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   When the subject of federal grants for state wildlife programs comes up in the new United States Congress, there will be a very visible lobbyist from Tennessee on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. His name is Challenger. He is an American bald eagle, and he is no stranger to Washington.

   "Challenger has flown twice from the United States Capitol," says Al Cecere President of the American Eagle Foundation based at Dollywood in East Tennessee where Challenger lives. "He has met with many Congressmen and Senators and their staffs during the past few years, and he has been a tremendous asset in drawing attention to the need for more federal funding for state wildlife programs."

   The bird itself is an interesting story. Challenger was blown from a nest in the wild during a storm more than a dozen years ago and hand-raised by the people who found him. As a result of his extensive contact with humans at a young age, the bird apparently thinks that he is a person and cannot be released back into the wild.

   "He was released twice," Cecere says. "The second time almost cost him his life. He landed near a man to beg for food, and the frightened man almost beat him to death with a stick before another man intervened and rescued him. That was the third time the bird had sought out people when he was hungry, so he was placed under the care of the American Eagle Foundation and named Challenger in honor of the crew of the space shuttle."

   Challenger has since become a key advocate for wildlife in general. He is the only bald eagle in U. S. history trained to make free-flying appearances during the playing of the national anthem at public events. He has been seen on television and has flown at many sporting events, including the World Series, the NFL Pro Bowl and the 1999 Fiesta Bowl. He has flown at the Para-Olympic Games opening ceremony at Olympic Stadium in Atlanta, the opening of Disney's Animal Kingdom, and at the White House and the United States Capitol.

   "Tennessee Senator Bill Frist has met Challenger and seen him fly," Cecere says, "and he has been instrumental in getting the security and other permits we need when the American Eagle Foundation takes Challenger to Washington."

   "Senator Frist has also been a supporter of the State Wildlife Grants program," says Naomi Edelsen of the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, " and Challenger has been a key in securing the interest of Congress for these important grants. The money spent for this program-which benefits all of the states-is actually a savings for the nation because the programs are aimed at preventing species from becoming endangered or extinct. Once a species becomes endangered, it is much more costly to mount a restoration effort, and there are currently more than a thousand endangered plants and animals nationwide. The old adage, 'an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure' certainly applies here."

   From a strictly wildlife point of view, there is no more vital issue facing the new United States Congress than the continuation of the State Wildlife Grants which brought $75 million dollars in badly needed funding for state wildlife programs in 2001 and $85 million in 2002. The fate of a $100 million appropriation for 2003 hangs in the balance on the new Congress calendar.

   This federal money has been used by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency for a variety of programs from wildlife observation facilities such as the one at the new Yuchi Wildlife Management Area to the Tennessee Amphibian Monitoring Program, for the Duck River Columbia Riverwalk and the Hatchie River Interpretive Center, the Freshwater Mussel Propagation Laboratory and the Upper Tennessee River System Lake Sturgeon Restoration Program.
In a time of increased federal concern over homeland security and such continuing problems as education and health, the status of some $100 million dollars for state wildlife grants may seem relatively unimportant, but Challenger-a highly visible, live representation of our national symbol-will again be traveling to Washington this year to remind our Congressmen and Senators of the critical role wildlife plays in the grand scheme of things that are important.

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