What you need to know about the new Secretary of Agriculture and his potential influence over wildlife and wild places across the U.S.
The U.S. has a new Secretary of Agriculture: former Georgia governor, Sonny Perdue. You might be thinking, ‘Why is Defenders writing about the new head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and what does it have to do with wildlife?’ Well, you might be surprised at just how much the USDA does beyond the farming world.
In addition to setting the nation’s food, agriculture and rural development policies, the USDA plays a substantial role in conserving America’s wildlife, lands and waters. USDA oversees 29 agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). You might be surprised to know that the Forest Service is responsible for stewarding approximately 30 percent of federal lands – 193 million acres of public lands across 175 national forests and grasslands – and is the only major national land management agency that is outside the U.S. Department of the Interior. The USDA also administers the Farm Bill, which authorizes a wide array of conservation programs and is among the largest sources of conservation funding in the federal government.
Who is Sonny Perdue?
Now at the helm of the Department of Agriculture and all that it represents is Sonny Perdue. So, what do we know about the man who will now oversee what happens with so much of our public and private lands?
Sonny Perdue has a strong agricultural background having grown up on a farm and earned a doctorate in veterinary medicine. Although Georgia is not among the nation’s top ten agricultural states, it is a major timber state and has 42,000 farms and thousands of acres of forest lands.
Perdue is the founder of Atlanta-based Perdue Partners, a privately owned company that trades food and industrial products worldwide. He managed a grain and fertilizer business and is co-founder of a global export company with his cousin, Senator David Perdue.
One of the more concerning things about Sonny Perdue is his questioning of the link between climate change and extreme weather, and acceptance of campaign funding from the timber industry during his run for governor of Georgia. This could have serious consequences for climate adaptation and mitigation programs on public and private lands and American forestry.
National Forests: Places for Wildlife
America’s national forests are strongholds for at-risk fish and wildlife. Nearly one in three species listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) depends on national forests to some degree for their survival, including roughly a third of listed birds and almost 40 percent of listed mammals, including iconic species such as gray wolves, Canada lynx, jaguars, Florida panthers and grizzly bears.
National forests also support many at-risk aquatic species, including more than half of the nation’s ESA-listed amphibians and two thirds of imperiled fish. There are an estimated 200,000 miles of streams in America’s national forests, and about one fifth of the nation’s waters originate from these lands.
Public lands like our national forests preserve some of our nation’s greatest environmental treasures. Whether it’s the Tongass National Forest, home to bears, wolves, salmon and countless other critters, that spans 500 miles of coastal Alaska, encompassing alpine meadows, calving glaciers, dense old‐growth rainforest and over 1,000 islands and islets, or the Rio Grande National Forest in the Southwest with its variety of ecosystems that support bobcats and Mexican spotted owls and yellow-billed cuckoos, Defenders is dedicated to working with the Forest Service to protect these habitats.
We work closely with the Forest Service to protect and restore habitat for imperiled wildlife and promote public values on national forests and grasslands across the country. This work will take on added importance as the new administration seeks to increase logging, mining and fossil fuel development on public lands. The question will be whether and how the new Secretary of Agriculture and his staff will continue to advance conservation on these lands in the face of this extraction agenda. Defenders will continue to fight for national forest policy and management that conserves imperiled species and protects and connects habitat necessary for species survival, especially in the face of climate change.
The Farm Bill: a major source of conservation funding
The Farm Bill has become an institution unto itself. Renewed every 5 years, it funds a gamut of programs, including agricultural support and food assistance for the hungry, as well as critical funding for conservation programs that help farmers protect wildlife habitat, safeguard streams and wetlands and reduce the environmental impact of farming. The Farm Bill is the largest federal investment in conservation on private lands.
The current Farm Bill includes several conservation measures that Defenders helped secure, including the conservation compliance provision, which requires farmers to implement basic conservation measures on their land to be eligible for assistance to pay for crop insurance premiums. The provision includes preserving wildlife habitat and water resources like rivers and streams, and maintaining natural wildlife corridors to facilitate wildlife movement across landscapes.
The next Farm Bill will be reauthorized in 2018 – meaning the conservation provisions included in the bill could be modified, reduced or eliminated. It’s essential that we work to protect these measures when the bill is renewed.
We need an advocate at the helm of the Department of Agriculture who will stand up for wildlife and habitat, and we hope that’s Sonny Perdue—but we know relatively little about him compared to some Cabinet nominees. And what we do know may be concerning.
Sonny Perdue needs to be clear about how he plans to safeguard our natural resources from the threats of climate change, protect and restore essential water sources and preserve wildlife and their habitat on private lands. Defenders of Wildlife will work with the new Secretary to accomplish these goals, or hold him accountable if he does not.
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