WASHINGTON, March 9, 2015 – A diverse group of conservationists and sportsmen came to Washington, D.C., last week to sell a $1.3 billion funding plan they say will help states bolster wildlife populations and avoid expensive Endangered Species Act listings.

The group – the Blue Ribbon Panel on Sustaining America’s Diverse Fish and Wildlife Resources – was organized by the Association for State Fish and Wildlife Agencies and is led by John Morris, the founder of Bass Pro Shops, and Dave Freudenthal, a former governor of Wyoming. It includes 26 representatives from sportsmen’s groups, businesses, conservation organizations and state wildlife agencies.

The panel argues that while hunters and anglers have generated a good deal of monetary support for game species conservation in the past, they haven’t been able to fund management of non-game species, or species that require more nuanced management, like those protected (or in need of protection) by the Endangered Species Act.

“When the Endangered Species Act was passed, it was always supposed to be a tool of last resort, but because of the lack of proactive, collaborative efforts at the state level, it’s become the first tool – folks lead with the lawsuit,” panel member Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, told Agri-Pulse.

The resulting litigation has created a federally led system for deploying conservation that “isn’t working” to protect species, O’Mara continued. “There are a lot of folks who want to see a whole lot more collaborative conservation and a lot fewer lawsuits.”

Under the panel’s recommendation, state wildlife agencies would be allocated portions of a $1.3 billion annual appropriation based on their area and population through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife Conservation and Restoration Program. That initiative has required all 50 states and five U.S. territories to develop State Wildlife Action Plans designed to conserve wildlife species in the greatest need.

The $1.3 billion would be sourced from an existing federal revenue stream – onshore and offshore energy and mineral resources development fees – but wouldn’t take away from existing programs that rely on the same source, like the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The group suggested their proposal would end up diverting about 10 percent of the drilling fees destined for deficit reduction to fund state conservation programs.

The panel members say the plan is politically practical, with bipartisan backing and the potential to save money in the long run. It also gives more discretion to the states, and while legislation will be needed to be passed in order to reallocate funding, a new excise tax or program wouldn’t be required.

“This is a state-based solution, this isn’t another federal, one-size-fits-all solution. This is, put money on the ground for governors and government officials who know the local ranchers, who know the local foresters, and let them figure it out, (instead of) letting those decisions be dictated from Washington,” O’Mara said.

He suggested the federalist angle should appeal to GOP lawmakers – namely House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who is a staunch advocate for state rights and an opponent of ESA listings – and while he wasn’t naming names, O’Mara said there were several lawmakers who have indicated their support.

Other conservation groups not represented on the panel have also come out in support, but organizations that advocate for ESA protections, and that are sometimes suspicious of fish and wildlife agency science and policies, don’t think the plan is ideal.

Erik Molvar, the Sagebrush Sea Campaign director for WildEarth Guardians, told Agri-Pulse that proactively protecting threatened wildlife is important, but “federal energy and mineral development is a major cause of disappearing wildlife on our public lands.” He said his group would “rather see the energy industry rein in its high-impact activities, rather than continuing to destroy wildlife habitat and put(ting) money aside that can’t fundamentally reverse the continuing damage.”

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Brett Hartl, endangered species policy director for the Center for Biological Diversity, agreed that the proposed funding strategy would set up a strange dynamic with the energy industry.

“The better answer is to agree that this (conservation) is worth investing in” year after year with appropriations from the general budget, he told Agri-Pulse. That way, funding for state wildlife agencies isn’t tied to the oil and gas market, or subject to the same sort of political back-and-forth that has consistently led to underfunding the Land and Water Conservation Fund for years, he said.