The Biggest Thing to Happen to Wildlife This Century

The Biggest Thing to Happen to Wildlife This Century

What would Glenn Harper do with a million dollars?

To start, he would bring more pronghorn back to the Santa Ana Pueblo on the Tamaya Indian Reservation, where he works for the Department of Natural Resources. Pronghorn and pronghorn hunting have high cultural significance for the Santa Ana people, even though the animals were gone from the region for decades. Santa Ana’s DNR has conducted multiple reintroduction projects in recent years to reestablish this population, and a hunt even took place in 2015. Former Santa Ana Pueblo governor and pronghorn expert Glen Tenorio will talk about that in a bit.

After Harper addresses pronghorn with his hypothetical budget expansion, he would turn his focus to turkeys, another species with massive cultural importance and a longtime source of food for the tribe. Like pronghorn, turkeys were also extirpated, have also been the subject of multiple reintroduction projects, and have also struggled against mountain lions and habitat restrictions. But Harper holds on to hope: Santa Ana deserve the chance to hunt them again, too.

And if Harper had any money left to burn, he’d put it toward connecting the mule deer migratory corridor from one side of Interstate 25 to the other. Santa Ana Pueblo is key migratory habitat for mule deer, and large highways create dangerous complications for their journeys. Harper emphasized that when tribal wildlife agencies can improve game species migratory habitat on the reservation, everyone situated around the reservation benefits from that connectivity too.

But pronghorn, turkeys, mule deer—these aren’t exactly the species the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act is intended to focus on. When Senators Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Roy Blunt (R-MO) introduced the legislation on July 15, 2021, they earmarked $1.3 billion for state wildlife agencies to use primarily on nongame species of concern.

But the additional $97.5 million destined for tribal wildlife projects addressing either species of concern or species of cultural significance is a different story. According to Harper, few species are more culturally significant to the Santa Ana people than the ones that have fed them since time immemorial. So, when tribal wildlife agencies like that of the Santa Ana Pueblo are given money to spend on wildlife projects of their choosing, their spending behavior wears its ancient hunting tradition on its sleeve, putting wild game back in the field and, eventually, on the plate.

If America’s nontribal hunters and anglers had their way, the entirety of the $1.3 billion from the proposed Recovering America’s Wildlife Act might go to support game species habitat, too. But Sen. Heinrich, a hunter, angler, and member of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, knows such species already receive lots of financial attention thanks to the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act 1937, also known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, and the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act of 1950, or the Dingell-Johnson Act. He and Sen. Blunt introduced RAWA, which is technically an amendment to the Pittman-Robertson Act, to give threatened pollinators, songbirds, amphibians, and other under-the-radar species some much-needed attention.

It’s too late for the 539 species that have gone extinct in the United States the last 200 years. But for the 12,000 species of greatest conservation need nationwide, including those 1,300 classified as endangered or threatened that still cling to existence here today, RAWA might be just in time.

But why would hunters and anglers get excited about spending money on nongame species habitat? Aside from the fact that some of the $1.3 billion will inevitably fund habitat conservation for game species too, it's also worth mentioning that any wildlife biologist will say that what’s good for one species is usually good for many. Habitat improvements for pollinators can make a world of difference for birds, ungulates, carnivores, and even people. If that’s true, then this might be the most impactful piece of wildlife legislation in this century. Harper certainly thinks so.

“We see habitat deteriorating so quickly around the entire world, and to have this sort of funding to figure out ways to protect habitat for wildlife, I think it would be,” he said. “It's not that other bills in the past haven't been set up to protect wildlife. It's just that at this scale, we can really have an impact across the West and across the United States.”

Bumblebees to Bison Sen. Heinrich has spent much of his life outside and he chalks up the introduction of RAWA to a lifetime of watching nongame species disappear from his beloved landscapes.

“I guess I was informed by my experience as a hunter. I have watched as wildlife that have dedicated funding are flourishing in our country and wildlife that don't are less and less common all the time,” Heinrich told MeatEater during an exclusive interview. “When I was a kid growing up in Missouri in the grassland, nighthawks were super common. I remember prairie chickens flying across the road as I was going home on the school bus. Bobwhite were super common, even meadowlarks were just dramatically more common than they are today. There were pollinators, and huge numbers of monarchs every summer.”

Heinrich sees the fundamental difference between the success of game species and the struggle of nongame species as an issue of financial capacity.

“Wildlife that have that dedicated funding through Dingell-Johnson and Pittman-Robertson, they're doing pretty darn good, despite all the challenges that we have with habitat fragmentation and climate change,” he said. “But all the rest of the wildlife that doesn't have a support system in place is really in trouble. This legislation was designed to give game and fish agencies a tool to address all those other species. From bumblebees to bison, this sort of covers the gamut of the species that we don't think of as direct beneficiaries of those other two bills.”

The Cost of Conservation Even though hunters and anglers drum up close to a billion dollars in conservation funding every year, that money struggles to stretch wide enough to pay for game species conservation alone, let alone efforts for the rest of the animal kingdom.

“All the funding that's out there for wildlife management agencies is largely spoken for and directed towards game species,” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Conservation Director John Gale told MeatEater.

But the benefits of increased financial capacity for wildlife management are universal and indiscriminatory in the species they impact, huntable or not. In other words, this legislation would create the ultimate win-win situation, addressing the needs of nongame species and simultaneously supplementing game species conservation.

“Non-game species have always struggled," said Gale. "But as we know, they share the same habitat with game species. So, if you're addressing songbirds in sagebrush country, you know that you're also benefiting over 350 other species like sage grouse and pronghorn and elk and mule deer.”

Near-threatened species that flirt with being listed as species of concern really weigh on wildlife agencies. As soon as they cross the threshold into a threatened or endangered classification, complications and costs rise. (Listen to MeatEater's Conservation Director Ryan Callaghan talk about this more on his podcast.)

“Managing wildlife species that are on the threatened and endangered species list is extremely expensive. Doing what we can to prevent them from being listed in the first place is in our financial best interest, as well as our wildlife management and stewardship responsibility’s best interests,” Gale said. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Where Will the Money Come From? Since 2005, every state, tribal, and territorial wildlife agency (including D.C.) has maintained a Wildlife Action Plan that addresses species of greatest conservation need and lays out blueprints for conservation projects. These plans were required for wildlife agencies to qualify for the State and Tribal Wildlife Grants Program, a competitive grant that allocates around $61 million annually for the projects detailed in the action plans.

But you don’t need to be a mathematician to know the difference between $61 million and $1.3 billion. The additional $97.5 million for tribal wildlife management makes that jump even bigger.

So, who foots the bill? The current “pay-for,” or funding blueprint laid out in the legislation, turns to penalty fees for natural resource and environmental violations, which stretch from instances of littering or poaching up to industrial violations of the Clean Air or Clean Water acts. The current administration is likely to crack down on such violations, which would put more money in the bank for wildlife agencies.

“There's some poetic justice connected to it that way, right?” Gale said. “When you have criminal penalties from things like poaching of wildlife, it's kind of nice to see that going back to something like this that helps recover wildlife ultimately. We like the way that is set up right now.”

Where Will it Go? The estimated $1.3 billion number didn’t just fall from the sky, according to the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Conservation Initiatives Director Mark Humpert. A natural resources economist named Rob Southwick conducted a survey of every wildlife agency to clarify how much money would be needed to address just 75% of the Action Plan requests.

“We picked 75% because most federal grant programs will require the states to come up with the other 25%,” Humpert told MeatEater. “Rob asked [the agencies] to look at all of the actions in their plans, all the things they've identified that need to be done to conserve these species of greatest conservation need—there’s about 12,000 nationwide—and what it would take in new resources to implement 75% of those plans. When Rob did that analysis, $1.3 billion was the number that he estimated it would take to get these plans to about 75% implementation.”

While such a large chunk of spending might turn off some fiscal conservatives, Humpert says keeping the money in local hands is something worth celebrating.

“For someone who’s fiscally conservative, we can say keep the funding local. Keep it in a state government where there's maybe greater accountability than with federal spending,” Humpert said. “I think that's been the trigger for a lot of people, that if we need to invest this type of money, and it's a lot of money, let's keep it in the hands of state fish and wildlife agencies where there is that local control.”

A Uniting Force The nuts and bolts of the legislation are likely to change as it passes through committee toward the Senate floor. But for right now, the bill’s bipartisan backing is well worth celebrating.

Wildlife conservation has a Congressional history of being one of the only issues that can garner support from both sides of the aisle. When Democratic Sen. Heinrich and Republican Sen. Blunt came together to cosponsor this bill, they had a vision for more members from both parties to follow suit. In the House, an identical version of the bill was introduced by Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI), who also happens to be the daughter-in-law of the late John Dingell of the Dingell-Johnson Act. The House version is currently working through committee, and 88 Democrats and 25 Republicans have signed on as cosponsors.

In the Senate, Heinrich and Blunt have been joined by just two other cosponsors so far, both Republicans. Humpert expects that more cosponsors will sign on in the coming weeks, although the overall timeline for the bill’s movement through the legislative process is uncertain.

“While this country is divided on many issues right now, this is a place that has universal appeal and brings people together,” BHA President and CEO Land Tawney told MeatEater. “These outdoor experiences we have, the wildlife we pursue, they don't care if we're Democrat or Republican. They just care that we want to make sure they last far into the future. I think wildlife in particular is a universal shared tenant of the American people. We highly value wild places and wild things. This is a way that we can come together in a time of really partisan activity.”

The Ultimate Respect Animals are valuable to different people for different reasons, and RAWA celebrates those nuances. Few understand this better than former Santa Ana Pueblo governor and water resources specialist Glen Tenorio, who has watched as pronghorn have slowly returned to the Tamaya Indian Reservation through the Tribal Wildlife Action Plan and associated grant funding. When Tenorio was one of the lucky few to draw a tag for the Santa Ana pronghorn hunt in 2015, he knew he was getting a once-in-a-lifetime chance to connect more deeply with the sacred species—one his parents and grandparents rarely, if ever, laid eyes on.

“It really brought a sense of respect to go out there and see that the animals were actually back out in our area,” Tenorio said. “Going back probably 50, maybe even 100 years ago when my grandpa was alive, maybe he saw a few of them, but for us to be able to go through our lands now and see these little herds crossing here and there or grazing is great.”

Tenorio’s hunt was successful—and highly meaningful. Santa Ana’s hunting tradition is grounded in showing ultimate respect for the animals that nourish them.

“Wildlife is very important to our condition and culture,” Tenorio said. “As part of how we pray, we always offer something so that our blessings will be given back to us in return. When animals are harvested, we respect them so much that when we utilize the meat, it’s not only to feed our families, but we also use it as an offering.”

But the gratitude doesn’t stop there.

“Throughout certain seasons of the year, we have our Buffalo Dances. We have individuals that depict the buffalo and the deer and the antelope, and we basically bring that particular animal back to life,” Tenorio explained. “So yes, we take an animal's life. But then at the end of the day, through the ultimate respect that we show, we keep the animal's spirit alive. And that is what holds us really close to who we are as Indigenous people.”

If RAWA has the capacity to accomplish anything for the 12,000 species of greatest conservation need, it’s to show them some more respect. For some wildlife agencies, that means tackling new projects that previously have only been dreams and words on paper. For other agencies like Santa Ana’s, it means carrying on with work that is already well under way.

“I think that's one of the reasons why we hope this funding mechanism makes its way through,” Tenorio said. “If we are successful in receiving some of those funds, we can continue on our journey to protect and preserve what we have. Here at the Pueblo, we always say that what we do today is to protect and preserve for the unborn future that's yet to come.”

Feature image via John Hafner.

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