The Trump Administration has been a challenging place for conservationists to find any glimmers of optimism. Other than a sweeping public lands package in 2019, there has been little or no progress on the environment or wildlife protection. Indeed, there has been considerable cause for alarm.
But a handful of federal conservation programs have permanent and stable funding mechanisms that allow them to operate regardless of who is in the White House. These programs are on auto-pilot. Among them are Federal Duck Stamps and related waterfowl conservation programs.
A “Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp,” costs $25 and income from sales goes into the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund (“MBCF”). There are several funding sources for the MBCF, but two predominate: (1) Duck Stamp sales, and (2) import duties on arms and ammunition. In fiscal year 2017, funds available to the MBCF totaled about $87 million. Duck Stamps and import duty contributions were similar, at about $34-38 million each.
Acquisitions made with the MBCF must be approved by the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission (“MBCC”). Membership of the MBCC is set by law: the Secretary of the Interior, the Secretary of Agriculture, the Administrator of the EPA, two U.S. Senators, and two U.S. Representatives.
By tradition, the congressional members are equally divided between Republicans and Democrats. They are: Senators John Boozman (R-Arkansas) and Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico); and Representatives Rob Wittman, (R-Virginia) and Mike Thompson (D-California).
Thus, Duck Stamp money goes into the MBCF and the MBCC decides how to spend those funds. To date (since 1934), the MBCF has either purchased or obtained conservation easements for approximately 6 million acres of habitat. Those acquisitions include substantial parts of many of the Top 25 NWRs for birding.
In 1989, the MBCC was further tasked with approving projects under the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA), which provides federal funds for partnerships to protect and manage wetlands and other habitats for migratory birds and to implement the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. To date, NAWCA has funded over 2,800 projects totaling $1.6 billion and 6,000+ partners have contributed another $3.3 billion in matching funds.
The MBCC meets twice a year, generally in April and September. Since the inauguration of Donald Trump on January 20, 2017, the MBCC has met five times and its activities are summarized below, with an emphasis on direct impacts on popular birding locations:
The MBCC convened on April 26, 2017, and approved $17.8 million in NAWCA grants to conserve more than 108,000 acres in 14 states. It also approved $7.8 million from the MBCF to conserve 2,629 acres in four NWRs, including Blackwater NWR in Maryland.
On September 7, 2017, the MBCC approved $21.9 million in NAWCA grants to conserve 92,000 acres in 16 states. It also approved $5.4 million of MBCF funds to conserve 2,259 acres in six NWRs, including Edwin B. Forsythe NWR in New Jersey, San Bernard NWR in Texas, and Blackwater NWR in Maryland.
The MCCC convened on April 25, 2018, and approved $24.6 million in NAWCA grants to conserve more than 176,000 acres in 18 states. It also approved $9.8 million from the MBCF to conserve 2,259 acres in two NWRs, including Turnbull NWR in Washington.
On September 5, 2018, the MBCC approved $23.8 million in NAWCA grants to conserve almost 135,000 acres of habitat for waterfowl and other birds in 17 states. It also approved $13.1 million in MBCF funds to conserve 5,802 acres in six NWRs, including San Bernard NWR in Texas and Blackwater NWR in Maryland.
The MBCC convened on June 19, 2019, and approved $29.4 million in NAWCA grants to conserve more than 205,000 acres in 22 states. It also approved $15.1 million from the MBCF to conserve 4,886 acres in five NWRs, including Laguna Atascosa NWR and San Bernard NWR in Texas, San Pablo Bay NWR in California, Turnbull NWR in Washington, and Blackwater NWR in Maryland.
Although the size of some individual projects approved by MBCC each year are dwarfed by major legislation such as the public lands bill, MBCC dutifully approves projects twice a year, each and every year. For example, at each of the above meetings, the MBCC approved millions of dollars of MBCF funds to acquire more than 2,000 acres for NWRs. And each meeting approved NAWCA grants to protect at least 90,000 acres. (For perspective, Santa Ana NWR in Texas is 2,087.50 acres, though it is a relatively small refuge.)
And these acquisitions are not just any land: MBCC projects habitat that has been strategically-selected to benefit migratory birds, typically along the major North American flyways. Once the land is protected, it is habitat that is permanently saved for the benefit of birds and other wildlife.
Even during the Trump Administration, parts of the federal government are still working to preserve and protect habitat for birds, though those efforts may only slightly mitigate the lack of progress (or regression) on other environmental issues.
Photos: Green Jay at Laguna Astascosa NWR by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters; Geese at Edwin B. Forsythe NWR with Atlantic City in background by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region.