A male lesser prairie-chicken has feathers that stick up like horns and orange air sacks on the sides of its throat. Both are used to attract mates. (Photo by Jonathan Reitz, Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Colorado residents in unprecedented numbers have turned to nature for rejuvenation and recreation. Visitation to our state and national parks and other public lands boomed in 2020 — and shows no sign of letting up.

This has given more people than ever a firsthand look at our state’s remarkable ecological diversity and the many places Colorado’s wildlife call home — from the Eastern Plains to the 14er peaks to the rugged southwestern canyons. 

Robin Knox and Collin O’Mara

But what they may not have noticed is the wildlife and habitat crisis quietly unfolding all around us. 

Scientists estimate that roughly one-third of America’s wildlife species are at an elevated risk of extinction. Here in Colorado, Parks and Wildlife has identified more than 150 wildlife species in urgent need of conservation action in the State Wildlife Action Plan

The wildlife at risk are found in every habitat and among all major groups of wildlife. They include sage grouse, golden eagles, greater sandhill cranes and cutthroat trout as well as dozens of lesser-known species like yellow mud turtles and boreal toads.

Introduced in Congress on Earth Day, the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act is a bold, bipartisan bill that dedicates nearly $1.4 billion to state- and tribal-led conservation efforts nationwide. 

If passed, the bill will give Colorado Parks and Wildlife about $26 million annually to help the nearly 150 at-risk species by restoring habitats — such as those damaged by the ongoing drought, reintroducing native wildlife like wolves, and addressing emerging diseases like the respiratory problems affecting bighorn sheep.

The bill will also provide consistent, reliable funding for the very first time to wildlife conservation efforts led by Colorado’s tribes — such as the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes’ efforts to conserve native roundtail chubs.

The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act also provides additional funding for federally listed endangered species, like lynx, grizzly bears, and black-footed ferrets. 

But the main thrust of the bill is intended to prevent wildlife from needing the Endangered Species Act’s federal protections in the first place. This bill creates a way for states and tribes to help at-risk wildlife with collaborative, locally-led measures — and we know that this type of proactive wildlife restoration can pay off.

Just five years ago, Colorado’s lesser prairie-chickens were on the brink of disappearing from the state. Funding from a smaller program called State and Wildlife Tribal Grants allowed Colorado Parks and Wildlife to re-introduce lesser prairie-chickens to the sand sagebrush prairies in the southeastern corner of the state, centered on the Comanche and Cimarron National Grasslands. 

Today, that effort has resulted in 20 active leks, a sign that lesser prairie-chickens are now reestablishing themselves on the Colorado prairie. Cooperation with private landowners was key to the success of this program.

However, lesser prairie-chickens are still in deep trouble, with populations having declined by 90%. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just announced that lesser prairie-chickens in Colorado and Kansas should be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. (A population of birds further south will be listed as endangered). 

In its release, the FWS specifically highlighted that collaborative, voluntary measures that would be funded would be instrumental in helping the lesser prairie-chicken recover. Colorado’s State Wildlife Action Plan lists the lesser prairie chicken as a species of greatest conservation need that would benefit substantially with passage of Recovering America’s Wildlife Act.

The act would result in on-the-ground projects creating good jobs for Coloradans today, while protecting our state’s wildlife heritage for tomorrow. 

This congressional session, we hope even more members of Colorado’s House representatives from both sides of the aisle as well as Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper will champion this groundbreaking bill and help it become the law of the land.

Robin Knox is the president and board chair of the Colorado Wildlife Federation. Collin O’Mara is the president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.

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Special to The Colorado Sun

Special to The Colorado Sun