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Save wildlife, save ourselves

Save wildlife, save ourselves
© Getty Images

One year ago this week, a landmark United Nations report estimated that one million species are threatened with extinction worldwide due to human activities. Since then, we’ve learned that there are three billion fewer birds in North America than a half century ago. A new analysis by the National Wildlife Federation finds that 90 percent of globally threatened species have declining populations, while only 1 percent are increasing.

These aren’t merely academic concerns. Declining wildlife populations are having profound impacts on people, from the collapse of pollinator populations threatening the viability of the foods we eat, to serving as the proverbial canary in the coal mine when it comes to the water we drink, air we breathe and public health outcomes. 

Nothing more vividly demonstrates the interconnection between human health and wildlife conservation than the nightmare of the COVID-19 pandemic. Billions of people around the globe are sheltering-in-place, hundreds of millions have lost jobs and economies are being decimated all because of the transmission of this zoonotic disease — caused when germs leap or “spillover” from animals to people — in this case most likely bats or pangolins sold at a wild animal market.

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Indeed, wildlife conservation should be embedded in recovery and prevention efforts that Congress is moving forward. While it is encouraging that dozens of Senators and Representatives are calling for the closure of live wildlife markets around the globe and a ban on international wildlife trafficking and trade, much more needs to be done.

At the international level, Congress should invest in U.S. Agency for International Development programs to monitor potential zoonotic diseases abroad. Congress and the White House need to press our allies abroad to address the socioeconomic stressors fueling high-risk wildlife markets, confront wildlife trafficking and increase funding for wildlife health and disease surveillance. Congress should also increase the number of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service attachés in embassies around the globe and increase enforcement capacity domestically to help stop the illegal wildlife trade and identify high-risk wildlife markets.

Here at home, we must close the significant gaps that leave us exposed to emerging wildlife diseases. While many point to Asia, the United States remains among the largest global markets for the illegal trade of wildlife and wildlife products. We need to update the Lacey Act to prevent unfettered imports of live animals and to ban interstate transport of those already here that have been designated as “injurious” species.

Despite 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases originating from wildlife and livestock, we spend woefully little on wildlife disease research. We must significantly expand the capacity of the One Health Program, led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as proposed by Sens. Tina SmithTina Flint SmithGOP sees path to hold Senate majority Minnesota Senate candidate Jason Lewis discharged from hospital The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Justice Barrett joins court; one week until Election Day MORE (D-Minn.) and Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungRepublicans: Supreme Court won't toss ObamaCare Vulnerable Republicans break with Trump on ObamaCare lawsuit Senate GOP eyes early exit MORE (R-Ind.). We must rebuild the research and response capacity of the National Wildlife Health Center of the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Wildlife Research Center of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, as well as expand the capacity and reach of state-based regional Wildlife Disease Cooperatives. We simply must ensure that federal, state and tribal agencies have sufficient resources to coordinate, monitor and confront zoonotic diseases. 

The reality is that the threat of zoonotic diseases extends well-beyond COVID-19. As part of its One Health effort, the CDC has worked with the Departments of Interior and Agriculture to identify zoonotic diseases of greatest risk to Americans, such as Zoonotic influenzaSalmonellosisWest Nile virusPlaguesevere acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), RabiesBrucellosis, and Lyme disease

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We’re also concerned about other deadly wildlife diseases that could potentially make the leap to humans, like chronic wasting disease, an always-fatal neurological disease affecting deer, moose and elk. We must scale-up funding to understand the full range of wildlife diseases, including those with zoonotic potential, and prevent future pandemics.

As we shift toward economic recovery, we should also prioritize putting hundreds of thousands of Americans to work restoring habitat and recovering declining wildlife species by implementing congressionally-mandated State Wildlife Action Plans and Federal Endangered Species Recovery Plans. By addressing systemic threats and restoring habitat on-the-ground, we can support healthier wildlife populations and reduce risks of potential disease transmission. 

Fortunately, this work enjoys broad bipartisan support, especially the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, championed by Representatives Debbie DingellDeborah (Debbie) Ann DingellCedric Richmond's next move: 'Sky's the limit' if Biden wins Pelosi, Mnuchin continue COVID-19 talks amid dwindling odds for deal Pocan won't seek another term as Progressive Caucus co-chair MORE (D-Mich.) and Jeff FortenberryJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FortenberrySave wildlife, save ourselves Lawmakers cry foul as Trump considers retreating from Open Skies Treaty Where do we go from here? Conservation can show the way MORE (R-Neb.) and 180 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives, which would safeguard our wildlife heritage and protect public health.

The source of the COVID-19 crisis has laid bare why we need to invest in healthy wildlife and their habitats as a means of preventing the emergence and spread of future zoonotic diseases. Just as our leaders are rising to respond to the public health and economic consequences of COVID-19, so too should they work to address the root causes and avert the next pandemic.

When we save wildlife, we save ourselves. Never before has that been so clear.

Collin O’Mara is president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. He led the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control from 2009 through 2014.