Lame-duck Congress can act in unity to protect abundant wildlife
America’s hunters have demonstrated for decades how to protect the great outdoors. Duck hunters, in particular, have been extremely successful in conserving our country’s wetland habitats — from the coastal marshes of the Chesapeake Bay to the prairie potholes of the Dakotas to the rich wetlands of California’s Central Valley.
Numbers from the recently released U.S. State of the Birds report bear this out: populations of ducks like Blue-winged Teals and Redheads soared by 34 percent since 1970. And waterbird populations, like Snowy Egret and Marsh Wren, went along for the ride (up 18 percent) because conserving wetlands for waterfowl benefitted game and non-game species alike.
Funding for much of that conservation came from revenue sources established by our grandparents’ generation in the 1930s, like the federal Duck Stamp and the Pittman-Robertson excise tax on firearms and ammunition. For almost 100 years, hunters have led the charge on American conservation.
But sadly, the success in waterfowl conservation is overshadowed by cascading bird declines in every other habitat. The report shows grassland birds are down by 34 percent, shorebirds down 33 percent and eastern forest birds down 27 percent. And even the gains among ducks are at risk, as the long-term growth of waterfowl populations was tempered by a recent backslide — tailing off by 10 percent since 2016. Such declines can be traced to a multiyear drought in the West, extreme drought in the prairies, as well as continued losses of wetlands and grasslands for nesting. And it underscores an important point: We can’t afford to become complacent.
Fortunately, Congress has an opportunity to help keep duck populations healthy and bring back birds across the board — by passing the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA) and giving a much-needed boost to efforts to protect our great outdoors heritage.
There is an urgent need for this to become law because these bird declines portend many Endangered Species entanglements that may lie ahead. The report identified 70 Tipping Point species — birds like Bobolink and Rufous Hummingbird that aren’t currently listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), but have lost over 50 percent of their populations in the past 50 years and are on track to lose another half in the next 50 years. We must keep those 70 birds out of ESA territory through proactive conservation measures, so we avoid costly litigation and restrictions to landowners and industry.
Duck hunters have shown us how to get proactive conservation done. The successful, partnership-focused model they built for conserving wetlands is a blueprint for broader wildlife conservation. Yet, to scale up that model, it needs a broader funding base. That’s exactly what RAWA does, by providing nearly $1.4 billion in annual funding to bolster the successful, but severely underfunded, State and Tribal Wildlife Grants program.
By directing this money to state and tribal agencies, funds will go to those who know best how to manage their local wildlife. And people will benefit too, because restored habitat means more productive landscapes, cleaner water, reduced flooding and more resilient communities that can better withstand natural disasters. With more habitat, people also will have more places to get outdoors, helping us to stay active and healthy.
RAWA is even projected create tens of thousands of jobs in construction, forestry and other fields related to America’s $788 billion outdoors economy — benefitting rural economies especially. Those rural communities are some of the same areas that could be hit hard if the 70 Tipping Point species keep deteriorating into the Endangered Species Act emergency room. It’s like health care, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In this case, proactive, voluntary conservation delivered by the states will encourage collaboration — rather than conflict — with landowners and avoid the need for costly ESA listings.
It’s a common-sense approach, so it’s no surprise that RAWA passed through the U.S. House of Representatives with bipartisan support and moved through the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on the leadership of bill co-authors Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Martin Heinrich, (D-N.M.) with more than 40 bipartisan co-sponsors. A recent poll showed overwhelming support (86 percent) for the bill across all affiliations of American voters. In this time of deep partisan divisions, RAWA provides an opportunity for unity on something most Americans care about.
Our grandparents’ generation knew that wildlife conservation is a long game, and they established the Duck Stamp and the Pittman-Robertson Act to create a lasting legacy. Now, the Senate has a chance to honor that legacy and carry it forward. As Congress reconvenes for the so-called “lame duck session,” the opportunity to safeguard ducks and all wildlife is tremendous — to pass RAWA and carry forward that deep and abiding commitment to abundant wildlife as an American birthright, held in the public trust, that should be sustained forever.
Amanda Rodewald, Ph.D., is the Garvin professor in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment at Cornell University, and senior director of the Center for Avian Population Studies at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Karen Waldrop, Ph.D., is the chief conservation officer at Ducks Unlimited and serves on the North American Wetlands Conservation Council.