As a lifelong fifth-generation Montanan fisherman and hunter, and immediate past chairman of Montana’s Fish Wildlife and Parks Commission, I can assure you that the wildlife in Montana and our nation is going through an unprecedented crisis. Nationally, a third of animal species are at increased risk of extinction. Here in Montana, our wildlife agency has identified 47 species in urgent need of conservation. I have seen firsthand the decline of frogs, terns and grouse in the central and eastern parts of Montana.
The main reason for this population decline is habitat loss. This loss of habitat is no secret to any of us who have been to our public lands and waters recently. Droughts, wildfires, impacts of climate change and human development have degraded habitats and disrupted wildlife migration. The National Wildlife Federation recently released a report showing that game species have lost 6.5 million acres of vital habitat over the past two decades. This report fully reflects what I have learned about habitat loss in my 12 years as a commissioner. This loss of habitat is seriously affecting all of us who enjoy Montana’s legendary natural heritage.
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Fortunately, the US House of Representatives just passed a bipartisan bill that will give state and tribal wildlife organizations the funding they need to restore wildlife habitat so wildlife can survive and thrive. It’s called the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, and it will give $1.3 billion to state fishing and wildlife agencies to implement congressional-mandated wildlife action plans. These plans use the best available science, along with public input, to ensure our wildlife recovers and survives.
There are other common sense economic reasons to support this legislation. Improving wildlife populations before a species becomes endangered and has to endure an expensive endangered species list saves us all money. Reversing declining pollinator populations could provide invaluable benefits to American farmers. Restoring grassland and forest habitats can help secure drinking water supplies and make communities more resilient to drought. And helping to recover fish, big game and other species can increase opportunities for hunting, fishing, birdwatching and other outdoor recreation. Montana’s outdoor recreation economy generates $7 billion in consumer spending and nearly $300 million in state and local taxes.
Aside from the major economic benefits to restoring our wildlife populations, it’s the right choice and the right time to do it. All Americans long for a functional and cooperative Congress, especially on issues that unite us. As Montanas, we are defined by our sweeping landscapes, blue ribbon trout streams, our iconic wildlife and our western way of life. All of that is jeopardized when our wildlife is endangered.
Wildlife conservation unites us all, from all walks of life and all political backgrounds. The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act is the best chance we have of winning the race against the wildlife crisis. The US Senate is expected to pass this legislation later this summer. It is my hope that Senator Steve Daines will join Senator Jon Tester and 16 Republican colleagues in support of this landmark legislation. The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act will protect Montana’s flora and fauna, restore our land and waters, and protect our sporting traditions so they can survive and thrive for generations to come.
Shane Colton is a Billings attorney, an avid outdoorsman and immediate past chairman of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission.