Most of us feel lucky to live in a nation that has more than 71 million acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands in which to hunt, explore, and pursue adventures. Despite our sentiments, however, much of the country resides in the concrete jungle and doesn’t value the wild places of the world quite like we do. In the American West, the rising population is beginning to develop and build, and BLM wildlife habitats are shrinking as a result. Thankfully though, there may be hope thanks to the new Backcountry Conservation Areas.
The Bureau of Land Management had long ago designated all BLM lands as public, where hunters and anglers could recreate so long as the areas were still open to resource management such as logging and mining. However, the growing need for natural resources and simple population growth is beginning to take its toll on many of these BLM lands, and the wildlife within them are being driven out from overuse. So with a desire to preserve as many of these wild places as possible for hunters and anglers to use, and to protect them from being over-developed or destroyed, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) and a coalition of other sportsmen’s groups, including the National Wildlife Federation, the Boone and Crockett Club, and Trout Unlimited, have proposed and been approved to use a land-management tool that designates certain sections of BLM lands as “Backcountry Conservation Areas” or BCAs. Through this new designation, the BLM now has the authority to conserve any area that has been deemed to have extraordinary fish and wildlife habitat.
What the new BCA designation truly means to the BLM lands is that instead of putting all priority toward resource extraction in multiple land-use areas (i.e areas with resources as well as good hunting and fishing), these areas will now be protected against any sort of over-development. The goal is to use these new BCA designations to completely protect large swathes of BLM land from future threats. Vast areas of wilderness will remain just that, wilderness, and things like roadways and transmission lines will no longer be permitted in areas with BCA designations. What’s more, although BCAs will still allow resource extraction, it will be assessed on a case-by-case basis, and only permitted as long as the BLM decides that said resource extraction would have no long-term degradation impact on the BCA site.
These areas will prioritize not only maintaining wildlife populations, but also habitat restoration and species protection. This means that the bodies of water and sections of forest land that are covered by the BCA designation and have already been affected by overuse and overdevelopment will be restored. The BLM will repair or restore eroded or damaged waterways and forest areas, eliminate invasive species, reduce the risk of wildfires, and increase forage in BCA areas with the hopes that the wildlife of the area will return.
The best thing about the Backcountry Conservation Areas, according to the Bureau of Land Management, is that all BCA-designated areas were designed with the intent to not only protect wildlife, but to promote public access to support hunting and fishing. When drafting plans for BCA sites, the TRCP and other groups reached out to local landowners and hunting and fishing guides in search of the best sites and for feedback on the drafted plans.
The second amendment (after first choosing a site that was generally undeveloped) in the BCA designation guidelines was specifically focused on the area having habitat for recreationally important fish and/or wildlife species. This gave BLM lands with specifically good hunting or fishing opportunities priority to come under the BCA designation and receive the protections that come with it. What’s more, after an area comes under a BCA designation, it will be forever designated as a land for public use and access, meaning that the area can never be privatized and access points to the area can never be blocked or removed. So not only does the BCA designation protect the wildlife within the BLM section of land, it protects hunters’ and anglers’ rights to access and use the area.
Now, all this being said, there is controversy surrounding the new BCA designation. Certain areas of BLM lands that are under study or currently under protection will have those protections and studies removed to prioritize protection and habitat for game animals and fish. This means that non-game species already threatened in the area will be without the protections already put in place. Although this is upsetting, the general belief is that non-game animal and fish species, as well as vegetation and plants, that are non-essential to big game forage and habitat will still improve naturally due to these new protections.
Montana has been the first state to begin using the new BCA designations, with several thousand acres around the Missoula and Billings areas falling under the criteria. This bodes well for the future. There are already areas being examined in other parts of the state as well as BLM lands in Wyoming, Idaho, and Colorado for the BCA designation.
So, although it is true that sportsmen are fast becoming a rare breed, it is reassuring to know that the BCA designations will ensure there will always be places for us to hunt and fish. It will guarantee our hunting and fishing traditions will be protected for generations to come.