by Mark Carter
Arkansas’ reputation as the Natural State is well deserved. How many states can claim both native elk and alligator, after all? Our natural heritage is one of the many things that makes our state a great place to live and draws in tourism from all over the world.
Traditionally, the sportsmen and women who hunt and fish have helped conserve our wildlife and the places they are found through their hunting and fishing license fees. However, our culture is experiencing a steady urban shift, forcing state wildlife agencies across the country to adapt to a changing dynamic as fewer people have time for hunting and fishing. Many states, including Arkansas, are seeing decreases in the number of hunting and fishing licenses sold. This leads to less funding for the agencies dependent on these funding sources to manage all wildlife in our state.
Federal legislation has been in the U.S. House that would address this funding shortfall for the management of fish and wildlife species of greatest conservation need. The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (House Resolution 3742) would enable states to proactively manage animal species in decline before they must be listed as threatened or endangered. The resolution would reallocate $1.3 billion from the U.S. Treasury to the states for fish and wildlife conservation; Arkansas would receive roughly $14 million a year.
Under the existing funding model, the state receives approximately $500,000 annually for species of greatest conservation need, of which the state is home to 377. With about 12,000 species of greatest conservation need existing in America, Arkansas’ ratio is high.
The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act has been introduced before and enjoyed bipartisan support but has never advanced out of the House committee. This year’s version currently has 123 House co-signers (91 Democrats and 31 Republicans) including Arkansas’ Rep. French Hill (R-AR 2nd District).
“This legislation represents a very proactive approach to species conservation,” says Chris Colclasure, deputy director for the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission. “Proactively conserving habitat to help rare species like the northern bobwhite quail will also benefit other species. This would allow us to tackle issues such as habitat loss that are causing the decline of these species and do it in a way that’s proactive instead of reactionary.”
The act would not raise taxes; it’s a reallocation of existing funds. Lawmakers across the country are supportive of its goals, but many are wary of finding replacement funding to offset the $1.3 billion that would be dedicated to species conservation. Colclasure says lawmakers must be educated about the significance of conservation and its wide-ranging impact on species, habitat and people, as well as the collateral benefits on pollination, air and water quality, recreation and tourism.
The dedicated funding provided by the act would expand and complement the commission’s existing Wildlife Action Plan. It would entail plans of action across the state and focus on habitat restoration to benefit game and non-game fish and wildlife; proactive conservation efforts to prevent species from becoming threatened or endangered, and wildlife education and wildlife-associated recreation.
Though the state has seen a significant decline in the numbers of hunters and anglers — federal funding tied to those numbers dropped $2.4 million from last year to this year — Arkansas remains an outdoors state. The commission estimates that 63 percent of Arkansas residents participate in outdoor recreation, while outdoor activities generate roughly $1.8 billion each year in Arkansas.
The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would also:
• Require that a minimum of 10 percent of funding apportioned to states will be allocated through a competitive grants program favoring the most effective and innovative projects;
• Require up to 15 percent of state funding be used to support wildlife-related education and recreation;
• Require a minimum of 10 percent of state funding be used for recovery of federally threatened or endangered species.
“The majority of the current funding model for conservation comes on the backs of hunters and anglers and is calculated using license sales,” Colclasure says. “This source is not tied to that and would allow us to proactively manage species regardless of how many licenses are sold.”
The outdoors in Arkansas may be seeing fewer hunters and anglers, but tourists and residents are finding more ways to enjoy the outdoors. Arkansas built a world-class mountain biking scene, and visitors and residents alike continue to hit the outdoors to hike, camp and float.
“When people hit the outdoors for any activity, they want to see wildlife,” Colclasure says.
The far-reaching impact of proactive conservation is broad and touches people in ways they may never have considered, from water quality tied to the degradation of streams and rivers to the habitat loss of grassland birds which impacts other species, including important pollinators.
“If the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act isn’t funded, we’ll have to stay on the same funding course we’re on now with declining money available for conservation each year,” Colclasure says. “We don’t want to have to wait until species are listed as threatened or endangered. This legislation will be monumental for us.”
Colclasure believes Arkansas’ congressional delegation is supportive of the bill, but he’s eager to see more members join Hill as a co-sponsor. U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR 4th District) was a co-sponsor last year. U.S. Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR 3rd District) and U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford (R-AR 1st District) round out the state’s House delegation.
A companion bill in the U.S. Senate has yet to be introduced, and Colclasure is optimistic that Arkansas’ senators, Republicans Tom Cotton and John Boozman, will be supportive once it is.
“We need Congress to act in a bipartisan way that benefits the fish, wildlife and citizens of our nation,” he says. “We are all stakeholders. It’s time to get it done.”