don’t want to be the cause of an expanded outbreak but hopefully there’s something we can do to help intervene.

Drieslein: My readers will be glad to know it’s on your radar and you’re looking into it.

Ashe: Certainly.

For more information on the USFWS Save Our Monarchs effort, click here.

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