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Columbia Missourian: Blunt-backed conservation bill would expand Missouri's wildlife programs

July 21, 2022

A bipartisan bill appears poised to revitalize federal funding of state wildlife conservation efforts, including Missouri projects stretching from forest restoration in the Bootheel to giant salamander breeding in the Ozarks.

Branded as a “once-in-a-generation” development and shepherded by two U.S. senators with direct ties to Missouri, the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would give states about $1.4 billion in additional money for conservation each year if it advances on Capitol Hill.

The legislation would give Missouri’s Department of Conservation nearly $21 million more in annual funding — almost doubling the federal government’s current contribution, the department’s deputy director, Aaron Jeffries, said.

The state agency already has a prescribed path for conservation — outlined in a 250-page action plan — but additional funding could broaden its progress.

“A lot of it’s going to be expansion of existing programs,” Jeffries said.

The targets of the department’s projects vary across the state, focusing on at-risk animals and plants alike.

The bill’s wide range of proponents also highlight its expanded focus on conservation that works to keep species from crossing the “endangered” threshold.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” said Tyler Schwartze, executive director of the Conservation Federation of Missouri.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., is one of two senators pushing the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act through the upper chamber — and he likes its preventative nature.

“It is a big change in the way we look at endangered species and what we’re going to be doing to help restore species that may be nearing being endangered,” he told reporters in April, when the bill advanced out of a Senate committee with bipartisan backing.

And while Jeffries called Blunt a “wonderful” partner on the legislation, the retiring senator isn’t the only person with Missouri ties who is working on the conservation funding: Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., who grew up in Cole Camp and graduated from MU, has joined Blunt as a co-sponsor in the Senate.

The chamber at the moment remains focused on computer chip manufacturing and budget reconciliation, but the wildlife act is ready for floor action after emerging from the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee on a 15-5 vote.

The House already passed a version of the bill, though its source of the funding for conservation departments is more nebulous than the Senate version’s — a wrinkle that would require ironing out before the legislation would go to President Joe Biden’s desk.

‘Allows agencies to plan’

The fact that the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act relies exclusively on state and tribal conservation departments is attractive to Republicans such as Blunt.

“That partnership with a local state agency is just so much more appealing than getting into some kind of regulatory environment,” he said.

State conservation agencies developed federally reviewed conservation action plans in 2005 and revised them in 2015. Like in Missouri, those plans form a preexisting framework with “lots of flexibility” for states, Lacey McCormick, a senior communications manager for the National Wildlife Federation, said.

“That makes sense because every state is very different,” she said.

And with states’ plans already established, “there’s a lot of accountability built in,” McCormick said.

In Missouri, department efforts rely heavily on partnerships with private landowners, who the agency estimates own about 93% of the state’s land.

That collaboration can take the form of cost-share grants that give landowners financial assistance in restoration projects on their property, as well as technical help.

“An awful lot of this effort will be focused on public-private partnerships, working with private landowners, who, frankly, would want to have the wildlife and other species on their property,” Blunt said.

Missouri’s 2015 action plan identified “conservation opportunity areas” to target. While scattered throughout the state, many areas lie south of the Missouri River in what the department calls the Osage Plains and Ozark Highlands.

These geographic zones include hardwood forests that the U.S. Forest Service estimates could, without action, see temperature increases of 2 to 7 degrees in the next century due to climate change — affecting entire ecosystems.

The department is eyeing two endangered species of hellbender giant salamanders — which live in Ozark streams and can grow to 2 feet long — as focal points for conservation, too, partnering with the St. Louis Zoo for a breeding program. Among the other highlighted animal species are greater prairie chickens in the Osage Plains, pallid sturgeon in the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and prairie massasauga rattlesnakes in the northern part of the state.

While the wildlife act would provide a fairly immediate boost to conservation agencies’ programming abilities, those involved in the effort caution that the broader process takes time to show results.

“An oak forest does not grow up overnight. It takes years of management,” said Jeffries, the department’s deputy director. “Some things will take longer than others, but you’ll see us have the ability to expand our private land cost-share programs, our partnerships within a year.”

The consistent infusions of money the act would provide each year, without requiring more congressional action, carry further appeal to those who would benefit.

“It’s not something that you can do overnight, so you need long, steady plans and funding,” McCormick said. “This allows agencies to plan.”

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