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Democrats failed terribly with an extinction omnibus

FILE – A North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Mass., March 28, 2018. The federal government is close to releasing new rules that the shipping industry might have to comply with to help protect a vanishing species of whale. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) touted the Democrats’ fiscal 2023 omnibus funding package as a victory for Republicans, it sounded like a glitch in the matrix. 

But it was no glitch — a Republican victory is exactly what it is. 

In a colossal failure of leadership, establishment Democrats missed a huge opportunity to pass bold funding measures that would ensure the protection of our natural heritage before they lose unified control of the government. 

Instead, they sat on their hands. They wasted months and months pandering to apparent coal baron Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) at the expense of other must-pass legislation. By waiting until the last possible moment to begin serious funding discussions, Democrats lost any negotiating power they had. 

While the omnibus provides some additional funding to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it still remains insufficient to address a decade of flat funding and the four years of staff attrition during the Trump administration. 

Similarly, the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency responsible for protecting our nation’s most imperiled animals and plants, received a modest funding increase compared to fiscal 2022. But accounting for inflation, it’s actually a cut in real dollars. 

The omnibus doesn’t even include the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, an incredibly popular bipartisan bill that would have provided a historic $14 billion in supplemental funding for our nation’s at-risk wildlife over the next decade. 

These woefully inadequate funding levels show just how little Congress cares about protecting our natural heritage — including curbing wildlife exploitation and habitat destruction, the two root causes of pandemics like COVID-19. 

As a policy specialist focused on endangered species protection, I believe what we need is to triple the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service budget if we want to truly combat the extinction crisis here at our doorsteps. 

Instead, the omnibus delivers a devastating blow to the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) inserted what is essentially an extinction rider that allows the U.S. lobster fishery to delay for six years essential conservation actions to prevent fishing gear from entangling and killing these magnificent whales, of which there are only 340 left. 

Extinction isn’t inevitable — it’s a political choice. Far too many politicians have made the wrong choice to ignore the extinction crisis. Budgets are a reflection of our values, and this one is a cruel insult to the Endangered Species Act. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been operating on a shoestring budget for decades. As a result, imperiled animals and plants often wait more than a decade to receive safeguards. 

More than 400 species are currently waiting for protection under the Endangered Species Act, including the monarch butterfly, dunes sagebrush lizard and Chesapeake logperch. 

These delays can have devastating consequences. In total, nearly 50 unlisted species have been declared extinct while waiting for protections because of these funding shortfalls. This is a moral failure, and we must do more to save life on earth. 

We’ll soon celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, which was passed nearly unanimously by Congress in 1973. The historic legislation showed we were willing to go to any lengths to save wildlife from extinction. 

That willingness to conserve and protect seems lost on today’s Congress. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to wait for our leaders to come around. Continued stagnate funding, coupled with political attacks on the Endangered Species Act, will likely mean extinction for hundreds of endangered species awaiting protections. 

Fully funding the Endangered Species Act would be a fabulous way to mark five decades. Continuing with the status quo would be a sad admittance of defeat. Let’s hold our leaders accountable for making the right choice. 

Stephanie Kurose is a senior endangered species policy specialist at the Center for Biological Diversity. 

Tags Chuck Schumer Endangered Species Act Environment extinction crisis Joe Manchin Mitch McConnell right whale wildlife

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