Wildlife Success Stories

A little-known federal grant program for the states is preventing U.S. nongame species from becoming endangered

  • John Carey
  • Conservation
  • Jan 27, 2014
THE FISHER ONCE ROAMED THROUGH FORESTS across the northern United States, feeding on porcupines, hares and other prey. A relative of martens and weasels, fishers “are totally incredible animals,” says Jeffrey Lewis, a biologist for the state of Washington. “They have a lean, mean, teddy bear quality—and are very capable predators.” Nevertheless, they were not crafty enough to escape the fur industry’s insatiable demand for luxurious furs during the early 20th century. With a single pelt fetching more than $500 in the 1930s ($7,000 in today’s dollars), trappers drove the fisher toward extinction in many states. Logging and roadkills were the coup de grace. The last one known in Washington was caught in a trap in 1969.

But now, this iconic forest denizen is prowling Washington’s Olympic Peninsula once again. Since late 2007, Lewis has led a small team that has been transporting fishers from British Columbia, where the animals are still relatively abundant, and releasing them on the peninsula. So far, the biologists have moved 90 animals and are planning reintroductions in the state’s Cascades region. The researchers don’t know exactly how the transplants are faring—the animals are secretive, and their radio transmitters recently died—but evidence from pictures and a few roadkills suggests that the new arrivals are surviving and reproducing. “Things are looking better than they were,” Lewis says.

If the fishers are indeed able to continue their comeback in Washington, the project will be yet another success for a small, little-known federal effort called the State and Tribal Wildlife Grants Program, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). It was created by the U.S. Congress in 2000, with the support of Teaming With Wildlife, a coalition of more than 6,400 state fish and wildlife agencies, biologists, hunters, anglers, birdwatchers and other conservationists put together in the 1990s by the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies.

The grants program was designed to broaden traditional wildlife-management funding, which focuses primarily on animals such as ducks, elk and trout that are valued as game. The program provides resources for the management of the thousands of species that are not considered game, from snails, snakes and small birds to mammals such as the Louisiana black bear that have been too rare to hunt. And while total annual funding for the program has rarely risen above $80 million—spread across 56 states and territories and a number of Native American tribes—the grants “are the lifeblood of our nongame efforts,” says Jonathan McKnight, associate director for habitat conservation at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “They have made a huge difference.”

The grants have helped biologists reintroduce endangered Karner blue butterflies in New Hampshire and endangered plicate rocksnails in Alabama. They’ve funded habitat restorations in Georgia for gopher tortoises, in Arizona for black-tailed prairie dogs (left) and in Nevada for endangered southwestern willow flycatchers. On St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the nesting success of threatened green sea turtles has leapt from zero to 50 percent, thanks to grant-supported efforts to keep predatory mongooses from beaches. And in New Mexico streams, the Zuni bluehead sucker, reduced to only 10 percent of its historic range, is rebounding now that biologists have removed the nonnative sunfish and crayfish that preyed on the slender, colorful fish. Using wildlife grant funds, FWS has worked with six western states, from Montana to Texas, to improve conservation measures for the swift fox and remove it from the federal endangered species candidate list thanks to improved management coordination among state, federal, tribal and private entities.

More Than Wildlife
The federal dollars also have made it possible for state biologists to survey animals believed to be rare, such as North Dakota river otters and Alaska black oystercatchers. Such research sometimes has revealed that many species exist in larger populations than biologists had expected. Monitoring the numbers and health of wildlife species “might seem simple, but unless you have funding, you can’t go and look for them,” explains Kristal Stoner, wildlife diversity program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Now, more than a decade into the state wildlife grants program, “it’s the greatest story never told,” says Mark Humpert, wildlife diversity director at the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies. “It’s achieved a remarkable amount of success for a relatively small amount of money.”

The success is bittersweet, though. For every species that’s benefited from the grants program, scores more face doubtful futures. “There is so much more that we could be doing,” says Eric Gardner, manager of the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife’s Wildlife Diversity Division. The challenge grows as climate change drastically alters landscapes, requiring additional conservation efforts to protect wildlife.

More money would benefit not just wildlife, supporters say. Keeping numerous species and their ecosystems healthy helps fuel the nation’s $730 billion outdoor recreational industry, enriches Americans’ lives and provides everything from better flood control to improved water quality, for example by protecting wetlands. Moreover, the program is aimed at getting jeopardized animals off the federal endangered species list or preventing them from having to be listed at all—enhancing wildlife protection while streamlining it. Under the grant program, each state or territory led its partners in the development of its own wildlife action plan, which serves as a blueprint for identifying species and habitats in trouble and for outlining the actions needed to protect them. The planning process singled out some 12,000 at-risk species nationwide.

Snakes and Plovers
One creature that shows how the grants work on the ground is the Lake Erie water snake, a subspecies that lives mainly on a few prime tourist islands in western Lake Erie. By 1999, the population had dropped to an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 individuals, forcing authorities to list the snake as federally threatened and triggering restrictions on development. Why the decline? People on the islands “had no qualms about saying that they kill the snakes all the time,” recalls Ohio State University biologist Kristin Stanford. Clearing shorelines and building docks and boathouses for summer homes and other development destroyed the rocky shoreline habitat where the snakes breed.

In 2000, then-graduate student Stanford was hired by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, largely with wildlife grant money, to investigate ways to stop the snake decline. She began by outfitting the reptiles with radio transmitters. She discovered that the snakes return to the same spots each year to hibernate, traveling up to a quarter mile inland—often through people’s backyards—to find winter dens. Stanford quickly concluded that the key to recovery was changing people’s behavior. She became an ambassador for the water serpent and a local celebrity, “the island snake lady,” featured on a 2007 episode of the TV show Dirty Jobs, during which host Mike Rowe begged off helping to capture snakes after a few nasty bites. She endlessly answered questions in meetings, on radio shows, at the grocery store: Are the snakes poisonous? No. Will they kill my dog? No.

The state and local land conservancy also helped with an educational campaign and the creation of a conservation easement for the snake, granting tax breaks for habitat-restoration measures such as letting shoreline vegetation grow. The effort “got people to change their attitudes from [the mistaken idea that] ‘this is a water moccasin that we have to kill,’ to ‘this is what helps make our islands unique and special,’” Humpert says.

The benefits for the snake were dramatic. Estimated numbers have climbed to more than 10,000, enabling the creature to be removed in 2011 from the federal threatened list. “I pinch myself sometimes,” Stanford says. “For a biologist, achieving recovery in less than 10 years is a dream come true.”

The grants program also has kept beleaguered species off the federal lists in the first place. A few years ago, Nebraska biologists knew of only two nesting pairs of the mountain plover (right)—a ground-dwelling bird of the short-grass prairie—in the entire state. But when grant money enabled them to survey the species, they discovered hundreds more and learned how to keep populations of the brown-and-white bird growing: Because the plovers prefer to nest in fields left fallow after growing winter wheat, baby birds often met an untimely end at the sharp edge of a plow as farmers prepared for the next planting. State biologists worked with farmers to spot the nests and till around them. “Now the chicks are surviving,” Nebraska’s Stoner says.

Unstable Funding
Teaming With Wildlife, in its original plan, wanted the State and Tribal Wildlife Grants Program to be funded by an excise tax on recreational products like the one used in game management, which raises more than $1 billion yearly from a tax on guns, ammunition, fishing tackle and other equipment. The outdoor-recreation industry balked at the proposal and successfully lobbied Congress to block a tax on tents, field guides and other gear, leaving the nascent program struggling to survive on general appropriations, which are unstable because they depend on congressional whim. As a result, Teaming With Wildlife has to bring coalition members to Washington, D.C., during the annual budget process to press Congress to maintain funding. “Every year, we have to go and battle for it,” says Naomi Edelson, NWF director of state and federal wildlife partnerships, who led the creation of the Teaming with Wildlife coalition when she was at the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies.

State agencies and conservationists have responded to unstable grant-program funding by finding creative ways to supplement and leverage the federal money. Nebraska officials, for example, have obtained funds from ranchers who understand that livestock can benefit from wildlife-habitat-improvement measures such as controlled burns designed to eliminate invasive plants that degrade prairie habitat. Since 2000, New Hampshire has sold $13 million worth of moose license plates, revenue the state nongame wildlife program shares with historic-preservation and parks agencies. To acquire land for habitat protection, Maryland uses some $100 million yearly from a transfer tax on real estate transactions, though it relies on grant money to determine which natural areas are most in need of attention.

In Louisiana, grant-funded projects designed to recover the threatened Louisiana black bear (below) were more successful because of previous boosts, dating to the 1990s, from a Farm Bill conservation effort, the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP). Landowners who wanted to create wetland reserves on their property were given higher priority for WRP dollars if the land offered good bear habitat or could be reforested to provide prime denning areas. Hundreds of thousands of acres of former marginal farmland have now been replanted with trees. “The bears have really made a remarkable comeback—much more so than we could have ever imagined,” says Paul Davidson, executive director of the Black Bear Conservation Coalition. So much so, in fact, that a controversy is brewing about state plans to launch a bear hunt as soon as the animal is taken off the federal threatened list.


Clear-cut success stories like those of the Lake Erie water snake and Louisiana black bear are more the exception than the rule. “Congress would like us to say that we invested $12,000 in this animal and were able to take if off the endangered species list,” Maryland’s McKnight says. “Things are not usually that quick.” Maryland, for instance, is still trying to figure out if “headstarting” the state’s signature diamondback terrapins (collecting eggs or hatchlings and rearing them in captivity for later release) is boosting populations. New Hampshire is restoring floodplain, pitch pine and shrubland habitats to keep the New England cottontail rabbit and golden-winged warbler off the endangered list.

But overall, there’s no question that this modest grants program is making a major difference. “People want to have these wildlife species around and to have places where they can see birds, butterflies and many other creatures,” says NWF’s Edelson. “The grants program is a key measure for ensuring that they have both.” 

NWF in Action: Helping States Protect Wildlife
As part of its efforts to prevent declining wildlife from becoming endangered, NWF actively advocates for reliable conservation funding for state agencies from the federal State and Tribal Wildlife Grants Program. The Federation also assists states with updating their mandated wildlife action plans, which serve as blueprints for conservation action. This includes conducting vulnerability assessments to help wildlife agencies better understand which species and habitats are most impacted by climate change and why. “Our goal is to assist states in taking on-the-ground actions to safeguard wildlife in the wake of climate change,” says Naomi Edelson, NWF director of state and federal wildlife partnerships. To help states reach that goal, NWF is convening work groups composed of experts to provide guidance on ways to prepare for and cope with climate-change damage to wildlife and habitat. For more information on the state grant program and on Teaming With Wildlife, go to www.nwf.org/statewildlifeactionplans.

John Carey is a former National Wildlife senior editor.

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