Congress is now beginning work in earnest to pass the appropriations bills that provide the funding for many federal programs – including those that protect and conserve our nation’s wildlife and its habitat.
Since 2010, these programs have suffered severe and debilitating cuts that harm our nation’s wildlife treasures. For example:
- Harmful algal blooms in South Florida have resulted in the death of over 40 endangered manatees and die-offs of large sea grass bed areas. Funding cuts have prevented the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) from restoring important sea grass feeding habitats affected by these die-offs, delaying the recovery of the Florida manatee.
- At the Rhode Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex, inventory and monitoring surveys either aren’t being done or won’t be done next year. This includes breeding bird surveys, frog surveys, winter waterfowl surveys, breeding and migratory bat surveys, fall migratory songbird monitoring, and grassland bird surveys. The Complex also is not able to actively participate in the New England Cottontail captive breeding program that is currently underway in Rhode Island. The program has made promising progress towards boosting numbers for the New England cottontail, which is a candidate species for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
- The Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge was effectively closed last year due to aging infrastructure, significant storm damage, and lack of resources to rebuild. Expected impacts, besides loss of decades of ongoing data collection and monitoring, include likely loss of approximately 1,000 sea turtles – mostly hatchlings – approximately 90 seabirds, and approximately 3 monk seals per year from entrapment in the eroding seawall at Tern Island, where wildlife had been regularly rescued by onsite staff. These losses are significant, especially to the endangered monk seal population.
- Both the Hawaii crow and the Guam Micronesian kingfisher exist only in captivity and are ready to be reintroduced into the wild, but there is no funding for this effort.
Defenders is urging members of Congress to stop these crippling budget cuts, and instead to provide modest but crucial increases, many of which were also requested in the president’s budget. Here is some of the funding we have been advocating for on Capitol Hill:
- A $1.5 million increase for the FWS Cooperative recovery program, an innovative initiative to support more efficient and strategic efforts across landscapes to recover threatened and endangered species on national wildlife refuges and surrounding lands. Funding would go to support projects similar to ones funded last year such as restoring wetland habitat for the endangered whooping crane.
- A $21.7 million increase for the FWS endangered species program which includes increases of $4 million to support efforts to conserve the greater sage-grouse and its sagebrush habitat, $2.3 million to make progress in granting Endangered Species Act protection to approximately 145 candidates for listing such as the Pacific walrus and Pacific fisher, and $11.1 million to support recovery of the more than 1,500 plants and animals already protected under the ESA. The ESA program has been underfunded for years – a situation which has been greatly exacerbated by the crippling cuts since FY 2010.
- An $8 million increase for the FWS National Wildlife Refuge System which is the minimal amount needed each year to keep up with operating costs such as fuel, utilities, and rent. The increase would help support work like improving sea bird nesting habitat, restoring forest and sagebrush, controlling invasive species and providing better law enforcement on refuges.
- A $2.5 million increase for the FWS Office of Law Enforcement that will help to combat an unprecedented level of illegal trade in wildlife. The money would help to hire needed experts for the FWS National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Lab, a real-life CSI team, and the only one in the world dedicated to solving wildlife crimes. The funding would also help to hire agents for the elite Special Investigations Unit to allow more work on large-scale investigations of rhino and elephant poaching.
- No less than the current level of funding for the U.S. Forest Service Wildlife and Fisheries Habitat Management program to help conserve the more than 420 ESA listed plants and animals and 3,250 at-risk species that are found on our national forests and grasslands. This funding will help to maintain habitat for the larger wide-ranging species – such as grizzly bear, wolverine, Canada lynx, and bighorn sheep – for which the intact connected habitat found on our national forests and grasslands is so crucial.
- Continued full funding for the National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy in the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Wildlife and Fisheries Management budget. The BLM Wildlife and Fish program was funded on a shoestring for years, however, starting in 2013, Congress and the administration provided a $15 million increase to help support a precedent-setting effort to conserve the greater sage-grouse, which has declined to less than ten percent of historic numbers (a decision whether to list the species under the Endangered Species Act must be made by October 2015). It is crucial to maintain at least this level of funding for the Wildlife and Fish Management program now and in the future to continue that work.
- A $1 million increase for the BLM Threatened and Endangered Species Management program to help conserve the more than 420 threatened and endangered species and more than 110 ESA candidate species on BLM lands. This increase will help species such as the highly endangered black-footed ferret, the endangered northern aplomado falcon, the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher, and the threatened Chiricahua leopard frog that lives in high elevations in the desert southwest. Currently, annual funding is only about ten percent of what is required of BLM in endangered species recovery plans.
- An $11.6 million increase for the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center which is crucial in providing the scientific information that will be needed to help wildlife and habitat survive and adapt to climate change. The increase will support work such as determining how vulnerable songbird species are to climate change, looking at changes in distribution of wildlife from climate change, and understanding the impacts of sea-level rise on marsh and beach habitats that are important for many species of birds and other wildlife.
Later this spring the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to act on the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations bill, which includes most wildlife and habitat conservation programs. In the last several years, the House leadership has imposed draconian cuts on the House version of the Interior bill and it has taken the Senate and the administration to moderate the final funding levels. We expect the same terrible cuts in the House bill again this year. We also expect the House to continue its ill-advised and reckless practice of including dozens of damaging anti-environmental provisions – called riders – in its version of the Interior appropriations bill, including ones that undermine protections for imperiled species.
As the Congressional budget process moves forward, we will be continuing to advocate for the needed increases in wildlife and habitat conservation programs and to aggressively fight anti-environmental riders….and we will need your help in doing so.
Mary Beth Beetham, Director of Legislative Affairs