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You are here: Home / News & Events / Historic USDA Investment in Working Lands for Wildlife is Great News for Hellbenders

Historic USDA Investment in Working Lands for Wildlife is Great News for Hellbenders

Working Lands for Wildlife will dedicate $500 million over the next five years to strengthen and expand efforts to protect wildlife and restore habitat on private agricultural and forest lands.

“When you find a conservation approach that works, double down—and that’s what we’re doing with Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW),” said USDA Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation Robert Bonnie at a Meeting of the Western Governors’ Association in late June. He was speaking of USDA’s landmark decision to invest $500 million in the initiative over the next five years, and to expand its application to include all major USDA conservation programs. 

Funding levels will be ensured for the next 5 years through the traditional NRCS conservation programs and for the first time, WLFW projects will also be supported through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which is managed by the Farm Service Agency (FSA). At least $30 million of the funding will go towards bolstering WLFW’s science and coordination capacity by enabling WLFW to invest in partnerships with outside organizations who can help WLFW apply resources strategically and work directly with landowners to implement WLFW projects.

Importantly, Undersecretary Bonnie also noted that WLFW would be pivoting increasingly towards a larger and more integrated national landscape approach to achieving conservation objectives. The primary vehicle WLFW will use going forward is a network of Frameworks for Conservation Action. As described in the USDA press release, these Frameworks “establish a common vision and conservation goals for a given ecosystem, combining cutting-edge science with the deep local knowledge held by landowners, states and tribes… to align and funnel multiple funding streams to maximize outcomes at large scales across state boundaries.” Three of these frameworks have already been developed and four more are in the planning stages. 

One of the frameworks currently in development is the eastern Aquatic Connectivity Framework, which will guide restoration of rivers and wetlands to support habitat connectivity in watersheds with significant at-risk species.  This is big news for the Hellbender WLFW partnership. The Aquatic Connectivity Framework will essentially prioritize our hellbender conservation effort (as well as the bog turtle WLFW program and other NRCS state initiatives aimed at imperiled aquatic species) into a broader strategic approach that receives more strategic national support and is better coordinated across state lines. To date, NRCS has identified funds and agreements to support improved science, communications, and boots on the ground for aquatic resource conservation.

With the Aquatic Connectivity Framework, we can make more funding and program options available to interested landowners and ensure that resources are targeted strategically towards the watersheds that are most essential to the recovery of the species. Grouping conservation efforts for hellbenders with those for other imperiled aquatic species won’t detract resources from the Hellbender effort, but rather will supplement the resources available to advance a holistic approach to conservation at the watershed scale. Many aquatic imperiled species benefit from the same conservation practices, and all of them benefit from generally healthier and better connected ecosystems that facilitate resiliency and adaptive capacity. As this once-in-a-generation investment is rolled out, we can look forward to making big strides for hellbender conservation and improving the health of aquatic systems across the Eastern U.S.