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Congressional Infrastructure Package Creates Many Benefits for Wildlife

Congressional Infrastructure Package Creates Many Benefits for Wildlife

A wildlife crossing over the Trans Canada Highway.

A month after the signing of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the benefits of the legislative package are becoming more clear

WASHINGTON, D.C. — After holding onto the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the House of Representatives finally passed the bipartisan package Nov. 5 by a vote of 228-206, sending the bill to President Joe Biden’s desk. He then signed it into law 10 days later. 

While a month has passed since the passage of the $1.2 trillion package, the excitement in the conservation arena is still high as the legislation will have major, positive impacts on wildlife. Those benefits include dedicated funding for wildlife crossings, mitigating the effects of climate change, trail and road remediation and reclamation, and more. It may also mark the first, comprehensive bill passed that aligns with the Biden Administration’s 30 by 30 plan, though many more single bills and packages are still going through Congress. 

David Willms didn’t want to say that it was the first step in the 30 by 30 plan—“That’s something the administration has to answer,” he said—but he did note that it’s a “downpayment.” 

“This is providing significant resources to both private and public lands, coastal residences, watersheds, forests and grasslands, and sagebrush,” he said. “It’s a pretty across-the-board investment. You have to see how that money is spent, so the next step is working with the various agencies that are tasked with implementing the provisions and making sure these resources are deployed appropriately, but I think you’ll be able to make the argument that a lot of these investments will contribute, in the end, to the 30 by 30 objectives.”

Willms is the Senior Director of Western Wildlife for the National Wildlife Federation and currently resides in Wyoming, a state that understands the benefits of some of the conservation provisions in the infrastructure bill. Wyoming was one of the first states to implement wildlife crossings, benefiting wildlife such as pronghorns; according to an article by Pew Trusts, one project at Trappers Point “marked the beginning of a growing trend;” one that now has dedicated federal funding for the first time sporting a price tag of $350 million. 

But why is this important, and why was it put into a common Congressional spending package? 

The benefits of wildlife crossings

Wildlife crossings are beneficial to more than just western residents and wildlife. The aforementioned Pew Trust article notes that drivers around the country hit between 1 and 2 million animals annually. As a result, most of the animals die, 200 people are killed, and 30,000 are injured. Most of all, these collisions cost around $8 billion per year. 

The article continues, noting that three years after the Trappers Point project was done—an $11 million project that included two overpasses, six underpasses, and 12 miles of fencing—Wyoming saw an 80 percent reduction in collisions. It also states that mule deer activity at the site increased by over 60 percent and pronghorns by more than 300 percent. Since then, other western states have followed suit with similar results. 

A wildlife Crossing over the Trans Canada Highway.
A view of a wildlife crossing near Banff National Park in Canada. The U.S. Congress recently passed the bipartisan infrastructure package which designated $350 million for the construction of wildlife crossings across the country.

But while the success was paramount at that one location, according to data provided by State Farm Insurance, Wyoming is still ranked No. 8 in the country for risk of vehicle-animal collisions. Further, its neighbors South Dakota (No. 3) and Nebraska (No. 23) are listed as high-risk, while other neighboring states like Utah (No. 39) and Idaho (No. 26) are considered medium-risk, and Colorado (No. 41) is marked as low-risk. Interestingly, many eastern states removed from the wildlife crossing trend are considered high-risk. West Virginia ranks No. 1 with a 1-in-37 chance of hitting an animal, Pennsylvania is No. 5, and Maine, Ohio, South Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, and Georgia are all ranked in the top 25. 

So, while success can be measured through data provided at sites like Trappers Point, until more comprehensive funding is available and projects are completed, collisions will remain an issue. That’s why, with the passage of the infrastructure bill, Willms noted the final piece of the equation is in place.

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“State departments of transportation and fish and game agencies, in many cases, have been working together for the past several years to identify high collision vehicle-wildlife impact areas, prioritize hotspots, and create a list of priorities,” Willms said. “States have been working on this for a number of years. A lot of the research—the collar data, studies on animal movement and migration—has helped identify some of these places as well. We have a lot of data and work that’s been done, and one of the big missing pieces is funding, so this infrastructure bill helps move the needle on that aspect.”

The other important note about wildlife crossings is that they reconnect fragmented habitats and interrupted migration corridors. Further, this funding will support other legislation such as the Build Back Better Act, currently sitting in the Senate and awaiting additional support. 

Other funding sources provided by the infrastructure package

Though wildlife crossings are getting the most attention from the passage of this bill, there are many more sources of funding that have been created. 

According to the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s breakdown of the bill, the largest appropriation created for conservation is $14.65 billion for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) program. The CWSRF, under the direction of the Environmental Protection Agency, provides “low-cost financing” for water quality infrastructure projects. While a significant portion of this money will likely go toward communities for projects that deal with wastewater, landfill, and stormwater infrastructure, the CWSRF also provides funding for habitat protection and restoration through easements and estuary protection and restoration. 

It should also be noted that eligible stormwater infrastructure projects include work involving wetlands, riparian, and shoreline creation, protection, and restoration—projects the EPA considers green infrastructure solutions. 

Biologist Karl Malcolm sitting in cattails on a duck hunt.
Biologist Karl Malcolm sits in cattails during a duck hunt.

Other widescale funding, according to the TRCP, is $1.4 billion for natural infrastructure solutions and $250 million for the Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation program. Natural infrastructure solutions is an umbrella term, which can seem broad, but Willms noted that funds should go toward projects aimed at the urban-wild interface, implementing prescribed fire plans and other wildfire mitigation, post-fire restoration, funding the Replant Act should it be signed into law, mitigating the spread of invasive species like cheatgrass in the sagebrush ecosystem, and improving water resource availability. The money for the Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation program, however, is a major investment as it will help the U.S. Forest Service decommission old roads, repair and maintain current active roads and trails for hunters, anglers, and other users, and remove barriers for fish passage. The USFS also notes that the program emphasizes work in areas where roads may be causing water quality issues. Additionally, Willms highlighted another important piece of the Forest Service’s work: reclaiming illegal roads that disturb wildlife and harm the environment. 

“There are a lot of illegal roads out there,” he said. “There are a lot of roads that have been created for one reason or another, and this will help decommission existing roads that have gone through the appropriate process and then deal with a lot of these illegal roads for off-road use. That has multiple benefits for wildlife, including bird species. It will improve habitat security and quality for a lot of those species, and will create better opportunities for hunters and anglers.” 

Other funding sources include $400 million for WaterSMART grants (with $100 million set aside for projects concerning natural infrastructure solutions Willms nodded to and more); $300 million for the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plans; $3.2 billion for modernizing agriculture infrastructure; $50 million for Endangered Species recovery of native fish; $4.7 million for plugging and reclaiming orphaned oil and gas wells; and the reauthorization of the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund. 

A win for conservation and natural infrastructure 

Overall, this legislation is, for those in the conservation arena, the first big legislative win.

“We’ve never seen anything like this in an infrastructure bill,” Willms said. “Infrastructure in the past has always meant concrete—roads, bridges, water projects—so having components that recognize the contributions of our natural environment to our overall infrastructure and needs of the country, that’s pretty unprecedented. 

“It’s a big deal and there’s a significant investment in those things in this bill. There’s $4.7 billion invested to plug and reclaim hundreds of thousands of orphaned wells around the country. Some of these wells have been out there leaking for 130 years and, having that investment, it’s creating jobs but it’s also improving water and air quality and reclaiming these lands, and that’s going to benefit everybody as well as wildlife.” 

And, although it’s the first bill passed and signed that has focused on wildlife and habitat, there is still a suite of bills sitting in Congress that will further benefit conservation as well as hunters and anglers. Willms credits the win to a changing mindset around these topics in the American constituency, and also believes that bipartisanship, as it pertains to said topics, is taking hold.

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“What we’ve seen in the last few years, and saw it with the Great American Outdoors Act … one of the reasons the Great American Outdoors Act passed is because voters in critical states in that election year were voting on conservation issues,” Willms said. “These issues became important to voters en masse, so they became important issues to the senator. I think the fact that we’ve seen these investments in a bipartisan infrastructure bill—natural infrastructure, wildlife, water, air—that’s continuing that trend of recognizing the electorate wants to see these investments. 

“The thing that I love so much about this infrastructure bill was that it was bipartisan; the Great American Outdoors Act was bipartisan. You’re seeing a lot of bipartisan support generating for Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. The key to this is bipartisanship, and that’s what we’re seeing.” 

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