Congress passed its $1.4 trillion Omnibus spending bill along with other year-end legislation which includes both wins and losses for wildlife. The legislation has some gains for climate, provides some crucial funding for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale and for human-wildlife coexistence efforts. Unfortunately, the bill continues a damaging provision that that blocks Endangered Species Act protections for the imperiled greater sage-grouse and provides additional funding for the destructive wall along the Southwest border.
Once again, the final appropriations bill puts the future of the imperiled greater sage-grouse in jeopardy. Although, the House excluded the sage-grouse rider from its FY 2021 Interior and Environment appropriations bill, this anti-wildlife, anti-science provision was nevertheless included in the final omnibus bill and continues to be a catastrophic setback for this iconic species.
“The omnibus bill released yesterday has once again failed the imperiled greater sage-grouse by effectively blocking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from protecting the species under the Endangered Species Act in a move that continues to benefit the fossil fuel industry,” said Robert Dewey, vice president of government relations for Defenders of Wildlife upon passage of the bill.
The last four years have been difficult for conservation, especially for protecting threatened and endangered species. The current administration has prioritized industrial development and economic interests over addressing climate change, protecting public lands and recovering wildlife on the brink of extinction even though the planet faces a biodiversity crisis. The greater-sage grouse rider has been included in final appropriations bills since 2014 despite continued declines of the species across the West. Defenders of Wildlife along with more than 100 conservation groups have long opposed this dangerous rider which harms not only the sage-grouse but also the Sagebrush Sea which provides habitat for more than 350 other species of conservation concern.
Dewey expressed concerns about the fate of the sage-grouse and biodiversity saying, “At a time when our nation and our planet are facing an extinction crisis of unprecedented proportions, it is essential that FWS scientists be allowed to do their job and evaluate whether the sage-grouse needs ESA protections based on data and science without political interference.”
Given the planetary extinction crisis, numerous conservation groups and members of Congress had requested additional significant funding increases for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service endangered species program. While some modest increases were provided, significantly more is required to arrest the staggering and continuing loss of biodiversity.
Indeed, the bill will arguably exacerbate the extinction crisis by providing additional funding for the wall along the Southwest border, even though President Trump has inappropriately diverted billions for wall construction and built more than 400 miles of new wall in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas on some of our nation’s most fragile and biodiverse habitat, including national wildlife refuges and other federal lands. Moreover, the final bill rejected even a small step to address damage from the unnecessary and destructive wall by failing to include funding that had been provided by the House Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill for mitigation activities related to wall construction on federal lands.
On the other hand, in a victory for human-wildlife coexistence efforts, the omnibus appropriations bill continues $1.38 million for Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services to maintain newly hired employees dedicated exclusively to promoting and implementing nonlethal livestock-predator conflict deterrence techniques in up to 12 states. Congress appropriated this funding for the first time in 2020.
Finally, the bill includes a total of $5 million specifically for North Atlantic right whale conservation, an increase of $2 million, including for the development of innovative fishing gear technology for trap/pot lobster and crab fisheries. Since 2017, right whales have been devastated by a combination of vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglements, leading to 45 confirmed right whale deaths and non-survivable injuries. Scientists estimate there are only around 356 right whales left. The appropriations bill provides a much-needed down payment on the significant federal investment necessary to develop and distribute technologies that could stop this trend, such as on-demand pop-up fishing gear that will enable right whales and trap/pot fisheries to coexist.