AP MOOSE HERD NEW HAMPSHIRE A FILE USA NH
Moose traipse through a forest in Franconia, N.H.
Jim Cole, AP

CORRECTIONS & CLARIFICATIONS: An earlier version of this story misidentified the home state of the pygmy rabbit and wolverine and misnamed the yellow-billed cuckoo.

The Texas horned lizard. Moose in New Hampshire. The pygmy rabbit of Idaho.

These and thousands of other wildlife species are slinking, trotting and hopping toward endangerment or extinction. A new bill making its way through Congress could give them a reprieve by using an innovative source of revenue to save their habitats: oil and gas royalties.

In an initiative that has garnered backing from  energy giant Shell Oil, conservationists and hunting and fishing retailers, the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act has also gained support from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike, a rarity these days in Washington.

“This is Teddy Roosevelt-style conservation,” said Virgil Moore, president of the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies and director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. “This is the biggest game changer that’s out there.”

There are currently 716 species of animals listed on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife endangered species list, from the Atlantic sturgeon to the yellow-billed cuckoo. State wildlife officials also count more than 12,000 species of animals and plants at risk of becoming threatened or endangered without more proactive conservation measures, according to the Alliance for America's Fish & Wildlife, a group created to lobby for more funding. 

The bill's goal would be to keep animals off the endangered list by redirecting $1.3 billion a year in oil, gas and minerals royalties to a wildlife conservation fund that would be  disbursed to all 50 states. Those royalties usually go into the federal treasury.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., said he was intrigued by an initiative backed by oil companies, hunters and conservationists. The bill is gaining similar support in Congress. Fortenberry is sponsoring the bill, which had an initial subcommittee hearing last month, along with Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich.

Some lawmakers have said they would like to see the oil and gas royalties given to other projects, such as coastal restoration, but overall the bill is gaining support on both sides of the aisle, Fortenberry said. 

“It transcends all the messiness that’s here right now,” he said. “This has real implications for real change.”

For Texas, the act would bring an annual infusion of $63 million to help save species such as the Guadalupe bass, Texas horned lizard and whooping crane, whose numbers have rapidly diminished over the past few decades, said Janice Bezanson, a longtime conservationist and member of the Texas Alliance for America’s Fish and Wildlife, a conservation group.

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A pair of whooping cranes walk through shallow marsh water near the Aransas Wildlife Refuge in Fulton, Texas.
Pat Sullivan, AP

Instead of asking the federal government to enforce costly regulations protecting different species, the bill shifts the responsibility to the states to proactively draw up protection plans and keep species off endangered lists, she said.

“It’s good for wildlife, it’s good for the taxpayer and it’s good for business and oil and gas,” Bezanson said. “It just makes sense.”

More than 100 million Americans each year participate in outdoor activities involving wildlife, such as hunting, fishing and photography, said Collin O’Mara, president and chief executive of the National Wildlife Federation.

But forces such as overdevelopment, human population growth and climate change have rapidly sped up the pace at which species are threatened by extinction, he said.

One of the clearest and most graphic examples is in the plight of the moose in Maine and New Hampshire, O’Mara said. Clusters of winter ticks are attaching themselves to moose cows and calves and draining them  of blood, killing off about 70% of the moose calves in those states. With shorter winters, the ticks live longer and do more damage.

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Brook trout
New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife

The influx of more conservation money would allow state wildlife officials to further study the problem and hatch a plan to save the moose from their blood-sucking hitchhikers, O’Mara said. Current funding levels are not enough to reverse the impact climate change and other factors are having on wildlife, he said.

“We could potentially see a massive decline of wildlife and extinction than we’ve ever seen in this country if we don’t get ahead of this problem,” O’Mara said.

For decades, species important to hunters and fishermen, such as white-tailed deer, enjoyed robust protection while non-game species faced greater and greater threats, said Moore, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies director.

The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would ensure all species — from the freshwater mussel to the Idaho wolverine — continue to thrive, he said.

“This is one of the most important conservation actions we can take for the rest of the century,” Moore said.

Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.