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Omnibus passed by Congress restores conservation fund, drops proposed road in Alaska refuge

Pacific Black Brant at Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. Photo by Kristine Sowl/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Pacific Black Brant at Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. Photo by Kristine Sowl/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Good news! Congress on Friday, December 18, passed a $1.15 trillion omnibus spending package that includes three provisions of high interest to birdwatchers: the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), funds for state and federal wildlife programs, and a proposed road in Alaska’s Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, pictured above.

I wrote about all three items in an article that will appear in our February 2016 issue, which is mailing to subscribers now and will be on newsstands on January 5. Here’s an update on each provision:

Conservation fund restored

Several birders I interviewed for the story lamented the fact that the LWCF, America’s largest conservation funding source, was allowed to expire in September. It had collected $900 million a year from offshore drilling revenues and spent about a third of the amount restoring and protecting public lands, including parks, refuges, and beaches.

“We could do a huge amount of good,” said John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, if the fund was reinstated and allowed to spend all of its revenues. “It would be a monstrous accomplishment.”

In its spending bill, Congress reauthorized the fund for three years — far shorter than the 25-year renewal it last received and not what most advocates say is necessary: a permanent renewal. The bill allocates $450 million in spending by the fund.

In the short term, the renewal “is great news because it now allows important refuge conservation projects to move forward with more certainty,” says David Houghton, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association.

Lynn Scarlett, managing director for public policy at the Nature Conservancy, calls the three-year reauthorization “helpful progress” but says the LWCF should be fully funded and permanent.

Carrol Henderson, nongame wildlife program supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the author or co-author of 13 books about birds, and a regular contributor to BirdWatching, says he’s grateful that the LWCF funding was approved, “but I would still encourage legislators and conservationists to seek funding at the full level of $900 million per year.”

Read an article by Carrol Henderson about birding in Cuba.

Alan Rowsome, a senior director at the Wilderness Society, blasts the budget deal, saying it’s “a disappointing mixed bag for America’s land, water, and parks.”

“Handed a huge opportunity to do right by the Land and Water Conservation Fund after allowing it expire in September, Congress snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by failing to permanently renew and fully fund this important program,” he says. “They instead renewed LWCF for just three years, which does not protect the program’s long-term future and instead ensures a long, unnecessary fight over this popular bipartisan parks program. We’re confident that the American people will not allow a small handful of extreme anti-conservationists in Congress to hold the nation’s greatest conservation program hostage indefinitely.”

State and federal programs

Blackburnian Warbler near Tamarack, Minnesota. Photo by gman79
Blackburnian Warbler near Tamarack, Minnesota. Photo by gman79

In the article, Henderson and others I interviewed said funding for the State Wildlife Grants program, the Neotropical Migratory Bird Fund, and other initiatives was inadequate. The new federal budget includes $60.6 million for State Wildlife Grants, a slight increase from last year. “But it still needs substantially more,” Henderson says, “because the states have just completed their State Wildlife Action Plans, which outline state conservation priorities for the next 10 years. Plans will not go far if there is not adequate funding to bring those plans to fruition.”

The grants were awarded $90 million in fiscal 2010 but have been stuck at around $60 million every since, Henderson says. He’d like to see Congress spend $250 million a year on the program, and he says it should include education and wildlife recreation in its authorized expenditures, to allow state wildlife agencies to partner with municipalities to expand wildlife-related tourism initiatives, including birdwatching and nature photography.

The 2016 budget allocates $3.9 million for the Neotropical Migratory Bird Fund, an amount Henderson calls “paltry.” He says it should be increased to $15 million per year “so we can expand our initiatives for neotropical bird conservation initiatives, and butterflies should be added to the scope so it would include partnerships with Mexico for monarch butterfly conservation.”

Road blocked

In our February article, I quote birders who worry about ongoing threats to wildlife habitat. Nils Warnock, executive director of Audubon Alaska, says the proposed road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, near the southern end of the Alaska Peninsula, has been debated for years. Here’s what I wrote:

Audubon Alaska, the Sierra Club, and several other conservation groups oppose the road because the refuge provides stopover or wintering habitat for Emperor Geese, Steller’s Eiders, Black Brant, and more than 30 shorebird species.

The road would traverse federally designated wilderness areas that birds and other animals rely on. Since the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, no wilderness area has been stripped of protection for the purpose of constructing a road.

The Interior Department rejected the road in 2013, and a federal judge upheld the ruling in September 2015. But a bill that would swap nearby land for the road corridor and require the road’s construction passed a Senate committee last summer and was recently attached as a rider to a funding bill for Interior and related agencies. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, a leading proponent of the road, chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The rider was left off the bill that Congress passed.

“The global populations of Emperor Geese and Pacific Black Brant, as well as a globally significant number of Steller’s Eiders remain protected thanks to the strong commitment by the Department of Interior to keep that ill-advised rider out of the bill,” Warnock says.

Anti-wildlife amendments

Lesser Prairie-Chicken in the Red Hills of Kansas. Photo by Greg Kramos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Lesser Prairie-Chicken in the Red Hills of Kansas. Photo by Greg Kramos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The provision to build the road was just one of more than a dozen anti-wildlife amendments that were on the table during negotiations on the bill. They included riders that would have blocked the listing of several imperiled species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), removed existing protections for threatened and endangered species that have not yet recovered (including gray wolf, northern long-eared bat, and Lesser Prairie-Chicken), and forced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to delist species if the agency did not complete its scheduled five-year evaluations for the species on time.

Kenn Kaufman recounts the troubled history of Lesser Prairie-Chicken.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken listed as Threatened; conservation groups question enforceability.

“These damaging riders would have been disastrous for threatened and endangered species, as well as imperiled species that may need ESA protection in the future,” Defenders of Wildlife said in a statement. “No new anti-ESA riders were included in the omnibus spending bill. This is a great victory for the Endangered Species Act, a bedrock environmental law in the United States that has been under attack by anti-environmental Congressional opponents for decades.”

One anti-wildlife rider, a holdover from last year’s budget, made it into the bill: a provision preventing FWS from issuing further rules to protect Greater Sage-Grouse under the ESA. In September, the agency decided not to list the sage-grouse.

“A spending bill is not the place to create sweeping policies that prevent the Service from following the law under the Endangered Species Act,” says Houghton, of the National Wildlife Refuge Association. However, the bill also included $60 million for the Bureau of Land Management and $3.3 million for FWS to conserve sage-grouse habitat.

Funding for wildlife

The bill sets the Fish and Wildlife Service budget at $1.5 billion, an increase of $68 million over last year’s budget. This includes $481 million for operations and maintenance on wildlife refuges, a boost of $7.2 million. The National Park Service receives $2.3 billion, a 4.1 percent increase over last year’s budget.

Funding levels for other bird-related initiatives will be: Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, $51.7 million; North American Wetlands Conservation Fund, $35.1 million; Coastal Grant Program, $13.3 million; Refuge Fund, $13.2 million; and the Multinational Species Conservation Fund, $11.1 million. — Matt Mendenhall, Managing Editor

 

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