Shane Colton: Ensuring that Montana wildlife survive and thrive for future generations | Columnists

SHANE COLTON

As a lifelong angler and hunter, fifth generation Montanan, and immediate past chairman of Montana’s Fish Wildlife and Parks Commission I can assure you that the wildlife in Montana and our nation are facing an unprecedented crisis. Nationwide, one-third of wildlife species are at heightened risk of extinction. Here in Montana, our wildlife agency has identified 47 species at critical need of conservation. I’ve seen first-hand the decline of frogs, terns, and sharp-tailed grouse in the central and eastern parts of Montana.

The primary reason for these population declines is habitat loss. This loss of habitat is no secret to any of us who have been out on our public lands and waters recently. Drought, wildfires, impacts from climate change, and human development have degraded habitat and disrupted wildlife migration. The National Wildlife Federation recently released a report that showed that game species lost 6.5 million acres of vital habitat over the last two decades. This report squares completely with what I learned about loss of habitat in my 12 years serving as a commissioner. This habitat loss has serious implications for all of us who enjoy Montana’s storied wildlife heritage.

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Fortunately, the US House of Representatives just approved a bipartisan bill that would give state and Tribal wildlife agencies the funding they need to restore wildlife habitat so that wildlife can survive and thrive. It’s called the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act and it will give $1.3 billion to state fish and wildlife agencies to implement congressionally-mandated wildlife action plans. These plans use the best available science, along with public input, to ensure that our wildlife recover and survive.

There are other common-sense economic reasons to support this legislation. Improving wildlife populations before a species becomes endangered and has to undergo a costly Endangered Species Act listing saves us all money. Reversing declining populations of pollinators can provide priceless benefits to America’s farmers. Restoring grassland and forest habitat can help safeguard drinking water supplies and make communities more resilient to drought. And helping fish, big game, and other wildlife species recover can expand opportunities for hunting, fishing, bird watching, and other outdoor recreation. Montana’s outdoor recreation economy generates $7 billion in consumer spending and almost $300 million in state and local taxes.

Apart from the profound economic benefits to recovering our wildlife populations, it’s the right thing to do, and the right time to do it. All Americans are yearning for a functional and cooperative Congress, especially on issues that unite us. As Montanans, we are defined by our sweeping landscapes, blue-ribbon trout streams, our iconic wildlife and our Western way of life. All of that is at risk when our wildlife is at risk.

Conservation of wildlife units all of us, from all walks of life and all political backgrounds. The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act is the best chance we have to win the race against the wildlife crisis. The US Senate is expected to take up this legislation later this summer. I hope that Sen. Steve Daines will join Sen. Jon Tester and 16 Republican colleagues in supporting this historic legislation. The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act will conserve Montana’s wildlife, restore our lands and waters, and safeguard our sporting traditions so they can survive and thrive for future generations.

Shane Colton is a Billings attorney, an avid outdoorsman and immediate past chair of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission.

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