It’s a familiar narrative: A forest that once rang with melodic bird chirping is now quiet, a field that once glowed with fireflies rarely twinkles, a backyard bush that once bustled with butterflies is now still and the chorus of frogs in a wetland is now silent.
Across the planet, animal populations are declining at rates fast enough for people to observe the changes firsthand. For decades, the primary mechanism for keeping species from reaching extinction has been the Endangered Species Act.
Earlier this year, Congress proposed the most significant piece of conservation legislation in nearly a half-century: the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would annually allocate $1.3 billion to state fish and wildlife agencies and $100 million to tribes to fund wildlife management strategies and habitat restoration.
The legislation is scheduled to be revisited next week in a congressional committee.
“The bill is a landmark piece of legislation,” said Sunni Carr, the wildlife diversity program branch manager at the Kentucky Department for Fish and Wildlife Resources. “This legislation is a key to being able to sustain healthy fish and wildlife populations and those habitats they depend on for the next 100 years.”
About a third of America’s wildlife species are vulnerable to extinction due to habitat loss, climate change, invasive species, disease and severe weather, according to the National Wildlife Federation, a nonprofit that advocates for conservation.
In Kentucky through May, there were 49 species considered federally endangered or threatened, including rusty patched bumblebees, Kentucky cave shrimp, Indiana bats, oyster mussels and diamond darters, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which listed an additional 31 “petitioned species” like the green salamander, karst snowfly and tricolored bat. There are also at least several hundred species that have been identified statewide as being vulnerable or understudied, according to Carr.
The bill proposes an allocation of 10 percent of the funds to be used towards the management and recovery of federally listed threatened and endangered species, and it proposes that states work to prevent at-risk wildlife species from being federally listed under the Endangered Species Act.
In 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act to recognize that wildlife, fish and plants “have been rendered extinct as a consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation” and to prevent other threatened plants and animals from joining this fate of extinction through conservation measures.
In August, the Trump administration finalized changes to the Endangered Species Act to make it easier to remove a species from the endangered list and weaken protections for threatened species. Among changes, regulators can use “economic analyses” when deciding whether to protect a species.
“We’re weakening the Endangered Species Act just as we’re facing this mass extinction crisis,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit focused on wildlife protections.
Massive population declines have been reported across the animal phyla, gradually trending towards what has been popularized as the “sixth mass extinction.”
Since 1970, North America has lost more than one in four of its birds, with an estimated loss of 2.9 billion breeding adult birds, according to analysis published in Science in September. The study authors concluded that this loss of birds, which are considered the best-studied group of wildlife and also indicator species, signals cracks in ecosystem integrity and confirms the need for considerable conservation efforts for the birds and their native ecosystems.
In February, a global scientific review found that more than 40 percent of insect species are declining and threatened with extinction.
And last year, a World Wildlife Fund report found that, on average, populations of vertebrates (excluding humans) have declined by 60 percent.
“Ecosystems seem to be unraveling, and common species that we’ve all taken for granted are crashing,” Hartl said. “Wildlife is vanishing before our eyes.”
Recovering America’s Wildlife Act proposes greater conservation funding and the premise of protecting wildlife, but the actual text lacks clarity and rational prioritization, according to Hartl.
The text does not define “species of greatest conservation needs” nor does it differentiate between the most at-risk species globally and the species declining within the states. And under the proposed funding model, states would receive funding based on land area instead of biodiversity. That would shortchange Hawaii, “the extinction capital of the world,” and Kentucky and other biodiverse states in the U.S., Hartl said.
“States with the most imperiled species should get more money than states with more land area,” Hartl said.
Currently, Kentucky’s state wildlife and tribal grants hover at about $700,000 per year. With the new legislation, there could be between $13 million and $15 million set aside annually for state conservation work.
This funding increase could prove to be a “fundamental change” for state conservation efforts, according to Carr.
“The level of funding being discussed on the national level would certainly, certainly make a tremendous impact on our agency,” she said, and help the agency “fully carry out our duties” and ensure “that we’re being good stewards.”
Ideally, states would have more flexibility, funding and collaboration opportunities under the proposal to further conservation efforts for wildlife species before they reach a critical stage, according to Carr, who added that it’s more cost-effective to address conservation issues proactively.
“It’s like getting a vaccination versus getting a disease and caring for it afterwards,” Carr said.
Carr expressed optimism for the potential to address habitat restoration and subsequently improve the health of people. “People want to do good things. It takes resources to make it happen,” she said.
Instead of looking at Earth’s ecosystems as expendable luxuries, Hartl suggested the need to protect animals and our many interconnected habitats as critical for all living things – which he said should involve expanded federal action in addition to focused state action.
“We’re not living sustainably on the planet, and we’re just not addressing most of the threats,” Hartl said. “It’s more than just money. There has to be political will.”