12/21/2012 03:32 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2013

On the Edge of the Fiscal Cliff

Flickr: Mizrak

We've all heard of the fiscal cliff -- those draconian automatic funding cuts coming unless Congress and the president can agree on a budget deal. What you may not know is that these cuts, scheduled to take effect in early January 2013, will also hurt America's wildlife. Federal programs that support public lands and the communities and wildlife that depend on them could be downsized or eliminated completely, harming hundreds of species of wildlife.

The threat of severe funding cuts to the National Wildlife Refuge System -- the largest network of lands and waters in the world dedicated to wildlife conservation -- should concern us all. Comprised of more than 560 units on approximately 150 million acres, the Refuge System is home to more than 700 bird species, 220 kinds of mammals, 250 reptiles and amphibians, 1,000 species of fish and nearly 300 threatened or endangered species and forms the backbone of our nation's efforts to protect our unique and irreplaceable wildlife heritage.

But the Refuge System faces a 10-20 percent cut to current funding levels from the Fiscal Cliff. And that is on top of the drastic cuts that already have been implemented during the first phase of the Budget Control Act. The approximate loss of $50 million or more will have disastrous consequences for essential programs, such as the wildlife and habitat management program, visitor services, law enforcement, conservation planning, and maintenance. The Refuge System already operates on a shoestring budget of only $3.24 per acre -- just about half of what is needed!

A recent report from the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement (CARE), a diverse coalition of sporting, conservation and scientific organizations including Defenders of Wildlife, warns that unless Congress identifies other cuts, the Refuge System could be forced to close refuges and eliminate popular recreational opportunities, including wildlife-watching, photography, hunting, fishing, hiking, and canoeing, due to a lack of funding.

In 2011, approximately 78,000 visitors enjoyed wildlife-related recreation on Colorado's eight National Wildlife Refuges. These refuges protect diverse habitats such as wetlands, native grasslands, riverside habitat, and woodlands, which support elk, hundreds of thousands of migratory songbirds, waterfowl, and numerous federally endangered species.

Unfortunately, without sufficient funding, National Wildlife Refuges in Colorado, including our newest one, the Sangre de Cristo Conservation Area, may not be able to continue to protect wildlife and provide incredible recreation opportunities, which in turn, strengthen our local economies. As noted in the CARE report, economists estimate that for every 1 percent reduction in refuge visitation, nearby economies could lose nearly $17 million.

That is a frightening statistic for the communities in Colorado that depend on nearby refuges. For instance, every March, the town of Monte Vista nearly doubles in size as wildlife watchers and bird enthusiasts from all over the world come to the Monte Vista Crane Festival, a lively celebration of the annual sandhill crane migration near the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. Without the necessary funding needed to keep refuges open, the economic loss to local communities like Monte Vista could be devastating.

Defenders of Wildlife urges Congress to abandon these devastating budget cuts and fully fund the Refuge System. Unfortunately, the wildlife that rely on these refuges for survival cannot speak for themselves -- we need to be their voice. Please contact your members of Congress and ask them not to cut funding for National Wildlife Refuges and other federal programs on which wildlife depend. By speaking out, we can help to prevent the fiscal cliff ax from falling on our wild animals and open spaces.

Mary Beth Beetham, Director of Legislative Affairs for Defenders of Wildlife, contributed to this post.