New federal proposal would give states, tribes $1.4B to save endangered species

In Montana, state biologists manage grizzly bears on a day-to-day basis. (Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks)

A new congressional bill aims to keep species off the endangered species list by helping states and tribes protect them before they’re in trouble.

On Friday, Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., and Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., rolled out a new version of the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, which would allocate $1.4 billion for state and tribal governments’ voluntary efforts to conserve wildlife, particularly those species that seem poised to disappear.

Recent news that human activity could cause a million species to go extinct worldwide within the next few decades adds urgency to the effort, the legislators said.

“This is a strong commitment to addressing the current diversity crisis,” Dingle said. “But it uses innovative state-based management where a lot of the work has been done. And the states know what they need to do.”

But state biologists and wildlife managers sometimes lack the money to do that work. Nationwide, they’ve identified 12,000 species in need of conservation due to climate change, habitat loss and invasive species. State agencies depend on federal funding to bolster their coffers, especially when state legislatures put a squeeze on operating budgets.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks receives about $18 million a year in Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson funding, which accounts for about 20 percent of the agency’s annual budget, although the state must match the federal grants.

It’s fitting that Dingell would co-sponsor the bill – her father-in-law helped carry the 1950 Dingell-Johnson Act, which uses tax money from fishing tackle, boat motors and fuel to fund state management of fisheries. The Dingell-Johnson Act was modeled off the 1937 Pittman-Robertson Act, which uses tax money from guns and ammunition to augment state big game management.

Jeff Crane of the Congressional Sportsman’s Foundation said the two acts together have raised more than $62 billion for conservation over the past 80 years.

“But that’s not enough money. There are too many people, too much pressure on our environment. We need to supplement this,” Crane said.

The RAW bill would fill in the funding gap between PR and DJ to conserve wildlife that aren’t pursued by hunters or anglers but which are just as important to a fully functioning ecosystem. For example, in Montana, biologists have listed wolverines, pygmy rabbits, sage grouse and burrowing owls as species of concern, but it’s hard for FWP to find the money and time to study the health of nongame populations. The money could also cover conservation of plants, such as sagebrush, that are critical to wildlife habitat.

Endangered Species Act protections helped gray wolves return to the lower 48 states. (USFWS)

And up to 15 percent of the fund would be used for wildlife-related education and recreation.

The money would come from the federal general fund. That’s a switch from the version of the bill introduced last session, which proposed using revenue and fees from energy development.

Another big change this year is the allocation of $97.5 million specifically for tribal conservation. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes had a hand in that along with about 10 other tribes, said Tom McDonald, CSKT Wildlife Division manager.

“Once we caught wind of what was going on, we made noise,” McDonald said. “They need to add these governments that have been excluded in the past with Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson. I pay taxes, too.”

National Wildlife Federation spokesperson Lacey McCormick said this session’s bill already has 60 co-sponsors. Last session’s bill garnered 116 co-sponsors, but none of Montana’s delegation signed on before the bill died in the House Natural Resources committee.

Fortenberry said the bipartisan effort would encourage consensus around the goals of protecting ecosystems, enhancing communities and supporting recreation.

“This moves us upstream from the emergency room procedures of the Endangered Species Act when something goes wrong,” Fortenberry said. “Why not make something go right? Why not move from regulation and litigation to collaboration and conservation?”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.