Congress Is Considering a Wildlife Protection Bill That Everyone Can Love

The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act enjoys bipartisan support and could be a game changer for imperiled species

By Juliet Grable

July 11, 2022


Juvenile condor sunning her wings in Pinnacles National Park. | Photo courtesy of NPS/Gavin Emmons

The Texas kangaroo rat is a rodent that lives in a specific type of mesquite scrub found only in Texas and Oklahoma. The Oregon spotted frog is a marsh-dwelling amphibian of greater Cascadia. And the Oma’o is a thrush that is endemic to the Hawaiian archipelago. The mammal, amphibian, and bird may not seem to have much in common, yet they are just three of thousands of struggling species that could soon be getting much-needed assistance, thanks to a bipartisan bill called the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act that is moving its way through Congress. 

Bipartisan legislation—especially ambitious bipartisan legislation—is about as rare as spotting a California condor in the wild, making the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act an uncommon political beast. The legislation has 16 Democratic cosponsors and 16 Republican cosponsors, and last month the House of Representatives passed the legislation by a solid majority of 231 to 190. And it could very well pass the Senate, where the bill is backed by Senator Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, and Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri. During an April press conference to promote the legislation, Senator Blunt called the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act a “once in a generation opportunity.” Senator Heinrich said the legislation represents “a complete paradigm shift for how we protect and recover wildlife in this country.”

If passed, the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (or RAWA, in Capitol Hill–speak) will direct $1.4 billion a year to state fish and wildlife programs and $97.5 million annually to tribes for conservation projects.

Contact your senators today and ask them to vote yes on the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act.

Among other things, the funding would enable land acquisition and large-scale habitat restoration—the kinds of big, sweeping projects that have been hampered by lack of money in the past. The law would create thousands of green jobs in land management—as many as 33,000, according to the Nature Conservancy. Keeping creatures off the endangered species list would make life easier for industry and developers, too, as fewer listed species will result in fewer battles between developers and conservationists. For these reasons, RAWA has been promoted by an unusually large and broad coalition of conservation organizations, tribes, sportsman’s associations, industry groups, and agencies.

Julie Thorstenson, executive director for the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society, calls the bill a “game changer for Indian Country.”

“Name a topic in fish and wildlife conservation and I can probably name a tribe that’s working on it,” she says. Native nations have played key roles in helping recover iconic species such as the grizzly bear, black-footed ferret, and bison, and they are working to restore habitats in every eco-region. Yet funding for tribal conservation programs has been woefully inadequate, according to Thorstenson. 

Currently, tribes cannot receive funding through the Pittman-Robertson or Dingell-Johnson Acts—two federal programs that have helped state fish and wildlife agencies to recover game species and sport fish. Instead, tribal fish and wildlife agencies must patch together budgets through competitive grants and other sources, such as casino and license revenues. 

“When I ask tribes what’s the biggest issue facing your fish and wildlife programs, it’s almost always funding and capacity,” Thorstenson says, adding that RAWA’s “tribal title” was written in collaboration with tribal fish and wildlife experts. “This legislation will hopefully be the catalyst to right some of those historic inequities in funding for tribes.” 

RAWA will also provide a stable source of funding to states so they can implement their State Wildlife Action Plans. Collectively, these plans, which Congress mandates every state to create, identify more than 12,000 species of animals and plants that need assistance. The plans have effectively helped recover and protect some species, but they too are underfunded, leaving them a little like blueprints without a construction budget.

If passed, the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act will direct $1.4 billion a year to state fish and wildlife programs and $97.5 million annually to tribes for conservation projects.

“Forty percent of freshwater fish are imperiled,” says Drue Winters, policy director for the American Fisheries Society. “We strongly believe that if states have the resources to do science-based conservation of fish and wildlife, there’s a chance to keep species from sliding into extinction.” 

The American Fisheries Society and the Wildlife Society, which together represent nearly 20,000 scientists and students, don’t typically wade into politics. But they have been advocating for RAWA’s passage because they see it as so important to their missions. These two groups also worked with the National Wildlife Federation on a report called Reversing America’s Wildlife Crisis, which makes the case for increased funding of state wildlife action plans by highlighting conservation success stories. 

Advocates have been working on some type of wildlife conservation funding legislation since the 1970s. In 2000, an earlier version of RAWA, called the Conservation and Reinvestment Act, passed in the House but stalled in the Senate. Then, in 2015, more than two dozen leaders from academia, conservation, outdoor recreation, and business interests convened to figure out a way to close the funding gap. They focused on finding a new wildlife funding mechanism that would conserve all fish and wildlife, not just game species. Their top recommendation was for Congress to dedicate $1.3 billion to the Wildlife Conservation Restoration Program. The group identified existing revenue from the development of energy and mineral resources on federal lands and waters as a funding source.

The House version of RAWA calls for the law to be funded from General Treasury revenues, while the Senate version identifies unallocated environmental fines and penalties—any new violation of the Clean Water Act, for example—as the funding source for RAWA. 

Whatever funding source is ultimately agreed upon, “the biggest thing to address is to make sure we get full amount of funding so we don’t have to come back and address it five years down the line,” says Bradley Williams, the Sierra Club’s associate director of legislative and administrative advocacy. “We want to make sure it will be funded for its full amount for the full 10 years.” Since the tribal funding was added to RAWA, Sierra Club has been one of many conservation groups rallying for its passage. 

Many of the stressors that are already making life hard for many creatures—habitat loss, invasive species, diseases—will worsen under climate change scenarios, says Winters of the American Fisheries Society. Salmon and trout, for example, need clean, cold water to thrive, and they will be even more vulnerable as temperatures warm and droughts worsen. 

The pending wildlife law doesn’t solve climate change, of course, but it can help mitigate it, Williams says. “The biodiversity and climate crises are interconnected.” Restoring marsh habitat, for example, will not only help wood storks and salt marsh sparrows, it will also help human communities, as marshes sequester carbon and absorb storm surges.

“It’s very expensive and difficult to get species off of the endangered species list and into a state of recovery,” Winters says. “If you can address this before they get to that point, it gives them a fighting chance.”