News and Notes

Push for wildlife corridors gains momentum

by Kellie Lunney
This article originally appeared in E&E News, Thursday, August 1, 2019

Supporters of bicameral legislation aimed at protecting biodiversity and preventing species extinction are confident the time has finally arrived for Congress to move on the issue.

“The stars have kind of lined up” for the creation of a National Wildlife Corridor System on federal lands and waters, giving agencies such as the Interior Department authority to designate such migration paths to help reverse species’ habitat loss, said Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) during a recent Capitol Hill forum on the topic.

Buchanan, a co-sponsor of the “Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act,” H.R. 2795, along with the bill’s sponsor, Virginia Democratic Rep. Don Beyer, said the fact that Democrats control the House and Republicans run the Senate presents “a good opportunity” to get things done for animals and endangered species.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), sponsor of the upper chamber’s version, S. 1499, said he doesn’t yet have any Republican co-sponsors but is “working hard” to get some.

“When it comes to conservation, there is a lot of bipartisanship that you just need to scrape below the surface, and you end up finding it,” Udall said. “And I think that’s pretty special.”

Protecting migration corridors also has been a focus of the Trump administration’s Interior Department under Secretary David Bernhardt and his predecessor, Ryan Zinke.

Buchanan so far is the only Republican co-sponsor in either chamber. But the Florida Republican, Beyer and Udall, who all spoke at the event last week, nevertheless consider the issue as one that ultimately might attract broad, bipartisan support.

Hear what E.O. Wilson had to say about the Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act.

‘Important priority’
The three lawmakers could be onto something.

Senator Udall, Representatives Beyer and Buchanan

(Left to right) Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Reps. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) during an event last month on wildlife corridors. Wildlands Network

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Tuesday unanimously advanced a $287 billion highway infrastructure bill that would provide $250 million for a new nationwide pilot program to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions and build wildlife crossings to improve safety for animals and humans (Greenwire, July 30).

Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) told E&E News earlier this week the issue affects more than just Western states.

“Certainly, we are seeing more interactions between cars and animals to the point you are seeing it in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. [Democratic Sen.] Ben Cardin brought it up the other day from Maryland.”

Barrasso would not commit to scheduling a markup on Udall’s bill in the fall but mentioned he “loves to do bipartisan bills.” The legislation “will have to go through a markup process,” the Republican said, adding that wildlife crossing safety is an “important priority.”

There are more than 1 million wildlife-vehicle collisions every year, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

“This is an absolutely crucial piece in the puzzle to help wildlife, from mule deer and pronghorn to the Florida panther, move safely across the landscape and will complement the protections in the ‘Wildlife Corridor Conservation Act,'” said Susan Holmes, policy director of the Wildlands Network, which hosted last week’s Capitol Hill forum on wildlife corridors.

A wildlife corridor is a defined pathway that provides habitat connectivity for species. Wildlife crossings allow animals and humans to interact safely on roads.

Sportsmen yesterday also weighed in on the surface transportation bill and its wildlife crossings language.

“Wildlife collisions are not only bad for big game species; they also negatively impact business and economic interests,” said John Gale, conservation director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

“By developing thoughtful solutions to address critical challenges like these, we can prioritize considerations for wildlife, known migratory patterns and public safety interests that protect people and property,” Gale said.

Beyer said yesterday in a statement to E&E News that he was “happy” to see the transportation bill pass out of the Senate committee with “solid provisions to establish a wildlife crossings pilot program.”

He added though that the action “doesn’t stop the fact that my ‘Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act’ should become law so we can establish nationwide wildlife corridors in order to protect even more threatened species and biodiversity.”

Beyer’s bill also would create a national coordination committee responsible for developing a national plan for wildlife movement. It would also help improve collaboration on conservation among the federal government, states, tribes and private landowners.

From large game animals such as the pronghorn antelope to the small, delicate monarch butterfly, wildlife needs protected areas to migrate, survive and thrive, according to scientists.

The bill represents a “collaborative, science-based, data-driven approach,” said Udall at the event, which also featured scientists.

Also speaking at the forum was Sir Robert Watson, the immediate past chairman of the United Nations’ intergovernmental body that in May unveiled a widely discussed report concluding the rate of species extinction was accelerating because of land-use policies and climate change.

“No longer can we say that biodiversity is about hugging trees [and] saving the panda,” said Watson. “It’s actually [about] saving human life and human well-being.”

‘Not about regulation’
Beyer said during the event that he’s “begged and pleaded” with Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) to mark up the bill.

“I think that the signal [Grijalva] has sent is that House Natural Resources will mark it up and send it to the full House,” Beyer said. “And I can’t imagine why our leadership wouldn’t allow us to have a vote on it in the fall.”

Beyer is committed to the issue; he first introduced legislation on creating and sustaining a national wildlife corridor in 2016.

“This is not about regulation, this is not about creating unfunded mandates,” he said. “This is about creating pools of money at the federal level” that state and local governments can use to create commonsense wildlife corridors to ensure biodiversity thrives, Beyer said.

Grijalva said last week he was interested in marking up the legislation when Congress returns from recess.

Beyer said one of his lifelong goals has been to hike the Appalachian Trail, a feat he’s nearly accomplished.

The trail “is one of the great national corridors,” he said. “It is the primary path for so many animals.”

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