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A tern chick opens its mouth hoping to be fed by an adult carrying a small fish on Interstate Island. Bob King / Forum News Service file photo

Wildlife groups want more cash for conservation

DULUTH — One-third of wildlife species in the U.S. are at risk of extinction, 40 percent of the nation's freshwater fish are now rare or imperiled, more than 150 U.S. species already have gone extinct and another 500 critters that haven't been seen in years also may be gone forever.

The horror stories include freshwater mussels, with 70 percent of U.S. species extinct or near extinction; eastern monarch butterflies, down 90 percent in just a few decades; bats down 30 percent in 10 years, with some regional populations already eliminated; and amphibians such as frogs decreasing by 4 percent each year with no end in sight.

That was the bad news reported Thursday, March 29, by three groups promoting federal legislation to redouble the nation's investment in conservation — called the Recovering America's Wildlife Act — aimed at the most troubled fish and wildlife that often don't benefit from hunting or fishing license revenue.

The National Wildlife Federation, the Wildlife Society and the American Fisheries Society collaborated on the report.

"America's wildlife are in crisis and now is the time for unprecedented on-the-ground collaboration," said Collin O'Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation, in a teleconference with reporters Thursday.

Game species that receive ample conservation efforts thanks to hunter and angler user fees — such as white-tailed deer, Canada geese and wild turkeys — are generally doing well thanks to state and federal fish and wildlife management and money.

At the other end, species that are protected by the Endangered Species Act also get attention and some funding.

In between are hundreds of other species, many of which are declining rapidly due to constant habitat loss, invasive species, a warming climate and now an influx of diseases such as white-nose syndrome in bats, whirling disease in trout and West Nile virus in birds.

The groups are heralding HR 4647, introduced by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., as a new era of fish and wildlife conservation. The bill, introduced in December and which now has 38 co-sponsors from both parties, would earmark $1.3 billion annually from federal oil, gas and mining royalties for state and private conservation groups to conduct on-the-ground and in-the-water efforts to restore the species in the most dire need of conservation work.

"It's time to make sure that the scale of our conservation efforts match the scope of this problem," said Bruce Stein, chief scientist for the National Wildlife Federation.

All 50 states already have lists of those species ready and action plans in place, under orders of the U.S. Interior Department. Each state would receive a portion of the $1.3 billion based on physical size and population, ranging from $13 million to $65 million annually. Each state or private group would have to front 25 percent matching money to get the federal money.

Just Minnesota's list of species of greatest conservation concern includes 27 mammals — including moose, the grasshopper mouse and tri-colored bat; 92 bird species — including the loggerhead shrike, common tern and Henslow's sparrow; 43 fish; 30 mussels; 13 reptiles; eight amphibians; and hundreds of insects, including dragonflies, butterflies and bees.

Part of those oil and gas royalties also is the source of money for the federal Land and Water Conservation Act spending used to acquire federal land in parks and forests. But far more money comes in from the federal royalties, supporters say. The $1.3 billion amounts to between 10 and 20 percent of the total federal royalties each year.

"The thinking is, we're taking a natural resource out of the ground, depleting it — let's use that money to build some natural resources up," O'Mara said.

John McDonald, president of the Wildlife Society, a group of 10,000 wildlife biologists and managers, said the decline of these "in-between" species "is not inevitable."

"Wildlife professionals in every state have action plans ready to go to conserve all wildlife for future generations," McDonald said. "But we need the funding to turn this situation around."

Supporters touted successful, recent efforts to restore nearly endangered cottontail rabbits to New England, Canada lynx in Colorado and brook trout in several states. Where money and science is applied, "species can be restored and thrive," the groups noted.