Bill offers opportunity to fund threatened wildlife in Kansas without new taxes

May 23, 2022 3:33 am

A spectacular sunset sets the waters of Quivira National Wildlife Refuge ablaze in November 2014. (Submitted by Mike Umscheid to Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Michael Donnelly is a member of the Audubon of Kansas communication and Celebration of Cranes committees and is editor-in-chief of Prairie Wings magazine.

Residents and visitors to Kansas can still hear primal sounds that speak to attentive humans the very essence of wildness.

One is the clatter of migrating sandhill cranes, rising with the sun in their thousands from their roosting areas at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge or Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area and returning at dusk. Another is the marvelously resonant distant booming of prairie chickens assembling in the spring on their ancestral leks to mate and assure the continuation of the species.

People — even people who ordinarily would pay little attention to nature — can be drawn to see the bald eagles that come down in the fall with the migrating waterfowl, and now are even staying to nest in Kansas. Many people have their favorite bird: the echoing song of the busy, perky, inquisitive Carolina wren, the descending notes of the meadowlark in the field by the road or behind the house. There are rarer experiences with guests who turn up briefly in migration— the sweet, fluting call of the wood thrush, the essence of the deep deciduous woods, more common in our eastern counties.

You can still hope to hear wood thrushes singing in Kansas — you used to hear them every spring. But to do so now, you have to work a lot harder than you used to. The wood thrush population nationally fell by 60 per cent between 1970 and 2014, leading Partners in Flight to add this thrush to its Yellow Watch List of declining birds.

That population crash would be appalling even if it were an exception. But it’s not. Depressingly, it’s become common. In 2019, a report in the journal Science showed that over the last five decades, North America has lost 30 percent of its birds.

That’s three billion birds. Gone.

As one of the authors of the report, ornithologist Peter Marra of Georgetown University, put it, after a revelation like that, conservationists can’t just go back to business as usual. Luckily, there’s a chance now in Washington, D.C., to avoid just going back to business as usual. A bill before Congress would provide states with an extraordinary tool to help bring back birds and other wildlife.

From its introduction into the House on April 22, 2021, H.R. 2733, the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act of 2021, has now spent just over a year making its way through various committees, subcommittees, hearings and discharge by interested subcommittees. This bill is at the top of conservationists’ agenda and for several years has been supported by members of both parties in Congress. Thus, while the processes of making legislation may seem to the public excruciatingly slow, H.R. 2733 has so far passed muster with all the relevant committees that have considered it.

This bill has been called the most significant wildlife conservation bill seen in nearly half a century. Its beginnings go back to 2006, when Congress mandated that each state must write a Wildlife Action Plan and submit it for approval to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But a plan without the money to carry it out is meaningless.

The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would provide $1.3 billion a year to the 50 states to carry out their plans. Kansas’s share is estimated at $17.6 million per year.

The beautiful part is that the money is already in the U.S. Treasury. Most wildlife conservation money now comes from license fees and taxes paid by hunters and anglers. That money is spent to protect and increase the numbers of game animals. The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would provide dedicated money that originates in general federal funding to protect not only wildlife you can hunt, but also non-game species.

In other words, the pieces are in place: the need (3 billion birds gone), the blueprints (federally-approved state Wildlife Action plans), and the money ($1.3 billion a year).

Three Kansas Republicans in Congress want the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to extend by 90 days the public comment period on a proposal to list the lesser prairie-chicken under the Endangered Species Act. (Greg Kramos/USFWS)
Kansans are fortunate to still hear the distant booming of prairie chickens assembling in the spring on their ancestral leks to mate and assure the continuation of the species. (Greg Kramos/USFWS)

Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs) have been identified by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks through their Crucial Habitat Assessment Tool, part of the state’s Wildlife Action Plan. Among the 14 terrestrial EFAs, nine focus on prairie habitats, three on wetlands and two on forests.

Wetland EFAs are centered on Playa Lakes in western Kansas and two large wetlands in central Kansas, Cheyenne Bottoms and the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. Both Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira wetlands have been designated as Wetlands of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention, with Cheyenne Bottoms also declared a site of hemispheric importance by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network and a Globally Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society.

Approximately 45% of shorebird species in North America use these wetlands during migration. The survival of these birds absolutely depends on the continued existence of these habitats to rest and refuel on their long migrations. But drought years and the continued depletion of water available to the wetlands because of excessive irrigation pose an existential threat to the survival of these unique resources.

As for prairie biomes, the tallgrass prairie once occupied approximately 150 million acres (60 million hectares or 230,000 square miles) of North America. However, conversion to other land uses has made this grassland a globally endangered resource. According to a report from the World Wildlife Foundation, in 2014 alone the Great Plains region lost more acres of grassland than the Brazilian Amazon region lost rainforest. Estimates of remaining tallgrass prairie range from 1% to 18% of its former distribution. But we here in Kansas still have a share in the only expansive and intact remnant of this grassland: the Flint Hills in Oklahoma and Kansas, totaling 3.8 million acres.

In view of these statistics, it comes as no surprise that losses of grassland bird species are among the greatest ecological disasters of our time. Of those 3 billion birds gone, grassland birds have been hit the hardest of any habitat, losing 53% of the population.

According to a 2007 report by The National Audubon Society, losses of even two of the most familiar, typical Kansas grassland species – the grasshopper sparrow and eastern meadowlark – have amounted to 62 percent and 75 percent, respectively, of their global population in the past 40 years. More than 280 local species would benefit from the bill, including lesser prairie chickens, barn owls and swift foxes.

Funds from the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act could help all those creatures, and many others.

Those funds could be used for the broad-scale habitat creation projects that would bring back the birds that require grasslands — those suffering proportionately some of the greatest declines in species. The playas in western Kansas could be protected by devising ways to assure the continued availability of essential amounts of water, ensuring migrating waterfowl and shorebirds a place to feed and rest during migrations.

Both grasslands and wetlands could benefit from controlling invasive plants that change the structure of the habitats. The act could support research on population collapse that is not well-understood, as well as funding measures known to be needed but currently too expensive to undertake. Most importantly, given that most land in Kansas is privately owned, it could assure more extensive conservation measures by compensating landowners for participation in restoring and preserving habitat.

This is an unprecedented chance to do something that is good for wildlife and also good for people.

As Audubon of Kansas shows with its Celebration of Cranes to provide opportunities to view sandhill and endangered whooping cranes and the Kansas Lek Treks Prairie-Chicken Festival to visit prairie chicken booming grounds, viewing nature can be a source of tourist dollars, as well as a way to educate the public about the value of these habitats and their denizens. It is too important an opportunity to miss.

The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, H.R. 2773, is the culmination of years of effort, research, lobbying, and dedicated commitment to devising State Wildlife Action Plans, identifying species of greatest conservation need, designing measures to arrest their decline and preventing further thoughtless destruction of crucial habitats.

To bring all this effort to fruition, it is now time for the U.S. Congress to act. Sens. Jerry Moran and Roger Marshall and Rep. Sharice Davids have already agreed to sponsor the bill. Ask Reps. Tracey Mann, Jake LaTurner, and Ron Estes to support wildlife in Kansas and landowners who engage in conservation by backing Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, H.R. 2773.

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Michael Donnelly
Michael Donnelly

Michael Donnelly is a member of the Audubon of Kansas communication and Celebration of Cranes committees and is editor-in-chief of Prairie Wings magazine. He has served as secretary of the Kansas Wildlife Foundation. An avid bird watcher, he fell in love at first sight with the landscapes and coverts of the Flint Hills and is deeply concerned with the responsibility of saving our natural heritage and handing it on to future generations.