Momentous legislation introduced to fund wildlife recovery

July 11, 2016 Chase Gunnell

By Mitch Friedman, Executive Director and Paula Swedeen, Carnivore Policy Lead

The bi-partisan Recovering America’s Wildlife Act of 2016 (HR 5650) would provide a dedicated funding source for rare and at-risk wildlife

On July 7, Congressman Don Young (R-AK) and Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (D-MI) introduced a historic bill to change the way America funds the conservation and recovery of rare and at-risk wildlife.

The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act of 2016 (HR 5650), is a bi-partisan effort calling for $1.3 billion annually in existing revenue from energy and mineral development on federal lands and waters to be dedicated to the Wildlife Conservation and Restoration Program to conserve at-risk fish and wildlife and support implementation of State Wildlife Action Plans in every state, territory and the District of Columbia.

This is a momentous proposal that is needed now more than ever and we’re proud to support it. Want to add your voice in support? Contact your lawmakers using this form from our partners at the National Wildlife Federation.

As representatives from Conservation Northwest, in March 2016 we joined the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), the National Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies, and other partners in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the release of a report from the Blue Ribbon Panel on Sustaining America’s Diverse Fish and Wildlife Resources, a group comprised of national business and conservation leaders, to recommend a new mechanism to sustainably fund fish and wildlife conservation. We joined citizens from across the country to meet with members of our state’s congressional delegations to review the Blue Ribbon report. HR 5650 is the result of that effort.

If passed, this new funding source will help rare wildlife like Canada lynx even before they are listed as endangered by supporting recovery plans and conservation actions at the state level. It can even help fund wildlife reintroduction programs like our ongoing efforts to return fishers to Washington. It will also provide a significant investment in restoring and securing habitat for threatened and endangered species, as well as for defending against invasive species and diseases that harm wildlife.

Why it’s needed

During the last 100 years, our nation and its fish and wildlife conservationists have achieved some tremendous successes. Animals like Rocky Mountain elk, bighorn sheep, wild turkeys and waterfowl whose populations were driven to perilous levels by unregulated commercial (market) hunting and habitat loss in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are now relatively abundant and widely recovered.

The dedicated funding for this conservation and recovery work, and for the state fish and wildlife agencies tasked with managing non-Endangered Species Act-listed species, comes mostly through fees on hunting and fishing licenses and excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment. These taxes, including Pittman-Robertson funds (Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, 1937) for mammals and birds and Dingell-Johnson (Sport Fish Restoration Act, 1950) funds for fish, are taxes that hunting, angling and conservation groups eagerly championed as contributions to support and restore America’s natural heritage. Through these funds and many other efforts, hunters and anglers have been some of our nation’s most active and impactful conservationists throughout the last century. And their efforts show in the successful recovery of some of our nation’s most iconic wildlife.

Unfortunately, these successes have not included many species that are not widely hunted or fished, such as wolverines and American oystercatchers, as well as lesser-known creatures including tiger salamanders, Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies and snail darter fish. Without dedicated funding for their conservation and recovery, and with habitat loss, increasing temperatures and other threats on the rise, many such species are increasingly at-risk. They’re falling through the cracks of our North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.

In many cases, no action for these species is taken until they are officially listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, a bill originally intended to be an “emergency room” measure. Once a species reaches that point it is much harder and more expensive to recover and there are regulatory hurdles that make land management, recreation and business within its habitat more challenging, and more controversial. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which by law lead the recovery and management of endangered species, has had budding success in recent years making progress towards recovering some iconic species such as wolves and grizzly bears, but these agencies alone aren’t capable of bringing back the full suite of our imperiled wildlife from the brink. Nor is this approach proactive enough to reverse the slide of species already heading towards an endangered listing, like wolverines, before such a listing is needed.

Lynx need new conservation funding sources. Photo: John Alves
Lynx need new conservation funding sources. Photo: John Alves

Various other funding options for dedicated “non-game species” conservation revenue, such as Pittman-Robertson-style taxes on birdwatching and other recreation equipment sales and voluntary “Wildlife Watching Stamps” have been proposed by various states in recent years, but none have been adopted widely enough to contribute significant funding to State Wildlife Action Plans for threatened species. New funding mechanisms and proactive conservation, like the measures in HR 5650, are what’s needed. It’s time for a paradigm shift in how fish and wildlife recovery is funded in America, and that’s exactly what this new bi-partisan legislation proposes.

What the legislation does

How big of a deal is this? Colin O’Mara, President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation (of which we are an affiliate organization), calls HR 5650 “a once in a generation opportunity to save thousands of at-risk wildlife species.” Similar to the much-lauded Land and Water Conservation Fund, this proposed legislation uses fees on revenues from natural resource development on public lands and waters to fund wildlife conservation and recovery through the currently unfunded Wildlife Conservation and Restoration Account. Through the Account, the funds would be directed to state wildlife agencies for the implementation of their State Wildlife Action Plans.

The following information from the NWF further clarifies how this would work: In 2000, Congress created the State and Tribal Wildlife Grant program to prevent wildlife from becoming endangered in every state. As part of that, every state was required to develop a State Wildlife Action Plan that assessed the health of wildlife within the state and outlined the conservation actions necessary to sustain them. Collectively, these State Wildlife Action Plans form a nationwide strategy to prevent wildlife from becoming listed under the Endangered Species Act. While the State and Tribal Wildlife Grant program has been appropriated $50-100 million dollars each year, the program is funded at only a fraction of what states need to conserve these species. A survey of all the State Wildlife Action Plans revealed that $1.3 billion annually is what it would cost to implement 75 percent of every state’s plan. Based on average funding from annual appropriations, current funding is only 4.65 percent of what is necessary to conserve our nation’s species of greatest conservation need. As a result, states are forced to focus only on just a very few species, with many more at-risk and heading towards becoming endangered.

The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would help avert this crisis by dedicating $1.3 billion annually to the unfunded Wildlife Conservation and Restoration Account – $650 million from existing revenues from energy development on the outer continental shelf and $650 million from existing revenues from mineral development on federal lands. These funds currently go into the U.S. Treasury. The Land and Water Conservation Fund is also funded from offshore oil and gas receipts and would remain as a separate account

By allocating funds to the Wildlife Conservation and Restoration subaccount within the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Fund, the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act takes advantage of an existing funding mechanism that has been shown to work for wildlife restoration for over 75 years. The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration account channels revenues paid by sportsmen when they purchase hunting gear back to state fish and wildlife agencies. These agencies have a proven track record of using those funds wisely and effectively, having restored native game populations around the country. The Wildlife Conservation and Restoration program provides funding to each state, territory, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia based on a formula of land area and population; states will receive between 1 and 5 percent of the total amount. States must provide a 25 percent match, leveraging these federal funds even further.

These funds will be used by each state to safeguard wildlife and their habitat as laid out in their existing, congressionally mandated State Wildlife Action Plans. These plans provide accountability and oversight because states can only use these funds on work that is identified within the Action Plans. These plans must be updated every ten years with the latest science, require public input, and are approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Conservation efforts could include reintroduction of imperiled species, conserving and restoring important habitat, fighting invasive species and disease, and more. States also can use a portion of the funds for wildlife-related recreation such wildlife viewing, nature photography, and trails. In addition, they can improve conservation education efforts to engage the next generation of our nation’s wildlife stewards.

A win-win for at-risk species

As described above, this new legislation uses tried and tested fish and wildlife conservation and recovery funding methods and applies them to at-risk species that have been historically underserved by our nation’s conservation model. And it does so using funds from corporations and businesses extracting natural resources from our nation’s land and waters. Not only does this fairly compensate for some of the impacts of natural resource extraction and development, but both wildlife and business benefit through proactive conservation efforts that work to avoid the need for ESA listings. These listings can (rightfully) increase regulations on natural resource use, land management, recreation, and more in order to protect endangered species. For fish and wildlife as well the economy, it’s better to recover species before they reach the point of needing to be listed.

The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act is a win-in. This piece of legislation will benefit and support our nation’s fish and wildlife, healthy habitat, wildlands and ecosystems, as well as businesses and the economy. Conservationists and wildlife stakeholders from birders to hunters and anglers should applaud this bi-partisan proposal. We hope it will see strong support in Congress, including from Washington’s delegation. Stay tuned for more updates and opportunities to show your support as this important effort moves forward. 

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