Nongame windfall: Wildlife Department could see 28 percent funding boost

Federal Recovering America’s Wildlife Act dedicates funds for at-risk, other nongame species

A Tier II species of concern in Oklahoma, the painted bunting is one of the state’s iconic songbirds and is dependent on oak woodlands in the Cross Timbers eco-region. (Photo Courtesy Jim Arterburn)

For the CCOF

The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation could see a nearly 28-percent funding boost if Congress passes the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act of 2021. The boost would be dedicated to nongame species that are “at-risk” or “of greatest conservation need.”

Supporters say the act, bolstered by growing bi-partisan support, could indeed pass this year—its fifth year in the halls of Congress. Oklahoma’s share, a $16.7 million annual disbursement, would mark a 20-fold increase for the state’s nongame Wildlife Diversity efforts. The boost would for the first time put nongame program funding, for songbirds, salamanders, bats, and some and insects, at a level on par with sport fish and wild game management.

The act, HR 2773, led by Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), and the Senate version, SB 2372, introduced by Sen. Martin Heinrich, (D-NM) and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), would annually direct $1.4 billion of existing federal revenue toward state and tribal efforts to help fish and wildlife species in decline. The measures include $97.5 million in Tribal Wildlife Conservation and Restoration Account funds for distribution through a competitive grants applications process.

“There is a feeling out there among a lot of groups, a lot of people who have watched this for a long time, that this could be the year for it to pass,” said Ron Suttles, retired director of what was the Wildlife Department’s Natural Resources Division. He is also co-founder of the non-profit Conservation Coalition of Oklahoma, a National Wildlife Federation affiliate.

The Senate version identifies funding among “remaining natural resource or environmental-related violation revenue.” That means fines and fees not already dedicated to other areas. Wildlife Federation leadership examined the funding source and reported it is more than adequate, Suttles said.

“… We could be looking at a bigger landscape and thinking, ‘what can we do for a specific eco-region within the state that would be a habitat restoration effort that can benefit maybe 15 species on a broader scale?'”

Kurt Kuklinski, ODWC Wildlife Diversity Research Supervisor

Congress has passed a variety of measures to address nongame efforts since 1980. Some have come and gone. Currently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administers State and Tribal Wildlife Grants that have annually allocated roughly $800,000 to Oklahoma. Those grants provide the base of funding for Wildlife Diversity projects.

By comparison, the Wildlife Department’s annual report for 2021 shows total revenue of $60.38 million. Most of that funding came from license sales and federal fish and wildlife grants. Reported expenditures include $10.21 million for Fisheries Division and $13.29 million for the Wildlife Division. The Wildlife Enforcement, Education and Communications, and Administration divisions and capital expenditures account for the rest.

Bi-partisan support for the act has grown with successful state and tribal conservation efforts, according to Suttles. He said more people are recognizing it is less expensive to preserve species than to allow declines to Endangered Species Act status.

“The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act is our best opportunity to keep the Endangered Species list from growing,” said Wildlife Department Director J.D. Strong. “When an animal goes on the Endangered Species List, we all lose—the biologists, the public, industry, and importantly, the animals themselves. This legislation allows us to keep common species common, which is by far the most efficient and cost-effective way of doing business.”

Wildlife diversity biologist Mark Howery has been with the department through decades of funding ebb-and-flow. He said he remembers early days that relied on funding through voluntary tax check-offs and license plate sales and added the act’s potential impact is huge for both public and private lands.

“We have some of our rare species in habitats where, for example, it’s hard for a landowner to make a living and keep habitat for something like cerulean warblers,” he said. “So in a case like that maybe you need to provide something like a conservation easement program.”

Wildlife Diversity Research Supervisor Kurt Kuklinski said department officials have monitored the act’s progress and that reliable annual funding of that magnitude would indeed bring incredible change.

“I think the most accurate way to describe the feeling about the act right now is we are cautiously optimistic,” he said.

One of the most recognized features of the state’s Wildlife Diversity Program efforts was the purchase of the Selman Bat Caves, where limited tours to see throngs of Mexican free-tailed bats provides income to maintain the area. (Photo Courtesy ODWC)

Kuklinski and four biologists are the whole of the department’s Wildlife Diversity staff. Most of their work focuses on cooperative research projects and pass-through grant funding with universities, he said.

Nongame does have its standouts, however. The Selman Bat Caves, its most visible program, grew from a shoestring budget. It continues as a self-sustaining program with money raised through annual Selman Bat Watch tours.

Under the act, agencies must fund projects according to existing “state wildlife action plans” already vetted for federal grants, Howery said. In Oklahoma that means 310 Oklahoma species listed under that plan as “at-risk” or “of greatest conservation need.”

“Action plan” is a bit of a misnomer for Oklahoma’s Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy, however. Howery explained the 400-page document lists species of concern, identifies habitat issues and sets priorities. “It’s more of a strategic planning document, not a set action plan,” he said.

Pumping $16.7 million into an area that subsists on disbursements of hundreds of thousands is indeed huge, Kuklinski said. It means elevating work from species-based research projects to full eco-region-based programs and habitat initiatives. Administering new programs and securing 25-percent funding matches required under the act likely will demand additional staff, he said.

While the act targets at-risk species, other wildlife is sure to benefit as well, Kuklinski said.

“We’re targeting research efforts toward one or two species of greatest need right now. We could be looking at a bigger landscape and thinking, ‘what can we do for a specific eco-region within the state that would be a habitat restoration effort that can benefit maybe 15 species on a broader scale?’ Then you have the added benefits. When doing projects that benefit several species of greatest conservation need, it’s also a benefit for quail, for turkey for deer, and all kinds of fish,” he said.

Kelly Bostian is an independent journalist writing for The Conservation Coalition of Oklahoma Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to education and outreach on conservation issues facing Oklahomans. To learn more about what we do and to support Kelly’s work, see the About the CCOF page.

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