Over the past few decades, there has been a steady stream of news about the crisis facing fish and wildlife across the world.
The newspaper Science in 2019 reported the loss of nearly three billion birds in North America since 1970, and more than 1,600 plant and animal species in the United States now require federal protection for their survival. Worldwide, extinctions are accelerating. Extensive study has warned that up to a million species worldwide could go extinct, many within decades.
For many tribal nations and indigenous peoples, these losses are more than a statistic. They pose a fundamental threat to the way Indigenous peoples practice their religions and pass on their cultures, foods and traditions to the next generation. As sovereign entities responsible for the management of tens of millions of acres, tribal nations not only manage wildlife and their habitats for biological and scientific purposes. We also manage them for our own well-being and livelihoods.
Native American tribes have nonetheless been systematically excluded from major sources of federal conservation funding. Now, however, legislation that has passed the House and is currently in the Senate would make $97.5 million available to the nation’s 574 recognized tribes, their first-ever federal funding dedicated to wildlife conservation.
This would be a welcome and important change. State fish and wildlife agencies rely heavily on taxes on hunting and fishing gear. But the tribes weren’t included in the decades-old laws that make that funding available and aren’t eligible to receive it, even though we pay those taxes like everyone else and tribal lands are included in the formula that calculates how much money a state receives from the federal government.
Another program, the State and Tribal Wildlife Grant Programs, guarantees money to states but forces tribes to compete for grants capped at $200,000, an amount that stifles our ability to build the necessary personnel and resources or to undertake a long-term restoration. projects. In the first two decades of these programs, which began for states in 2000 and for tribes in 2001, states and territories received more than $1 billion; the tribes received approximately $94 million. And the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which supports conservation and recreation programs with revenue from federal oil and gas leases on the outer continental shelf, treats tribes largely as affiliates of states, not sovereign nations. that they are, requiring tribes to apply to their states for grants.
The end result is that even though tribal nations have deep cultural knowledge of how to manage wildlife on our lands, we don’t have the money we need to do so.
The 18 million acre Navajo Nation, where I live, spans three southwestern states and is the largest reservation in the United States. It’s about the size of West Virginia. But in fiscal year 2019, by my calculations, West Virginia received more than 10 times more funding from all sources for wildlife management, on a per-acre basis, than the Navajo Nation — more than $2 per acre, compared to just 20 cents.
What can you do to manage wildlife on just four cents per acre? More than you think. Even with such scarce funding, the Navajo Nation Fish and Wildlife Department, which I lead, has had many successes. We have increased our desert sheep population more than tenfold over the past 20 years. Our efforts to recover razorback suckers in the San Juan River system are likely part of the reason the United States is currently in the process of downgrading the fish to endangered status.
We monitor and protect rare and sensitive plant and animal populations through the Navajo Endangered Species List, and assess whether we can successfully reintroduce the critically endangered Black-footed Ferret to our lands, where it has been missing since the 1940s.
The Navajo are deeply proud of what we have accomplished, but we are by no means the only tribe doing innovative conservation work with limited resources.
In northern California, the Hoopa Valley Tribe Wildlife Division maintains one of the most comprehensive datasets in the United States on anglers, a relative of mink, otters, and badgers, and the Tribe methodology is replicated elsewhere. In New York, the Seneca Indian Nation raises masters of Eastern Hell, the nation’s largest salamander, and releases them into the Allegheny River. In South Dakota, the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe is one of many tribes nationwide that have reintroduced black-footed ferrets to their lands. These are just a few of many similar examples nationwide.
The legislation before the Senate, if passed, would mark the first time Congress has sought to leverage our thousands of years of knowledge and our vested interest in solving the greatest challenges facing our fish and wildlife.
The House passed the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act in June by a vote of 231 to 190, and it has 42 co-sponsors in the Senate, including 16 Republicans. In addition to providing dedicated funding to tribes, the bill would send $1.3 billion a year to states and territories to prevent extinctions and help healthy species thrive.
The bill is stalled as lawmakers seek a way to pay it. Reportedly, one of the latest ideas is to raise funds by closing a tax loophole on cryptocurrency assets.
The extent of Indian Country is enormous: the lands under the control of American Indians or Alaska Natives total more than 100 million acres. Passage of the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would be an important step in addressing the disparity resulting from more than a century of inequitable funding of Indigenous communities for wildlife conservation and in charting a new course of engagement. with indigenous peoples.
Because this bill was drafted with the help of tribal fish and wildlife managers, it respects the nation-to-nation relationship between the tribes and the federal government and will in fact meet the needs of Indian Country and its wildlife. .
The crisis facing thousands of species of fish, wildlife and plants cannot be solved without investing in the work already underway on the Navajo Nation and other tribal lands and waters. The Senate should seize the moment before it retires for the holidays and pass what would be a historic victory for Indigenous communities and for wildlife.
Gloria Tom is director of the Navajo Nation Fish and Wildlife Department and a member of the National Wildlife Federation Board of Directors.
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