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New legislation could help Michigan save threatened wildlife

Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (D-Michigan) speaks in Washington, D.C., about the Recovering America's Wildlife Act, a bipartisan bill designed to help states protect wildlife. (Photo provided)

Christian Yonkers

Contributing Writer

With revisions to the federal Endangered Species Act underway, state and federal conservation officials are scrambling to interpret what the future of conservation will look like. The recent revisions reduce protections for threatened species and contain language that could allow commercial interests to be taken into account when listing a species.

While the changes don't have to affect state agencies, such as the DNR, revisions still could mean changes to how species are protected on federal lands in Michigan, such as the Hiawatha or Manistee national forests.

Dan Kennedy is the endangered species coordinator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

“The ESA is complementary to Michigan’s Endangered Species Protection legislation, and both laws help the DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service protect, conserve and recover species that are rare or on the brink of extinction,” Kennedy said.

Staff from the DNR Wildlife Division are charged with administering Michigan's Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act of 1994. The DNR works closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in conserving and protecting state and federally listed species. Kennedy said he is unsure how recent changes to the Endangered Species Act will affect protecting species in Michigan.

“The [DNR] is in the process of evaluating the current ESA regulation changes, and we don't yet have that analysis complete,” he said.

The Endangered Species Act, ratified in 1973, complements Michigan's regulations protecting endangered species. Both state and federal laws help the DNR conserve species that are in decline or on the brink of extinction.

The amount is alarming.

A 2018 report discovered that a third of all American wildlife is facing increased risk of extinction. Though conservation success stories exist, many species continue to decline, the report found, as new threats emerge for American wildlife. In the U.S.:

  • More than 150 species have gone extinct.
  • Nearly 500 species have not been seen in decades and are regarded as possibly extinct.
  • About 40 percent of freshwater fish species are considered rare or imperiled.
  • Nearly three-quarters of freshwater mussels are threatened or extinct.
  • Pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, are declining significantly. Monarch butterfly populations have declined by 90 percent in some portions of the Eastern U.S.
  • Amphibian populations are decreasing at a rate of 4 percent annually.

 

Michigan is home to 26 federally protected plant and animal species. They range from high-profile mammals, such as the gray wolf and Canada lynx, to the more obscure clubshell mussel and Hungerford's crawling water beetle.

Michigan's state threatened list is much longer, containing more than 300 plant and animal species. Both federal and state listed species are protected from activities that could harm them, and result in stiff penalties for violators.

Nine species that once called Michigan home have gone extinct. Federal and state protections exist to ensure threatened species don't face the same fate as the passenger pigeon and Eastern elk – once common species throughout Michigan – which have disappeared forever.

"Wildlife in America need help,” John McDonald, Ph.D., said in a press release announcing the 2018 report on threatened species.

McDonald, past president of The Wildlife Society, coauthored the report along with the National Wildlife Federation and the American Fisheries Society.

“Species are increasingly at risk in all regions of the country and across all categories of wildlife," McDonald continued. "This decline is not inevitable. Wildlife professionals in every state have action plans ready to go to conserve all wildlife for future generations, but we need the funding to turn this situation around.”

The funding may be coming soon.

Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (D-Michigan) and Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R-Nebraska) have reintroduced the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act with the support of conservation and sportsmen leaders. The legislation would help promote and enhance state conservation efforts, and ensure the long-term health of fish and wildlife throughout the country.

The bill would dedicate roughly $1.4 billion to the Wildlife Conservation Restoration Program for proactive, voluntary efforts led by the states, territories and tribal nations to prevent vulnerable wildlife from becoming endangered.

“Bold solutions are needed to safeguard our nation’s wildlife from further decline,” Dingell said. “The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act represents a strong commitment to addressing the current biodiversity crisis using innovative, state-based management that will safeguard our nation’s environmental heritage for current and future generations.”

The proposed act takes a preventative, state-led approach to rebuild and preserve habitats for threatened species. It engages existing state wildlife action plans and offers funding to help implement these programs. Unlike the Endangered Species Act, Recovering America’s Wildlife Act is designed as a preventative policy that promotes continuity of habitats.

“Through proactive, collaborative and voluntary partnerships with states RAWA enhances community recreational opportunity for birders, hikers, hunters, anglers and all who enjoy the beauty of nature,” Fortenberry said in a press release.

State Wildlife Action Plans have proven that species can be recovered through voluntary, non-regulatory mechanisms, The Wildlife Society President Darren Miller said. In Michigan, species such as Kirtland's warbler have been saved from extinction through collaboration between state, federal and private sector stakeholders.

“With the passage of the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, we will further advance effective, collaborative conservation for the benefit of wildlife populations and the American public,” Miller said.

Representatives Dingell and Fortenberry reintroduced Recovering America’s Wildlife Act in 2017 based on a recommendation from a panel of conservation and business leaders. The think-tank convened in 2015 to recommend a new mechanism to sustainably fund fish and wildlife conservation. The panel discovered that $1.3 billion annually was needed to fully implement all 50 states' wildlife action plans.

The group estimated that without rigorous bolstering of local and federal conservation efforts, the list of federally threatened and endangered species is expected to grow from nearly 1,600 today to thousands more in the future. The new dedicated funding created by Recovering America’s Wildlife Act is aimed at making sure this doesn't happen. Building on collaborative, proactive, on-the-ground conservation, Recovering America’s Wildlife Act aims to recover 12,000 species considered in need, including more than 1,600 species listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would significantly bolster Michigan's Wildlife Action Plan. The state's current plan is a 10-year framework guiding state government and its conservation partners in managing the state's wildlife. Common plants and animals such as deer, turkey and native flora are included in the plan's framework, but it goes on to provide special attention to the state's more rare and threatened species.

Michigan's current plan prioritizes protecting habitats threatened organisms need to survive, focusing on key ecosystems such as rivers and streams, lakes, wetlands, grasslands and forests. In addition, the plan engages emergent diseases and invasive species affecting Michigan wildlife. Together with conservation partners in the private and public sectors, Michigan's Wildlife Action Plan calls to manage habitat and invasive species for an environment beneficial for wildlife and people; conduct research and surveys to improve conservation efforts; educate the public about wildlife; and protect natural resources

The DNR receives $1.2 million annually from the federal government to help implement the state's Wildlife Action Plan. All funding combined, the state has less than $2 million each year to protect threatened species. The shallow buffer isn't enough to stave the pressures threatening Michigan wildlife.

“Funding is scarce, and it's difficult for us to meet the objectives in the Wildlife Action Plan with the amount of funding we have,” Kennedy said.

The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would allocate an additional $27 million to Michigan conservation, cause enough for DNR officials to lick their lips.

“If passed, this legislation would constitute the most significant new investment in wildlife conservation in decades,” Kennedy said.

With a third of all wildlife species in America at risk of becoming endangered, the states need help. The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would drastically increase Michigan's funding for its Wildlife Action Plan, jumping from under $2 million annually to a whopping $37 million after Recovering America’s Wildlife Act funding and matching grants. Kennedy said he foresees a significant portion of this money going to conservation partners to help them implement conservation programs, or to DNR staff to help address areas of greatest conservation need.

The wish list is long, but the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act could be the ticket for making at least some of the wishes come true.

“The goal is to fund the highest priorities in our Wildlife Action Plan,” Kennedy said. “A lot of these are on-the-ground habitat restoration projects.”

In Barry County, Kennedy said he foresees a significant portion of funding to be used in protecting the Eastern massasauga rattlesnake, which is listed in the Endangered Species Act. This would mean restoring wetlands, removing invasive species and protecting grasslands and prairies in state and private land throughout the county.

“[The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act] would give us the ability to spend money on improving Michiganders' abilities to get out and enjoy the outdoors,” Kennedy said.

The $1.3 billion payout the proposed act would grant to the states comes from the U.S. general treasury. No new taxes are to be raised. That $1.3 billion is nothing to shake a stick at. But in light of the 1,600 threatened species in the nation (a number that has grown rapidly in the past several decades), it may be a necessary price to pay to protect vanishing species.

“If we want to keep species off the endangered species list so they don't need the emergency room-type of care they get from the [Endangered Species Act], then Recovering America’s Wildlife Act funding is needed to keep species off that list and make sure they're healthy and sustainable for the future,” Kennedy said.

It's preventative medicine, he said.

“For more than 40 years, hunters and fishermen, Democrats and Republicans, understood we were losing species that were critical to maintaining the balance of our wildlife,” Dingell said. “That’s why we need bold solutions that will put forward state-based conservation efforts and safeguard Michigan’s wildlife from further decline. Recovering America’s Wildlife Act is that bold solution.”

 

About the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act:

  • Would fund conservation efforts for more than 12,000 species of wildlife and plants in need of assistance by providing $1.397 billion in dedicated annual funding for proactive, on-the-ground efforts in every state and territory.
  • Would hasten the recovery of 1,600 U.S. species already listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
  • Would guide wildlife recovery efforts through the Congressionally mandated State Wildlife Action Plans, which identify specific strategies to restore the populations of species of greatest conservation need.
  • Would provide $97.5 million annually to Tribal Nations to fund proactive wildlife conservation efforts on roughly 140 million acres of land.
  • Complements the highly successful Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act (Pittman-Robertson) and Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act (Dingell-Johnson), which have facilitated the state-led recovery of a range of large mammals, game birds and sportfish that faced potential extinction last century.
  • Garnered 117 cosponsors (H.R. 4647) last session, with both parties strongly represented.
  • Includes allotted funding for conservation-related education.
  • Offers a competitive grant program that fosters collaboration and innovation for state-based conservation initiatives.

 

 

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