A bill pending in Congress would vastly increase money available for the management of at-risk species by minimizing long-standing wildlife funding mechanisms.
The Restoring America’s Wildlife Act was introduced in December. Created by a panel of energy, business and conservation leaders, including representatives of the oil and gas industry, it would direct $1.3 billion of existing royalties collected from companies that drill for oil and gas on federal lands and allocate it to state fish and wildlife agencies.
Under the proposed formula that is based on state population size and land mass, Idaho would receive about $18 million per year and Washington would get $26 million. The royalties now go to the U.S. Treasury and represent a fraction of the more than $10 billion of oil and gas royalties collected annually.
“It’s a game changer for me as a wildlife professional,” said Virgil Moore, director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Boise.
The state funds wildlife management through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and its portion of federal excise taxes that are collected from the sale of hunting and fishing equipment. Moore said most of the money is used to fund management of commonly pursued species like deer and elk and the state’s game fish such as salmon, steelhead and trout.
But Moore’s agency is mandated to oversee all of the state’s wild animals and fish. Moore said there is often insufficient resources to properly manage species that are not pursued by hunters and anglers.
“This would allow us to fulfill the mission of the 1938 initiative (that created the department and its governing commission) that declares that all wildlife – which is all fish and wildlife in the state – are the trust responsibility of the state and they will be, as the mission statement says, ‘preserved, protected, perpetuated and managed.’ ”
The bill was introduced by Reps. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), and Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.). It follows the basic principles of the Pittman-Robertson Act that places an excise tax on the sale of guns and ammunition and the Dingle-Johnson Act that places a similar tax on fishing equipment and forwards them to state wildlife agencies. It is also reminiscent of the Land and Water Conservation Fund that taps oil and gas royalties to be used to purchase important fish and wildlife habitat.
Lacey McCormick, of the National Wildlife Federation, said the funding would help stave off the listing of many animals under the Endangered Species Act. She said such listings have become more frequent in the last decade.
“All indications are that trend will stay the same,” she said. “How do we take action now to help these wildlife recover before they need extensive and very expensive action under the ESA.”
One possible hurdle to the bill could be the requirement of new federal spending to be offset by cuts or new revenue. Moore said if and when the bill gets a hearing before Congress, it can be scored by the Congressional Budget Office. He said that agency will be able to estimate how many species might be helped to the point they don’t need to be listed. The estimated savings that comes from avoiding federal protection could be used in the offset calculation, he said.
“How big an offset that is I’m not in position to estimate, but that would be an aspect that needs to be worked through as we begin to develop a better picture,” he said. “For Idaho, once we get a hearing, the department would go out and try to sit down with the people of Idaho and look at the State Wildlife Action Plan and talk about if we were to get this, or even part of it, how would we best implement it for success.”
He said states would follow existing state wildlife action plans, to determine how to best use money allocated from the legislation. Under existing programs, each state must write such plans that outline how they manage at-risk species.
Moore said Idaho has a proven track record of being able to make a difference for species when funding is available. For example, he said, Idaho has done good work to help protect southern Idaho ground squirrels, pygmy rabbits and wolverines, all of which are at-risk.