It’s a no-brainer to say that wildlife needs more funding, especially at a time when according to a U.N. report, one million species are at risk of extinction.
Habitat loss from overdevelopment and human encroachment, disease, invasive species, and climate change are imperiling wildlife. In the U.S., 700 species are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. One-third of U.S. wildlife and plants are vulnerable to extinction and one-fifth at high risk of extinction.
So, at first blush, the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act of 2019 that was voted out of the House Natural Resources Committee seems like helpful legislation that proffers funding and sheds a much-needed spotlight on the formidable challenges facing species in the U.S. The act would allocate almost $1.4 billion toward wildlife conservation efforts each year. The bill is being touted as the most impactful wildlife bill in a generation. And it’s hard not to want to support it.
But a closer look reveals some important flaws. Under the act, only a small percentage of the money would go toward the species of greatest needs, which are those on the endangered list. Funding for state wildlife agencies that are tasked with creating Wildlife Action Plans for 12,000 species of concern nationwide would be based on the size and population of a state, and not based on the actual population of species of concern in each state. That means a larger state with fewer species that need help could receive more money than smaller states with numerous species of concern, wildlife advocates have noted.
Each state would also be able to determine species of greatest concern and there is weak oversight of whether a state is spending its money efficiently and wisely.
Funding for wildlife conservation has always been problematic. States receive conservation funds through two federal acts, the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act (also known as the Pittman-Robertson Act) that channels revenue from excise taxes on guns and ammunition to state environmental agencies and the Federal Aid in Sport Fishing Act, which uses excise taxes on sports fishing equipment. These funding mechanisms ensure that state conservation agencies are beholden to the hunting and fishing interests. In order to receive a portion of funds under the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, states would have to match the grants they receive. To match the grants they can use the revenues from state hunting and fishing permits and licenses. Yet, one of the very reasons state wildlife agencies haven’t been able to keep up with demand for wildlife conservation is because the number of hunters in the U.S. has been in rapid decline. The number of hunters plummeted by 2.2 million from 2011 to 2016. Just 5 percent of the U.S. population hunts.
Keeping state agencies tethered to revenues from the hunting industry that is in free fall is counterintuitive. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not released the latest state-by-state survey of hunting, fishing and wildlife related recreational activities, but every indication is state wildlife agencies are in a funding crisis. Officials in South Dakota have reported that the state has sold nearly 26,000 fewer hunting licenses this year, which has cost the state more than $1 million in lost revenue. State Department of Game, Fish and Parks officials acknowledge that the drop in license sales could be a continuation of a decades-long decline in hunting, trapping and fishing. Likewise, in Michigan hunting is on the decline as young adults opt for other activities. Michigan had as many as 1.2 million hunters in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, according to an article in USA Today. But in 2018 fewer than 675,000 people had at least one hunting license.
The act’s stated goal is also to prevent species from having to be listed on the ESA at all. It’s important to note that the bill protects game and non-game wildlife and once listed, there are more restrictions regarding any development of habitat and hunting.
It’s goal is also to provide “assured and sufficient dedicated funding to the Wildlife Conservation and Restoration subaccount that will advance the national interest by assuring sustainable populations of fish and wildlife species that are available for the use and enjoyment of citizens of the U.S.” It is backed by such groups as the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the Council to Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports, the Sportsmen’s Alliance and the Houston Safari Club, among others.
Perhaps along with the other issues already outlined, the bill’s major flaw is that it references wildlife as being for the use of residents, instead of their own inherent right to exist.
At a time when wildlife watching (not related to hunting or fishing) is on the rise — more than 86 million people 16 years and older participated in wildlife watching activities in 2016, a 21 percent increase from 2011 – it’s evident there is a real desire to preserve and protect Earth’s species. Wildlife needs funding. But this bill needs changes.
Communications Director Fran Silverman oversees FoA’s public affairs and publications. Her previous experience includes editor of a national nonprofit consumer advocacy site, staff writer and editor positions and contributing writer for The New York Times.