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Tribes doing vital conservation work can't access federal funds to support it


As climate change accelerates, it costs more money to make sure wildlife populations thrive, from bears to salamanders to moose. That's putting a strain on Native American tribes. They're responsible for managing a lot of America's prime wildlife habitat, but they can't access one of the biggest pools of money to pay for the work. Kathleen Shannon reports on an effort to change that.

KATHLEEN SHANNON, BYLINE: Most of the money state wildlife agencies have for conservation comes from the hunting and fishing licenses they sell. Another big chunk of money comes from federal taxes on sales of guns and ammunition - more than a billion dollars last year alone. Thing is, none of that money goes to tribes.

JULIE THORSTENSON: The inequity in funding for tribal fish and wildlife is one of the most obvious but least-known issues in conservation.

SHANNON: Julie Thorstenson, who's Lakota, runs the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society, which helps tribal wildlife agencies collaborate nationwide. Collectively, American Indian tribes and Alaska Natives oversee a territory almost as big as the state of California, and Thorstenson says they're doing vital work around endangered species recovery and climate adaptation.

THORSTENSON: You may not know about it because they don't have the resources to participate in some of the meetings, or they just aren't, you know, kind of tooting their own horn, for lack of a better term.

SHANNON: On the ground, the lack of funding can look like this.

LANDON MAGEE: Then if you just press OK, it'll arm the camera. And it should start counting back.

SHANNON: This is Landon Magee, a 24-year-old graduate student at the University of Montana, installing a game camera with a malfunctioning screen. He borrowed it from a conservation nonprofit.

MAGEE: If you, like, swipe your finger across the screen, you can see it just for a second.

SHANNON: Magee is a member of the Blackfeet Nation and working for the tribe to gather basic wildlife data - specifically, how many moose live here on the reservation. The motion-activated cameras can gather a lot of data without a lot of staff time. The state of Montana, which gets that tax money from the sale of guns and ammunition nationwide - it has tools like helicopters and radio collars that require teams to use. What Magee lacks in high-tech tools, though, he makes up for in enthusiasm for the work he's doing. On his way back to the office after a day in the field, he spots a moose and pulls his truck over to check it out.

MAGEE: I still get excited seeing, like, a deer on the road. So especially doing this work, now you're just like, oh, my God, there's a moose.

SHANNON: The Blackfeet Nation's primary funding mechanism for basic research like Magee's comes from auctioning off a limited number of hunting permits. They're highly coveted. Bids for a moose tag here can close at more than $35,000, and the tribe only sells five each year. The money for research is important, says Lauren Monroe Jr., chair of the Blackfeet Fish and Wildlife Committee.

LAUREN MONROE JR: In our way that we are the caretakers of our land, which is Blackfeet land, and we want to manage it correctly, according to our history and our culture, but also the science of it.

SHANNON: This spring, Congress once again took up a bill that would, for the first time ever, give tribes annual federal funding for wildlife research and conservation.

MONROE: And it would really give us an opportunity to do that in a respectful and responsible way.

SHANNON: The legislation has been introduced and failed in Congress four times previously. It's now been assigned to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

For NPR News, I'm Kathleen Shannon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kathleen Shannon
Kathleen Shannon aka "Killa Kath" is a volunteer DJ, news reporter, and one of the hosts for All Things Considered and KDNK's Local Newscast.