Wildlife professionals throughout the United States have long struggled with a problem that will seem familiar to almost everyone-the desire to do what needs to be done and the money to accomplish the task. In a bye-gone era, the passenger pigeon, which once filled the sky with untold millions of birds, disappeared from America because few people of that generation understood the importance of one plump-and tasty-bird. More recently, bald eagles, peregrine falcons and American alligators came perilously close to extinction, but public attitudes had changed since the days of the passenger pigeon and enough people-particularly those in positions of power-did care.
Today, Tennessee is one of the most biodiverse states in the nation. Currently there are more than 325 species of fish, 89 mammals, 61 reptiles, 70 amphibians, and 340+ birds known to inhabit or migrate through Tennessee. The number of invertebrate species, many of which are endemic to Tennessee, is equally impressive with 256 land snails, 99 aquatic snails, 120+ mussels, 77 crayfish, and a multitude of insects. There are also more than 2,300 varieties of plants.
Conserving this assemblage of biodiversity in the wake of economic growth and ever-changing landscapes requires funding at the state and federal level. Traditionally, conservation funding has been raised through hunting fees and excise taxes associated with game species. Although conservation of game species has been very successful, many nongame species are without dedicated conservation funding at the federal level and, therefore, at risk of becoming rare, threatened or endangered.
Recognition of the gap in conservation funding and the associated risks to nongame wildlife led to the introduction of the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA) into congress in 2000. The provisions of CARA provided $350 million in annual funding to be dispersed among the 50 states for wildlife conservation, recreation and education programs. CARA was considered the most important wildlife conservation funding legislation to be introduced in 50 years, and although it rallied tremendous bipartisan support it was not enacted into law.
Undaunted, wildlife coalitions such as Teaming With Wildlife and the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (presently the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies) pushed for legislation that would provide adequate, predictable funding for conservation programs. In 2001, the Wildlife Conservation and Restoration Act (WCRP) and the State Wildlife Grants (SWG) programs were enacted into law. Together WCRP ($50 million) and SWG ($25 million) provided $75 million dollars in conservation funding, $841,000 of which was allocated to Tennessee. In 2002, the monies allocated for SWG increased to $85 million, increasing Tennessee’s share to $1,354,020. Since the SWG program went into effect in 2001, Tennessee has received more than $12.2 million, which has been used for such projects as habitat and species restoration and protection, research on life history requirements and threat assessments, support for a mussel restoration facility, species surveys, and database and GIS development.
To ensure conservation programs funded by State Wildlife Grants are designed for maximum benefits to nongame wildlife, Congress mandated that all states must complete a detailed Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy (CWCS) or State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP) by October 1, 2005. The SWAP addresses 8 elements required by Congress for each plan, including identifying species of greatest conservation need, their habitat, threats, conservation actions and more, and will be revised every 10 years.
The primary goal of the SWAP will be to prevent wildlife from declining to the point of endangerment. This goal will be achieved by engaging a broad array of partners in the development process including other government agencies, conservation groups, private landowners, the public, and anyone else who has a stake in fish and wildlife management. It is the intent that the strategic plans from the states will collectively create a nationwide approach to wildlife conservation and turn the tide of species decline.
As a part of the SWG program, each state was asked to produce a detailed plan Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy. The CWCS team of TWRA wildlife biologists, with assistance from The Nature Conservancy, the nation's leading conservation planning organization, spent 18 months developing the Tennessee State Wildlife Action Plan or TN SWAP. The development of the plan became the largest single planning effort the TWRA has ever undertaken. It was a particularly challenging task since Tennessee is considered to be the most biologically diverse state without a coastline housing seven of the eight most ecologically rich rivers in North America; more than 325 species of fish, ranking the state first among all states in freshwater fish diversity; more than 300 species of birds; 89 mammals; 70 amphibians; 61 reptiles; and more than 2,300 varieties of plants. The process was further complicated by Tennessee's diversity of habitats ranging from the remnants of Ice Age forests in the highest elevations of the Appalachians to the rich bottomlands of the Mississippi River. Since wildlife populations, obviously, do not recognize state boundaries, coordination between neighboring states is also essential. Tennessee also has more than 9,000 documented caves, so the TN SWAP Planning Team was also required to consider these subterranean habitats.
While the current Tennessee State Wildlife Action Plan boasts many successes, federal guidelines stipulate an update by 2015 for state wildlife agencies to continue receiving funding through the State Wildlife Grants program. TWRA, The Nature Conservancy and other partners began a two-year SWAP revision process in the fall of 2013 that is addressing changing environmental conditions and new conservation issues, such as emerging wildlife diseases and the spread of invasive exotic species. New data from wildlife monitoring and habitat surveys, as well as climate change information, is being incorporated into the updated plan.
Natural resource managers hope this updated plan will not only continue to benefit Tennessee’s wildlife, but also will help meet regional and national conservation goals.
To be added to the TWRA Wildlife Action Network email list and to receive regular updates about the TN SWAP revision process progress, please contact Lindsay Gardner, TN State Wildlife Action Plan Communications Coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Network is TWRA's grassroots coalition dedicated to preserving Tennessee's wildlife and habitat for future generations to come.
For more information about the Tennessee Wildlife Action Plan, State Wildlife Grants Program, the Teaming with Wildlife initiative, or to submit questions or comments about the SWAP update process, contact Bill Reeves, TWRA Chief of Biodiversity at email@example.com or 615-781-6645.