Jackson Clarion-Ledger

Column: Time is almost up for Congress to pass a bipartisan transformational conservation bill

Ashlee Ellis Smith, Guest Columnist

From speckled trout to white tailed deer to sandhill cranes, Mississippi's abundant wildlife are a part of what defines our state. Unfortunately, it is estimated that more than 300 of our native species are facing significant challenges. This is not unique to Mississippi, it's part of a larger national trend where more than one-third of America's wildlife are edging toward extinction.

Right now, Congress has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to help protect our wildlife heritage on a sweeping national scale. An overwhelmingly bipartisan bill called the Recovering America's Wildlife Act is a solution that matches the magnitude of the crisis - and it has real momentum. But there are only a few weeks left in this Congress to get the bill across the finish line.

The U.S. House passed the bill in June. The Senate version has more than 40 bipartisan cosponsors, including Senators Wicker and Hyde-Smith. This bill would dedicate 1.4 billion to proactive, collaborative efforts on behalf of at-risk wildlife, paid for in large part from penalties issues for violations of environmental and natural resources laws and regulations.

MDWFP would receive more than $15 million a year to help the 308 at-risk species identified in its wildlife action plan. This makes sense: the department has decades of experience using the fees and taxes paid by hunters and anglers to ensure that the state has bountiful fish and game populations. The department has the expertise and the desire to help non-game wildlife, but lacks funding.

For example, the once-ubiquitous alligator snapping turtle never recovered from overharvesting in the 1960s and 1970s. Slow to reach maturity, a female snapper lays just one clutch every other year. These ancient turtles now face new challenges: invasive species like fire ants and feral hogs feast on their riverside nests, which are more likely to be washed out by increasingly frequent floods. Without major interventions, scientists estimate alligator snapping turtles will decline by 95 percent over the next 50 years.

Raising and releasing juvenile alligator snappers - like we do with sport fish - shows promise, but lack of funding has prevented this from being studied or implemented at scale.

Steady, predictable funding has allowed MDWFP to keep fish and game species at healthy levels. But resources are scarce when non-game wildlife like turtles are in trouble. As a result, alligator snappers are poised to join the 52 other Mississippi species listed under the Endangered Species Act.

It's a shame it has come to this. Taxpayers will now end up footing the bill for litigation and last-ditch efforts to save the species when creative, collaborative conservation efforts instituted sooner would have done more good for snappers at a fraction of the cost.

The Recovering America's Wildlife Act is the ounce of prevention that prevents a pound of cure. The $15 million annually will allow MDWFP to step in as soon as a species starts to struggle, rather than waiting until it is on the brink of extinction.

If passed, it will unleash a new era of conservation for wildlife like monarch butterflies, red-cockaded woodpeckers, and more. The voluntary habitat restoration on private lands will help rural parts of the state and will boost Mississippi's $2.6 billion hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation economy.

Inaction is the ally of extinction. Mississippians can be proud that both of our senators are backing this bipartisan effort to help wildlife through collaboration. Unfortunately, this cost-effective, commonsense bill is running out of time. When the Senate reconvenes after the election, we encourage Senators Wicker and Hyde-Smith do everything they can do get this bill across the finish line before the session ends.

Ashlee Ellis Smith is the chief executive officer of the Mississippi Wildlife Federation.