The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act is still a bipartisan unicorn

Gun Rights
Jack Bonner and Dakotah Pinkus, technicians for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, transfer trout fry that will be dropped into a lake in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains during an assisted migration in 2022. The Rio Grande cutthroat trout were transferred to a watershed cooler than its’ typical range to account for climate change.
Jack Bonner and Dakotah Pinkus, technicians for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, transfer trout fry that will be dropped into a lake in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains during an assisted migration in 2022. The Rio Grande cutthroat trout were transferred to a watershed cooler than its’ typical range to account for climate change. Credit: Luna Anna Archey / High Country News

Nine years ago, Glenn Olson joined a panel whose members, in ordinary circumstances, would rarely appear in the same room together — let alone work as a collaborative team. Olson, chair of bird conservation and public policy at the National Audubon Society, sat with executives from Shell Oil, Toyota Motors and the National Rifle Association, as well as with sportsmen, scientists and former government officials. The panel’s stated goal was to design a new system of funding conservation, one that would ensure the long-term flourishing of the nation’s wildlife.

State and territorial wildlife agencies currently receive most of their funding from hunting and fishing fees and equipment purchases. This revenue is prioritized for game species, while non-game species have to rely on the approximately $60 million agencies receive from the federal budget every year — an amount that, once divided among more than 50 agencies, forces many state and tribal wildlife managers to pick and choose which species to protect. If annual funding was increased to $1.3 billion, Olson’s panel reported, those agencies could reach thousands more “species in greatest conservation need,” restoring some populations before they become endangered.

The panel laid the groundwork for what is now known as the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA). If passed, RAWA would secure an annual $1.3 billion for wildlife agencies and $97.5 million for conservation work by tribal nations. Since it was first introduced in 2021, RAWA has been backed not only by environmental groups but by corporations hoping to avoid the costs associated with federal endangered species regulations. In a polarized Congress, the bill has earned unusually broad bipartisan support. “We got to the point where we just got more and more co-sponsors,” Olson said. “Everybody came together and said, ‘This looks like a durable solution.’”

This year, RAWA is poised for another vote on the Senate floor. The bill continues to gain co-sponsors on both sides of the aisle, but lawmakers have yet to settle on a funding source. Now, a new conservation bill may compete for supporters, particularly among Republicans.

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Last week, the America’s Wildlife Habitat Conservation Act (AWHCA) cleared the House Committee on Natural Resources with a 21-17 vote along party lines. The bill seeks $300 million for local wildlife agencies and $20 million for tribes every year for five years. These funds would be “subject to appropriation” by Congress, however, meaning the full amount may not be granted each year. And to offset this spending, the bill would rescind $700 million of the federal funding appropriated to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) through the Inflation Reduction Act. (NOAA plans to use most of its funding from the federal investment for coastal resilience and conservation projects.)

The $320 million was the amount the bill’s authors felt comfortable offsetting, said an aide to the House Committee on Natural Resources. Regarding the rescission, the aide said that the committee looked at departments that had received funding from the Inflation Reduction Act but had yet to spend it.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, would also amend the Endangered Species Act, enabling states to submit their own recovery plans for threatened species to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In some cases, the agency would be required to establish “objective, incremental goals” for recovery, with regulations becoming less stringent as those goals are met. The bill would also limit the agency’s ability to designate critical habitat on private lands and remove the requirement that federal agencies update their land-management plans every time a new species is listed or new critical habitat is designated.

RAWA supporters contend that the five-year sunset provision would limit what agencies can accomplish and even who they can hire.

Supporters of Westerman’s bill say the proposed funding mechanism appeals to fiscally conservative Republicans, and they argue that the amendments to the Endangered Species Act would encourage private landowners and government agencies to collaborate on species recovery.

Environmental advocates, however, say the bill is riddled with dealbreakers. RAWA supporters contend that the five-year sunset provision would limit what agencies can accomplish and even who they can hire. In contrast, RAWA would provide the baseline funding necessary for long-term environmental projects, such as forest restoration. Many supporters also worry that the proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act will weaken species conservation plans. As the new bill left the committee, Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., lamented the loss of the “gold standard” embodied in RAWA. 

Wild California condors in an enclosure in Redwood National Forest and Yurok Tribe land in Orick, California, in 2022.
Wild California condors in an enclosure in Redwood National Forest and Yurok Tribe land in Orick, California, in 2022. Credit: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

When it comes to tribal-led conservation, RAWA offers multiple benefits that are not reflected in the new bill. For one, it would provide almost five times the amount of funding — a critical difference, since that money would be distributed across more than 574 federally recognized tribes and over 100 million acres of land. For another, RAWA drops any matching requirement for tribes, relieving them of the obligation to constantly reapply for more grants.

“We still need base funding for tribes, and RAWA has been the most promising avenue for that.”

Tribes are already undertaking significant conservation work, said Julie Thorstenson, executive director of the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society, citing historical and ongoing contributions to the recovery of bison, salmon and the black-footed ferret. The amount of annual funding proposed by RAWA would allow them to expand the scope of their work and take on a more active role in national conversations, rather than dividing their budget between conferences with partners and action on the ground. “We still need base funding for tribes, and RAWA has been the most promising avenue for that,” Thorstenson said.

Mike Leahy, senior director of wildlife, hunting and fishing policy at the National Wildlife Federation, said that the annual funding requested by RAWA is the minimum — not an inflated estimate — of what is needed to protect over 12,000 at-risk species nationwide. While acknowledging Rep. Westerman’s intentions, Leahy pointed out the bill has a major “political problem,” given that most Democrats firmly oppose rescinding any money from the Inflation Reduction Act.

Meanwhile, RAWA faces its own challenges: Its sponsors still have yet to agree on a source of funds for the billion-dollar plan, though many ideas have been proposed. Previous iterations of the bill sought funding from oil and gas leases, taxes on cryptocurrency and fees paid by polluters.

Like Leahy, Olson applauded the new bill’s willingness to dramatically increase funding for conservation.  But it lacks the widespread support that has fueled RAWA for nearly a decade, and, as Olson pointed out, “In order to be durable, it almost has to be bipartisan.”

Key differences between RAWA and the AWHCA

Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (2023) America’s Wildlife Habitat Conservation Act (2024, with amendments)
Distributes $1.3 billion annually to state and territorial fish and wildlife agencies

Funding increases to $1.3 billion over four years, then continues indefinitely.

Funds are distributed every year by the secretary of the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Distributes $300 million annually to state and territorial fish and wildlife agencies.

Funding will sunset after five years.

Funds are subject to annual approval by Congress.

Distributes $97.5 million annually to tribes through noncompetitive grants.

No matching requirement for tribes.

Distributes $20 million annually to tribes through noncompetitive grants.

Grants over $100,000 may not exceed more than 90% of the cost of a project; tribes must match the other 10% with other funds.

Rescinds $700 million in funds appropriated to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as part of the Inflation Reduction Act.
  Amends the Endangered Species Act such that:  
• States may submit their own recovery strategies for threatened species to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  
• In some cases, Fish and Wildlife will be required to set “objective, incremental” goals for the recovery of threatened species, with regulations becoming less stringent as those goals are met.  
• Fish and Wildlife may not designate critical habitat on private lands that are already subject to an approved conservation plan.  
  Removes requirements for the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to conduct additional consultations with Fish and Wildlife on existing land management plans each time a new species is listed or a critical habitat is designated under the ESA.
Note: This table was developed using the latest text of each bill available through the Library of Congress, with additional analysis based on interviews.

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