In 2019, a report in the journal Science showed that over the last five decades, North America has lost 30% of its birds. That’s three billion birds. Gone.
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.
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.
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).
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 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 very survival of these unique resources.
As for the prairie biomes, the tallgrass prairie once occupied approximately 150 million acres 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 (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% and 75%, 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—which have suffered 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, further assuring 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. It could support research on population collapse that is not well-understood, as well as funding measures that are 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. Viewing nature can be a source of tourist dollars, as well as a way of educating the public about the value of these habitats and their denizens, not only emotionally, but economically. And it is too important an opportunity to miss.
It is now time for the U.S. Congress to act. Senators Jerry Moran and Roger Marshall and Representative Sharice Davids have already agreed to sponsor the bill. Ask Representatives Tracey Mann, Jake LaTurner and Ron Estes to support wildlife in Kansas and the landowners that engage in conservation by supporting Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, H.R. 2773.