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Proposed legislation restructures fish and wildlife agency funding

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Pronghorn crawl through a fence in the Madison Valley. PHOTO BY KIT FISCHER

Would allocate additional funds to tribal wildlife programs

By Jessianne Castle EBS ENVIRONMENTAL & OUTDOORS EDITOR

BOZEMAN – In the early 1900s, many notable wildlife species were disappearing. Wolves were nearly eliminated from the Lower 48 by the mid-century, the abundant grizzly bears witnessed by the Lewis and Clark Expedition had been siloed into less than 2 percent of their historical range, and the passenger pigeon, once the most abundant bird in North America, was officially declared extinct.

Citizens of the United States took note, and in 1937, legislation was enacted that is now known as the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration, intended to create funding for conservation. Also known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, this bill imposes an excise tax on the sale of firearms, bows, arrows and ammunition, generating revenue that is ultimately doled out among the nation’s state wildlife agencies—the entities responsible for overseeing management of the nation’s wildlife. Those dollars are then applied to qualified wildlife or public access projects and hunter education programs.

There’s a catch though: The funding is legally targeted at game and sportfish species, meaning that projects to help westslope cutthroat trout or bighorn sheep qualify, but wildlife agencies largely lack the funds to conserve nongame species like songbirds or bats. 

In July 2019, a bill known as Recovering America’s Wildlife Act was introduced by U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) and U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) that would amend the Pittman-Robertson Act so as to provide an additional $1.3 billion in annual funds specifically for use in conservation projects for species of greatest conservation need and species listed under the Endangered Species Act, as well as key habitats and plants. Animals recently delisted from the Endangered Species Act would have dedicated funding to ensure they don’t end up back on the list.

This bipartisan legislation, currently working its way through the House of Representatives, would also make available $97.5 million annually to tribal wildlife agencies; this aspect of the act is a new addition to a similar piece of failed legislation introduced in 2018.

If passed, the bill would allocate dollars from the U.S. Treasury fund and would require a 25 percent non-federal match in order for a project to qualify.

In a joint statement released by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Martha Williams and Rich Janssen, director of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Natural Resources Department, the wildlife managers spoke on the importance of interagency cooperation, noting that additional funds generated by the new legislation would aid in this effort.

“Fish and wildlife don’t see government borders, and the state of Montana shares authority to manage wildlife with Montana’s tribal nations,” Williams and Janssen said. “Joint management is complicated and requires careful coordination, and is not only worth it, but the only way we can protect the resources that are so important to us all.

“The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would expand the ability of FWP and CSKT to take conservation action for many fish and wildlife species that have been traditionally overlooked,” they added. “Working together, we could help prevent more of Montana’s wildlife from becoming endangered.”

According to a press release by FWP, use of the new funds, of which the agency could see as much as $26 million, would be guided by the State Wildlife Act Plan, direction from the citizen commission and legislative approval. 

“Imagine a source of funding that allows states to better steward wildlife and habitat so that the species won’t need the protection of the Endangered Species Act,” Williams said. “Imagine a renewed focus on partnerships in wildlife education so that we can help get kids outside. Or even, imagine Montana having the funds to best steward the resources that make Montana so special.”

While more than 1,000 businesses and conservation organizations from across the nation have endorsed passage of the Recovering America’s Fish and Wildlife Act in a letter, some have raised concerns that the legislation is not enough, as the bill requires only a minimum of 10 percent of the funding apportioned to the agencies to be used in the recovery of federally threatened or endangered species.

According to a statement issued on behalf of Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity, “Given the extinction crisis our planet now faces, Congress must enact legislation that would guarantee significant funding to combat extinction and to conserve imperiled species. While the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act includes new funding for imperiled wildlife and habitat conservation, the bill does not focus sufficient resources on the most imperiled species, those listed under the Endangered Species Act.

“It would be a terrible lost opportunity if Congress were to create a historic new funding stream for wildlife that doesn’t strongly respond to the existential threat facing the more than 1,600 species listed as threatened or endangered in the United States.”

The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act currently has more than 135 cosponsors, both Democrats and Republicans, and is making progress in the House of Representatives.

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