A bill that could deliver much-needed funding to state and tribal fish and wildlife agencies passed the US House of Representatives and moves on to the Senate for consideration.
The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act was approved 231-190 Tuesday. Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican from Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District, co-sponsored the legislation and voted in favor of it. His fellow Republican, Rep. Russ Fulcher from Idaho’s 1st Congressional District, voted no.
Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican representing Eastern Washington, also voted no.
If approved by the Senate and signed by President Joe Biden, the bill that amends the popular Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act would direct the annual distribution of $1.3 billion from the US Treasury to state wildlife agencies and $97.5 million to tribal wildlife agencies.
Although the formula is subject to change based on Senate action, as it stands now, Idaho would receive an estimated $18 million annually and Washington $21 million. The states would continue to receive traditional Pittman-Robertson funding that distributes federal excise taxes on guns and ammunition to state and tribal wildlife agencies.
Brian Brooks, executive director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation, called the bill a “generational investment” in fish and wildlife conservation. Many fish and wildlife agencies, such as the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, are funded largely by the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and tags and a share of excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment. Some, like the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, also receive a portion of state general funds.
Wildlife agencies often struggle to fund the entire suite of needed habitat restoration and species conservation activities that fall under their authority — especially those associated with species that are not hunted and fished and don’t have dedicated sources of funding. In a stopgap measure they often divert money from dedicated funding sources to help “nongame” species and meet their mandate of protecting all fish and wildlife species.
“This is a way for everybody else who enjoys wildlife and benefits from their existence to pay for their conservation,” said Brooks. “Sportsmen have been doing it forever. We all love fish and wildlife, yet only sportsmen are funding (management and conservation).”
The bill directs the funding be prioritized toward species that already are under or are at risk of ending up under the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act. Jim Fredericks, deputy director of Idaho Fish and Game, said the legislation, if passed, will help prevent future listings under the ESA and the restrictive regulations that often accompany them.
“It would bring significantly more money to Idaho for proactive fish and wildlife conservation and some of the species that haven’t benefited from traditional sources of funding,” he said. “One of the purposes of the legislation is to provide resources to keep species off the endangered species list. So its potential is not just to be a real benefit for wildlife in Idaho but the people of Idaho as well.”
Simpson said in a statement that he was pleased to help advance a bill originally co-authored and co-sponsored by the late Don Young, a Republican congressman from Alaska.
“Healthy and diverse wildlife populations in Idaho provide environmental and economic benefits, and by ensuring we have robust populations of fish and wildlife we are making a long-term investment in the future for anglers and hunters,” he said. “I’m proud that the House of Representatives came together in a bipartisan fashion to support this measure that one of America’s great fishermen and hunters led before his passing.”
A spokesperson for McMorris Rogers said inflation and high gas prices led to his opposition.
“While Cathy supports the goal of the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, she believes spending another $1.4 billion with no plans to pay for it is irresponsible at this time and will only make our economic crisis worse,” said Kyle VonEnde.
An earlier version of the legislation tapped a small portion of the royalties that companies pay to pump oil and gas from federal lands to pay for the bill. But that language was removed in 2019. Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, both Republicans from Idaho, said through representatives that they support conservation but want the bill’s spending to be offset with cuts to other programs.
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington supports the bill and said in a statement that Washington’s diverse mix of species including salmon and northern spotted owls make the state special.
“This legislation is critical to repairing harm done to our environment and reaffirming our commitment to defending habitats for our fish and wildlife. We owe it to our kids and future generations to get this done, so I look forward to working with my Senate colleagues to send this bill to the President’s desk.”
The legislation has been around since at least 2016 but has not yet made it through Congress, despite the accumulation of more than 140 co-sponsors. Conservation organizations have been lobbying for the bill since its inception and celebrated Tuesday’s passage, even though the bill is not yet law.
“House passage of the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act is a defining victory for wildlife, habitat, outdoor recreation, and our economy, because we know that heading off wildlife threats is more effective — and costs less — than taking emergency action,” said Whit Fosburgh , president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, in a news release.
Brooks, of the Idaho Wildlife Federation, noted that some of the funding can be used on species pursued by hunters and anglers. For example, animals like sage grouse and white sturgeon are on Idaho’s list of “species of greatest conservation need.” But the list, with more than 250 animals, also includes critters like the northern Idaho ground squirrel, Pacific lamprey and common loon. More often than not, Brooks said those species share habitat with animals pursued by hunters and anglers.
“It’s going to directly benefit those species and indirectly more sportsmen’s dollars will be freed up for management of game species,” Brooks said.
In Washington, wildlife managers estimate that less than 5% of the work called for in the state’s wildlife action plan that targets species of greatest conservation is being funded. That includes efforts to help iconic species like salmon, steelhead and southern resident killer whales. But also on the list are lesser-known animals like pygmy rabbits, fisher and wolverines.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Kelly Susewind called the bill’s approval by the House “a major step forward for fish and wildlife and an affirmation of the importance of conservation.
“This historic legislation will be a game changer in Washington — enabling proactive conservation of fish and wildlife species and their habitats. We hope that the Senate will act swiftly and pass Recovering America’s Wildlife Act into law so that the department, our partners, and Washington’s tribes can get to work.”
The text of the bill is available at bit.ly/3QpacjZ.