Lawmakers Urged to Spend More on Protecting Wildlife

WASHINGTON (CN) –The Trump administration’s proposed cuts to funding for endangered species protection and conservation means animal and insect populations already under stress could face even greater risk unless Congress steps in, a panel of environmental experts told lawmakers Tuesday.

The White House has so far proposed stripping roughly $2 billion from the Department of the Interior and $2.8 billion from the Environmental Protection Agency.

A pair of critically endangered vaquita porpoises swim in the Gulf of California. (Oscar Ortiz/Museo de la Ballena y Ciencias del Mar via AP)

The agencies are responsible for advancing a variety of programs which shape the listing of endangered species or help to enforce regulations that might mitigate pollution, which could harm vulnerable species.

But with budget talks underway this week, lawmakers on a House Natural Resources subcommittee met with environmentalists Tuesday to pare down priorities for spending on environmental programs.

This year’s budget proposals come amid warnings of a bleak future for the planet’s wildlife and other precious natural resources without direct intervention and action by humans.

But intervention is made possible through research, Defenders of Wildlife CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark told the subcommittee Tuesday, and with cuts to programs that support endangered species protections and President Donald Trump’s “escalating threats” to the environment through destructive policies, the U.S. is investing a mere “pittance” that ignores the pressing need to conserve the nation’s own unique biological diversity.

Instead of cuts, scientists, researchers and other staff at federal agencies like the Interior and EPA need a significant influx of funding so urgent work can get underway on projects that would allow the U.S. to tackle problems with “increased scientific capacity,” Clark said.

“This is so we can make smarter decisions. We also can’t continue to deny things like climate change because that is warping, shaping and reshifting our responses” to emerging threats, she said.

Dan Ashe, CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and former director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife under President Barack Obama, urged lawmakers to commit resources “at an unprecedented scale.”

“Stop playing small ball and stop thinking about why other species are only important to us as humans alone. They have their own value,” Ashe said.

He said organizations like the Association of Zoos and Aquariums can only do so much to help preserve a species and educate the public about the role that species plays in the overall environment.  

For example, the population of the vaquita porpoise, one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world, is in rapid decline. It is believed that only six to 22 of the creatures are alive today.

Living in a small corner of the Gulf of California in Mexico, the porpoise has been nearly wiped out by commercial fishing enterprises using illegal nets.

Ashe said regulations need stronger means of enforcement or the vaquita and other rare fish like the totoaba face complete extinction.

No matter how much effort an organization like his puts in, Ashe said the future is dismal without federal investment at a rate reflecting the current level of urgency to protect collapsing species.

Future generations will never see the vaquita in a zoo, Ashe added.  

Protecting a species’ natural legacy requires investment not just on the economic front but also involves lawmakers taking a more creative approach to problem solving, according to Christy Plumer, chief conservation officer of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

Infrastructure and transportation bills currently before Congress which propose funding for things like migration crossings would be a serious boon to wildlife, Plumer said.

“The farm bill this year had $5 billion to allocate for conservation,” she said. “We should be tapping into that and asking landowners about how we can address these problems more creatively.”

Subcommittee Chairman Jared Huffman, D-Calif., said the Trump administration’s “attacks” on the nation’s refuge systems, such as opening places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy development, ultimately undermines legislation like the Endangered Species Act.

In February, 215 conservation and environmentalist groups submitted a letter to Congress requesting a far heftier budget for endangered species conservation. The request would have meant every endangered species on the list that still needs review – more than 500 – would have finally receive it.

But the current rate of funding and the administration’s proposed changes to the listing process for endangered species has had the opposite effect intended by the Endangered Species Act, Huffman said.

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