On March 12, 2019, Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, testified before the Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife of the Committee on Natural Resources during an issues forum about the state of wildlife. What follows is an excerpt from her testimony.
Simply put, the nation’s wildlife faces unprecedented challenges. Human activities are exacting an increasingly heavy toll on wildlife and the habitats on which they depend, at the same time as onslaughts by some in Congress and the Trump administration to undermine essential frameworks for protecting wildlife and public lands. More and more species, such as the southern resident orca population, teeter on the brink of extinction. And vital and irreplaceable wildlife habitats, such as the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, are at grave risk of industrialization.
As we gather here today, the nation’s wildlife is caught up in the planet’s sixth mass extinction. The Endangered Species Act (ESA), although highly effective at preventing extinction, has never been adequately funded and is now even more threatened by some in Congress and the Trump administration. Climate change is accelerating and may be the single greatest threat to the nation’s biodiversity. Lack of adequate funding is severely limiting the nation’s ability to protect biodiversity and recover imperiled species at all levels of government. The nation’s network of protected habitats that make up the National Wildlife Refuge System, an assemblage unparalleled in the world, is under relentless political attack. Conflicts between people and wildlife continue to lead to the killing of predators and other species — some of which are imperiled — based on long-held but misguided social intolerance.
Other serious wildlife threats are abundant. Hundreds of species of migratory birds are now at greater risk of being killed by oil company operations and other industrial activities due to a 2017 Trump administration policy change. Some 1,500 species of native animal and plant species that live in the nation’s southern borderlands region, including as many as 62 species that are imperiled, will be impacted by President Trump’s efforts to construct additional wall along the U.S.- México border. And in the ocean, critically imperiled North Atlantic right whales and numerous other marine mammals face new threats from the Trump administration’s decision to allow seismic testing in a huge swath of the Atlantic and its proposal to allow oil and gas drilling in the Southern Atlantic. Wildlife trafficking continues to be a worldwide problem, one that threatens a wide range of imperiled species and is fueled in part by demand from the United States. There are escalating attempts to diminish the federal government’s longstanding leadership on the Endangered Species Act and management of the National Wildlife Refuge System, as well as other laws and programs, that threaten to fundamentally weaken national conservation efforts to fight species extinction.
Building a Broader Movement for Wildlife Conservation
A critical challenge — and opportunity — for the future of wildlife conservation is building broader public support for and engagement with wildlife and for nature. The young people of our increasingly diverse nation are the future protectors of our wildlife heritage. Their desire and ability to carry the torch for conservation will greatly depend on how much we invest in developing a much broader and committed constituency for the environment.
Too often our nation’s youth and communities of color are left out of decision-making processes that directly impact their quality of life and access to nature. Future generations will only fight to protect our public lands if they see the relevance of these places to their own lives and experiences and understand their value. We cannot underestimate the importance of supporting initiatives that create opportunities and incentives for all Americans to get out and enjoy the outdoors.
We need to:
- Connect young people and diverse communities to our public lands and make sure that diverse voices are included and heeded in federal government decision-making about the use, enjoyment and conservation of our natural resources;
- Diversify the workforce that manage and protect our wildlife, public lands, and environment; and
- Uphold the laws that give all of our communities a voice in federal decision-making, including NEPA, the Equal Access to Justice Act and citizen suit provisions within them.
- Everyone deserves to see our magnificent wildlife and wild places firsthand — not just in picture books and films that show what once was — and make the real connections that lead to actions that carry the legacy forward. We risk losing everything if we do nothing to impassion, train and activate the next generation of wildlife defenders.
Extinction or Recovery?
Like the authors of the Endangered Species Act before them, today’s leaders are at a conservation crossroads. Despite the ESA’s incredible success, a new extinction crisis looms. Will we choose extinction or recovery?
We must once again commit ourselves to action to address challenges and improve the conservation status of hundreds of species whose recovery prospects remain uncertain. Unlocking the vast — but still unrealized — conservation potential of the ESA will again require our leaders to affirm the conservation values that underpin the ESA and help define our nation.
Defenders of Wildlife is tirelessly addressing the profound challenges facing wildlife. We are focused and working diligently in the field, in the policy realm, and in the courts to conserve species and their habitat and improve the effectiveness of the ESA and other laws. We are coordinating everyday with federal agencies, states, landowners and other stakeholders to design and implement strategies to conserve species locally and at a landscape-scale, across jurisdictions and landownerships nationwide.
We are especially proud of our coexistence program. For decades, we have been working with lawmakers, conservation professionals, scientists, states, tribes, local communities and private landowners to develop innovative and effective methods for minimizing conflicts with imperiled predators, including wolves and bears. Our coexistence program has helped ranchers across the West address the presence of predators on the landscape through nonlethal deterrents, better animal husbandry practices and other innovative tools. In the Southeast, we have worked closely with the state of Florida, other conservation groups and private landowners to pave the way for recovery of the Florida panther. Through our coexistence efforts we are minimizing conflict and building social acceptance for these species.
We have also launched the Center for Conservation Innovation to pioneer innovative, pragmatic solutions at the intersection of science, technology and policy to improve the effectiveness of endangered species conservation in the United States. We are leading the way to develop the first web-based ESA recovery plan, which can be updated readily and regularly to reflect the best available science on a species. By relying on the power of data analytics, technology and interdisciplinary approaches, the Center for Conservation Innovation is helping federal and state agencies, as well as other interested stakeholders, take advantage of science and technological advances to improve how they implement the ESA.
Congress and the administration must respond quickly and responsibly to the unprecedented threats facing wildlife and their habitat. In addressing the challenges highlighted throughout this testimony, Defenders of Wildlife recommends that Congress focus on four key areas:
- Increase funding for programs that conserve imperiled species at the federal, state and tribal levels;
- Reject policy attacks on the highly successful legal and policy frameworks that exist to protect and restore species, especially attacks targeting the ESA;
- Restore the legal protections that have been significantly compromised in recent years including enacting:
- The Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act (H.R. 1146) to protect the coastal plain of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling;
- The necessary removal of the reoccurring rider in Interior appropriations legislation barring FWS from considering listing the greater sage-grouse under the ESA;
- The Safeguarding America’s Future and Environment (SAFE) Act (H.R. 4490, 115th Congress) to address climate impacts by re-establishing the national strategy for fish, wildlife and plants;
- The Scientific Assistance for Very Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales Act (H.R. 1568) to better protect right whales from threats pushing them to extinction;
- The Rescinding DHS’ Waiver Authority for Border Wall Act (H.R. 1232) to repeal the Department of Homeland Security’s right to waive all laws to construct additional border wall; and
- Legislation to overturn the Trump administration’s action to reduce protections for birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act; and
- Support new approaches to wildlife conservation that strengthen vital conservation efforts and improve their effectiveness for people and wildlife.
In pursuing these urgent priorities, policymakers can be confident that that their efforts are supported by the overwhelming majority of Americans. Poll after poll confirms this fact. Most recently, a 2018 study by researchers at The Ohio State University found that roughly four out of five Americans support the Endangered Species Act. Addressing today’s leading wildlife challenges is not only consistent with the nation’s values, a commitment to science and our responsibility to future generations, it is also strongly supported by the American people.
Defenders of Wildlife looks forward to assisting in any way possible to implement these recommendations. Thank you again for the opportunity to testify.