Lame Duck Congress can act in unity to protect abundant wildlife

Lame Duck Congress can act in unity to protect abundant wildlife

American hunters have demonstrated for decades how to protect the great outdoors. Duck hunters, in particular, have been extremely successful in conserving our nation’s wetland habitats – from the coastal marshes of the Chesapeake Bay to the prairie potholes of the Dakotas to the rich wetlands of the central valley of California.

Figures from the recently released US State of the Birds Report confirm this: populations of ducks like blue-winged teals and redheads have soared 34 percent since 1970 (18 percent) because wetland conservation for waterfowl benefited both game and non-game species.

Funding for much of this conservation came from revenue streams established by our grandparents’ generation in the 1930s, such as the federal Duck Stamp and the Pittman-Robertson excise tax on guns and ammunition. For nearly 100 years, hunters have led the charge in American conservation.

But unfortunately, the success of waterfowl conservation is overshadowed by the cascading decline of birds in all other habitats. The report shows grassland birds are down 34%, shorebirds down 33% and eastern woodland birds down 27%. And even gains in ducks are at risk, as long-term growth in waterfowl populations has been tempered by a recent decline – down 10% since 2016. Such declines can be attributed to a multi-year drought in the West , extreme drought in the grasslands, and continued loss of wetlands and grasslands for nesting. And that underscores an important point: we cannot afford to become complacent.

Fortunately, Congress has an opportunity to help keep duck populations healthy and birds back at all levels – by passing the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA) and giving a much-needed boost to efforts to protect our outdoor heritage.

There is an urgent need for this to become law, as these bird declines portend many entanglements of endangered species that may lie in wait. The report identified 70 species from Tipping Point – birds like the Bobolink and Rufous Hummingbird that are not currently listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), but have lost more than 50 % of their populations over the past 50 years and are about to lose another. half in the next 50 years. We must keep these 70 birds out of ESA territory through proactive conservation measures, to avoid costly litigation and restrictions for landowners and industry.

Duck hunters showed us how to achieve proactive conservation. The successful, partnership-driven model they have built for wetland conservation is a model for broader wildlife conservation. Yet to develop this model, it needs a broader funding base. RAWA does just that, providing nearly $1.4 billion in annual funding to support the successful, but severely underfunded, state and tribal wildlife grant program.

By directing this money to state and tribal agencies, the funds will go to those who know best how to manage their local wildlife. And people will benefit too, because restored habitat means more productive landscapes, cleaner water, reduced flooding, and more resilient communities that can better withstand natural disasters. With more habitat, people will also have more places to hang out, which will help us stay active and healthy.

RAWA is even expected to create tens of thousands of jobs in construction, forestry and other areas related to the US $788 billion foreign economy, which will particularly benefit rural economies. These rural communities are among the same areas that could be hit hard if Tipping Point’s 70 species continue to deteriorate in the Endangered Species Act emergency room. It’s like health care, an ounce of prevention is better than cure. In this case, proactive and voluntary conservation by states will encourage collaboration – rather than conflict – with landowners and obviate the need for costly ESA listings.

It’s a common sense approach, so it’s no surprise that RAWA went through the U.S. House of Representatives with bipartisan support and went through the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee under the direction of the co-authors of the Sens bill. Roy Blunt (R-Mo. ) and Martin Heinrich, (DN.M.) with more than 40 bipartisan co-sponsors. A recent poll showed overwhelming support (86%) for the bill across all affiliations of American voters. In this time of deep partisan divisions, RAWA offers an opportunity for unity on something that concerns most Americans.

Our grandparents’ generation knew wildlife conservation is a long game, and they created the Duck Stamp and the Pittman-Robertson Act to create a lasting legacy. Now the Senate has the chance to honor that legacy and move it forward. As Congress reconvenes for the so-called “lame duck session,” the opportunity to protect ducks and all wildlife is enormous – to pass RAWA and continue this deep and enduring commitment to abundant wildlife as that American birthright, held in public trust, that should be upheld forever.

Amanda Rodewald, Ph.D., is Garvin Professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environment at Cornell University and Senior Director of the Center for Avian Population Studies at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Karine Waldrop, Ph.D., is chief conservation officer at Ducks Unlimited and sits on the North American Wetlands Conservation Council.

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