Recovering America’s Wildlife Act: Hope for species at risk

Recovering America's Wildlife Act: Hope for species at risk

Pennsylvania would receive $22 million annually, compared to the $1.5 million in federal funding it currently collects. Delaware would receive $12 million annually, compared to the $555,081 federal state wildlife grant it most recently obtained. And New Jersey, which currently collects about $1 million annually in federal grants for wildlife conservation, would receive $15 million if the legislation were to pass.

In total, it would result in $14 billion in direct mandatory spending over a 10-year period. The bill’s sponsors propose that the funding would come from revenue collected in enforcement actions against those who violate environmental regulations.

Though the legislation would significantly boost federal money for wildlife conservation, it would also distance federal involvement in wildlife management in favor of a state and local approach to conservation. The funding would help states enact their Wildlife Action Plans, congressionally mandated actions that identify strategies to restore species of greatest conservation need.

Proponents of the legislation argue that existing federal funding is insufficient and fails to provide the resources required to meet conservation needs outlined in the action plans.

Drexel University’s Academy of Natural Sciences regularly pursues funding from groups like the Nature Conservancy, as well as state agencies, to support its restoration and conservation work. But these institutions have limited funds, said David Keller, head of the fisheries department at the Academy of Natural Sciences within the Patrick Center for Environmental Research.

“Although there are many species that are listed under the species of greatest conservation need, they only have so much funding — and they typically can only focus on the endangered species. They don’t have too much funding available or time to focus on the threatened and candidate kind of species that are out there,” Keller said.

And [the legislation] would really go a long way at allowing those agencies to start to focus on not just the worst of the worst, not just the fish that are really in a bad spot, but also some of those fish species that they want to keep from becoming endangered , keep from becoming threatened species.”

The legislation aims to keep species off the Endangered Species Act list by focusing the funding on those that are not yet endangered, but are vulnerable.

Twelve thousand-plus species of wildlife and plants are identified as “species of greatest conservation need.” More than one-third of all wildlife, fish, and plant species face heightened risk of extinction due to threats such as fragmented and degraded habitats, invasive species, diseases, pollution, wildfires, droughts, heatwaves, flooding, and hurricanes.

In September, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to remove 23 species from the Endangered Species Act list because of extinction.

Academy Scientist David Keller holds an American Shad collected on the Paulinskill River, a large tributary to the Delaware River where conservationists are working to restore American Shad and River Herring. (Allison Stoklosa)

“Once they are endangered, it’s really hard to bring them back,” said Eileen Murphy, vice president of government relations at the New Jersey Audubon Society, a group that has been campaigning legislators to support the bill.

“An analogy that we like to use is the health care system. You don’t want to wait until you are in the emergency room to start paying attention to your health. You want to do the preventive approach to prevent you from going to the emergency room,” Murphy said. “So what this act does is it’s preventing species from reaching the emergency room status, which is at the endangered status. Protect them now so that they don’t get listed on the endangered list.”

The bill also would accelerate the recovery of 1,600 species already listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

It also would provide incentives to private landowners to help conserve and recover species. Regulations would reduce as species recover, and tighten as species decline.

The legislation has 32 sponsors and cosponsors, and is backed by more than 60 tribes and 1,500 organizations representing state fish and wildlife agencies, sportsmen and women, conservation groups, and industry associations and businesses.

Though the measure has significant backing, concerns have been raised that the recommended funding source — dollars from environmental penalties —- might not be stable enough to support it.

In a Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing last month, lawmakers, including committee chairman Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, voiced that same concern.

“As drafted, the legislation identifies a funding source that may not be reliable or fully pay for the bill’s spending,” Carper said. He added, however, “As our colleagues have often heard me say, things that are worth having are worth paying for. This wildlife funding legislation is definitely worth having and worth paying for.”

What would the legislation do locally?

Hunter Lott, co-director of Brandywine Shad 2020 in Delaware, is one of several local conservationists who signed a letter to Carper urging him to support the legislation.

The group has been working to restore American shad along the Brandywine River. Organized in 2018 with the financial backing of the University of Delaware, the Brandywine Conservancy, and Hagley Library, Brandywine Shad 2020 has raised about $1.5 million from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the state of Delaware.

Author John McPhee called American shad “America’s founding fish.” Early writings suggest the fish were used as sustenance for Native Americans, and for European settlers in this region, before William Penn arrived in 1682, Lott said.

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