Wildlife Policy: Highlights of 2014 and Impacts for 2015

By Colleen Hartel

Sage grouse Image Credit: Tom Koerner, USFWS

The year 2014 saw several major federal activities affecting wildlife policy within the United States. It brought changes to Duck Stamps and the Farm Bill, while there was a noticeable lack of progress in areas of feral horse and burro management and establishing consistent funding for wildfire suppression. Here, we explore the major wildlife policy topics of 2014 and how they will continue into 2015.

Farm Bill

The new Farm Bill was finally approved in early 2014 and introduced changes to existing conservation incentive programs, consolidating 23 programs into 13. The Wetland Reserve Program, Farm and Ranchland Protection Program, and Grassland Reserve Program were consolidated into Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, which provides financial assistance to private or non-federal entities to develop conservation easements. The Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program was consolidated into the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP). At least five percent of all payments administered by EQIP must now be directed towards wildlife-focused conservation practices. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) continued, although with some changes including allowance of up to 2 million acres of grasslands to be eligible for enrollment in CRP, but with an overall reduction in maximum enrollment. The coming year will see continued efforts in implementing the 2014 Farm Bill programs.

Duck Stamps

A bill increasing the price of Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamps — more commonly known as Duck Stamps — from $15 to $25 was signed into law by President Barack Obama in December. Duck Stamps are used to fund migratory bird habitat acquisition by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The last price increase to Duck Stamps was in 1991. The new duck stamps will go on sale July 1.

Conservation Funding

The Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 “CROmnibus” Appropriations Bill was approved by Congress to avoid a government shutdown after lengthy negotiations and two months after the end of FY2014. The spending bill, which contains 11 of the 12 regular annual Appropriations bills and one Continuing Resolution, will keep the government running through the end of FY2015 in October. The U.S. Geological Survey and National Wildlife Refuge System both received increases in funding from FY2014, while the State and Tribal Wildlife Grants Programs received level funding. However, several “conservation riders” were attached to the appropriations bill, resulting in legislation that prevents the Greater Sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), Columbia basin Sage-Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), and Gunnison Sage-Grouse (Centrocercus minimus) from being listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). It also prohibited the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from expanding any funding for the regulation of lead ammunition and fishing tackle under the Toxic Control and Substances Act. TWS’ Fact Sheet and Technical Review describe the impact of lead on wildlife. While these riders are only in effect for FY2015, they may be carried over into future fiscal years, as previous bills are often used as the basis to draft new appropriation bills.

Proposed ESA Listings

The previous year was eventful for ESA listings and related issues. Several high-profile species received protection under the act. Discussion regarding the possible listing of Greater Sage-Grouse, which is blocked from receiving further listing under the ESA by a policy rider in the FY2015 appropriations bill, and northern long-eared bats has continued into the new year. The House Natural Resources Committee released a report in December questioning the consistency and accountability of peer review of ESA listings, which may lead to the introduction of legislation aimed at revising the ESA in 2015.

Feral Horse and Burro Populations

Feral horses and burros remain a critical conservation issue on western lands, especially those managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Early this year, the BLM sought proposals to help manage feral horse and burro populations in western states during the first half of 2014. The BLM removed fewer feral horses during FY2014 due to lack of funding and decreased demand for adopted horses and burros. This prompted Wyoming to sue the federal government for failing to manage feral horse populations at appropriate levels. The state claimed large feral horse populations were causing land degradation and harming wildlife habitat. The impact of feral horse and burro populations on wildlife and their habitat is described in TWS’ Feral Horses and Burros: Impacts of Invasive Species Fact Sheet.

Clean Water Act

In April, the EPA proposed a rule to clarify which water bodies fall under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act after confusion created by several Supreme Court rulings. According to a panel of scientific advisors, the proposed rule is supported by science and should be even more extensive. However, the House passed a bill to block implementation of the rule. TWS submitted comments to the rule, suggesting changes to specific language in order to reflect current scientific knowledge. Comments were accepted through November 14, 2014, and a final rule will be proposed by the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers in April 2015.

Wildfire Funding

2014 concluded without action on a bill introduced in December 2013 and a request for funding by President Obama in July 2014, both of which would address the issue of the U.S. Forest Service needing to funnel funds from other sources to cover the costs of fighting wildfires. Both included language to establish an account for disaster funds to fight wildfires, instead of utilizing funds originally allocated to other uses, like restoration efforts and forest research. Despite bipartisan support for the issue, appropriations for wildfire fighting were left out of spending packages for FY2014 and 2015. Representatives recently reintroduced the bill in early 2015 and are supported by private forest owners, sportsmen, conservationists, and the logging industry.

As 2015 continues, TWS Government Affairs Team will continue to follow and address these major federal wildlife activities and how their development impacts wildlife policy within the US.

Sources: Energy & Environment Daily (September 10, 2014), Energy & Environment Daily (December 11, 2014), Energy & Environment Daily (January 9, 2015), Energy & Environment News PM (December 8, 2014), Greenwire (September 30, 2014), Greenwire (December 12, 2014)