Congress only has a few weeks left to act on the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA), which aims to be the largest investment in wildlife conservation in nearly 100 years.
While we’re still eight months out from the end of the 117th Congress, there is shockingly little time left on the clock for any bills to make it to the President’s desk. Of the 31 weeks between now and 2023, Congress is scheduled to be in session for 13 of them.
Plus, Congress has a full agenda between now and the end of the year. They must fund the government for another year, will attempt to address the war in the Ukraine and associated food and energy shortages, and continue to deal with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, among several hundred other personal aspirations of individual members. When you add in the fact that 469 members are running for reelection in November, time starts to disappear even faster and the remaining day become ever more political. But there is still time.
When people say “RAWA,” they’re generally talking about a big slug of money for state and tribal wildlife agencies to implement wildlife action plans. These plans aim to conserve upwards of 12,000 species of greatest conservation need, but state and tribal wildlife management agencies just don’t have the money to fund these projects.
“State fish and wildlife agencies are entrusted with ensuring the health of our nation’s fish and wildlife and have plans in place to accomplish that. Today, most states aren’t able to fully meet this immense and important challenge due to lack of funding,” Tony Wasley, director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife and president of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, told MeatEater. “The bill’s passage would provide essential funding to our state agencies to conserve fish and wildlife—along with their habitats—which provide important contributions to the environment and our economy like clean water, air, flood prevention, pollination, and carbon capture.”
RAWA aims to get these state and tribal agencies necessary funding. But the devil is in the details, and in this case, the details in the House and in the Senate are different.
In short, both bills would invest federal money in non-game species conservation in an effort to decrease listings under the Endangered Species Act. The basic bill would send nearly $1.3 billion annually to state wildlife agencies and almost $100 million annually to tribal wildlife management agencies. This last component is especially important for Tribes because, unlike states, they are not eligible for Pittman-Robertson grant funding to act on their conservation needs.
"For decades, Tribes have worked for inclusion into federal funding opportunities for fish & wildlife management,” Elveda Martinez, President of the Native American Fish & Wildlife Society, told MeatEater. “The Recovering America's Wildlife Act presents an opportunity to begin addressing funding inequities, expand Tribal conservation programs, and improve co-management efforts."
Earlier this year, however, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee amended their version of the bill to establish a nearly $200 million-per-year Endangered Species Recovery and Habitat Conservation Legacy Fund within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. According to the most recent version of the bill, these funds will be spent on growing federal endangered species conservation efforts among other things.
These amendments to the Senate version of RAWA substantially change the debate over this bill. Additional funding for endangered species work, without reforms to the listing or de-listing processes, is controversial and may cause some Senators to hold off on supporting this bill. It remains to be seen whether or not this extra money will help or hurt the broader effort to invest in wildlife.
Several wildlife conservation groups have been working together to pass RAWA since 2016, and now might be our best chance to see that happen.
“A top priority for the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act is a smart, strategic effort to provide a desperately needed source of dedicated funding to address the 21st century conservation challenges facing our fish and wildlife managers today,” Congressional Sportsman’s Foundation President and CEO Jeff Crane told MeatEater. “It is imperative that Congress moves this legislation to help conserve and recover nearly 12,000 species of greatest conservation need before more burdensome regulatory, and potentially costly, measures are necessary.”
RAWA has bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate, and its Senate cosponsors are excited about this opportunity to invest in wildlife for future generations.
“We can better protect our land, waterways, and wildlife by encouraging states, territories, and Tribes to make significant contributions to voluntary conservation efforts,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) in a press release.
Sen. Blunt’s cosponsor across the aisle shares that sentiment.
“Protecting America’s fish and wildlife habitat means conserving the creatures we love before they ever become imperiled,” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) told MeatEater. “After all, our children deserve to inherit the full breadth of American wildlife, from bumblebees to bison, that we know today. This legislation will make that possible.”
So far, RAWA has passed out of the House Committee on Natural Resources and the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, but there are still several legislative steps that it must take. The biggest hurdle to passing RAWA is likely finding a sustainable way for the federal government to pay for these programs.
A few years ago, RAWA would have been paid for using royalties from oil and gas development, but that money found a good home in 2020 addressing public land infrastructure backlogs in the Great American Outdoors Act. The current bills would be funded by environmental fines and penalties that currently go into the general treasury, but it’s not clear whether or not congressional leaders will be satisfied with this solution. Others have suggested that a proposal to close a tax loophole on donated conservation easements could fund the program, but it is also unclear if this will gain enough traction to stick.
Despite broad support from the wildlife community, and the House, Senate, and White House being controlled by the same party, RAWA still faces an uphill battle.
Members of Congress in both chambers will have to reconcile their differences to pass RAWA. Plus, they'll have to find a way to pay for this program that will satisfy the leadership of both the House and the Senate. If they can do all that in a pretty short window of legislative time, then they might have a chance at making a generational investment in fish and wildlife. If they do not, members of the conservation community will have to start over in the 118th Congress. Needless to say, now is the best time to act for RAWA, and you can help.
“If you love hunting and fishing, then you should get behind the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act,” Collin O’Mara, President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, told MeatEater. “This bill has broad support because it is a commonsense, cost-effective approach to saving America’s wildlife heritage and our way of life. If you want your kids to have the same outdoor experiences you do, please take just a few minutes and ask your folks in Congress to get this bill across the finish line.”
If you’d like to do just that, call the U.S. House switchboard at (202) 224-3121, have that office connect you to your Representative’s staff, and tell them that you support the swift passage of the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. When you hang up there, use this handy list to call your two Senators and tell them the same thing.