Star Tribune

By Greg Stanley

A proposal in Congress with bipartisan support aims to halt the alarming decline in many wildlife species with an unprecedented boost in spending on habitat. In Minnesota, the Recovering America's Wildlife Act could improve the fortunes of loons, turtles, songbirds, mudpuppies and dozens of other endangered or declining species.

The U.S. House passed a version of the act in June. It would give states and tribal governments $1.4 billion a year — collected from federal environmental fees and fines — to help some of the most endangered species recover and to keep other animals and plants from becoming endangered themselves. Despite support in the Senate from both Democrats and Republicans, there has been no effort so far to bring it to a vote. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat and one of the law's sponsors, said the goal is to approve it by the end of the year.

"Oddly, the fact that it is supported on both sides of the aisle and is not controversial is kind of what is slowing it down," said Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "That's because partisan folks on either side really prioritize their bills. It's frustrating."

The Earth is undergoing a mass extinction caused by humans, scientists believe. Minnesotans are working to save some of the most endangered animals and plants in the face of habitat loss and other threats, the Star Tribune has reported in a series that began last month. The loss of life over the last 50 years has been staggering. About a third of North America's birds are gone, with populations declining by an estimated 3 billion since 1970. Butterfly and bee populations have plummeted. So, too, have those of hibernating bats.

At least 150 species in Minnesota are on the verge of disappearing. But scientists and resource managers know what can be done.

"All it really takes is money," Suckling said. "We know how to conserve endangered wildlife. Look at wolves, bald eagles, manatees, sea otters — whenever we focus and give them the resources they need, they recover. This isn't a mystery problem, it's simply a problem we know how to solve."

The Recovering America's Wildlife Act would supply about $21 million a year to Minnesota's wildlife action plan, overseen by an arm of the state Department of Natural Resources that was largely responsible for bringing trumpeter swans back to the state, among other restoration successes.

"This is a huge opportunity — a once-in-a-generation opportunity," said Kristin Hall, the DNR's wildlife action plan coordinator.

It's not just the amount of money that will help, but the fact that it will be reliable and all but guaranteed, which will give biologists a chance to plan out needed projects well into the future, Hall said.

Most of the state's struggling species are being harmed by some combination of habitat loss, disease, pesticide use and climate change. The DNR's action plan largely prioritizes habitat restoration projects. Hall doesn't think the money would immediately be used to protect any new land, but rather beef up the environmental value of land already under state protection.

"So the state has sites that it manages for hunting, for example, and that's great," Hall said. "But we've never been able to plant early season forbs there because it's expensive. With these funds we'll get those early season forb seeds and these hunting sites will now become huge pollinator supporters."

She also sees the money helping species that don't capture attention or garner headlines the way that the state's great mammals do.

"Our salamanders and our amphibians need attention," Hall said.

A number of frogs, toads and salamanders have been declining for years.

"We want to look at how water resources are being impacted right now so amphibians won't be threatened the way they are," she said.

The money would mark the most significant investment in wildlife conservation in decades and directly help more than 12,000 species, Klobuchar said Tuesday.

"This is part of our life in Minnesota," she said. "If we don't have wildlife to see or the fish to fish or the deer to hunt, it's not going to be the same state."

The House passed the bill with 231 votes, with 16 Republicans joining with 215 Democrats. The Senate bill has 42 co-sponsors, including Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri. Klobuchar said the goal is for the bill to come to a vote on its own or as part of a larger bill by the end of the year.

"There has always been bipartisan support when comes to conservation," Klobuchar said. "Hopefully we'll get this to pass, especially since Roy Blunt is retiring. I know he's working to get a lot of things done before he retires, and this is one of them."