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Wildlife funding legislation would dedicate millions to "flowers that fly" and other special things
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The regal fritillary butterfly, photographed by Doug Backlund


“But these are flowers that fly and all but sing:

And now from having ridden out desire

They lie closed over in the wind and cling

Where wheels have freshly sliced the April mire.”

— Robert Frost, "Blue-Butterfly Day"


Let’s start with the regal fritillary butterfly, and not just because I like its name.

But I do like its name. I also like its looks.

So does Eileen Dowd Stukel, wildlife diversity coordinator for the state Game, Fish & Parks Department in Pierre. She’s also the agency lead for GF&P on a federal act in Congress that is making lovers of certain butterflies and other sensitive wildlife species flutter with anticipation.Image - 20190926_213136_061905_eileendowdstukel.jpeg

More than 100 non-game wildlife species in South Dakota, including the regal fritillary butterfly are considered by wildlife specialists to be species of greatest concern. Those worried about and working for those species are hoping for approval in Congress of the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. The legislation could be a game-changer in the way programs to study, protect and preserve sensitive non-game wildlife species are funded.

Dowd Stukel and other wildlife professionals say the act has the potential to be the most significant wildlife-funding mechanism in generations.

“And it will help us address the needs of all fish and wildlife, which we can’t meet right now because we don’t have the funding,” Dowd Stukel said.


Finding funding for the fritillary and more


The act is all about more wildlife funding and a process for distributing it to states for non-game programs under wildlife agencies in each. In South Dakota, it would mean an additional $15 million a year for non-game work that now receives $500,0000 to $600,000 in federal funds annually.

Wildlife and conservation groups are enthusiastically on board. They include the National Wildlife Federation and the South Dakota Wildlife Federation.  Working on behalf of the South Dakota Wildlife Federation, my  tea-drinking buddy Terry Mayes here in Rapid City joined me recently at a local coffee shop and brought a packet of information on the act and its benefits and value.

He didn’t have to pitch very hard. Its value seems pretty obvious.

“It really targets non-game species that are at some kind of risk, but it will benefit wildlife species overall, including pheasants and other game,” Mayes said. “And what I really like is the way it spreads the cost of protecting our environment to everybody.”

That’s important to Mayes and others who are directly involved in hunting and fishing organizations. Because they pay — I guess I can say “we pay” — a lot for wildlife management, and have for generations.

For as long as wildlife dollars have flowed from the federal government to the states, hunters and anglers have paid the lion’s share. The Federal Aid in Wildlife Conservation Act , which passed Congress in 1937 as the Pittman-Robertson Act, took revenues from an existing 11-percent excise tax on the wholesale price of long guns and ammunition (10 percent on handguns) from the federal treasury and sent it into the Interior Department to provide wildlife-conservation grants to the states.

Image - warbler1.jpgPittman-Robertson, which was named for its sponsors, changed the landscape of wildlife conservation in the United States, paying 75 percent of the costs for approved wildlife research and management projects and land acquisition. It has been essential in bringing back troubled game species, some of which appeared headed for extinction. Amazingly enough, the now-plentiful white-tailed deer is among the species formerly at serious risk.

Pittman-Robertson was so successful and so popular that in the 1950s Congress approved a similar funding mechanism for sport fish under the Federal Aid to Sport Fish Restoration Act, also named for its sponsors Reps. Dingell and Johnson. Dingell-Johnson has offered the same type of grants to the states and same types of benefits to  sport fish and sport fishing.



Going beyond traditional funding from sporting public


Both Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson had benefits to non-game species. But not enough benefits. Not nearly enough, given the continuing struggle and, in many cases, declining populations of essential wildlife species that don’t feel the full benefits of either Pittman-Robertson or Dingell-Johnson.

This Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would dedicate money from the federal treasury to the state and tribes, with about $1.3 billion going to the states and $98 million to tribes each year.

The tribal component was missing in a previous version of the bill that didn’t go far. And without the financial commitment to tribal wildlife programs, it probably shouldn’t have gone far.  Some of the most pressing wildlife needs anywhere in the nation are on tribal lands, where wildlife-management departments are often understaffed and underfunded.

“The fact that there was not tribal funding last year was a problem,” Dowd Stukel said.

Solving that problem could help solve the bigger problem of pushing that legislation through Congress, a difficult chore that is magnified in a time of increasing budget deficits. Sponsors and supporters will have to justify committing almost $1.4 billion a year to non-game wildlife, possibly at the expense of something else.

Mayes thinks it's worth it. So do I. But will enough members of the U.S. House and Senate agree? How many really care about the regal fritillary butterfly or the piping plover or the eastern hognose snake enough to get persistenly creative in how we care for them, at a substantial cost?


Caught between a rock and a congressional place


The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act has been introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives and referred to committee. There is not a companion bill in the U.S. Senate yet, although I’d expect one to follow.

South Dakota Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds and U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson have not taken a position on the House bill. A few months back, Thune told South Dakota News Watch that he wanted to know what other programs would be affected, or even cut, in order to pay for the programs benefitted in the act.

Contacted this morning by text, Dusty Johnson wrote back to say he wanted to hear from the Congressional Budget Office about the fiscal impacts of the bill before he said much more.

“I know this is hard to believe in an era where no one seems to care about deficits, but I at waiting on a CBO score,” Johnson wrote. “It all sounds good, but somebody, someday has to pay for it.”Image - warbler2.jpg

Just so you know, congressman, I will. So will my buddy, Terry Mayes, who's about as conservative on the spending of federal dollars as you can get. But he argues that this is the kind of essential spending even an old conservative can and should embrace.

Admittedly, Mayes and his twin brother, Larry, another conservative who supports the legislation, share my powerful affection for wild places and wild things. And they're willing to pay to protect them. More specifically on the Recoveryhing America's Wildlife Act, they like the fact that federal money will be managed by the state and directed to the wildlife species that are most in need by people who understand where the needs really are and how to address them. That also gives local citizens input opportunities with local officials, which matters, too.

Approval of the act would add funding continuity at a higher level to the programs that now face uncertainty each year about whether they will get funding and how much it will be.

There’s plenty to do in studying and helping sustain and build the populations of targeted non-game species, including the regal fritillary butterfly, a lovely creature of the tall-grass and mid-grass prairies.

“It’s a really pretty butterfly. They are often common locally. But range-wide and globally they are getting to the point where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing then,” Dowd Stukel said. “It’s not imminent. But they’ve told us it’s what they’re looking into, and that it might be wise to have more information on them.”

You can have a close-up look at the regal fritillary from other angles on Doug Backlund's photography website:

Other wildlife species included on the state's list of concerrn are also on Backlund's photo site, including his delightful shots of the American dipper imbedded in this story. Backlund knows them personally, because for many years he was one of Dowd Stukel's colleagues in non-game work at GF&P.


Where there's a sucker born every minute, and a redbelly snake, too


Other species of concern on the state list include the American dipper, blue sucker and the Black Hills redbelly snake. Also on the list are a freshwater mussel called the rock pocketbook, an aquatic insect called the elusive clubtail, the northern flying squirrel and a tiny fish called the hornyhead chub.

Better known species are on the list, too, among them some that are already listed as endangered or threatened. They include headline-makers like the black-footed ferret, the Topeka shiner, the trumpeter swan, the pallid sturgeon and interior least tern.

At least 10 percent of the grant money would be used for species covered by the Endangered Species Act. That leaves the bulk for species that are mostly unknown by the general public but still essential to ecosystems. 

So, big names or small, listed as endangered or threatened or not, all non-game species of concern stand to benefit from an infusion of reliable money aimed at helping to assure their existence at healthier population levels.

That should be high-priority stuff, because what’s good for the regal fritillary butterfly or the American dipper or the northern goshawk will almost certainly, over time, be good for us.

The opposite is also true.