Name an environmental problem and somewhere, wildlife suffers.
The big, charismatic birds and mammals are the things we pay attention to. But hidden things — reptiles, amphibians, insects and plants — get harmed as well. And environmentally, damage in one place gets felt across many boards.
Which is why a bill slowly wending its way through the U.S. Congress — Recovering America’s Wildlife Act — is so important.
“It would be a game-changer for us,” said Jenny Dickson, director of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s wildlife division. “It’s a once-in-a-generation thing.”
“It’s really essential to preserve habitat and biodiversity,” said Catherine Rawson, executive director of the Kent-based Weantinoge Heritage Land Trust, the largest land trust in the state.
The act, which is still making its way through the House of Representatives, would allocate $1.3 billion for wildlife and habitat protection.
The money is needed. Wildlife biologists estimate that a third of the nation’s wildlife is under threat from habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and climate change.
For Connecticut, it would mean about $12 million in desperately needed money to help the state’s wildlife. The DEEP currently lists about 600 species of animals, birds, insects and plants in the state that are either endangered, threatened, or of special concern
Patrick Comins, director of the Connecticut Audubon Society, said people in the state already spend considerable time outdoors — whether birding, paddling or hiking. Spending money on wildlife and habitat preservation would enhance these things.
That means more people would join in. And, Comins said, they’d spend more money on gear for going out, and on meals when they’re done.
“It would give the state more jobs,” he said.
The state’s five representatives support the bill. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Christopher Murphy are expected to join in, should the bill reach the Senate.
All members of the state’s congressional delegation are Democrats. But the act has that rare thing — bipartisan support — in the House. It’s also supported by a broad range of environmental and sportsman’s groups — anglers, hunters and birders have all signed on.
“It’s a newer, better way of funding and supporting wildlife and habitat preservation,” said Robert LaFrance, policy director for Audubon Connecticut, the state’s wing of the National Audubon Society.
There are two existing models for gathering money and disbursing it to the state for wildlife recreation.
The Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937 takes tax money the government collects when people buy guns and ammunition, and sends it back to the states to spend on promoting hunting and preserving hunting habitat.
The Dingell-Johnson Act of 1950 does the same thing for anglers — collects an excise tax on fishing tackle purchases and sends money back to the states to protect fish and fishing habitat.
This money, however, cannot be spent to study and protect a huge range of wildlife — piping plovers, bog turtles, big brown bats, butterflies and the plants they need for survival.
Nor, the DEEP’s Dickson said, is there much federal money allocated for environmental education or to promote passive recreational pursuits, such as wildlife photography.
The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would free money up for that.
Should the DEEP ever get this money, it would require that any grants it gives out must be matched by a 25-percent contribution from the group receiving that grant. That contribution could be in in-kind services, Dickson said.
Comins of Connecticut Audubon said there are several ways this might work out.
For example, he said, a farmer might get a grant for haying a field later in the summer, allowing grassland bird species to nest without being disturbed. The grant would pay the farmer for the money lost in not making a more-valuable first cut of hay earlier in the year. Any wildlife habitat improvements the farmer made to the field would count as in-kind services.
Western Connecticut State University in Danbury has recently embarked on a cooperative graduate studies program in biological diversity with Southern Connecticut State University. These students will do field research, but also get training in being public advocates on behalf of the environment.
Theodora Pinou, professor of biology at Western, said some of the grad students are already coordinating with the DEEP to study diamondback terrapins in Connecticut. She said she would welcome further collaborations funded by the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act.
“Absolutely,” Pinou said. “It’s exactly what this graduate program is all about. You have to get people involved and educated.”