The little prairie chicken could be listed as endangered for the second time in eight years, and a US senator from New Mexico thinks the bird is a prime example of a species whose severe decline could have been avoided if there had been money to intervene earlier.
Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich believes a bipartisan bill he and Senator Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, are co-sponsoring would help a wide range of endangered wildlife bounce back before they approach the edge of the extinction, as it becomes more expensive and more difficult to save them.
Earlier this year, senators introduced the bill, Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, which would pay states $ 1.3 billion and tribes $ 97.5 million annually for this purpose.
New Mexico reportedly receives $ 28 million per year, which the state’s Department of Game and Fisheries would administer for projects to help the 235 species it determined to have “the greatest need for conservation.” . Many are not yet listed as endangered or threatened by the federal government, but may require federal protection.
Heinrich described the bill as a preventative measure.
“It’s funding you can use to put wildlife on a positive path and avoid an endangered species list,” Heinrich said in an interview last week. “Because by the time you get to be listed as threatened or endangered, you’re often so far down the road that it’s hard to bring these species down to really robust numbers.”
More broadly, the bill would fund recovery efforts for 12,000 types of wildlife and plants considered to be in greatest need of conservation across the country, as well as 1,600 already listed as threatened or endangered. .
It would be the single largest federal funding for species recovery in a generation and possibly half a century, Heinrich said.
That would be a huge gain for New Mexico, which now only receives about 5% of the money needed to implement its wildlife action plan, he said.
The money would come from environmental charges and penalties. States would be required to contribute 25 percent of the matching funds.
Heinrich said the bill has a good chance of passing in 2022, an election year, because it’s the kind of conservation measure that attracts bipartisan support, similar to the Great American Outdoors Act in 2020.
Including Blunt, the bill won 32 co-sponsors, evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.
“Especially during COVID, everyone loves the outdoors, everyone loves the wildlife in their state,” Heinrich said. “So you can really find Republican partners.”
Conservation groups mainly applauded the proposal, which they say is a companion bill to a similar version of the House.
“This is a step forward in funding species that need it,” said Michael Robinson, senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “That’s not all we would like, but again, not all we would like will necessarily go through the US Senate.”
Robinson credited Heinrich with sponsoring bills like these to help endangered species and the landscapes they depend on for their survival.
“We hope it passes,” said Robinson.
He agreed that it is important to help a struggling species before it reaches protection status, because by the time it is listed, the population has generally declined to a small size, making regeneration more difficult and the habitat is often severely depleted.
“The sooner a species receives conservation attention, the better its prospects,” said Robinson.
Another environmentalist said it was not only ecologically and biologically harder to help a species in deep decline, but also more expensive.
“Bringing a species back to the brink is extremely expensive,” said Chris Smith, Southwestern wildlife advocate for Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians.
And focusing on a species that is almost extinct at the expense of other wildlife is the wrong way to manage an ecosystem, he said.
Smith said the concept of the bill was good and that it would funnel money to tackling the biodiversity crisis brought on by drought, habitat loss and mass extinction amid climate change .
But Game and Fish, which would manage the funds, must extend its oversight beyond its traditional role reflected in its name, he said, which means it must assist in the recovery of small mammals, amphibians, birds and invertebrates, not just large animals. who are hunted.
Heinrich said the plan is to have the agency fund projects that help all wildlife in need.
The agency has done a good job with its funding available to manage big game, such as elk, American antelope and mule deer, which would allow it to expand its surveillance to more diverse species, including birds. to bumblebees, said Heinrich.
“It would really give them the ability to manage wildlife at all levels,” Heinrich said. “Unlike the past where in reality a large majority of their resources went only to game species.”
Smith said state law limits what cash the agency can handle and that legislative change would be needed to remove all barriers.
But agency spokeswoman Tristanna Bickford said Game and Fish has broad authority, including over all of the species on its list of greatest conservation needs.
The agency oversees a wide range of wildlife, from elk and deer to burrowing owls and black-footed polecats – and welcomes additional funds to support the effort, she said.
The agency now receives approximately $ 15 million per year in federal funding through the Wildlife Restoration and Sport Fishing Program.
Those dollars are limited to building populations of wildlife that can be hunted or fished, Bickford said, so Heinrich’s bill money would be a big boost that could be applied more widely.
“It would be a huge increase beyond our funding sources,” she said.