House Democrats Look to Empower States to Protect Species

WASHINGTON (CN) – Democrats seeking an end-run around the Trump administration’s efforts to undo endangered-species protections debated two bills Thursday they say could stem hemorrhaging biodiversity loss and empower states to more meaningfully conserve wildlife.

A turtle spotted by Democratic Congresswomen Debbie Dingell and Rashida Tlaib during a recent kayak trip on Michigan’s reinvigorated Rouge River, which caught fire 50 years ago due to pollution. (Photo courtesy of the office of Rashida Tlaib)

During a hearing hosted by the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife, lawmakers weighed the Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act and the Recover America’s Wildlife Act, also known as RAWA.

The first bill would establish a nationwide network of wildlife corridors that would help native animal and plant species – including threatened and endangered species – thrive in the face of staggering habitat loss, disruption and degradation.

It also creates a grant program for non-federal land and establishes a stewardship fund for corridor maintenance.

Representative Jared Huffman, D-Calif., admitted Thursday that the idea of a corridor is something most people have only recently come to understand, but creating what amounts to natural detours serves multiple functions. It allows wildlife to safely migrate through their natural habitat while also solving common sense problems for humans – like car collisions with animals large and small.

The journal Science published a report in September extolling the value of the corridors. Research showed where strips of undeveloped land link isolated habitats, wildlife flourishes and plant life is enriched. The study – which took place over 10 years in South Carolina – showed a marked increase in biodiversity, including the growth of new plants.

A similar project is already unfolding in Southern California. An $87 million overpass spanning the Los Angeles freeway is the state’s attempt to save regional mountain lions and reconnect them to their habitats in the Santa Monica Mountains.

“We’re in the midst of the sixth mass extinction. One in eight species faces extinction, 29% of birds in the United States are gone. Forty percent of freshwater fish are imperiled. Species loss may seem insurmountable but it would be wildly irresponsible to simply throw up our hands and give up,” Huffman said.

Wildlife corridors could mitigate loss, but that won’t be enough to wind back the repeal of endangered species protections rolled out by the Trump administration.

Representative Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., beseeched lawmakers on the committee Thursday to throw their support behind RAWA, which already has 122 cos-ponsors and enjoys considerable bipartisan support from fish and game groups, hunting associations, conservation groups and environmentalists.

It would provide $1.4 billion in dedicated annual funding to states, territories and tribes for proactive conservation efforts for 12,000 species of wildlife and plants identified under federally approved wildlife action plans, Dingell said.

The lawmaker’s late husband, Congressman John Dingell, who died in February, helped write the Endangered Species Act so the issue is personal for her.

“This is the kind of investment critically needed right now if we want to make a dent in the extinction crisis,” she said.

During the hearing, Dingell shared her recent experience kayaking down the Rouge River in Michigan with Representative Rashida Tlaib. The river was ablaze 50 years ago due to heavy pollution, a lack of environmental regulation and general neglect.

But now things are much different there.

“It’s a total industrial area and yet we saw bald eagles. Rashida took the most beautiful picture of a turtle. We saw sturgeon, woodpeckers, butterflies, even a fox snake, which is endangered,” she said.

What happened to the Rouge River, Dingell said, shows “what happens when we pull together.”

Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation, also testified in support of the bill Thursday. He too acknowledged the need for officials to collaborate to solve a problem that isn’t going away simply by ignoring it or denying its causes – human encroachment and climate change.

Take the birds, for example. That 29% loss figure established by Science in September reflected a loss of 2.9 billion birds since 1970.

“The thing that is scary about that is that the decline is actually accelerating, so if we don’t get ahead of it now, we will face the point of no return,” O’Mara said.

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