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Rewards Program
A key neotropical bird species law pays big dividends.

Pit-er-ick, pit-er-ick. The croaking call of the sunrise-colored western tanager reverberates through the pine-oak forests of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental, where tens of thousands of old-growth acres have been protected through the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act. The tanager—whose robinlike song fills forests in the western United States and north into Alaska come summer—is among the more than 340 bird species whose far-flung habitats the legislation has helped conserve in the United States, Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

Unfortunately, the funding authorization expired last year; as a result, funding for 2011 and beyond is uncertain. “Reauthorization would benefit all of the Americas,” says Glenn Olson, Audubon’s Donal O’Brien bird conservation chair and a member of the panel that offers funding recommendations to the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who makes the final decision. “It’s a great way for the U.S. to show leadership in conserving biological diversity. You’ve got to protect birds’ wintering grounds, as well as the migratory stopovers where they rest and refuel.” The act both sustains healthy bird populations and protects the one-third of neotrop species in decline, including the bobolink and wood thrush.

Groups applying for a grant must line up at least three dollars in private donations for every dollar they request. Congress has allocated $35 million to the act during the past decade—roughly $4 million a year—and those federal funds have been matched by $136 million from conservation groups and individual donors. Seventy-five percent of funds must be spent outside the United States; to date 36 Latin American and Caribbean countries have launched projects. All told, more than three million acres have been protected—for a song, environmental groups say.

While $35 million is certainly a significant amount of money, it represents just a portion of the $105 million that conservationists have requested during the past decade. Higher annual funding might have drawn more proposals and led to the conservation of vastly more habitat, says Mike Daulton, Audubon’s vice president of government relations. With the authorization expired, conservation groups have united to push not just for reauthorization but also for increased financial support. “In such an austere budget climate, the act’s success sends a signal to the government: that we the users, the bird lovers, the fans of nature, are willing to invest our own money to match theirs, and that we want this to be a true partnership,” says Scott Sutherland, director of governmental affairs for Ducks Unlimited.

During the 111th Congress, Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) and Representative Ronald Kind (D-WI) introduced reauthorization bills that called for upping annual funding to as much as $20 million by 2015, but the legislation languished. In March Cardin introduced a new reauthorization bill, though it doesn’t address a specific funding increase at this time—a move that reflects the “political realities” of the new Congress’s quest to cut the deficit, says Daulton. Still, he’s optimistic. “Reauthorization would be a significant step forward for hemispheric conservation,” he says. “There’s not that much money internationally for these important projects. A lot of our Birdlife International partners rely heavily on Neotrops Act funding.”

For western tanagers alone, the legislation has jump-started at least 14 habitat-protection projects in Costa Rica, Mexico, and the United States. To do your part, click here and send a letter to your members of Congress asking them to reauthorize the act.
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