House Bill is ‘Assault on Wildlife’

Printer-friendly version

Defenders fights to keep conservation funding in Farm Bill

Pintail Ducks, © Tony Bynum / tonybynum.com

© Tony Bynum / tonybynum.com

The prairie pothole region of the Great Plains is the most important and most embattled waterfowl habitat in North America, and it’s long had an ally in the United States Farm Bill—until recently.

The “potholes” of this grassland, stretching from Minnesota and Iowa through the Dakotas into Canada, are innumerable lakes and ponds formed by retreating glaciers. This corridor provides habitat for more than half of North America’s migratory waterfowl, including pintails, mallards, gadwalls, blue-winged teals, shovelers, canvasbacks and redheads. It’s also an important stopover for whooping cranes, lesser scaups, wigeons, green-winged teals and snow geese.

But agriculture has drained half of the region’s historical habitat, with some areas seeing 90 percent reductions. However, past Farm Bills have turned many farmers into wildlife conservationists by providing financial incentives to keep marginal lands unplowed and unplanted—protecting habitat for wildlife in the process.

These conservation incentive programs comprise a fraction of the bill’s total cost, but they frequently come up on the chopping block.

The latest version of the bill, passed by the House of Representatives in July, removes conservation subsidies while doling out almost a trillion dollars over five years to a diverse array of nutrition and agricultural programs, including lavish assistance and crop insurance contributions that benefit the wealthiest farmers. Taxpayers would pay the lion’s share of crop insurance premiums, which would encourage risky farming in otherwise ideal wildlife habitat.

The House bill also contains numerous amendments, or riders, to gut basic environmental protections and override long-established protections for clean water, healthy ecosystems and imperiled wildlife. For example, one rider would seriously undermine the Clean Water Act by allowing the direct application of pesticides to waterways without requiring federal permits. “More than a thousand lakes and streams are already too polluted with pesticides to meet clean water standards,” says Tim Male, Defender’s vice president of conservation policy. “This House bill is perhaps the most wide-ranging assault on the environment produced by this Congress.”

Additional riders would remove pesticides from restrictions under the Endangered Species Act, expand the powers of the Forest Service to sidestep safeguards typically provided by federal environmental laws and allow clear-cutting and road-building in nebulously defined “critical areas.”

An additional rider would exempt the Forest Service from monitoring stormwater runoff generated by forestry-related activities. If roads built to access and log remote “critical areas” pollute waterways, neither states nor the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would be able to challenge them in court. “This would be another serious blow to the Clean Water Act with serious ramifications for the health of native fish like salmon, steelhead and trout,” says Male.

Defenders supports the Senate bill passed in June and is working to ensure its final passage by all of Congress. In contrast to the House’s conservation-crippling bill, the Senate version includes smaller cuts totaling $3.5 billion and subsidies that retain requirements for farmers to adopt environmentally sound practices—some of which have been in place on thousands of farms for two or three decades. The Senate bill also comes with much less extreme expansions of the Forest Service’s emergency logging rights.       

—Matthew Hardcastle

More Articles from Fall 2013

Having colorful little fish darting around a home aquarium appears harmless enough, but the hobby can also have hidden environmental costs upstream.
The waterways of the United States and other industrialized nations are awash with the miracles of modern living.
Habitat destruction from plowing the land for crops, exotic diseases and widespread poisoning of its prairie dog prey almost caused North America’s only native ferret species to disappear for good.
America’s rich wildlife heritage exists today, thanks—in no small way—to the ESA.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a truly landmark law that solidified our commitment to conserve our nation’s wildlife.
Bison gained rights to some of their old stomping grounds on the Great Plains when the Montana Supreme Court in June reversed a lower court ruling that had prevented their return.
Desert Tortoise, Photo: Justin Ennis / Flickr user Averain
Renewable power comes with many benefits. 
The catch is finding ways to make it “smart-from-the-start” when it involves wildlife habitat.
Despite their outsized place in pop culture, great white sharks remain poorly understood.
It wasn’t all that long ago that Mexican gray wolves roamed freely, their howls echoing through the southwest.