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What’s the Wildlife Action Plan and Why Does it Matter?

By Josh Murray/DWR

Do you enjoy hearing birds when you leave your house in the morning? Or appreciate hunting and fishing in Virginia’s breathtaking landscapes? Or believe that we have a responsibility to steward the earth’s natural resources? Have you ever thought that a 1,000-plus-page policy document could actually help protect the wildlife and natural spaces you care about?

Well, I’m here to argue that it does. Let’s explore Virginia’s Wildlife Action Plan together.

Habitat loss and pollution threaten wildlife across the Commonwealth. In one way, wildlife is just like us—they need safe places to live and raise their families. In many ways, our lives depend on sustainable relationships with wildlife and their habitats. Stable food webs and intact habitats minimize conflicts between humans and wildlife, as well as the potential transmission of wildlife diseases. Clean water and soils nurture healthy wildlife and healthy people. Thriving forests, dunes, and savannas support the wildlife we enjoy watching and provide us with beautiful places to enjoy with our friends and family. The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources’ (DWR) mission is stewarding these resources. DWR, a state agency, is tasked with “conserving and managing Virginia’s wildlife populations and habitat for the benefit of present and future generations.”

DWR operates statewide with less than 500 staff, and a budget of approximately $70 million funded primarily by the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and boat registrations. Compare that to the Virginia Department of Transportation, which has 7,500 employees and a budget of more than $7 billion! DWR manages game (including quail, deer, and turkey) and non-game (including salamanders, turtles, and warblers) animals along with fisheries (including trout, bass, and catfish) that support recreational and economic opportunities for all Virginians.

DWR fulfills these responsibilities by monitoring fish and wildlife populations to ensure they remain at sustainable levels and engaging in direct management actions, including fish stocking, wildlife health support, and habitat improvements such as prescribed fire, dam removal, or stream restoration projects. The DWR Conservation Police enforce the laws related to hunting, fishing, and boating; educate the public; and offer assistance in a wide variety of activities—all to promote a safe environment for citizens and visitors alike to enjoy the abundant natural resources the Commonwealth has to offer.  In addition, DWR plays a major role in ensuring public access to Virginia’s wild places, maintaining almost 250,000 acres of public land open to hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, camping, and more. We also provide public access to Virginia’s beautiful rivers and lakes at 235 boating access sites.

As a crucial part of our mission, DWR also protects 883 Species of Greatest Conservation Need, which are species with low and declining populations. However, of the more than 450 employees at DWR, less than a dozen are dedicated to non-game species, and of the agency’s $70 million budget, funds dedicated to Species of Greatest Conservation Need total less than $1 million each year.

Making a Plan

The story of the Wildlife Action Plan (or WAP) starts in 2000, when Congress created the State and Tribal Wildlife Grants (SWG) program to help meet the gap between state wildlife agencies’ non-game species funding and the fiscal needs required to help preserve those species. Under the auspices of SWG, Congress tasked wildlife agencies with drafting action plans to conserve their state’s wildlife, with revisions required every 10 years. DWR and our partners have written two previous editions of the Wildlife Action Plan—2005 and 2015. As the 2025 revision approaches, let’s dive deeper into DWR and the Wildlife Action Plan—what it is, why it’s important, and the work DWR has done to implement it, thereby helping maintain the health and diversity of Virginia’s non-game wildlife.

Faced with serious threats to many of our species, the Wildlife Action Plan identifies species in need and brings together folks who care about Virginia’s wildlife—from land trusts and local river associations to hunters, anglers, farmers, and wildlife watching enthusiasts—to make practical change to conserve wildlife and the places they inhabit for generations to come.

Contrary to popular belief, the Wildlife Action Plan is not a DWR plan. Rather, it is a is an action plan developed and shaped by all interested parties. The Action Plan lays out a strategy for stewarding Virginia’s most imperiled wildlife. Based on the distribution and abundance of species in Virginia, the Action Plan identifies which species should be considered Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN). Following that, it identifies each SGCN’s key habitats and threats, and defines which conservation actions will positively impact the SGCN.

Finally, based on both threats and potential for conservation actions, the Action Plan assigns each species scores defining just how imperiled they are, noted as Tier and Conservation Opportunity Scores. The Wildlife Action Plan brings together a broad range of partners and focuses their efforts on SGCN and their habitats, so that we can use our limited resources wisely. Imperilment Tiers and Conservation Opportunity scores play a crucial role in spotlighting the practical actions we can take to help our most threatened species.

Tiers range from Tier I (indicating Critical Conservation Need with “immediate and intense management action” required to prevent extinction) through Tier IV (indicating Moderate Conservation Need with “Long-term planning…necessary to stabilize or increase populations”).

The three Conservation Opportunity Scores (A, B, and C) were added in the 2015 Wildlife Action Plan revision to communicate which species we are best equipped to help. For A-level species, we know of impactful “on-the-ground” management strategies that can be implemented with existing resources. For B-level species, we’ve identified either “on-the-ground” actions we lack the personnel or funding to implement or research questions that need to be further pursued to discover which actions will benefit SGCN. A score of C indicates one of three scenarios: all conservation opportunities have been exhausted; DWR has not yet identified conservation actions; or DWR has not identified further research needs. Ongoing research by DWR biologists and our partners at Virginia’s universities continues to shed light on the questions we need to answer to better care for Virginia’s species.

By combining imperilment Tiers and Conservation Opportunity Scores, we can prioritize the limited funds DWR has available on species that can be most effectively impacted. With each revision, DWR strives to produce a more holistic and comprehensive Wildlife Action Plan, addressing known threats to wildlife while providing specific guidance that can be practically implemented by anyone—from DWR biologists to local governments, conservation organizations, and landowners.

The 2015 version of the Wildlife Action Plan has guided DWR and partners’ work in recent years, from habitat improvement projects including stream restorations, dam removals, and timbering for early successional habitat, to monitoring threatened and endangered species, to funding and conducting original research on the ecology of species of greatest conservation need.

As we work toward the 2025 revision of the Wildlife Action Plan, we’ll be telling some stories of those projects and the people who implement them. Welcome to the year of the Wildlife Action Plan!

Josh Murray was a 2023 summer intern at DWR assisting with Wildlife Action Plan revisions and communications. 

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