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Recovering America’s Wildlife Act

Photo by Terry Weaver

By Jay Sheridan

Just a few short decades ago, species such as white-tailed deer, black bear, and wild turkey were essentially gone from the landscape in Tennessee. Now those populations thrive, along with bald eagles, river otters, and other formerly endangered and threatened species.

State fish and wildlife agencies are responsible for managing those resources. There are many success stories of species recovery—particularly among game animals, where dedicated conservation funding can be found through license fees and excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment. The issue is that the vast majority of funding is coming from a small slice of the American public, while the thousands of species that aren’t hunted or fished don’t enjoy the same dedicated funding stream. In many cases, no action is taken until a species is officially listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, a bill originally intended to be a last-resort tactic.

Today, about 12,000 species such as the monarch butterfly, a critically important pollinator that used to be seen everywhere but has suffered greatly due to loss of habitat and other factors, are in great need of conservation action. How do we manage the budgetary and political challenges in a way that delivers results for the wildlife we all want to protect?

“It’s really about the fact that the cost of things going on the endangered species list is prohibitive,” says Mike Butler, CEO of the Tennessee Wildlife Federation. “If you look at the spotted owl recovery plan 20 years ago, the first estimate was $490 million. It cost the state and federal governments, as well as the private economy, a lot more money than that.

“It leads to fights about what people can and can’t do on their own property, and it has huge potential to create conflict with private industry—the forest industry, for example, being shut down to preserve spotted owl habitat. That has a lot of jobs and lost economic impact attached to it.”

The idea, Butler says, is to keep threatened and endangered species off the lists altogether by managing habitat, and in some cases the species themselves. State wildlife action plans are a starting point for laying out all of the challenges and solutions, and the landscape-scale management philosophy would actually mitigate the costs significantly.

“Non-game habitat work helps game species and vice-versa, so it really helps all wildlife, and it does it using Pittman-Robertson (excise tax) funding as it has in the past. We’re not reinventing the wheel,” he says. “With that funding and the wildlife action plans, we see examples like what happened with the Amargosa toad, where research and monitoring helped to show that the listing was unnecessary. Or you confirm the data, restore habitat, and populations increase, which helps keep the species off the endangered list, such as what was done with the New England cottontail.”

Collectively, the state wildlife action plans provide important guidance to the states, but without a national funding mechanism they cannot be fully implemented. As a result, most states have traditionally zeroed in on just a handful of high-profile species using the limited funding they currently receive via a smaller but similar program known as State Wildlife Action grants. A survey of the state agencies revealed it would cost approximately $1.3 billion annually to implement 75 percent of all 50 states’ state wildlife action plans.

Earlier this year, Representatives Don Young (R-AK) and Debbie Dingell (D-MI) filed the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, legislation that would dedicate $1.3 billion annually from existing revenues generated by energy development on the outer continental shelf, and $650 million from existing revenues from mineral development on federal lands.

Such was the recommendation of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Sustaining America’s Diverse Fish and Wildlife Resources, a non-partisan assembly of 26 leaders from the outdoor merchandise industry, sportsmen’s and conservation organizations, and the energy industry, convened by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. Butler says it’s a simple but profound approach that brings more people in to the fold, which matters from both a funding and a political standpoint.

“It is significant that the energy industry is now at the table with conservation interests,” he says. “That shows both sides are committed to getting something done, and that’s an important milestone. Now we just have to figure out how to implement it.”

If the bill passes Congress as currently written, Tennessee could potentially reap more than $20 million each year. States would be responsible for a 25 percent match, and action plans would be updated every 10 years with the latest science, public input and findings included. Funding could be used not only for habitat management and reintroduction of threatened species, but in fighting invasives and disease, on education, and attracting the next generation of wildlife lovers.

“This approach is now two decades in the making, and it appears we have reached a tipping point where the conservation community may have the will to get it done,” Butler says. “I encourage all Tennesseans to contact their Congressional representatives and encourage them to support the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act.”

For more information, read “The Future of America’s Fish and Wildlife” — the document that initiated the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act — put together by the Blue Ribbon Panel on Sustaining America’s Diverse Fish and Wildlife Resources. Click on the image below to open the pdf.

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