Columbia Missourian: Blunt-backed conservation bill would expand Missouri wildlife programs

A bipartisan bill appears poised to revitalize federal funding for state wildlife conservation efforts, including Missouri projects ranging from restoring forests in the Bootheel to raising giant salamanders in the Ozarks.

Considered a “once in a generation” development and spearheaded by two U.S. senators with direct ties to Missouri, the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would give states an estimated $1.4 billion more for conservation each year if it progresses on Capitol Hill.

The legislation would give the Missouri Department of Conservation nearly $21 million more in annual funding — nearly doubling the federal government’s current contribution, said department deputy director Aaron Jeffries.

The state agency already has a prescribed path for conservation — outlined in a 250-page action plan — but additional funding could expand its progress.

“A lot of that is going to be expanding existing programs,” Jeffries said.

The goals of the department’s projects vary across the state, focusing on at-risk animals and plants.

The wide range of supporters of the bill also highlights its increased focus on conservation that works to prevent species from crossing the “endangered” threshold.

“An ounce of prevention is better than cure,” said Tyler Schwartze, executive director of the Conservation Federation of Missouri.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., is one of two senators pushing the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act through the upper chamber — and he likes its preventative nature.

“It’s a big shift in how we look at endangered species and what we’re going to do to help restore species that may be on the verge of extinction,” he said. he told reporters in April, when the bill came out of a Senate committee. with bipartisan support.

And while Jeffries called Blunt a “wonderful” partner on legislation, the incumbent senator isn’t the only person with Missouri ties working on conservation funding: Sen. Martin Heinrich, DN.M. , who grew up in Cole Camp and graduated from MU, joined Blunt as a co-sponsor in the Senate.

The chamber remains focused on computer chip manufacturing and budget reconciliation for now, but the Wildlife Act is poised for ground action after emerging from the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on a vote of 15 against 5.

The House has already passed a version of the bill, though its source of funding for conservation departments is more nebulous than that of the Senate version – a wrinkle that would need to be ironed out before the legislation reaches the desk. of President Joe Biden.

“Allows agencies to plan”

That Recovering America’s Wildlife Act relies exclusively on state and tribal conservation departments is appealing to Republicans like Blunt.

“This partnership with a local public agency is so much more appealing than going into some sort of regulatory environment,” he said.

State conservation agencies developed federally revised conservation action plans in 2005 and revised them in 2015. As in Missouri, these plans form a pre-existing framework with “a lot of flexibility” for states, a said Lacey McCormick, senior communications manager for the National Wildlife Federation. .

“It makes sense because every state is very different,” she said.

And with the states’ plans already laid out, “there’s a lot of built-in accountability,” McCormick said.

In Missouri, the department’s efforts rely heavily on partnerships with private landowners, who the agency says own about 93% of the state’s land.

This collaboration can take the form of cost-shared grants that provide owners with financial assistance in restoration projects on their property, as well as technical assistance.

“Much of this effort will be focused on public-private partnerships, working with private landowners, who frankly would like to have wildlife and other species on their property,” Blunt said.

Missouri’s 2015 action plan identified “conservation opportunity areas” to target. Although scattered throughout the state, many areas are south of the Missouri River in what the department calls the Osage Plains and Ozark Highlands.

These geographic areas include hardwood forests that the US Forest Service estimates could, without action, see temperature increases of 2 to 7 degrees over the next century due to climate change, affecting entire ecosystems.

The department is also considering two endangered species of giant hell-bender salamanders — which live in Ozark streams and can grow up to 2 feet long — as conservation focal points, in partnership with the St. Louis Zoo to a breeding program. Other animal species highlighted include greater prairie chickens on the Osage Plains, pale sturgeon in the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, and prairie massasauga rattlesnakes in the northern part of the state.

While the Wildlife Act would provide a fairly immediate boost to conservation agencies’ programming capabilities, those involved in the effort warn that the broader process is taking time to show results.

“An oak forest does not grow overnight. It takes years of management,” said Jeffries, deputy director of the department. “Some things will take longer than others, but you’ll see we have the ability to expand our private land cost-sharing programs, our partnerships within a year.”

The constant injections of cash that the law would provide each year, without requiring further action from Congress, would further attract those who benefited.

“It’s not something you can do overnight, so you need long and steady plans and funding,” McCormick said. “It allows agencies to plan.”